Departure

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Henry Miller had written about his city, and Francis Lenôtre too had known happy days in his birthplace. The street was calm, a few children were playing near the school, a familiar sight. Francis closed the door, turned slowly round holding his light suitcase in a firm hand. The metro station was ten minutes walk from his apartment, a well trodden path he had followed many times in the thirty years he’d lived there.
A short and wiry man, in his early sixties, he still projected a sense of energy and strength, and the attentive face of a fit, mature man, at ease in the lecture room as much as in the training room. Today, his first stop would be the Gare de l’Est, where he would catch the afternoon high speed train to Berlin. The journey would take six hours, with a fifteen minutes stop in Frankfurt. He would have plenty of time to read the brief for the literature conference he would be attending two days later, to polish his own paper, and perhaps he would even be lucky enough to catch Myriam, his ex-wife, on her busy schedule.
In front of the town hall he noted the new graffiti on the wall of the old party local office, and the hate symbols freshly painted from the previous night. The day before he had read several articles describing the explosive situation in the East, the coastal cities, and western Ukraine. The internet was awash with speculations and warnings of an impending war, of the next move by the powerful Eurasian Federation, and of the neutral silence that was now a feature of US diplomacy. He boarded an almost deserted underground train, and soon he arrived at his destination.

As he entered the station, Francis reflected that, at a time when high speed trains were finally replacing internal European flights for the greater common good, rail stations looked more and more like the previous century’s airports: Mammon temples. A patrol of four soldiers led by an NCO marched past him, as he was checking the news panel. The NCO’s beret revealed an elegantly shaped feminine nape, and a young face with beautiful dark eyes. He was already walking to the gate, then boarded his coach, found this seat, and checked for messages. He had tried to contact Myriam since he knew for certain he would attend the conference. He always told her what he was doing, and where he was going, a habit of ten years of marriage he had not abandoned. Of course, he was never sure of where she was, since the compliment was rarely returned. To his mind, it did not matter, as it was still his duty to ensure she knew where he was, in the unlikely but still possible event that she would need him. Francis logged his pad to the train network, and accessed the conference site, checked the timetable of speakers.

The subject of the conference was “fiction and reality in the days of neutrality”. This was a clear reference to the situation of writers, now that the East-West old rivalries had finally been made all but obsolete by the newly elected US president’s unilateral and popular decision, five years earlier, to return his country to near isolationism, declare neutrality, remove his troops and most of his diplomats from Europe, quit the Alliance military wing, as well as withdraw from all but a few of the now useless overseas bases. Authors, who had long thrived on stories of Middle-eastern wars and western special forces heroics, were now high and dry, like their predecessors spy hunters at the end of the Cold War. But western Europe was holding forth, in the shape of a resurgent, and, occasionally, vociferous German conservative government, that had taken again the mantle of defender of the “free world”, whatever that now meant for the Alliance.

As his train was leaving the Paris conurbation at accelerating speed, Francis checked his pad again for messages. Myriam was, as ever, silent. On one of the Eurasian Federation news sites he followed, Francis noticed a recent post describing the violence and racism of some groups in one of the coastal countries. The author claimed that no amount of Alliance armour or ex-US fighter jets would soon protect those thugs from a just punishment. The tone was patriotic but calm, and Francis wondered whether the blogger was writing for herself, or inspired by some officious source. Some news channels reported movements of Alliance troops close to the Federation border. The day before, the chancellor had made an uncompromising speech in the Bundestag, affirming that the Republic would stand by its allies, and the “common European values”. But who counts now as her “allies”, thought Francis, and as for “values”…

