Posted by: Raphael Orlove | June 6, 2010

Berlin By Car

From the stoic, neoclassical columns of the Museum Insel to the graffiti-covered TOAD factories in Friedrichshain, Berlin puts a lot of its history on display. New waves of architectural expression flow through the city with every political Wende, cultural movement, or military campaign. In the Innenstadt especially, where all buildings share an identical height restriction, buildings from different periods mark the stark contrasts in political and ideological agendas over the years. The Denkmaeler memorializing the site of a former prison or a former street demonstration seem no different to me than block after block of peeling grey soviet apartments or playgrounds built in the empty lots carved out in the Allied bombing campaigns of 1943-45. They all share the same announcement – that many years ago, something great, something momentous happened here. But these are just some old buildings. They fill up the speeches of every tour guide and the pages of every guidebook. But buildings aren’t the only way to engage and view the past. Let’s look at some cars.

I was surprised to find this 1944 Dodge just down the street from my apartment, parked in front of some trendy fashion store, just like all the other ground-floor real estate in my neighborhood. I can’t imagine that this representative of Allied industry met a similar street scene when it first arrived in Berlin, presumably sixty-six years ago. Certainly the Berliners don’t look at it in the same way as they did back then. I do feel like I understand better how out-of-place Americans must have looked in the Nachkriegszeit after seeing how this Dodge still stuck out on Berlin streets. How it must have towered over the rubble of occupied Berlin!

Twenty four years later and just across town, the Freie Universitaet played host to the student protests of 1968. Berlin has been a hotbed of alternative culture and Studentenbewegungen ever since. Just as the 1944 Dodge brings to mind not only the position of Berlin at the end of the war, but the varied process of how the city itself has taken on and integrated that history, this clapped-out ’70s Citroen Acadiane  could tell the story of how the legacy of  ’68 has changed and developed over the years.  When new, this car was practically synonymous with young academia. Its nickname, the Rieseente (huge duck – as to exactly why it has this nickname…your guess is as good as mine), which betrayed a loose casual attitude towards ownership, is emblazoned on its plain, minimalist sheet metal. I found this car still on the Freie Uni campus and I can easily imagine that this beater is still driven by a student today, maybe even by a professor who hurled tomatoes and called out for a new social order right here, some 42 years ago. What can one say about the peeling stickers and fading stripes on this Acadiane? Has this car, or the Freie Uni for that matter, moved on since its wild protest years?

Whatever lessons whan chooses to draw from this old Wohnmobil, it still putts along, making and perpetuating history as it goes. Indeed, regardless of what either of these two vehicles represent, they both have quite a lot to say. They had elements of their time and place of birth stamped on them, even contributed to the sense and feel of their day. Their messages changed as the world cast forever a different light upon them. It’s all part of why I love cars, and why I love this city.



  1. Another wonderful entry. This one has a more reflective tone than some of the earlier posts, which are wholly immediate, sudden spontaneous reactions to seeing a particular car in a particular spot at a particular moment. Here, you draw together several such incidents. It complements the earlier ones.

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