Berlin diary

I’ve been in Berlin since last Thursday, and it’s been an interesting exercise in slightly rueful nostalgia. I lived in West Berlin for a semester in 1976, as part of an undergraduate overseas study program. It was the first foreign country I’d ever visited and one of the great formative experiences of my early adult ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

I've been in Berlin since last Thursday, and it's been an interesting exercise in slightly rueful nostalgia. I lived in West Berlin for a semester in 1976, as part of an undergraduate overseas study program. It was the first foreign country I'd ever visited and one of the great formative experiences of my early adult life.

I've been back for very brief trips twice (in 1991 and again in 2007) yet this time I've found that my memories from that first trip aren't very reliable, and even supposedly familiar haunts look odd. Of course, this is partly because Berlin has been transformed by reunification -- most obviously in the areas where the Wall was -- but also because it has been thirty-five years. Cities can change a lot in that time, and my own memories have clearly faded with the passage of time. There are moments when the past comes come back vividly, as when I read the U-bahn (subway) map and recall the names of the stations on the route from my apartment to class, or when I heard the recorded announcement saying "zuruck bleiben!" just before the subway doors close. But apart from those Proustian moments, it mostly feels like I am visiting an unfamiliar place.

I took a walk last Thursday after I arrived, strolling from my hotel through the Tiergarten to the Holocaust Memorial -- which is very effective and moving, though not without controversy -- and then onto Pariser Platz. This is the area just east of the Brandenburger Tor, and it was an abandoned zone during the Cold War, with large empty spaces around the Wall itself. It has now been transformed into a vast and inviting public square, complete with fancy hotels, a Starbucks, the "Kennedy Museum," and other classic tourist attractions. There's a wonderful bit of not-quite-accidental symbolism in the fact that the British, French, and American embassies are all located there. These were the three Western powers that governed different German zones after World War II, and it is probably no accident that they ended up with this choice real estate in the very heart of reunified Berlin.  

I’ve been in Berlin since last Thursday, and it’s been an interesting exercise in slightly rueful nostalgia. I lived in West Berlin for a semester in 1976, as part of an undergraduate overseas study program. It was the first foreign country I’d ever visited and one of the great formative experiences of my early adult life.

I’ve been back for very brief trips twice (in 1991 and again in 2007) yet this time I’ve found that my memories from that first trip aren’t very reliable, and even supposedly familiar haunts look odd. Of course, this is partly because Berlin has been transformed by reunification — most obviously in the areas where the Wall was — but also because it has been thirty-five years. Cities can change a lot in that time, and my own memories have clearly faded with the passage of time. There are moments when the past comes come back vividly, as when I read the U-bahn (subway) map and recall the names of the stations on the route from my apartment to class, or when I heard the recorded announcement saying "zuruck bleiben!" just before the subway doors close. But apart from those Proustian moments, it mostly feels like I am visiting an unfamiliar place.

I took a walk last Thursday after I arrived, strolling from my hotel through the Tiergarten to the Holocaust Memorial — which is very effective and moving, though not without controversy — and then onto Pariser Platz. This is the area just east of the Brandenburger Tor, and it was an abandoned zone during the Cold War, with large empty spaces around the Wall itself. It has now been transformed into a vast and inviting public square, complete with fancy hotels, a Starbucks, the "Kennedy Museum," and other classic tourist attractions. There’s a wonderful bit of not-quite-accidental symbolism in the fact that the British, French, and American embassies are all located there. These were the three Western powers that governed different German zones after World War II, and it is probably no accident that they ended up with this choice real estate in the very heart of reunified Berlin.  

Yesterday I wandered through some old haunts in the center of what was West Germany (Kurfurstendamm, Savigny Platz, Zoologischer Garten, etc.), and then took the subway out to a trendy neighborhood in the old East Berlin (Prenzlauer Berg). There the contrast with 35 years ago was really striking; my overwhelming sense of the old DDR was drab and monotonal grey … but today this neighborhood is funky and energetic and artsy. And I kept reflecting on how successive German governments made rebuilding and restoring Berlin a national priority and actually pulled it off, even if it hasn’t become an industrial or financial center again. I wonder what it would take to get the United States to do something like that.

By the way, the conference I attended on "Social Science and the Public Sphere" was quite enjoyable, and I learned a lot from several of the papers and from the ensuing discussion. Sociologist Michael Burawoy gave two presentations, one on different modes of knowledge ("professional," "critical," "policy," and "public") and another on the threats facing the modern university (#1: excessive regulation, on the British model, and #2: excessive marketization, on the U.S. model). Not sure he persuaded me completely, but lots to think about. There was also a fascinating paper on the history of economic thought by Norwegian economist Erik Reinert, showing how economics evolved in a path-dependent fashion and that there were several forks in the intellectual road where the field could have gone in a more historical, institutional, and diverse direction, instead of the individualist, rationalist, and hyper-mathematical course the field has taken (at least in North America). He also quoted a passage from philosopher Francis Bacon’ The Advance of Learning on "degenerate knowledge" which could easily apply to lots of social science today:

Surely, like as many substances in nature which are solid do putrefy and corrupt into worms;–so it is the property of good and sound knowledge to putrefy and dissolve into a number of subtle, idle, unwholesome, and (as I may term them) vermiculate questions which have indeed a kind of quickness and life of spirit, but no soundness of matter or goodness of quality. This kind of degenerate learning did chiefly reign amongst the schoolmen, who having sharp and strong wits, and abundance of leisure, and small variety of reading, but their wits being shut up in the cells of a few authors (chiefly Aristotle their dictator) as their persons were shut up in the cells of monasteries and colleges, and knowing little history, either of nature or time, did out of no great quantity of matter and infinite agitation of wit spin out unto us those laborious webs of learning which are extant in their books. For the wit and mind of man, if it work upon matter, which is the contemplation of the creatures of God, worketh according to the stuff and is limited thereby; but if it work upon itself, as the spider worketh his web, then it is endless, and brings forth indeed cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance or profit."

Yeah, what he said.

Economist Mark Thoma gave a nice presentation on his experiences as the author of a well-known economics blog, and historian Thomas Bender of NYU contributed a terrific paper on the evolution of the social sciences in the United States. Among other things, I learned from it that when Johns Hopkins University pioneered the Ph.D. degree here in America, it was not intended primarily as a credential for future academics. Instead, Bender writes, "it was intended to instill in [recipients] ‘the mental culture’ that would serve them in careers in ‘civil service,’ ‘public journalists’ or, more generally, the ‘duties of public life.’" In other words, it took another few decades to create the inward-looking and frequent navel-gazing enterprises that the social sciences have become.

The audience offered up some challenging questions, and the other participants were a stimulating and likeable group. All in all, well worth the trip.  And then yesterday I gave a lecture at the Deutsche Gesellschacft fur Auswartiges Politik (DGAP, or "German Council on Foreign Affairs"), summarizing a forthcoming article on the "twilight of the American era." (You can get a preliminary sense of my argument here). I enjoyed the talk and especially the questions, and we could easily have continued the conversation longer. At dinner with some DGAP colleagues we spent a fair bit of time talking about the future of the Euro, and I would say that most of them were more optimistic than I have been. In particular, they emphasized the difference between public policy and public opinion: yes, German popular opinion is hostile to further bailouts, but German politicians understand that at the end of the day, letting Greece go down the tubes would be bad for everyone, including Germany. So long as they can make further aid conditional on genuine reforms, eventually the deal will get done. We’ll see.

A final comment from the perspective of someone who bikes to work daily in Boston: Berlin is a wonderful city for bicyclists and there are lots of them. For one thing it’s mostly flat, and doesn’t get snow like we do in New England. But the Berliners have also gone to great lengths to make bike travel easy and safe, with dedicated lanes on streets and or sidewalks. And confirming stereotypes of Teutonic orderliness, you find most of the cyclists observing all the traffic regulations, including waiting a street lights even when there are no cars around and it would perfectly safe to cross. Definitely not instinctive scofflaws like me. Boston has been trying to do something similar for its cyclists, but let’s just say we’ve got a ways to go. But once the price of gas gets high enough, maybe American cities will do more to encourage bicycle commuting. There will be less traffic, and we’d all be a lot healthier too.

I’m typing this from Lille, where I participated in a seminar on the "Arab spring" at the University and gave an evening lecture on U.S. Middle East policy and the role of the — surprise — Israel lobby.  We had a good discussion, and the students asked some excellent questions. And now home to Boston, where I have a pile of neglected duties waiting to greet me.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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