Proud Germans like to say the name of their capital city, Berlin, has something to do with bears. Berliners, who tend to have a streak of cynical humour, says it derives from the word for “swamp”. The city was built on a marsh that was drained and covered with sand. When you walk the streets encounter a nose-wrinkling odour, Berliners tell you “it’s just some swamp gas”.
You would never guess Berlin had such poor beginnings from the look of the city centre. Thanks to having had its capital three-quarters levelled during World War II and then tortured by Stalinist monstrosities, Germany has mastered the craft of recreating architectural wonders from photographs and blueprints. There’s even a name for this technique which roughly translates as “new old architecture”.
However, the sand and swamp has meant Berlin is notable for its low skyline. Few, if any, buildings go beyond five storeys making the city centre, especially on a sunny summer’s day, look like the centre of a small town with a long past.
German foreign policy is about rebuilding right now. The government believes it is on a slow but steady path to restoring relations with the US. It will be a lot easier when George W. Bush steps down, but even the White House’s present chastened demeanour is giving Berlin hope it can restore a bilateral relationship that was once the heart of the Atlantic Alliance.
It still seems a bit unbalanced: Germans says there’s plenty common ground with the US in Africa — the Pentagon’s new Africa Command is based in Germany, but a lot of differences over global warming and the West Asia. However, US diplomats in Berlin agree things have not been so cozy in a long time.
Berlin also seems a little baffled about what to do with the new Empire of Spooks that is arising in Moscow. Assassinating critics with $24 million worth of polonium is a remarkable display of an “I don’t give a damn” attitude. No one in Berlin seemed surprised that Russia rejected the European Union’s Energy Charter — designed to commit the Kremlin to not send political diktats down its gas pipelines.
Brown backs off
Over in Blighty, the mood is quite the opposite. The soon-to-be prime minister, Gordon Brown, is seen as “less flash, more reflection” than Tony Blair. After six years of being taunted as Washington’s poodle (all the more irritating because it’s a French dog) Brown’s greater reserve about the Cousins is being welcomed by most in Whitehall . “You’ll find Brown a much more cerebral type,” say British officials weary of Blair’s policy-making by instinct.
So one is faced with the curious sight of London is trying to put some distance between itself and Washington while the Continent is walking in the other direction. France has just elected an openly pro-American Nicholas Sarkozy. Germans insist Angela Merkel will be the Lady of the Lamp when it comes to healing the Atlantic wound.
She’s the senior European leader now, point out German diplomats. Unfortunately, Merkel’s record of Getting Things Done is nothing to write home about. Prediction: she’s going to have to do a lot of huffing to keep up with a live wire like Sarkozy.
One thing Brown can expect to retain: scepticism about Europe. The channel isn’t fully bridged, or tunnelled. At one point I was walking through Blenheim Palace, a baroque monstrosity built in rural Oxford to thank the Duke of Marlborough for his military victories in the War of the Spanish Succession.
A French professor, after seeing display after display showing Marlborough routing French armies, said, “No one in France has heard of these battles.” A few Brits snorted disbelievingly.
After reading some more literature, the Frenchman said, “I’ve worked out which war this was, but the British lost it. They wanted to stop the French king’s grandson from becoming king of Spain. They didn’t stop that. This palace is pointless.” Half-true: the grandson had to renounce his right to the French throne and, therefore, ensured France and Spain didn’t become the 18th century’s superpower.
On the other hand, Blenheim doesn’t mention that in his last battle, Malplaquet, the duke lost twice as many men as the French and had to give up his offensive. An ex-Pentagon official, listening to all this historiography, only said: “Losing battles and then claiming political victory. That’s so French.”