Ich bin ein Berliner

I)

In the late 80s, when we still thought the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall were as good as eternal, my friend Matt Lieber and I, fairly fresh out of high school, traveled around Germany and got a visa for a few unforgettable hours in Communist East Berlin. We entered through Checkpoint Charlie (pictured above in 1961, during one of the many standoffs). Then we walked up the famous Friedrichstrasse toward the equally famous Unter den Linden.

I’ll never forget those first few blocks behind the Iron Curtain.

Crosstreets:

  • Krausenstrasse
  • Leipzigerstrasse
  • Kronenstrasse
  • Mohrenstrasse
  • Taubenstrasse

II)

Just a few years later, in 1993, I was back on that same stretch of that same street: Friedrichstrasse, between Taubenstrasse and Mohrenstrasse.

Except this time I was an unpaid intern for CNN, that (then-) unbeatable American, Western, Capitalist media success story. By sheer luck, n-tv, a German start-up that wanted to be, and indeed became, the German CNN, had just opened in the same building and CNN owned a part of it. In the utter chaos of n-tv‘s first weeks, I did all sorts of jobs for both companies that I was entirely unqualified for and benefitted hugely from.

III)

Now, many years later again, I will be back once more at that same stretch of that same street. This time (as of mid-June, 2012) I am Berlin Bureau Chief of The Economist. Our office is right at a corner that Matt and I walked past all those years ago.

It’ll be my fifth beat in the 15 years I’ve worked for The Economist so far. (You may recall my meditation on being that kind of “generalist” when I last switched beats, three years ago.)

IV)

When I visited the office the other day, before the actual move from Los Angeles, I loitered a bit on those blocks, looking for something familiar from the past.

Wasn’t this where that East German cop stopped Matt and me for jaywalking?

And wasn’t that where, in 1993, that god-awful East-Germanesque sausage snack bar was?

I simply couldn’t tell. Yoga, Starbucks, Gucci, banks, BMWs. Physically, the street had become aggressively 2012, and nothing else.

I remembered how somebody once told me about visiting, in 1978, a tiny fishing village north of Hong Kong. It was called Shenzhen. Three decades later he went back to try to find the spot where he stood. Well, you know.

But even that did not capture the feelings I had while standing again at that particular corner of the world. In my imagination, I rewound and fast-forwarded through life on that spot. From its Slavic time through its Prussian time, to its Wilhelmine and Twenties time, its Nazi time, its Cold-War time, its Wende time. Then I opened my eyes again.

V)

Why do people become journalists? For different reasons. But many, I am guessing, want to feel that they lived history.

This year and in the coming years, Europe seems likely to be making history again, and Berlin seems likely to play a big role in that history. If I do my job right, and even if I just do it mediocrely, I’ll see a good bit of it up close.

43 thoughts on “Ich bin ein Berliner

  1. Why do people become journalists? For different reasons. But many, I am guessing, want to feel that they lived history.

    A thought struck me as I read that line… Don’t we all live history? I understood the meaning of your words but still…

    Congratulations on becoming Berlin Bureau chief.

  2. Difficult times ahead. Let’s hope it all works out and without too much pain.

    Neither personal ambition nor mediocrity are called for in your calling – as you well know.

    • Yes, as Richard says congratulations!

      It is a Noble ambition desire to be a part of history, to document it in the thick of things. And you are far from a mediocre journalist as we all have come to know.

      I hope you will be able to share some of the perspectives, as there have been limitations in the past with the ability to share your work at The Economist with we, the humble blog fans!

  3. So, you are to become a jelly doughnut.

    Many congratulations on your promotion. I’m sure you’ll make a great success of it.

    I look forward to reading your perspectives from Berlin in this important time in its history.

  4. Terrific piece as usual. Goof luck. I was born in 1939 and have never quite gotten over my prejudices about Germans. Your future blog entries will set me straight, I/m sure.

  5. I’m not a journalist but I think I enjoy reading History, maybe wondering if I’ve ever lived it too. Congrats, and I’m looking forward to reading more about your time in Berlin!

  6. Congratulations!! We’ll miss your take on America, but it seems like Berlin is the place to be right now. I look forward to reading your insights and hearing about life in Germany. The only downside is that you will now be about as far as you can get from NZ! All the best.

  7. I’ll miss you here in California, but after visiting Germany recently, I understand why you might have agreed to go back (it is a whole package, after all, taking your family there for what will be your children’s formative education). We were driving out to Sacramento yesterday, through the town of Tracy. The Judge looked over the freeway and said, ” Kind of reminds you of the Black Forest, doesn’t it Cheri?”

    You have made the right decision to get the hell out of this state, that’s for sure, A. We are a big mess and for a Native Californian, it’s disappointing.

    I am looking forward to your reporting, especially during this very interesting time in Europe.

    And I am not going to post that picture of my German lunch on my blog. It would give Peter too much material to work with.

  8. Have you read Eric Larson’s marvelous book, “In the Garden of the Beasts”? I’m sure you have but if you haven’t put it on your required reading list–it’s about the historian William E Dodd and his family being sent to Gy in 1933. Absorbing story. Old DrJass57 is young Jenny’s father.

  9. Many congrats, Andreas. How promising for you and your family. Like it or not, Germany, Germany makes history. Like it or not, Andreas, you are German. Like it or not, Berlin, a Hannibal impostor among you shall be asking quirky questions and snatching rarely seen nuggets of meaning from your post-modern realities. This all sounds fateful – and not in a bad way. More likely than setting you to dig for nuggets, I expect Berlin to provide you with meteor showers, seams of ore, molten lava. It is an epic place, after all, as we saw in just one sliver. Of course the nuggets still matter — all the more so — strewn about, hidden amidst the world-city’s sweep. Berlin will overfill your hands. But you are as well equipped to sort and sift it out as any. Go forth unreluctantly, with best luck. We will read your reports eagerly. Matt

  10. Congrats & looking forward to seeing you all on this side of the pond Andreas! Berlin easier to get to from GVA than your old beat! Amanda

  11. All the world’s a stage,
    And all the men and women merely players;
    They have their Grexits and their Klentrances,
    And one man in his time plays many parts…

  12. There is a price tag on every new floor. Have you seen the bill?

    May you not have to report on the downfall of the European Reich. There have been plenty of questioning, plenty of strain and stress. I have my own stakes in Europe.

    Alles Gute und viel Spaß in Berlin. Das Brot ist natürlich wunderbar und gleich in der nähe.

    Best wishes

    • “downfall of the European Reich”. Oh boy. Evocative.

      No, my guess is that we’re seeing it turn into some sort of modern Holy Roman Empire.

      (I realize that you might consider that a loaded aside. In due course, I’ll elaborate, if I still hold that opinion.)

    • “Holy Roman Empire”. – That’s even more creepy. Perhaps it is better to learn from the past then to regress to it. That applies equally to the EU itself.

      An unwritten union of good intentions is slower and more painstaking but infinitely preferable to the impositions of a misguided elite.

  13. You harbour the twin delusions of German pre-eminence and world domination, Andreas. Either that or you are glibly unaware of the depth of the current crisis in Europe. The latter is more likely.

    Or maybe I measure your corn by my own bushel.

    • You’re light years away from understanding what I meant. My fault for not yet explaining. But do me the favor of first waiting for me to explain what the heck I might mean.

    • Yes, I think it’s time to clarify a few things right from the jump. So Andreas, now that you’ve written a war book, relocated to Berlin, and hinted at your vision of German grandeur, are you in any way eyeing the office of chancellor, and do you recognize Austria’s right to exist as an independent nation?

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