Berlin’s railway stations offer a unique window on fraught history. Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten, memorialized in the 1978 book and 1981 film Christiane F.—Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, opened in 1882. It expanded in 1934 in preparation for Hitler’s 1936 Olympics. During the Cold War, it became West Berlin’s central transport hub.
Last week in Berlin, I chaired the first in a series of roundtables co-hosted with Garry Kasparov’s Renew Democracy Initiative. Our discussions took place in a large, sunlit corner room on the second floor of a century-old apartment building, where we looked across the River Spree to Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse. Like Bahnhof Zoo, the Friedrichstrasse station opened in 1882. That was the year Germany, Hungary, and Italy entered into a secret agreement known as the Triple Alliance.
Thousands of Jewish children were evacuated through Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse in an organized rescue operation after Kristallnacht in November 1938. Five years later, the station was bombed by Polish saboteurs. Later, during the Cold War, it became a crossing between democratic West and communist East.
It was hard not to look out the window at the Friedrichstrasse trains crossing the bridge above the Spree. Our working group’s focus was how to keep support going for Ukraine in difficult winter months ahead. We were Americans and Germans, Poles and Ukrainians. Our German colleagues drove much of the conversation. I left with strong impressions.
For one, Zeitenwende is real. That’s the transformative turning point declared by Germany’s chancellor last winter. Like all paradigm shifts, it will take time to fully internalize and operationalize. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shocked today’s Germany into confronting the stark realities of hard power and deterrence. There’s little left of Wandel durch Handel, the decades-old mantra and wishful thinking that dictatorships will change if only we keep trade and dialogue going. Germany’s complicated China debate has just begun. The country’s Russia debate is finished.
Social Democratic Party (SPD) Chancellor Olaf Scholz is said to be long fed up with Vladimir Putin’s constant, brazen lies. Russian atrocities and the ongoing attacks on Ukraine’s civilian population have shaken this country to the core. Germans now talk about “the next war,” should Russian aggression not be checked now. An SPD politician tells me privately he’s convinced that if not for NATO and the U.S. security guarantee, Putin would be in Poland. That’s stark coming from the country that for decades has defined itself as a “Zivilmacht,” a civil power leaning on commerce and diplomacy in pursuit of its foreign policy goals.
Germans are growing up. They worry about Americans reverting to adolescence. They watched the midterm results with a sigh of relief. There’s still concern, however, that neo-isolationism has wind behind its sails. If Trump were re-elected—or a candidate of similar bent—is it conceivable that the United States would leave NATO? It’s the trend that Germans are trying to study and a larger strategic picture that comes into sharp relief. Says a retired German general and former NATO official, “Putin wants to reverse the extended alliance security guarantees of the post-Cold War period and have the Americans roll up their nuclear umbrella from the continent.” Germans are fearful that the United States will turn its attention more fully to China before Europe is able (finally) to build up its own defenses.
Meanwhile, there’s a war to be won and the question of whether Berlin will send tanks to Ukraine persists here. Germans and Americans seem to be hiding behind each other. Some inside the Biden Administration apparently fear that heavier weapons would diminish the prospects for peace talks to end the war. The Chancellery says Washington is content with German military assistance. And anyway, German air defense systems are on the way.
But there’s more to this. Fear of escalation is real. A recent poll by the Körber Foundation found that more than two-thirds of Germans worry about a nuclear confrontation with Russia—with Germany itself becoming a target. That’s roughly the amount of support Germans have been showing for Ukraine since the invasion began in February. A British diplomat friend used to say to me, “You know the Germans. They see a dilemma and say ‘That’s a dilemma’ as they walk away.” That was then. Today, the risks of further action are being weighed carefully against the costs of inaction. Germany’s forward-leaning policymakers push for Leopard tanks to help Ukrainians deliver a serious setback for Moscow’s imperialist project.
I watched the trains as I listened to German and Polish colleagues discuss increasingly troubled bilateral ties. The head of the EU delegation in Kyiv joined us on screen, apologizing that he would have to excuse himself at the next air raid siren. Yuliia Payevska, known by the nickname Tayra, joined in-person. She’s the paramedic who cared for wounded Ukrainians and Russians during the siege of Mariupol last spring, only to be kidnapped and tortured by Russian soldiers. She pleaded for Western fortitude. In Mariupol, according to the UN, 90 percent of residential buildings have been damaged or destroyed. The estimates of civilians killed reaches into the tens of thousands.
The title of Erik Larson’s book In the Garden of Beasts alludes to the zoo (Tiergarten) next to Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten. Larson’s story recounts the career of American Ambassador to Germany William Dodd in the years 1933 to 1937. Greeted by flashing cameras and a platform full of German officials and American well-wishers, Dodd and his family arrived at Berlin’s Lehrter Bahnhof, writes Larson:
at a bend of the Spree where the river flows through the heart of the city … [and where] the station rose about its surroundings like a cathedral, with a barrel-vaulted ceiling and a bank of arched windows.
Dodd was a liberal Democrat and historian who started his tenure with some measure of optimism. He thought he had identified Nazi moderates. He ended up issuing stark warnings to those “so desirous of peace” that they failed to grasp the meaning of dictatorship and evidence of expansionist goals. History in Berlin sticks. Russia’s modern-day savagery feels very close.
Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose. Together with the Renew Democracy Initiative, American Purpose has just convened the first in a series of Berlin conversations on Ukraine, Russia, and regional peace and security.
Image: The first Friedrichstraße station, built in 1882, Berlin, Germany. (Wikimedia)
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