Berlin by David Hare


Future generations are going to judge us, and they’re going to judge us harshly. Between 1989 and 2001 the West missed its greatest opportunity … Between the ending of the Cold War and the beginning of another, between the defeat of Communism and its replacement by militant Islam as the West’s readily convenient enemy, there was a real chance. International relations, the creative remaking of relations between countries irrespective of wealth or ideology was briefly possible. Briefly. Nothing got done. What new world order? — from Berlin by David Hare

I’m obsessed by Berlin. Or by the Wall. Or by Communism. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. It’s partly, if I’m honest, romantic: John le Carre, Graham Greene, a dash of Kurt Weill and the Weimar. It’s partly political, torn between the idealism of the philosophy and the wretchedness of its execution. And it’s partly a kind of continuing awed horror at the complete futility of it all: at the cruelty, the privation, the surveillance, all in an already bankrupt cause. When I finally went there last summer with the brilliant SP we found a city ill at ease with itself, oddly nostalgic for past evils and fearful for its future: a city that longs for commercial success but fears for the loss of its “poor but sexy” soul.

David Hare’s new performance at the National is a mesmerising, hour-long reading covering thirty years of visiting the city, from radical Seventies playwright to distinguished screenwriter of The Reader, which shot there just last year. It’s angry — what a golden opportunity we missed — questioning and very funny too, as he gets lost in the city one night, “expecting Peter Lorre to appear at any moment and kill me for drugs”. He’s searching for the heart of the city. What is Berlin about? Is it culture? History? Despair? Or is it just hanging out with your friends? Like SP and I he has been told how cool the city is these days, how great the clubbing is —

Have I been to the Kit-Kat Club? No, I don’t think so. Is that the one where they fry poo in the basement? I think I’d remember if I’d been there.

— but a finds a Berlin cloaked in memories, glittered with reminders of the horrors of its past. Like us, he’s also amazed how well he’s treated as an Englishman, a country whose Prime Minister said in 1943 that “The Germans should be made to suffer in their homelands and cities, let them have a good dose where it will hurt them most”. A 1941 Bomber Command memo said that, “attention should be concentrated on working class houses … although [the government] has accepted the principle of bombing civilians for moral effect, it is probably wise to pretend to the world that it is military or economic targets we are really attacking”. And a Mr O’Neill of the German department of the Foreign Office wrote in 1945: “I think we can agree that it is in the interests of this country if the German birthrate declines — I hope it will not seem too shocking if I suggest that we might consider whether there are any means at our disposal for assisting the decline of the German birthrate after the war.” As Hare says, with reference to British films about the war, “is it only the Brits who like to pretend that there can be such a thing as a war which is moving without being upsetting?”

Hare’s performance ranges over the city’s history, architecture and economy, sometimes all at once: as he notes wryly at one point, “Some of its attempts to offset its debt by disposing of its assets have not been successful. Joseph Goebbels’s country house did not sell”. It’s complex, sweeping, but never complicated, as he leads us from one story to the next, now with laughter, now with rage, and it’s a superb piece of writing craft, blending personal, historical and philosophical into one. I don’t think everything he does is brilliant — I’ve been pretty horrible about The Reader — but even in his lesser work we need him: passionate, provocative, political, always searching for the truth.


The banality of evil

Tucked down a forbidding side street in the unloved Eastern suburb of Lichtenburg, Berlin, is this almost unmarked building whose address is simply House 1:

Its anonymous facade conceals some of Germany’s most sinister history, for House 1 is the former HQ of the Stasi, the East German secret police. Familiar now from The Lives of Others, the Stasi employed over 90,000 people, who ran a network of up to half a million informants, scrutinising every aspect of their friends’, families’ and neighbours’ lives: perhaps the most embedded secret police in history. 

Now House 1 is the Stasimuseum, and one of the most genuinely creepy places that I’ve ever visited. Over three floors of the building a series of exhibits dramatise the work of the Stasi, including some of the technology — cameras hidden in buttons, microphones in pens and so on — familiar from Cold War books and films. But if the Cold War ever seemed romantic, House 1 is a brutal, cold corrective: this is a building soaked in evil, and it leaves no nostalgic glow.

It was Hannah Arendt, in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, who first wrote about “the banality of evil”. When she covered Adolf Eichmann’s trial she was shocked, not so much by his brutality but by his lack of imagination or perspective. He was, he claimed, just doing his job, motivated not by hatred but preferment: he just wanted to get on. Looking around House 1 gives you some of the same feeling that Arendt describes: what’s shocking about it is not how sinister it feels, but how ordinary. House 1 doesn’t feel like the headquarters of a brutal secret police, but of a prosperous insurance company, or a much loved regional bank. The walls are paneled wood, the furniture sleek and polished, the lighting well designed:


And this is what stays with you: the sense that evil flourishes when it’s made normal, when it’s contextualised by the everyday. It reminded me of Conspiracy, which is the best film I have seen about the Holocaust, not because it shows what happened but because it shows how it was done: by men sitting in conference rooms, minuting discussions about the price of gas.