Half empty at the departure in Paris Est, the train filled up in Frankfurt, a mix load of passengers including military personnel travelling east on duty, business travellers like him, and families. The journey to Berlin would only take now two hours, which Francis intended to use to polish his speech. His subject was a humoristic comparison between John Le Carré and a fictional young writer who had achieved some fame singing the praise of the old intelligence services, champions of freedom, before neutrality set in, and this genre became quaint and, finally, irrelevant. He meant to contrast the spirit of Le Carré’s writing, denouncing the elites’s collusion with forces of evil, as in the “Constant Gardener”, and the early Cold War Smiley’s novels, with the total adhesion of some recent authors to the myths of the “War on Terror”, the threats to civilisation and the glory of its heroic defenders, reflecting, in his view, the subservience of many of these youngsters to a crumbling order. Francis expected a moderate approval in response to his thesis, at best. Did he care? In a sense he did, as he was still of the old school, who believed in a role for literature in the business of living, and therefore, politics. His invitation to the conference had been from an old acquaintance in the german publishing world. He’d accepted for the sake of old time, and for the opportunity this gave him to be back in Berlin.
As the forested landscape of central Germany flew past the Intercity window, Francis reflected on the events of the past decade, and on his own life. His wife Myriam had divorced him ten years ago, and they had since remained “friends”. Myriam, born in Tel-Aviv in the 80’s, from a jewish observant American mother and a French entrepreneur father (entrepreneur in what, Francis had never known for certain), was attractive, sure of herself, and determined to have everything her way. Even to have him, Francis, whom she’d married, first and foremost, to prove to herself that she could master the art of being a wife, and, secondly, have a son from a man she could respect. Their son, Philip, gifted with his father’s charm and his mother’s determination and looks, was now starting in his career as architect.

The marriage had not lasted more than ten years, which Francis thought, at the time, was an achievement in itself. Myriam was unfaithful, openly, and seriously so, compared with his own infidelities, a very successful business woman, who rapidly tired of their life together in his old-fashioned suburb, even though, in the later years of their marriage, she did not spend there more than two or three months in the year. She now lived in London, with a lucrative job as a private financial consultant to high net-worth individuals, or to the façade companies that shielded them from preying eyes. Their meetings were far apart, but not so infrequent for them not to get a little closer, occasionally. Philip had decided, after Oxford, to live close to his mother, and mother and son shared a spacious penthouse in the East End.

They were now approaching the marches of Saxony. Francis checked his pad: he had a message from Philip who said that his mother would call him once he’d arrived in Berlin; but, of course, he reflected, this had to mean she wanted him to call her then. Memories came back to him of Myriam and him in Berlin, before their divorce, one of the happy trips away from France, which had found them once again in love, and in love with the city. The city of Faust. They had even, briefly, considered living there, exploring Brandenburg, visiting Poland, perhaps even Russia…

They’d arrived at the Hauptbahnhof, all glass and steel. Francis checked the time, packed his pad: it looked like a warm late afternoon in Berlin, so he would walk to his hotel on Friedrichstraße. He enjoyed the walk, past the chancellery, along the river bank and the Reichstag, and Unter den Linden. When he reached his hotel he found a message from the conference organisers: the start of the conference was to be delayed by a couple of days since delegates from Eastern countries – did this refer to Poland? – were experiencing travel disruption. He was to call the organisers’ information desk the next day to get a new schedule. It crossed his mind that he wouldn’t mind spending a little longer here: nothing was urgently requiring his return to Paris, and he knew where to rent working space, if needed. When he tried and called Myriam, to his surprise, he found the network congested. He unpacked, and decided to take a stroll to Gendarmenmarkt before dinner.

The old square, and the two churches, were a nostalgic spot for him, where he had often stood and watched the crowds, the demonstrators holding various nationalities flags and symbols, the balloons sellers, the bubble blowers, the tourists in summer dresses. The square in this early evening was crowded; he noticed various flags, but there was no confrontation. Several trucks of black-clad city police were parked along the eastern side of the square, at a distance. The mood was somewhat more subdued than he remembered, but his last stay here was back four years. His walk took him past an Austrian restaurant he remembered he had, almost in another life, appreciated. The interior was cosy and light, the waitress smiled at him and asked what his accent was. Am I losing my Berliner? He asked himself, a little puzzled. But then the waitress was not German, unless she came from a remote germanic tribe in the Far East, for neither could he identify her own accent. He ordered a generous salad and half a bottle of Austrian red.

