Berlin Stories

The city may be unified but in the arts and football, what still matters is "which side were you on?"
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Trouble is brewing again on the grey campus where luminaries of the Baader-Meinhof gang once learnt their sociology. Twice in the past two months, police were called out to Rudi Dutschke Strasse to sort out revolting students of the Free University. The "Freie" is no hippie institution, but a serious seat of learning, created as an antidote to the venerable Humboldt, which found itself on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. Free, as in "Free World".

Today's students are rebelling against Berlin's new regional government, which, for the first time since the fall of the Wall, includes ministers from the PDS, the party that once ran the Soviet-occupied zone.

The comrades are settling scores, and the "Freie" was first to be hit. Its medical school is threatened with closure; the prestigious Benjamin Franklin clinic is to be tossed into the cash-starved health service. Students and staff suspect vengeance. The Freie has been lavishly funded since reunification, while the lecturers of the Humboldt were mostly sacked and replaced with Wessis. Now the boot seems to be on the other foot.

Berlin's theatreland is bracing itself for similar upheavals. The city's new "Kultursenator" is the notoriously unreconstructed PDS ideologue, Thomas Flierl. Trebles all around have greeted his arrival at the Berliner Ensemble – Bertolt Brecht's old haunt – and at the Volksbühne. Both are at the cutting edge of (east) German theatre, which means they tend to expose more naked flesh and sprinkle more blood, all in the name of socialism. The future of these two venues appears assured, while theatres in the west with a more commercial repertoire are fearing the worst.

Celebrations are also in order at the Komische Oper, the city's third opera house, and its worst. This oasis of Ossi mediocrity was always the prime candidate for the chop in any "rationalisation" of the music scene. It plays lots of Russian opera – often out of tune – and is patronised almost exclusively by residents of the east. The PDS has already announced that, however bankrupt the city might be, it can afford three opera houses.


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Those of us who moved here from the well-tended suburbia of Bonn three years ago were at first invigorated – some taken aback – by the new capital's disorderly ways. Building sites at every turn, graffiti climbing to improbable heights, people in muddy jeans devouring smelly kebabs next to you on the S-bahn. Shocking.

Then the bureaucrats started arriving from Bonn with their shiny shoes and patent leather briefcases, and we wondered how they would fit in. Three years on, they define the landscape. For Berlin, or at least the new government district, has been refitted in uniformly nondescript style. The restaurants in the centre are post-modernist clones of one another. The new Potsdamer Platz, the former heart of Berlin, has all the charm of a suburban shopping centre.

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The wildly contrasting fortunes of the communist era's two prominent football clubs serve testimony to divisions more complex than the simple east-west rift. FC Union was the politically suspect "decadent" team who were never allowed to beat the Stasi's Dynamo Berlin, champions of East Germany 10 times in a row. Dynamo had the best players, as well as the referees on their side.

They sold the lot after reunification. Their fans – greeted to this day by rival supporters as "Stasi swine" – shaved their heads and tattooed swastikas on their arms. Union just got on with football, and prospered: they are now mid-table in the Bundesliga's second division.

Dynamo went bankrupt at the end of last year and were kicked out of the regional league. This former powerhouse of European football was brought down by an unfortunate foray into the New Economy – Dynamo had been scoring plenty of goals, but their main sponsor, a software firm, went bust.