BERLIN — "No other place recalls so vividly the fragility of democracy in Europe in the 20th century."
On the streets of Berlin, passersby may notice this line etched on a building plaque in German, French and English. It can be found in the finance ministry complex that used to house Nazi Germany's Ministry of Aviation. The building, which was partly destroyed during the war, saw the founding of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).
After reunification in 1990, the building held the "Treuhandanstalt", a government agency that oversaw the privatization of former East Germany enterprises. The Red Army Faction, a far-left guerrilla group, killed the organization's first director Detlev Karsten Rohwedder in 1991.
Stopping in front of that building brings back a memory with a particular intensity. "Berlin is a city that has known too many tragedies in too short a time. First Nazism, then the war, then the Cold War." I heard that line on a cold autumn day in 1979. Everything was gray: the sky, the Wall, and the horizon stretching in front of us from the provisional construction which, not far from Checkpoint Charlie, allowed us to look into East Berlin, beyond the Wall.
French philosopher Raymond Aron was thinking out loud. I suspect he was talking to himself. We were invited to West Berlin by the Aspen Institute for a conference on European security. Aron said he had failed to fully grasp the rise of Nazism in Germany when he was a young student in Berlin. He "made up" for it by being among the first to denounce the former USSR's territorial ambitions.
The line on the finance ministry's wall and Aron's words mean the same thing to me. And that thought is now taking on a new dimension. Berlin is no longer the "crime scene" it was after World War II nor the absurd symbol of Europe's Cold War division. But it's no longer just a model of hope either. For a democratic world going through an identity crisis, Germany's political capital has become a life-size warning that is inscribed in the wounds still visible in its urban landscape.
In the late spring of 2016, Berlin can seem like a summary of hopes and fears.
Is it possible to talk of "three Berlins"? It is, at least the way I see it. My first meetings with the Reich's capital were difficult, painful even. I was obsessed by the city's "topography of terror," to reuse the name of a permanent exhibition that opened 10 years ago at the site where the Gestapo and SS had their headquarters.
No new Hitler, so far
After the Wall came down, Berlin turned into a dynamic and chaotic construction site — a symbol of the triumph of freedom over oppression. The image of the Reichstag parliament building's glass dome is superimposed on the iconic images of the city in ruins. Democratic transparency had triumphed over the demons of the past.
But as three crucial votes loom in front of our worried eyes, we can see Berlin differently. The referendum this year on Britain's exit from the European Union on June 23, the American presidential election on November 8, and next year's French presidential election are three democratic events that raise the issue of populism. Berlin, now, looks like a warning.
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Brexit supporters in London on Wednesday — Photo: Garry Knight
Don't get me wrong. The problem isn't Germany in 2016. It's the democratic world that needs to remember the lessons from the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Fritz Stern, the great German-born American historian who passed away recently, was always obsessed with how quickly a sophisticated society that produced giants such as Kant or Beethoven could sink easily into utter savagery.
If it happened in Germany, it could happen anywhere if we're not careful — through a tragic succession of events interacting with one another, without any apparent logic or causality.
No, there is no new Hitler on the horizon. But we've nonetheless entered an era of absolute uncertainty where anything seems possible including the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.
We shouldn't scare ourselves in vain. There's still a greater chance that Britain will vote to remain in the EU, that Hillary Clinton will win the White House and that Marine Le Pen, France's far-right contender for the presidency, will not. But we can't exclude a turn of events that trigger a domino effect-like tragic chain of events.
Today, life is good in Berlin. There's a carefree spirit that used to be associated with Paris. But buried in the city's complexity and archeological layers of tragedy, there lies a final warning for a democratic world in disarray.
On a small square not far from the famous Kurfürstendamm avenue, a stone in a tiny monument sums it all. It's the only thing left from what must have been an important construction. The words engraved on it read, "1933-1945: the work of National Socialism."