It was then that his phone rang, with the hallmark tone of the lady Myriam. She wanted to know how long he was planning to stay in Berlin. She’d heard some noises of panzers close to the Polish-Federation border. But this wouldn’t deter her to come to meet him in Berlin, if he did not mind, and stay a little. No, he did not mind, in fact, he said, it would be nice to see Berlin now, with her, and perhaps they could discuss the situation then. She laughed: ever the talkative type, Francis! She said she would call back once she had sorted her flights. Flights, plural, of course, he thought. But he was delighted. What could be more agreeable than the company of his best friend?
In the lobby of his hotel, a group of American tourists were watching the news. Columns of armour were following a long motorway, viewed far away from the air. The colours or flags were not visible. Where was this? He would read a little, then turn off.

Viktoria Park I © 2017 Honoré Dupuis

Photography: Gendarmenmarkt, Leon Bovenkerk Eigenwerk

Of a lost character named D

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On Reformation Day he reflected on the times, the church’s door in Wittenberg, the theses, the peasants revolts, the rivalries, the spies, and yet, the hopes. Lost in the pages were smaller stories: people’s own struggles, love, and death. How he associated D with those times is hard to tell. He had not thought that much about her in recent years, but she was not totally forgotten. Walking in the pale light of October, his steps muffled by the thick layer of dead leaves, he must have recalled other autumns, other storms, and tried to invoke her supple form.

He saw her at first as his alter ego, the sister he never had. She was wise, she had lived many lives, she knew about rites long forgotten. As he wanted to write about her, he sought the right places, the right times. He discovered Q, the long story of what happened after Wittenberg, of Münster, of Venice. She had many disguises, even more lovers. Often he changed her name, often she rebelled: she was not his thing, but a much alive being, even out of his own world. Later, he sought her shadow in the darkened streets of the old city, trying, even in dreams, to remember her scent.

He concluded she was lost, to him. He would have to reconstruct, to follow his steps, back in time, through forgotten paths, hidden from view, away from the living. He would have to read, and understand. Perhaps he would have to become D?

 

Turning the page… #amwriting

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It has not been a productive year for writing, so far. In the depth of last winter there were good intentions, even some actual work (!) then it all melted away, washed out by the rain. A few sunny days were not enough to rekindle the fire, there was too much distraction.

In part, the problem is with location: too many ideas got swallowed up, shredded, transformed by the magic of a city, a provinz, steeped in history. A few steps from the touristic centre, and there it is: an uninterrupted lineage, from Friedrich der Große, the napoleonic wars, the liberation, the revolution, 1871, straight down to the Sleepwalkers, two world wars, the occupation, and then now… As we ride around the Döberitzer Heide, we look at the vastness where der Alte Fritz had his army drilled before the Seven Years war (1753), where the imperial armies trained for the Kaiser’s African dreams, where the Red Army camped and vandalised the obelisk that commemorated the event, taking the metal with them (1992)…

So, it’s back to the beginnings, for writing about an uncertain future we must above all emphasise with the past, we must patiently listen to the ghosts.

