Digging History: Confronting The Ghosts of Berlin

We each have our own way of interacting with the buildings, monuments, and history in Berlin, but Brian Ladd’s book, The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape offers a different perspective to most. Locals and tourists alike have varying levels of engagement with the  buildings and monuments. There are those that just like to marvel at their wonder – certainly, the Brandenburg Gate is a sight to see in itself. At the same time, others like to inspect them a little closer, investigating a structure’s architectural integrity or analysing its place in architectural fashion or history. But beneath the surface, the structures here have stories to tell of their own. The paths now trod by tourists were once the paths of tyrants and philosophers (now the ghosts), people who impacted world history. This is no surprise to anybody who has even the slightest understanding of Berlin’s history, but Ladd digs a little deeper: what perspectives do the structures around Berlin give us on this history? After all, they have witnessed it all. This is what The Ghosts of Berlin explores. It is a book which should be added to the summer reading list of any Berlin enthusiast.

With each construction of a significant building or monument in Berlin, the people respond to it. Is it pleasing to the eye? Does it signify national culture or identity? Practically, is it what the city or the country needs? Brian Ladd analyses the debates that were had and, through them, we learn not only about the history, but the buildings themselves. How a structure is treated in these debates and in real life gives a great insight into the thoughts and minds of the people of the day, which allows the reader to connect even more so with the environment around him or her. Early in the book, Brian Ladd talks about the Berlin Wall and about how, soon after its demise, Berliners hacked at the Wall and collected its fragments often to be sold, making what was once a communist fortification a capitalist commodity. Such an image portrays a vivid disregard for the structure itself, a disregard which you can see but not understand fully when visiting it. The book takes us through many of these journeys, exploring the conflicts and controversies surrounding structures from different eras, such as the Royal Palace, the Palast der Republik, the Topography of Terrors, and many more.

Berlin-Marzahn, the largest East German Neubaugebiet (1987).

Ladd’s ability to describe the debates in the context of the history and people of the time is the book’s greatest asset. It encourages the reader to engage more deeply with the city and connect with its present and past. I’m no architecture buff in any sense, but I enjoyed learning about the structures and understanding what they were and where they came from. The book is dry in parts and it explores less sexy constructions such as the Mietskaserne (meaning “rental barracks”, these were rows of housing blocks built in the mid- to late-19th century which surrounded the central city). Don’t get me wrong, these were important in Berlin’s social history as the city developed, but when compared to stories of uncontrollable tyrants and communists versus capitalists, they’re just less interesting to read about. Ultimately, Ladd interweaves the stories of the structures themselves with what went on within and around them. It is a nourishing read and now I feel I have a greater understanding of Berlin as it moves into the future.    

By Callum Campbell 

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