Bringing out the Greek

Over the past three months, Berlin has been the host of a magnificent exhibition of ancient Greek works focusing on the theme of «The Greek Classical Period: Idea or Reality.» The concept, which brings together pieces from museums all over the world (including 101 pieces from 13 normally retentive Greek museums alone), would be a significant event wherever it were held – especially at a time when the value of the classics is being undermined by the endless chatter and shallow multiculturalism of our global village. That it is taking place in Berlin today gives the exhibition a dimension that makes the exhibition itself part of something much greater. The organizers of the exhibition know this and have tried, somewhat self-consciously, to highlight the relationship between the classical world and ours, between the real world and the world that was real in the fifth century BC. For example, in the center of the exhibition is a column with the ruined statue of the Victory of Paionios from Olympia. Above it, turning slowly, persistently over the fragments of antiquity are birds of prey – real ones, now dead and stuffed, held by a circle of wire. They need not have tried: Berlin at the start of the 21st century is itself an exhibit that has much to say on the idea of the classics and their relationship with reality. But the exhibition also forms a bridge between Berlin and Athens. The German capital was once known as «Athens on the Spree.» It is marked by the work of an early 19th-century architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, whose classicism helped secure the position of Berlin in the history of architecture. Schinkel and his pupils held a dominant influence on the appearance of the city. Even the building that hosts the exhibition, the Martin Gropius Bau, which was built in 1877-81, was modeled on Schinkel’s building academy. But these influences worked both ways: Schinkel himself presented plans in 1834 for the newly independent Greeks’ first king, Otto, to build his palace up on the Acropolis (thankfully this did not occur), and two of his pupils, Stamatios Kleanthes and Eduard Schaubert, gained government approval for a plan to revive Athens along the lines of its ancient greatness; but this effort petered out in the face of objective difficulties and lack of official enthusiasm. In a later echo, Martin Gropius was the great-uncle of the famous Bauhaus architect, Walter Gropius, who built the American Embassy in Athens (1956-61). Just as our understanding of antiquity is based partly on the painstaking restoration of the fragments that we find and our effort to make sense of them and their time, so too is the Martin Gropius Bau the splendid survivor of inconceivable times. It stands just meters from where the Berlin Wall split the city from 1961 to 1989, and which is now marked by a double line of bricks on the road surface, as if the wall now belongs to the sphere of the imagination, as if it never existed. But the power of absence is even greater in the great empty spaces around the beautifully restored exhibition building. The Martin Gropius Bau stands in one of those huge expanses of land created by the devastation of Allied saturation bombing during the war and the fact that this was pretty much no-man’s land during the Cold War. It is a little way off Potsdamer Platz, which is the center of vigorous building activity, dominated by a tower of glass known as the Sony Center. There is no such construction going on five minutes walk away. A white sign and a row of photographs and documents that begin at the eastern corner of the Martin Gropius Bau betray the area’s dark secret. The leveled ground betrays, as the sign says, «The Topography of Terror.» The vacant lot is actually a large, though muted, open-air museum marking what the opponents of the Nazis had called «the most dreaded address» in Berlin, the guidebook to this unique exhibition says. The Gropius building, which is now used for special exhibitions, stands like an island in a sea of sunken buildings that once formed the center of the Nazi’s security infrastructure, between Prinz Albrecht Strasse (today’s Niederkirchnerstrasse), Wilhelmstrasse and Anhalter Strasse. This, the guidebook says, was the location of the most dreaded institutions of terror during the Third Reich: The Secret State Police Office, the office of Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler, his personal staff and other prominent SS leadership agencies (right next door to the Martin Gropius Bau), the Security Service (SD) of the SS and, from 1939 on, also the headquarters of the Reich Security Main Office. This was an unusual concentration of power and terror most narrowly confined in one spot, the book says. «The Prinz-Albrecht-Terrain was the actual administrative center of the SS State. It was a place where terror was planned and administered, a place for armchair killers, men who concentrated on the «orderly processing» of «occurrences» and who as a rule stayed away from the sites of horror. This is where the extermination of the Jews and the oppression of many nations was planned and administrated. Prisoners were interrogated, tortured and killed in the cells in these buildings, where grass now grows. One of these houses of terror – the Prinz Albert Palais – had been renovated by our friend Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1830-32 and was taken over by the SS 100 years later, in 1934. It was damaged by bombs in the war and then torn down in 1949. The fate of many grand buildings in this area was similar. The Martin Gropius Bau, perhaps because it did not hide such horrors, was reconstructed in 1979-81, and can now celebrate a liberated, unified city’s entry into the new millennium. It is in this context that the ancient Greek antiquities are being shown until June 2. They are a breath of life carved in stone or painted on fragile ceramic vessels, brought like talismans to cleanse the scene of a crime. Because the art of fifth century Athens and other parts of the ancient Greek world are the greatest celebration of freedom that humanity has been able to express until perhaps the end of the last century. It was this independence of spirit that allowed philosophy to blossom, as there were no religious limits on thought; it was the sense of equality among male citizens that gave birth to ancient Athenian democracy. It was the celebration of free men who could take on an empire like that of Persia to defend their ancestral homes and win; it was the freedom to trade and to travel the seas that brought their art and oil and wine to the furthest regions of their world, and now to Berlin. It was this freedom that celebrated the two Athenian tyrant-slayers, Harmodios and Aristogeiton. If the Roman-era marble copies of these two famous Athenians in their splendid nakedness could look out the window of the room in which they are displayed, they would look upon the empty space where Hitler and Himmler, two «armchair killers,» ruled. But the tyrants (however much they aped Greek forms without understanding their heart) are gone and the classic idea and its fruits remain. The buzzards are flying not over the marble fragments but over the memory of inhuman criminals. The victory of the spirit in the stone remains immutable. And so does the victory of humanity. Just over a kilometer north from the exhibition, in the newly restored Reichstag building, an American president speaks for the first time since his country defeated first the Nazis and then the communists. The wounds have healed to such an extent that those who oppose him do not do so because they are the vanquished: They are the same as those the world over who fear that absolute power is dangerous. As the clay sherds with the names of prominent, ostracized Athenians in the Gropius building show, among the ideas that the Greeks celebrated was their suspicion of anyone growing too strong or too willful. This suspicion, in addition to our idealizing of some aspects of antiquity, brings out the Greek in all of us.