Photography: a young European bison bull in the midst of the NSG Döberitzer Heide (Dallgow-Döberitz, Brandenburg) ©2017 Honoré Dupuis

In Reinickendorf

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Jede

Weltanschauung

Die sich auf

Gewalt gründet

Rädert den Menschen

Auf  ihren Symbolen

 

(Any ideology based on violence tortures human beings on its symbols)

Photography of monument, near Reinickendorf’s  townhall, Berlin – ©2017 Honoré Dupuis

Of a Bottle of Coke, and a Typewriter

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In 1937 the city of Berlin celebrated its 700th anniversary. 1237, was the year when the first artefacts and documents attested of the existence of an organised municipality, in what was then the town of Cölln, as Berlin was still then a mere nearby hamlet. In 1937, the NSDAP, the party of Adolf Hitler, had been in power for four years, following its electoral success in the general elections of 1933. Fleeing the noises and fracas of another election, we visited the most interesting, and beautifully laid-out exhibition “Berlin 1937, Im Schatten von Morgen“, at the Märkisches Museum, Berlin.

Fifty exhibits, photographies, audio recordings, day to day objects, display the day, as it happened, at a time when all organised resistance to the régime had long been brutally suppressed, and the city’s cultural and public life were totally subordinated to the dominating ideology. One can see the Wehrmacht marching, Coca Cola Gmbh doing well, and a typewriter, magnificently manufactured, and doted of a special key for “Schütz-Staffeln” (SS). There are also recordings of letters and diaries of people, then jailed, soon to be directed to an even worse fate, and their murder.

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It all felt strangely close to us, not at all old history. Yet, since, the city saw so many tragedies and as much destruction as the human species can take. We walked those streets, and heard the marching songs. In 1987 Berlin celebrated its 750th anniversary.

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Pictures: courtesy Märkisches Museum, Berlin

Blindly #DailyPrompt

Today’s one-word prompt

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He watches the City born again, the ghosts of the past walking, silently, amidst the joyous crowds. The ancient monuments look old and cleansed, no longer ruins martyred by war. Yet he does not follow the script, blindly, but, rather, reflects on the meanings, the hidden messages, the untold truths. Here were divisions, for sure, and the hideous spectrum of tyranny. But here was courage also. And patient work, and the indomitable spirit of a great nation.

Photo: Brandenburger Tor, von Bundestag cupola, 2017 (Honoré Dupuis)

By the Lake

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The quiet street is bordered by sumptuous villas, surrounded by trees. Some of the buildings are ancient, although meticulously maintained, probably pre-1914; others are more recent. Most have views over the lake, for this is what would be described, in England, as a well sought-after, leafy suburb. It has been so for a long time, ever since, in the 1850’s, the industrial growth of the Reich, and of its capital city, pushed the wealthy and entrepreneurial to seek the peace of these shores.

We drive past the painter Lieberman’s house, now a museum. Lieberman died in 1935, a confused and broken man, at the start of the worst episode in German, and European, long history. His widow, then aged eighty, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, and killed herself with veronal. We park the car in a spacious space, a few steps from the “lion”, and from the Villa Marlier.

Kaufmann Ernst Marlier, a charlatan who made his fortune selling fake slimming pills to the gullible German ladies and gents, acquired the land and had the house built for himself in 1914. The house is set on an artificial hill, constructed at great cost, to ensure a view over the lake, and an elegant formal garden. This is a vast, comfortable place, well suited to the – then –  wealthy owner who could afford it. We are told (*) that Marlier, after many unpleasant encounters with the law, sold his property in 1921, and finally disappeared without trace in Switzerland. The next owner, Herr Friedrich Minoux, was another one-time lucky businessman, with political ambitions, and who was not so successful under nazi rule, not fault of trying. Minoux had specialised in acquiring jewish businesses at fire-sale prices and built his financial success thereupon.he could not however avoid bankruptcy and sold the property for 1.95 million Reichsmark in 1940.

And so it is that, against strong competition from other nazi supremos, including Doctor Goebbels himself, Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), and future protector of Boheme-Moravia, acquired the Marlier house. There, on 20 January 19942, took place the conference that sealed the fate of millions of European citizens, caught in the nightmare of deportation and extermination on the East front. It is said that the real decisions regarding the “final solution” had already been taken, at the onset of the war, and were, anyway, already written into the “book’s” dreaded pronouncements.

