- - Sunday, January 5, 2014

BERLIN | None of the survivors of World War II has done more to publicly atone for the barbarism that led to war in Europe than the Germans (nobody had more to atone for), and visitors of a certain age inevitably seek out the places that evoke the Nazi era.

Berlin today evokes not terror, but thrills and glamour. The city is not as old as Rome, as beautiful as Paris, as romantic as Venice or as impressive as London, but the new Berlin has flair as well as the unique and horrific history, and throbs with youth and energy.

There are occasional reminders of the days when wickedness reigned. In November, government tax sleuths discovered 1,400 paintings and sculpture in the apartment of an art collector in Munich, all thought to have been taken from Jews.

There’s dismay at the continuing litigation by the prominent Sonnenthal family to get restitution for property, 250 acres of prime real estate in the Berlin suburb of Teltow, taken from them by the Nazis. It’s worth millions of euros, and the litigation has gone on for 22 years. “Historical facts are being denied, the law is being abused, and the Nazis of Teltow are being vindicated after the fact,” Peter Sonnenthal, an American descendant from Denver, tells Der Spiegel newsmagazine with disbelief. “Our property was stolen, and now we have to justify ourselves.”


Reminders of a Cold War intrude, too. Berlin has become “a playground for spies.” Not spies moving furtively through dim, dark and smoky underground cafes populated by beautiful and mysterious femmes fatales, as in the movies from the postwar era, but manipulators of electronic magic. Roofs surrounding Pariser Platz, framed by the Brandenburg Gate with embassies of the United States, Britain, France and Russia nearby, sprout with structures understood to conceal electronic monitoring devices. Security officials call the Russian roof “the Russian woodshed.”

Illustration by Greg Groesch/The Washington Times
Illustration by Greg Groesch/The Washington Times more >

All this makes Berlin a target for tourists. Frankfurt, a city renowned for its banking and intellectual life (and where I was born), was important, but never swinging like Berlin. I didn’t see Berlin until 1987, three decades after the war and still divided by the Cold War. Crossing through Checkpoint Charlie to visit friends in the East frightened me in the few minutes Russian soldiers at the border held my American passport. I felt naked and vulnerable until I got it back.

Checkpoint Charlie is gone, destroyed by developers, and tourists line up at a replica on the site to take photographs of themselves with actors dressed as American and Russian soldiers. A more sobering remnant of a divided Berlin and Stasi oppression in the East is a piece of the Wall, with a mural of the 146 people shot trying to escape from East to West.

Berlin before the war was famous for avant garde art, theater and music. Political cabarets, Bertolt Brecht’s plays, composers such as Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith, and painters Georg Grosz, Otto Dix and Kurt Schwitters, gave the city its glamorous cachet.

Later, the Nazis took over elegant 19th-century mansions to house government offices, including the propaganda ministry, the SS headquarters and Der Fuehrer’s chancery. The horror of those years is documented at the Topography of Terror, housed in the bunkerlike building that was once the Reich Security headquarters. One of the most striking reminders is the Jewish Museum, a gem designed by American architect Daniel Liebeskind.

Visitors looking for benign traces of the old days flock to the Adlon Hotel on Pariser Platz, overlooking the Brandenburg Gate. Lorenz Adlon opened the most opulent hotel in the world in 1907, and it was at once the most fashionable meeting place in town for royalty, diplomats, politicians, foreign correspondents, artists and actors. The hotel was the model for the 1932 movie “Grand Hotel.” Part of the movie was filmed where Greta Garbo spoke her famous line, “I want to be alone.”

Hitler preferred the Excelsior or the Kaiserhof hotels, both bombed by the Americans and the British, but the Adlon was a favorite of Goering, Himmler, Goebbels and others of Hitler’s evil circle. It had a reputation for good times. Daniel Silver in his book “Refuge in Hell” tells how Jewish nurses from the nearby Jewish Hospital, with the foolish bravado of the young, occasionally took off their required yellow stars and put aside their identity papers identifying them as Jews, for a night on the town at the Adlon.

Most of the hotel survived the war, but burned in 1945. It was rebuilt after the Wall came down and Berlin was reunited, partly on the old plans, and since 1997 has once more attracted the glitterati. Not long ago, I watched from my window at the Adlon as happy Berliners flocked around an enormous Christmas tree and an even larger nine-branched menorah, facing the Brandenburg Gate, and lighting the early-evening dusk. Beneath it stood the supreme irony, a Star of David in lights, shining throughout the night.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington lawyer, writer and contributor to The Washington Times.