Leonard Cohen performed in Berlin last week, the night before we arrived for the weekend. The Berliner Morgenpost on Friday had a rave review of the gig, using language that was both critically appropriate and affectionate. Describing Cohen as “one of the most moving singer-poets of our time”, the reviewer maintains that “seldom today is it possible to experience such an emotional, definitive, truthful concert.” What better conclusion could any artist wish for than this:

We cannot thank the venerable old man enough for subjecting himself to the exertions of such a long world tour. For standing on a ‘live’ stage again and letting us share in his great art.

At the age of 76 Cohen did six encores for his overwhelmed audience. I’ll be happy to still have a pulse at 76.

There is something about this generous appreciation of Cohen that exemplifies the spirit of Berlin. Walking around the Museuminsel or strolling down Unter den Linden towards the Brandenburg Gate, it is easy to forget both the agonies that were born in this city as well as the high culture that characterises German arts and music.

This is a city that bears the scars of the last century’s brutalities, divisions and inhumanities. On Friday and Saturday we visited the Reichstag as guests of the former German Bundesminister, Frau Dr Irmgard Schwaetzer, and saw in the bowels of the restored building not only the thousands of bullet holes that riddle the walls and give some idea of the slaughter that this building witnessed, but also the graffiti written on the walls by the Soviet soldiers who took the Reichstag and ended the war.

Generously accompanied by a retired German Ambassador, Dr Alexander Arnot, we visited some powerfully moving and challenging places:

  • Topographie des Terrors (the newly-opened exhibition on the site of the Gestapo HQ and Main Office of the SS – which is overlooked by what was Goering’s Ministry of Aviation and a remnant of the Berlin Wall)
  • the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand (in the Bendlerblock where Stauffenberg had his office to which he returned thinking he had just killed Hitler on 20 July 1944… only himself to be taken out and shot along with other officer colleagues: Hitler had – incredibly – survived the bomb)
  • Gedenkstätte Plötzensee (where several thousand people were executed by the Nazis).

One of the powerful reasons for visiting these places is that they resonate not only with horror and terror, but also with heroism and sacrifice. They remind us that Nazi terror was not only directed at the Jews, homosexuals, Communists, mentally ill or handicapped people, but at Germans at every level of society. People were executed even for thinking the ‘wrong’ things – see, for example, Helmuth James Graf von Moltke.

I have no idea how I would respond to the threat of a regime such as the Nazi dictatorship. None of us does. It is shameful when people who live in relative security pass judgement on those who compromise or give in to intimidation and violence – especially with the marvellous benefit of hindsight. Talking to Dr Arnot I was reminded of the story I was told years ago about cattle on the prairies of America and how they manage to get hit by trains when there is only one train track for hundreds of miles. They don’t set out to get killed by a train. Nor do they have a strategy for roaming over the plains. They just put their head down and nibble a bit of grass. Then they nibble the next bit and then the next bit after that. They just keep nibbling and sometimes find themselves where they shouldn’t be – in front of a speeding train. They just nibble their way to destruction.

Evil takes hold because people compromise a little, then a little more. Then it is too late. But, frankly, if I was asked to sign a piece of paper in order to ensure that my children were able to be educated and not be excluded (as happened in the GDR), I would probably have signed. None of us knows until we are there.

Two other striking elements to the day’s visits and conversations:

1. Language is key to all this. The concentration camps were built on the need to take certain people into ‘protective custody’. Corrupt language and you corrupt the soul, opening us up to all sorts of miseries. (One of the points made by Rowan Williams in his book on Dostoyevsky.)

2. The Bible can be used to justify all sorts of appalling things. The Nazis quoted Paul: “Those who do not work shall not eat.” We know how that was used to justify systematic barbarism.

I was in Berlin this last weekend to preach at the Dom (Cathedral). The extremely generous Domkirchenrat and their wonderful pastor, Dr Petra Zimmermann, were wonderful hosts. Yet, standing in the Dom I couldn’t help but notice the gold lettering in the ceiling which quoted from the Lord’s Prayer: “Dein ist das Reich” – “Yours is the Kingdom” – and wondering how that was read by Christian worshippers while the Nazis were corrupting, terrorising and brutalising their society.

I must go back before long. Berlin is – to my mind – the most fascinating, moving, challenging and demanding city in Europe. So much history is held there for those who wish to see it. Questions pour into the mind – for example, how did a society that experienced the fear generated by the Gestapo and SS so easily accustom itself to the Stasi in the GDR? Berlin is not just a place of horror, however; it is also a place of amazing culture, remarkable reconciliation, astonishing reconstruction, formidable hope and the courage to look not only to its past glories and crimes, but also to shape a better future. It is inspiring as well as sobering.