By 1942 Heydrich had been made the über boss of all police and repressive forces in the Reich (Reichssicherheitshauptamt), and in the occupied territories. There is little doubt that the conference, as well documented in the “protocol” meticulously compiled by Obersturmbannführer Eichmann, was at most an endorsement and logistical settlement of the already determined final solution. The fifteen “functionaries” who participated, were in fact, Heydrich himself apart, no decision makers. As the said, many times later, and still during the trial of Eichmann, they obeyed orders…

The exhibition in the house, is superbly, and mercilessly laid out, from the nineteenth century nonsense, pseudo scientific racial absurdities, through the first world war and the fierce repression of the revolution, to the early fascistic violence of the frei Korps in the 20’s, to the onset of the nazi regimes, the logic of the first KZ, the liquidation of the “socialists” within, and finally, the war. There is plenty of sober evidence of the handy work of the Einsatzgruppen, Heydrich’s babies, the massacres of communists and jews, the good citizens of Lithuania, and other proud nationalists, butchering their neighbours with iron bars, under the watchful and impassive eyes of German soldiers. There is plenty of evidence of the cowardice of various collaborating European governments, including France’s Vichy, that managed to deport some 70,000 French citizens and refugees, in less than five years. Over half of the eleven million Europeans, objects of the conference, lost their lives. But, of course, this does not count Germany’s estimated eleven millions military and civilian dead, and the losses of the victorious USSR…

We looked out of the dining room bay windows, where once Reinhard Heydrich stood, surrounded by his fellow “functionaries”. We walked out on the beautiful terrace Marlier had built.

Then, we walked along the awakening lake shore, observing that the ice had melted. A heron flew by, in the woods we saw a wild boar. A beaver colony is evidently hard at work on some trees. So was a woodpecker. Peaceful walkers were taking pictures. So was I.

(*) I am in debt to Deutschlandradio for the programme “Gebt mir Sand, Wasser und Gold, Die lange Nacht von der Insel Wannsee“, for the historical information upon which this post is based.

The photography is from our visit to the Wannseeconferenz Haus in February 2017.

 

 

Teufelsberg, or, of the Vanity of Wars…

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The woods are silent, high above the hills a hawk observes the few walkers: we are aware of what we are treading on: a still intact Nazi building that resisted attempts at destroying it, on top layers after layers of rubbles from ruined homes and monuments destroyed by the war. We admire the views, the lakes on the horizon, the stadium’s tower above the trees, the white city and its domes.

We approach the site through the naked trees, past the climbing rocks, along the double fence. Everything has been vandalised, rubbish strewed over the once well ordered roads. What remains is enough to show the extent of the buildings here, and there is more underground.

What did they listen to? What did they learn? Was there a sane reason for them to be there, for nearly forty years… Was there a sane reason for the division, the pain, the fears?

What do the ghosts think? Or have they given up since the devil persists in haunting those hills?…

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From a visit to Teufelsberg, former NSA listening station in West Berlin.

Vanish #DailyPost #Berlin-Spandauer Schifffahrtskanal

Along the canal…

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It’s a nice relaxing walk, some three kilometres from our place, soon on the bank of the Spandau canal, formerly Hohenzollern canal, following the Mauerweg. A small cemetery lies there, it must have been, for years, in the no man’s land between West and East, and the graves are those of senior officers of the Prussian army who were active before or at the start of the first World War.

This place is eery, as the Wall has vanished, bar in a few places (one can see still a watch tower entirely preserved, surrounded by new buildings where families and children now live.) Yet one feels that other presence: there was a border once, and thirty years before then it was not the City we now see. The province – Land – that has survived, is no longer Prussia, it is back to being Brandenburg. The founding myths of the new republic, “wir sind das Volk”, gloss over the historical complexities. What we see, or guess at, is the multitude of ghosts who haunt the space, all the way to the Reichstag.

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Photos: © 2016 Honoré Dupuis

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