National Geographic : 2015 Mar
104 national geographic • march 2015 to become the center of the world, and you will find your city carved up and divided. Wolfgang Thierse, a former president and vice president of the German parliament and one of the most formative voices in the reunification of the city after 1989, is insistent that “Ger- mans and their capital are still caught within their history and are still not ready to consider themselves an important power. In Berlin the evil history of the 20th century is as visible as it would not be in any other capital. We do not want to hide and escape from our history here in Berlin but to face it.” “Berlin invents itself again and again,” Richard Meng, spokesman for the city’s governing sen- ate says. “It took ten years after ’89 to find the way for Berlin.” The formula arrived at was, in Meng’s words, “an open-minded city that lets the international community in and makes it possible for young people to live their life here and find their ideas.” That is, the very opposite of any previous idea of Berlin as a showplace for power. Opportunity replaced authority as the central element in Berlin’s DNA. But there was a problem. Berlin’s lack of in- dustry and big business meant that its tax base was, and remains, inadequate. Even now Berlin is carrying a debt of $77 billion and would be running an annual city budget deficit of 20.7 percent if not for grants from other German states and the federal government. Without the rest of Germany to support it, Berlin would go bust. The annual deficit is shrinking, and new enterprises are being encouraged, but still there seems to be little urgency, in Berlin anyway, to plug the gap. A fine kind of carelessness governs Berlin’s view of its future as the city that, as the former mayor has said, is “poor but sexy.” Berlin’s deep shift from Europe’s great trou- bled power city to its emblem of liberation is shadowed by the story of Athens to the south. When the Greeks joined the EU in 1981, it was— according to Vassilis Papadimitriou, press sec- retary to George Papandreou, prime minister during the peak of the economic crisis, from 2009 to 2011—“like a ship arriving in port.” It was the moment when the Greeks—previously isolated by the Soviet bloc to the north, in an unsustainable arms race with Turkey to the east, and irredeemably poor—“felt that they were be- ing treated as a proper part of Europe for the first time.” Membership in the European club ushered in a long swing of optimism, grants, and growth for the city, culminating in its hosting of the 2004 Olympics and building of the magnificent new Acropolis Museum, through which the world could be shown just how modern and sophisti- cated Greece had become. The euro crisis was, according to Elli Papa- konstantinou, a director of experimental theater in the abandoned industrial suburb of Elaionas, “a moment of guilt, shared by all of us, a sense that somehow we were all responsible for the bad things that were happening to us.” It was a huge, national blow to self-esteem. Papadimi- triou says it was “confirmation of the Greeks’ worst fears, that they didn’t really belong in Eu- rope at all.” The social and personal pain brought on by the ensuing austerity regime remains intense. Ermina Kontaratos, who looks after her severely disabled teenage daughter, wrings her hands in despair at the daily struggle she now has to un- dergo to get anything out of the welfare system. Since June 2013 she has had nothing. Until then she’d been receiving $1,300 every two months. Then the doctors went on strike. Then she was sent to the wrong doctors, who fobbed her off, and then again to others in distant offices, im- penetrably bureaucratic, almost impossible to get to on public transport. She has no car. “The officials have all been turned upside down. They don’t know what they’re doing.” Her daughter had been receiving a pension of $200 a month since her father’s death five years ago. That too has stopped. How will they live? “I will pray to God,” Kontaratos said. “My son Adam Nicolson’s book Why Homer Matters is about Europe’s Greek roots. Gerd Ludwig’s latest book documents the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. Alex Majoli’s photographs illustrated “Rethinking Nero,” in the September 2014 issue.