Friday, 5 October 2012

3: Sallowism and the Devil's Mountain

Rudow underground station, the closest to Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport, is one of the first things anyone sees arriving in Berlin as it is where one joins the Soviet-looking tube to the city centre. Rudow station looks like the kind of place the Stasi designated as a secret underground torture corridor – a subtle yet masterful form of excruciation whereby the tawny walls and bright lighting would slowly spiral detainees into suicide. In fact it is the end of U-bahn Line 7. 

Berlin likes to vaunt itself as ‘sexy but poor’ and the latter is evident as the stained, yellow train belts on past such Anglo-friendly stations as Lipschitzalle. For those who have been bought up in the western world, the bus or train from Schönefeld Airport to the centre of Berlin will let you discover the Soviet Union: The sallow, sulphurous colour of bricks and the air; boulevards as wide as airfields with not a soul in sight. Everything rigid and unbranded, yet so appealing.

This is the beginning of what I call Sallowism, a common affliction or pseudo- devotion most non native Berliners catch and sustain. Sallowism is nostalgia for anything collective or communist in a fast-moving, consumer world. Sallowism harps back to single-issue light bulbs, odd shoes and empty supermarket shelves. Sallowism thinks it can have communism without Stalin, Ceausescu or Siberia. The Germans call it Ostalgie: Eastalgia, or nostalgia for the east.

Most foreigners in Berlin are Sallowists.  The best way for you to join this Trotsky-toting community is not to visit or live somewhere in the former eastern bloc. No, this will make you too clever too quickly. The best way for you to get into Sallowism is to walk around Kreuzberg with a copy of Gramsci's The New Order, write an obtuse blog about brewery surfaces and only drink soya milk.

My own journey into Sallowism began at Teufelsberg in 2007, an old NATO listening station on the Devil’s Mountain in West Berlin. Built on a mound of WW2 junk, the flapping broken windows of the disused radomes are an ideal initiation into Sallowism’s decadent charm. The abandoned Cold War listening station has the perfect ingredients for a Sallowist honeymoon – it was once a bastion of espionage, a peeping hole catching whispers and orgasms from east of the wall, yet it now has a harmless, decadent aura. 

It even has a Nazi history  (vital if you’re a building and want to be taken seriously in Germany) -  Hitler wanted to make it the World Technical University of the Third Reich and he built underground bunkers for 1700 officers. One can still smell the scent of espionage in the complex’s empty corridors (or this is something you can tell people once you’ve posted the pictures on Facebook). Known as the last hill before Moscow, this is where the British and the Americans eavesdropped their Russian counterparts (this’ll be a great conversation starter after watching Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy). It is a necessary pilgrimage for any new Berliner.  

Berlin's biggest balls. 
 Germans are compulsive hoarders, especially when it comes to history. It’s a brooding nation full of memorials. The wall was up for thirty years and caused dozens of casualties, but twenty years after its fall, it’s a town-favourite for graffiti artists and tourists. 

The Berliners parade the wall like a reformed uncle who once held the family ransom but is now benevolent and harmless and more of a curiosity than anything else. One of the Germans’ most attractive qualities is that it hurts them to forget: they are Europe’s leading recyclists and renewable energy producers and history is simply treated the same way.

You’ll soon get used to this. Memorials remember everything, everywhere. Even the streets are filled with posters that say Wir vergessen nicht, ‘We don’t forget,’ to remind you that Germans have an elephantine memory. These political posters are confusing, for both anarchists and Nazis use them.

The original neo-Nazi poster uses the slogan to remember the allied bombing of Dresden and create a sense of national victimization. The anarchists invert it to remind their neo-Nazi countrymen of the crimes the nation committed in their name.

Do not think you can just ignore these. Germans are incredibly sensitive and well-versed when it comes to their political opinions and you will be required to know your unconditional-basic-income policy from your history of German terrorism. While Germans do conservatives, liberals and centre-left like anyone else, they really come into their own when affiliated to a group on the far edges of society.

In the 1970s, Red Zora, a feminist organization, targeted 142 patriarchal institutions, men-only clubs & corporate boardrooms, taking no casualties.

Germans do terrorism how it should be done – as a mental challenge.

But let us stick to Sallowism and its citrine glow. After you’ve been to Teufelsberg, in West Berlin, you might want to kill two classic birds with one stone and go and bathe naked with some Germans in the lake below. This is a favourite pastime for anyone over 40 from East Germany. Bathing naked in public lakes is just unmissable fun for the German Ostalgist, because when everything is dangling about, they say, is the true synergy of socialism.  Freikörperkultur or Free body culture.

“Are you into FKK?” my soon-to-be girlfriend asked me after I arrived in Berlin.
Not understanding, I presumed it was some radically fashionable new political manual and of course instantly answered “Yes.”
Minutes later I met German socialism penis-to-penis.

Berlin is quite simply the perfect landscape for Sallowism, one that never forgets. Abandoned breweries and old ice cream factories are landmarks in Berlin tour guides. Every brick of the Berlin Wall is kept. You can even own a bit: they sell it at the Wall Museum at Checkpoint Charlie, certified of course. 

Germans keep their history like mothers keep their children’s fallen teeth, as souvenirs. Placards everywhere advertise terrible crimes committed within their vicinity, like directions to your local town centre or sports hall.

How do you deal with this onslaught of history? Here is a list of key survival tips.

  1. Never mention Nazism (ps: if mentioned, emphasize importance of repentance and acknowledge any you see)
  2. Wear a t-shirt carrying the outline of a lesser-known political figure in chains or self-immolating alive to try and give off the impression you are more history than anyone else and thus ward off pests
  3. Read (if nothing else, this blog's forthcoming chapter on the 3 big Ns not to pack when you come to Germany)
  4. Break a leg.


  1. Some interesting points but completely shoddy logic. Losing at analogies when comparing waste recycling with German history and "children's fallen teeth". Boring, outdated stereotypes of Germans and their history which you can hear at every open mike in town. Might do Britain some good if its population had a better understanding of their own history of ruling the world at gunpoint for 300 years.

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