Guns and Roses

The leafy legacy of World War II

Illustration by Tucker Nichols

berlin — Berliners don’t dwell on the past. They live in a city that began as a cluster of walled towns that were amalgamated, democratized, dictatorized, then eviscerated, drawn and quartered by wars hot and cold, until eventually the fall of the Berlin Wall fused it into the sprawling metropolis of 3.4 million it is today. Hitler never liked the cobbled-together feel of the place. Inspired by Napoleon iii’s transformation of Paris, he planned to rebuild the German capital on a grand scale. He started by levelling thousands of apartments and lopping off one corner of the Tiergarten to make way for an axis of avenues through the heart of the city; then, as Albert Speer wryly noted, the Allies took over the demolition.

But it isn’t buildings I’m in Berlin to see.

“Show me some gardens,” I tell my friend Peter Bennett, a photographer who documents Nazi architecture in steely black and white. He ticks off the horticultural options. Like most European cities, Berlin boasts a vast botanical garden; a modern recreational park (the Marzahn) that features a walk “around the world in seven gardens”; tautly designed landscapes framing operatic Schlösser (castles); and dozens of private gardens, such as the one that surrounds the summer house where Max Liebermann painted. There is the sprawling Grunewald forest on the city’s outskirts and the Tiergarten, the former hunting grounds of princes, at its centre, just two of the 2,500 public parks that have earned Berlin the nickname the Emerald Capital.

“And then there are the bomb gardens,” Peter adds slyly. We are sitting in the courtyard of the Honigmond Garden Hotel, an oasis amid the cavern of sombre apartments that is Mitte, formerly part of East Berlin. He waves an arm across the beds of lupine and iris and the lush ivy that curtains a looming grey wall. “This garden was almost certainly made by a bomb.”

At one point during the heaviest stage of the air war waged by Britain in 1943 and 1944, seventy-two tonnes of bombs a minute were raining from the sky. As one eyewitness put it, part of the city was “reduced to a wilderness.” For a time, lions and tigers roamed the wasteland, freed from the Tiergarten zoo by the mass destruction. Soldiers slaughtered them with machine guns, then Berliners cut up the trees for fuel. Postcards depict residents ploughing up the barren park and planting potatoes to sustain them through the Soviet siege.

Today the Tiergarten is once again a public green space, heavily canopied, though it is striking how slender the trees are, nothing with much more than fifty years’ growth, in a city that boasts a 350-year-old elm. Leaving the Tiergarten, we put the Brandenburg Gate behind us and head for Potsdamer Platz along streets that used to be called “the death strip” because so many people lost their lives there trying to cross the Wall. At the height of the Third Reich, Peter tells me, Hitler’s ministerial gardens grew here. The next day, I meander over to the Mauerpark, a swath of grass and trees that cuts through residential districts. From 1961 until 1989, this was a tripwired band of raked gravel, the no man’s land that divided West from East. The wounds of war may be healed, but the scars are green.

Unless you have a guide to point out the sprays of bullet holes not yet plastered over, the chunks of cornice still missing, the empty flag holders that goose-step beneath the windows of Nazi buildings since converted to corporate purpose, it is easy to forget the physical consequences of that long-ago war. Even Soviet grey Mitte is being reborn in ice cream shades of peach and vanilla. The little parks that punctuate the rows of houses might be mistaken for part of an enlightened eco-city plan, until Peter directs my gaze to a roofline traced in jagged brick along one wall that defines a tiny green space: from an upper floor, a door opens into empty air above the trees.

From “Hitler’s Mountain Home,” Homes & Gardens magazine, Nov. 1938: “Here, in the early days, Hitler’s widowed sister. . . kept house for him on a ‘peasant’ scale. Then, as his famous book, Mein Kampf, became a best-seller of astonishing power, Hitler began to think of replacing that humble shack by a house and garden of suitable scope . . . Every morning at nine he goes out for a talk with his gardeners about their day’s work. These men, like the chauffeur and air-pilot, are not so much servants as loyal friends.”

Merilyn Simonds