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Berlin: a place to think about the past and future

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I wrote last week about the architecture of Berlin. But by far the most intriguing part of the four-day trip was reflecting with my mother and the architect Georg Heinrichs, an old family friend, on times past. Buildings were evident but backgrounded as we walked, dined, taxied and drove around. I delighted in the clarity and confidence of his insight.

Beuys' recorded bleatings in one gallery were dismissed as those of a 'romantic German fantasist', a view worth considering when offered by an art aficionado who was buying Donald Judd's work (two pieces) 35 years ago for 700 deutschmarks! Berliners were damned for not understanding colour: 'They like only browns and greens and fail to understand that black is a colour. And, anyway, their graphics are dull and also colourless.' Our host, a born Berliner, also delighted in music, enjoying the Philharmonic by ear and eye. His cousin, a famous Russian conductor, remembers being screened before going west. He never defected because he loved Russia, and he could not cope with the choice offered in West Berlin. He declined the chance to buy some clothes in a department store there, asking his benefactor to choose instead: 'I need only a pair of trousers not a choice of colour, cut and size.' He felt much as my host had 30 years earlier in 1945, when he learned English at conversation classes. It took time to understand that not only could there be more than one idea, but that you could then debate the merits of opposite ideas in a civilised way. One for our politicians to think on.

Georg encapsulates what a Central European once was. He is a 'West Berliner', of German, Armenian, Lithuanian and Polish extraction. His first language is Russian, most of his ancestors worked in St Petersburg, so he heard Russian as a child but was not allowed to speak it. Indeed, he did not know he could until he was 50. The logic for this linguistic denial was sound; his family had become White, then Red, and then, when fleeing, White Russians again. They were serially persecuted in pogroms and then by Nazis. Ironically, as Russian speakers his parents returned to East Berlin, translating in the Soviet sector. The wall went up, they stayed and he left, but would visit them in his Lamborghini.

He is fluent in German, his other first tongue, and, as an anglophile, English. He is half-Jewish (he lost a brother in a camp while his father was fighting for Germany on the Eastern front) but was brought up without any faith until the Nazis stamped 'Juden' in his mother's passport. Both his adopted children are from Iran and he lives in a 1920s house by a German architect in an appropriated style particular to central Europe but, courtesy of Muthesius, known as 'the English House'.

Clearly the 'new political model of Europe', as a glorious ethnic mix of the trade of goods and ideas, has, in fact, existed for centuries:

since Alexander the Great and then the Silk Road. European bureaucracy has more in common with the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires (political connivance then collapse) and, sinisterly, offers ugly echoes of the 20 th century's two disastrous totalitarian regimes.

The new German chancellor's government office stood out, not for the modest qualities of its soft sub-Kahn architecture, but because it is signed by one super-graphic quote only:

Einstein's 'The state is for the people, not the people for the state'. Who is supposed to take notice of this message? Is it written by them for us to read, or by them for themselves?

Either way, I fear it is already forgotten. As Orwell pointed out, at best, slogans lose all meaning; at worst, they are propaganda for views diametrically opposite to those they purport to portray.

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