I often wonder what the writer W.G. Sebald would have made of Berlin and of its blood-drenched, iron-cast domains. Would he have stumbled over the invisible lines and distant ghosts that he uncovered elsewhere? Would they have roused his melancholy and gashed his sensitivities?
Berlin late November 2017. Walking along the riverside path between the boroughs of Kladow and Gatow on Berlin’s western frontier, mist seeps into the waters of Lake Wannsee as it narrows into the northerly flowing River Havel, skirting former cold-war lines. There are lakeside residences, whose “lights reverberate” (Sebald: The Rings of Saturn) in the dusk. Leni Riefenstahl lived in Kladow for a while and just across the lake, the former country home of Josef Goebbels rests unchastened on the small peninsula of Schwanenwerder. The House of the Wannsee Conference is just downwind. A stone’s throw further away, the villa of German-Jewish painter Liebermann showcases not only the painter’s work but also the frantic, almost illegible note of his wife, written on the eve of her deportation – and suicide. And here, glowing sweetly between Kladow’s sheltering pines is the house of Austrian-Jewish engineer Edmund Rumpler at 17, Irmchenallee. A leading light of the German automobile and aeronautics industry, his was another sojourn in the realm of Gemütlichkeit terminated, post 1933, by the National Socialists.
Gemütlichkeit: a quality of heart and hearth that remains dear to Germans. It speaks of acceptance, of establishment and belonging. Even now. Even – and with – the knowledge of such terrors.
But knowledge is not memory. Sebald, I think, would not have been fooled. He wouldn’t have fallen for these knowable surface securities, which, when scratched, lay bare such treacherous crevices. A little further north on the same path, a modest manor rises above patchy lawns: the Gutshaus Neukladow, which now houses a strangely-lit café-restaurant and seminar rooms. Extensively remodeled in the early 20th century, it was originally built around 1800 for A.L. Mencken, cabinet counselor to the Prussian King Frederick William III. Mencken’s daughter gave birth here to Otto von Bismarck, whose leadership as Federal Chancellor set the course of Prussia’s transformation from Confederation to Empire after the Franco-Prussian war of 1871. From here, from some upstairs manor bedroom overlooking a tranquil vista of watery greys and browns, Prussia’s tentacled rise began, stretching across the years to a French surrender signed in 1871 in Versailles, to another defeat, also signed in Versailles, in 1918. And all that followed.
In the upstairs rooms of the café, dark and dusty, I find a small model of the house. It sits innocuously on the floor: a plaything for children on bored winter evenings. Sebald would not have been fooled.
The lakeside path stops a little further on, just past the higgledy-piggledy of wooden huts and ramshackle gardens. I take the car and drive a couple of miles northwards to the neighbouring district of Gatow, stopping to turn right into the grounds of the Havelhöhe Community Hospital, a clinic for anthroposophic medicine. Constructed between 1934 – 1936 as a Luftwaffe Training Centre, its clean barracked lines have undergone reassignment. From killing to healing. And yet, so thoroughly consumed am I now by a mood of pervasive menace that I shiver a little at the guileless trust of patients moving across the windows. The bookshop staff are sorry. No, they have nothing on the original purpose of the complex. They point me to an information sign.
Leaving, I catch sight of a sign to the Luftwaffe Museum of the German Bundeswehr. It’s housed in buildings that formed part of the former British Air Force base RAF Gatow, less than three kilometers as the black crow flies from the hospital.
And suddenly, so suddenly that I’m momentarily winded, there are – “various spaces interlocking” (Sebald: Austerlitz). My father – with whom I drove up and down this road past signs for Gatow on summer days during his visits to Berlin 2003 – 2009 – my father flew here, to RAF Gatow during the Berlin Airlift, June 1948. He had stories to tell – when pressed. Of German Fräuleins serving mess food to a hungry young man at the tail end of his National Service, worried that events would spiral and he would be properly conscripted. During that last visit with us in Berlin, summer 2009, my father knew (didn’t he?) where he was, driving through Gatow with me. But said nothing, did nothing to re-engage with memory. And I knew, but never asked. Instead, we scanned the roadside for wayside shacks selling eels from the lake. His favourite.
My father was a Londoner, with a Londoner’s taste, but self-educated. He’d read Sebald but found him … what? Morbidly overstrung? Given the choice: between eels in aspic and unwelcome reflection, he chose eels.
Memories, as Sebald writes in The Rings of Saturn, “lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life.” Memories are chance and incidence. We indulge them – sometimes at our peril. Or chose not to, choosing life instead.
There is a choice, as Sebald implies, juxtaposing memory and life. And so, I think – as I picture the wry, friendly man on the dust jacket of The Rings of Saturn – Sebald might have relented. And chosen jellied eels as well.