Throughout the reign of Adolf Hitler, Berlin warped the physics of Europe. It was at the center of the continent geographically but utterly isolated morally. With the exception of a few near-sighted ideologues such as Charles Lindbergh, hardly anyone regarded Germany as anything but a threat to human values and, ultimately, to humanity itself.
Then, from the Berlin airlift of 1948-1949 to the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and all the way to the collapse of the wall in 1989, East Berlin was isolated both geographically and morally. It sat behind a concrete barrier designed to keep its citizens fleeing from a country, East Germany, that was little more than a police state stuffed with swimmers, rowers, gymnasts and spymasters —and nauseating coffee made with repellent fillers like chicory and sugar beets.
Today Berlin is a bustling city of commerce, parliamentary government, even tourism. A visitor is drawn not only to the beer gardens and the marvelous food court on the sixth floor of the city’s trademark department store, KaDeWe, but also to the macabre sites of Nazi tyranny and communist despotism.
Indeed, right across the street from the Brandenburg Gate is an explanation for tourists of the Berlin Wall. The account is in German, English, French — and Russian. It explains how the city was carved into four zones after World War II and how, a decade and a half later, the great barrier went up.
This was one case where good fences did not make good neighbors, and it is hard to repress the thought that the presence of a Russian-language narrative on the tourist kiosk is anything but a rebuke, a not-so-subtle reminder of the Soviet role in dividing the city with a concrete partition.
Today Berlin is no longer isolated, though the memories from World War II and the Cold War remain searing. But Berlin still stands as a symbol of how ancient capitals of great nations can become isolated.
The obvious modern analogue is Moscow, today morally isolated from nations on every continent.
The rest of the world rooted for Russia when communism fell, hoping it might become part of the commerce of nations, and not only in the financial sense. Green shoots of democracy were visible, and early signs of productive capitalism were evident. Today, of course, we know that the democracy was ephemeral and the capitalism was held hostage by a crude cartel of oil oligarchs and business gangsters.
All that was before the separation of Crimea from Ukraine, the testing of a cruise missile in violation of an important arms-control treaty and the downing of a Malaysian plane crammed full of tourists whose hand luggage of toys and toothpaste underlined the savagery of the rocket attack that dropped it from the sky. Russia has become an international pariah — a phrase used by the Financial Times, which added, frightfully, that “a dark new era in East-West relations will begin.”
Berlin offers lessons from four of the most tragic episodes of the 20th century: the German blank check to Austria-Hungary after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914, theascension of Hitler in 1933, the Berlin airlift in 1948 and the Wall in 1961.
Now we are deep into one of the signature episodes of the 21st century.
It occurs as Germany is asking whether Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” should be allowed back into print; its copyright is held by the state of Bavaria and expires in 17 months. I’m inclined to argue that the book — though hateful, though repugnant, though impenetrable — should be available in print, and my argument is rooted in both of the tragedies for which Berlin stands as a symbol: Nazism and Soviet communism.
Both ideologies stood firmly against the principal value of the Enlightenment — the free flow of information and the freedom to examine the assumptions upon which every culture and every country is founded. Both Nazi and Soviet regimes banned or burned books, but the ash heap that matters to us all today is the one upon which Nazism and Soviet communism now rest.
In famous commencement remarks in 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower railed against the barriers to free thought that communism represented in the Cold War. “Don’t join the book burners,” he said. “Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend our own ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship.”
Today, a visitor to Berlin walking along the streets where books once burned inevitably thinks, too, about the journey, more than five decades ago, of Mr. Eisenhower’s successor, another veteran of World War II, to the divided city. John F. Kennedy’s speech on that occasion is remembered for the “Ich bin ein Berliner” flourish that so ruffled the Soviet bloc. And yet the paragraph that follows is perhaps more searing:
“There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the communists. Let them come to Berlin.”
The Kennedy speech, and indeed his entire visit, required real physical and moral courage, far more so than that of presidential candidate Barack Obama, who undertook a risk-free trip to the city in 2008. One was a challenge to Nikita Khrushchev, the other to challenge John McCain.
Today, Vladimir V. Putin stands in a position not so different from that of Mr. Khrushchev, in opposition to all the Enlightenment values cherished in the West. Time magazine suggested the world may be sliding into Cold War II. Perhaps it is.
So perhaps this is the time Mr. Obama truly is needed in Berlin. Perhaps this is the time for an American president to stand before the Brandenburg Gate, or to walk along Wilhelmstrasse and pass the very building at No. 64 that once was occupied by Rudolf Hess, Martin Bormann and Joachim von Ribbentrop, and to throw a challenge to a Russian tyrant and what Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash calls the “ideologies of resentment.” Indeed, as the 35th president might say across more than a half-century to the 44th: Let him come to Berlin.