Letter from Berlin

Since changing the world is an impossible task, can one at least change the Middle East? And in one-and-a-half hours? That was how long German Chancellor Angela Merkel spent in talks at the White House last Thursday with President George W. Bush. The two leaders discussed, among other things, the Middle East crisis, which Merkel has made a priority for Germany’s six-month EU presidency tenure. Chancellor Merkel arrived in the early afternoon, US time, and left in the evening to fly back to Germany. For the White House it’s a honored ritual to put up preferred guests at the Blair House, directly across the street. But Merkel hardly had time to freshen up there before her visit to the Oval Office. All the same, the German flag was seen waving there for a couple of hours. It was a very swift but necessary visit. German-US ties became strained when Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, expressed opposition to the war in Iraq. There were other reasons for discord as well, such as the construction of the new US Embassy in Berlin. When the State Department finally found the rest of the money to finance this grandiose project (and, this is no joke, the money has been raised by selling the US Consulate General building in Thessaloniki), the Germans opposed the demand for extra security. I hear now that all obstacles have been overcome. Meanwhile, there is talk that Ms Merkel and Mr Bush will organize an international conference to revive the Middle East peace process. Whether Greece’s Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis will be invited is not yet clear. But I had my own mission. After having found a small but trendy hotel in the Luisenstrasse, just across from the Parliament building, I spent some time there asking passers-by some questions. Everyone was eager to oblige yet no one could help me with answers concerning Greek topics, be they frivolous or tragic. Nevertheless, it seems that it is not just the conflict in the Middle East and the war in Iraq that has made Greek tragedy essential in Berlin. A few years ago the theater critic Michael Billington posed the rhetorical question in The Guardian newspaper: Where does our theater turn instinctively in times of crisis? He answered: «Not to Shakespeare or Shaw but to the Greeks.» Now one of the most internationally renowned theaters in Berlin, the Deutsches Theater, where the legendary innovator Max Reinhardt worked, is showing several Greek tragedies. In four nights I saw Aeschylus’ blood-soaked story of Oresteia staged by Michael Thalheimer, an absurdist take on a Euripidean Medea and, under Dimiter Gotscheff’s skillful minimalist direction, Aeschylus’ oldest surviving play from classical Athens, «The Persians,» which tells a dramatic story of a military defeat. The war in Iraq has made Greek tragedy essential. Listening to stories of cosmic and personal chaos, watching cycles of bloody reprisal and entertained by a modern version of Medea – «Mama Medea» by the Belgian Tom Lanoye last Friday at the same Deutsches Theater – the themes resonated. However, what I enjoyed most during those nights at the theater was watching the public. For there has certainly been much change in Berlin society since I left the city, before its reunification. Meeting some of my local fellow students of three decades ago – now respected artists, university professors, theater managers and diplomats – I hear them constantly bemoaning times past. Poor souls. No doubt they mistake change for decline. I have always found Germans to be indescribable squares. Then and now. Here, just as in Greece, «foreigners» (that is immigrants) are presently a focus of much anxiety. The greatest source of irritation appears to be the fact that these migrants’ offspring will never memorize Goethe or buy tickets to the state opera. Also, immigrant women wear strange things on their heads. And Kreuzberg, a Berlin neighborhood, is completely Turkish. Third-generation Greeks face the same treatment. And to think that not so long ago Greeks and their family members came here mainly as «guest workers» to escape poverty or the military junta and not because they specifically wanted to settle in Germany. I believe most of perceived «problems» with migrants are manageable and that some are not problems at all. Sometimes Greeks and Germans are so similar. We have a similar sense of humor, unlike that processed by the British or the Italians, and we must attract lots of skilled and adaptable immigrants to alleviate our tragic demographic problems. Having lived in Berlin during my formative years I feel I also belong to that infamous 1968 generation, the one that brutally confronted the «German bourgeois virtues.» But back to today. The year 2007 will be a big one for Germany’s show, which will be played out in rather mundane venues like Heiligendamm, but also at historic locations such as Cecilienhof palace, where the Potsdam Conference was held in 1945, and the Zeughaus, the former Prussian armory in the center of Berlin. Many German politicians will have a chance to step into the limelight, not least Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. But it is German Chancellor Angela Merkel who will play the starring role. Is she up to the job? The question has yet to be answered.

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