Letters From Berlin

Photograph by Lars Trebing

So Very Weimar

Nearly 20 years after reunification, a trip into the German countryside finds that the past persists: murder and prostitutes and birthday parties, and plenty of wild boar.

I’m not the first person to see a connection between Germany and the American South. Gen. Lucius Clay, the Georgia native who administered the country’s postwar rebuilding, once said he understood Germany so well because he also came from a place ravaged by war and moral catastrophe. Had he lived to see Germany in the 21st century, Clay would have drawn yet another connection—not just the pain of history, but its persistence. William Faulkner famously said that in the South, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even the past.” And so it is in Berlin.

A few weeks ago a 28-year-old linguistics student from Humboldt University, known in the papers as Mario Z., picked up a male prostitute at the Zoologischer Garten subway station. He took the man home; both of them got drunk, and then Mario Z. slashed his guest to death with an axe. He cut up the body and placed the hands in the refrigerator. The rest he put in bags and, over the next few days, carried them to a deserted part of the city’s cargo rail station.

When he finished late on a Wednesday night, Mario Z. called the police. “You need to come to my apartment,” he told them. “I’ve killed someone.” The police arrived to find his dorm room blood-splattered, a red-stained axe out on a table. A day later they unearthed the victim’s head in a shallow grave. When asked why he did it, Mario Z. said he wanted to see what it felt like to kill someone.

A strong economy, a vibrant civil society, peace with its neighbors, a thick social safety net—with all that Germany has going for it, what could possibly drive someone to murder?It’s all so very Weimar. Who could read the newspaper reports and not think of Hans Beckert, the serial killer from Fritz Lang’s M? Weimar Berlin, like Mario Z., had a fascination with death, a tingling desire to experience the violent dissolution of order. Contemporary Germany is supposed to be orderly, logical. The ego has landed; the id is dead. Francis Fukuyama may have been a bit hasty in declaring 1989 the “end of history,” but it’s a judgment most Germans still support. A strong economy, a vibrant civil society, peace with its neighbors, a thick social safety net—what more could someone want? With all that Germany has going for it, what could possibly drive someone to murder?

The case of Mario Z. hardly foreshadows a return of Faust’s Metropolis. The most famous parts of Weimar-era Berlin have been plowed under (Potsdamer Platz is a Sony-fied parody of its former self) or commercialized (more gawkers than swingers frequent the Kit-Kat Club), but impressions remain. The compulsion, the inexplicability, the grotesquery, the reminder that the id still crawls under the German capital, no matter how many strollers and tourists course aboveground.

Is there something about Berlin that drove Mario Z., a ghost of Weimar? Consider the prostitutes who stroll openly along Oranienburger Strasse, north of Unter den Linden. I recently met a Berlin historian who told me they’ve been going there for hundreds of years, from its days as the Jewish quarter up to its present incantation as a strip of overpriced tourist eateries. No law made them congregate there, just the psychic geographies of human nature. The past persists, on its own inertia.


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My wife and I recently went canoeing along the Finow Canal, about an hour north of Berlin, deep into the former East Germany. Here the past isn’t past at all; it’s just decrepit: Rotten factories and overgrown farms attest to the rapid depopulation the region suffered after the Wall fell. But the collapse is flattening out; retirees and organic vegetables have taken over the former collective farms, and industry is returning to the big cities. It’s like the last page of the children’s book The Wump World, when the invaders have paved over the entire planet and then jetted off, leaving a single wump staring at a single green shoot.

On our second day we docked our boat at a canal-side pension outside the town of Oderberg, not far from the Polish border. I had emailed with the owner, Peter Hofmann, for a reservation; yes, he said, there’s room, but don’t come before three. We’re having a party.

At around four, we rang the doorbell. No one answered. We were just about to leave when the door flew open and a thin, 50-ish woman grabbed our arms and pulled us inside. Half of what she said was in indecipherably fast German; the other half was in a secret vocabulary of noises and gestures. “Fwing zhoop!” she said, pointing her finger leftward. I nodded. My wife chuckled. The woman pointed at a small gift box pinned to her chest. “I’m an old box!” she said in English. More nodding. “Sween!”

Then she herded us back to the kitchen, where we found three more Germans, a woman and two men, likewise middle-aged, all bleary eyed after an apparently marathon run of smoking and drinking. The table was piled with Champagne bottles and glasses; an ashtray held a great pyramid of cigarette butts. One of the men, tall and dark-haired, wore an apron with an oiled and muscled torso on the front.

Half of what she said was in indecipherably fast German; the other half was in a secret vocabulary of noises and gestures. “Fwing zhoop!”Luckily, the woman in the kitchen was an English teacher. We had caught them at the end of a 20-hour birthday party for the box-bedecked woman, she explained, just in time for leftovers. Within minutes we had Champagne glasses in hand; seven hours later, we’d gone through wild boar, steak tartare, beer, wine, ice cream, cheese, salami, and several glasses of a drink made from vanilla liqueur and milk. We’d sung along to most of AC/DC’s Back in Black, and we had listened while the Germans belted out 1940s Austrian folk songs.

Angela, the teacher and Hofmann’s wife, said she grew up in West Berlin and had always hated traveling to the East, where she had relatives. “They strip-searched us any time we went over the border, just because we were West Germans,” she said.

“Zing!” The birthday girl was shouldering a nearly unconscious Apron Man (who, it turns out, was the local ice-cream maker), to their house next door. “There are still a lot of differences between easterners and westerners,” Angela continued. “Wessis” think “Ossis” are racist hicks. Ossis think Wessis are cold and materialistic. A recent poll showed eastern Germans feel increasingly left out of the national economic scene, and a full quarter are nostalgic for the communist regime.

“We still don’t trust each other,” though, she added, distrust didn’t keep her from marrying Hofmann, a native of the eastern state of Saxony, or moving to rural Brandenburg, also in the east. I couldn’t help thinking of the stories my northern-born mother tells about the chilly reception she felt the first time my father brought her to his native Nashville. And that was more than 100 years after the end of the Civil War. What will Germany be like in a century?

Will the distrust continue, I asked?

Frau Hofmann was hopeful but pragmatic. “Not until the new generation comes along, the people who don’t remember life in the two countries,” she said. Her generation, even she and her husband, still came from two different countries. She learned English, he learned Russian. She grew up shopping, he grew up visiting a collective farm. Here they were, small-business owners talking to American tourists in rural eastern Germany in 2009. Who could have imagined? But the past persists.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen