Letter from Berlin, City of “Volatility” (6/15)     Print

michaelmosettigBy Michael D. Mosettig, former Foreign Editor PBS News Hour, writing from Berlin

Berlin  --  The bikes and their riders are among the first things to catch the attention of a Berlin visitor. The handlebars and seats are higher than on most American bikes ,and the riders take on a stately posture and gait, more like Lady Mary in Downton Abbey riding sidesaddle on her horse than Washington and New York cyclists who often look and act as if they are competing in the Tour de France. Of course, one other thing becomes apparent. In ten days, I never saw a biker run a red light.

But the temptation must be resisted to grasp for a metaphor of a tranquil and law abiding city and populace. Life here is way too complicated for that. As Rory MacLean wrote in the early paragraphs of his engrossing 2014 book, “Berlin,”     

"Paris is about romantic love. Lourdes equates with devotion. New York means energy. London is forever trendy."

"Berlin is all about volatility."

The city's identity, MacLean goes on to write, "is based not on stability but on change. No other city has repeatedly been so powerful and fallen so low. No other capital has been so hated, so feared, so loved. No other place has been so twisted and torn across five centuries of conflict, from religious wars to Cold War, at the hub of Europe's ideological struggle."

Berlin's past has been and will be endlessly chronicled. It's future is, of course, incalculable. Its  present is dynamic and lively, its facade constantly changing with new construction and renovation since the 1989 collapse of the Wall and its return as the capital of a unified Germany. And now more by accident than by design, it is becoming the de-facto capital of a widening, deepening and increasingly troubled united Europe.

To be in Berlin for ten days is to be reminded how much, in the words of one diplomat, "is piling on the plate" of Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government.  Expanding the culinary analogy, three pots are boiling at once,  and a new one is simmering. The pot closest to boiling over is the Greek debt crisis, by one calculation absorbing nearly half the Chancellor's working time.  Probably the most dangerous is the return of a revanchist Russia upsetting the post-Cold War order of Europe. The most politically poisonous is the refugee crisis from the Mediterranean, not only embroiling Europe more deeply in Middle East politics but further fueling populist, anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the EU. Anyone of these would challenge the competence of a government; three at once strain the capacities of European capitals, though Berlin officials reassuringly stress the depth of their professionalism. Now to these are added the irritant of dealing with Britain's demands for new terms of its EU membership, where once again Merkel will make the ultimate decision on what Brussels can offer London.

In Berlin, the Greek debt issue has become as personal as it is political or financial. Analysts close to the Chancellor's entourage say that she has kept the negotiations going with the Syriza government even as her Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble (and most of his Eurozone counterparts) were ready weeks ago to let the Greeks go. Merkel's summoning of the leaders of the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Commission to a hasty Berlin meeting two weeks ago was one more example of how she has thrown her prestige and authority behind a salvage operation that could go awry at any minute.

If Greece is an ongoing drama, but still one with a limited number of acts, Russia and the Ukraine crisis are an unending horror show, that stirs the deepest traumas of unthinkable military confrontation all across Europe but especially in Germany. "This is going to go on for years," said one analyst.

Several others echoed that view, that Germany and Europe, regardless of the fate of President Vladimir Putin, will be dealing with a Russia aggrieved over the loss of empire and asserting a nationalistic sense of being part of neither Europe nor Asia and as former EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso commented in a recent seminar, Putin holds the ultimate trump card. He is willing to shed blood in Ukraine and maybe elsewhere, the West is not.

Across much of the Berlin political spectrum, Merkel receives good marks for maintaining united fronts in Germany and Europe in dealing with Russia and keeping sanctions on at least through the end of the year. Analysts say that much of the Social Democratic Party, including Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, have been pushed to support Merkel, despite the party's historic sympathies with Russia, by Putin's lies and taunts and breaking international law and norms. The Green Party establishment, if not its base, has taken the strongest stand on Ukraine among all the parties. The exceptions to the consensus are former SPD Chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schroeder, both calling on Germany and the West to adopt a less confrontational stance.

But if Merkel can take the lead on Greek debt with only occasional kibitzing from the Obama Administration, Russia and Ukraine are another matter. As several analysts pointed out there is a basic asymmetry: Russia is a nuclear state, and Putin has shown he is not above nuclear saber rattling. Germany, of course, is not. That reality, the Germans insist, forces the United States into a primary role, even if President Obama has been content to let the Russian-speaking Merkel do most of the direct talking with the German-speaking Putin.

A bottom line, one analyst said, "There is a difference between leading on Europe and Greece versus contemplating war with Russia and leading on Ukraine."

No more than in Washington does anyone in Berlin hazard an assured prediction of what happens next. Opinion is divided on how long Russia can afford isolation and lower oil prices. Merkel's supporters insist they are comfortable with the government's firm but cautious approach, acknowledging that Putin has the initiative and capacity for surprise and the Western response is inevitably reactive.

"Merkel does not have a grand strategy or vision," said one, and after a pause, added, "Thank God for that."

For all the caution and awareness in the political class the problems are piling up. This is not a capital riven with tension. For instance, at seminars, one will hear much critical discussion about German intelligence cooperating with NSA snooping. How much that bothers non-political Germans is debated among political Germans. Public opinion surveys show middling approval numbers for the United States, much lower than for France but far higher than for Russia, whose good will has cratered here.

Amid the sidewalks, cafes, restaurants, shops and museums, the feeling is of a growing population (now.3.5 million ) taking back its capital, a city incredibly transformed from the isolated and subsidized and walled in West Berlin of the Cold War and its bleak and shabby eastern half. Then in the west there was a young population drawn by exemption from military service and other government benefits. Now, the youth spread east and west because this is a center of action and a growing tech culture still far more affordable than Paris or London.

Berlin is a city both new and old, building an exciting and promising future but where the past is never far away. Most dramatically, a stark monument of stone slabs dedicated to European victims of the Holocaust stretches across acres in the city center. Nearby in the Tiergarten are both old statues of military leaders from the 19th century and a small square memorial cubicle honoring gays killed by the Nazis. In the Nollendorf district a few miles away, shadows of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin can be imagined amidst a modern gay culture and a political society where suddenly since the Irish referendum; same sex marriage has gone on the mainstream agenda.

In this combination of past and present, Berlin is and will be like no other, as Rory MacLean writes in a closing passage, "...this haunted, vibrant city of absences."