BERLIN -- As planners and dreamers map the future of Berlin, their centerpiece is a plot of land hollowed underground by Adolf Hitler's bunker and scraped bare by the makers of the Berlin Wall.
The tract is called Potsdamer Platz, and for the moment it offers little but mud and troubling memories. But it is also the most coveted construction site in Berlin's plans to be Europe's most important city by the end of the century.
With the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II approaching, Berliners can't help but recall the last time they embraced such aspirations. Not since Nazi architect Albert Speer unveiled his grandiose designs for Hitler have so many ambitious visions of the city been put to paper.
Given Berlin's dark backdrop of history and the well-spoken angst and irreverence of its people, the city's third make-over this century promises to hold Europe's attention for the next decade and beyond.
"Of all the cities in the world right now -- L.A., Chicago, New York, Paris, London -- to me, Berlin is the most exciting place," says Eugene Bird, a businessman contemplating the city's future. "It is the center of Germany, and Germany is the center of Europe. Take that together with the German will to do, and the German know-how, and you have an unbeatable combination."
As a transplanted American, Mr. Bird perhaps feels more free to talk about German "will" and "know-how" than do most Germans. But like many other Berliners, he has one foot in the city's past and another in its future.
His first impression of Berlin came from the stench of bodies as he approached within 20 miles of the city in 1945. Mr. Bird, who would retire as a U.S. Army colonel, was advancing with U.S. forces just after the German surrender in World War II.
Once he reached the city, he saw the stolid legions of dusty women clearing the ruins, brick by brick. A few years later he presided over some of Germany's greatest scoundrels as warden of Spandau prison.
Its inmates were ranking Nazi war criminals such as Rudolph Hess, and none was contrite or ashamed -- except for Speer, the architect and minister of munitions. Speer stayed busy walking and gardening, though as a favor to the warden he sketched out the design of a new house. Mr. Bird had the house built and still lives there. Such is the layering of history on the Berlin landscape.
These days, the city seems overrun by architects. Sometimes they fill entire hotels, plus whole classrooms of German language schools. Joining them are 25,000 construction workers, who trek between their work sites and large dormitories on the edge of the city.
The impetus for the building boom is the federal government's plans to move the German capital from Bonn to Berlin during the next five years -- an undertaking akin to grafting the federal core of Washington, D.C., onto a borough of New York City.
It has prompted a building boom that economists say is unprecedented in Europe. Near the tree-lined Unter Den Linden in the city center, where German troops marched off to both world wars, the current parade is one of construction cranes -- more than 900 of them, according to Der Spiegel magazine. They swivel and bend on the skyline like giant mantises feasting on the vacant lots below, where workers occasionally dig up unexploded bombs left behind by Allied attacks.
Besides building or refurbishing sites for a Chancellery, two houses of Parliament and 14 federal ministries, Berlin has giant private (although publicly subsidized) projects like the undertaking at Potsdamer Platz -- a complex of offices, stores and homes backed by Sony and Daimler-Benz. Also under way or planned are a five-block business center next to the Cold War landmark of Checkpoint Charlie, a new subway tunnel beneath the green parkland of the Tiergarten and, next to the Brandenburg Gate, new U.S. and French embassies.
Then there are the projects that will sprawl across the city's outer districts, such as the Silicon Valley-style research center in southeast Berlin, or the "Water City" planned for the rivers and canals near Spandau. The riverside prison that once housed Speer has been razed.
But within the shadow of these rising buildings is a deepening well of debt. The Berlin Senate has committed about $280 billion of municipal funds to the projects over the next 20 years while paying little attention to where the money might come from.
"Principles of city planning have been overturned to a certain extent," says economist Eberhard von Einem. "It is quite a chaotic boom."
The free spending comes by force of habit. Because West Berlin was virtually an island in the middle of Communist East Germany during the Cold War, the city was given federal subsidies, and the city government grew to accommodate the largess. Berlin's bureaucracy is now one-third larger, per capita, than those of Germany's other largest cities.
The government also paid generous subsidies to attract employees for companies in Berlin, and as a bonus, Berliners were exempted from military service.
The East German government also spent more on Berlin, doing its part to create a showcase here and there, even while allowing large parts of the city to fall apart.
But the money only helped disguise the inevitable result: Berlin's growth was stunted in almost every way important to a city's economic health.
Mr. von Einem points out that of the 500 largest companies in Germany, only five are based in Berlin. Frankfurt grew into
Germany's financial center, Hamburg its major exporter, Munich the aerospace hub and Dusseldorf the main "office" of the industrial Ruhr. Once the Wall came down, the rest of Germany found Berlin to be a city "that is second rate in a lot of ways," Mr. von Einem says, even though Berlin's population of 3.4 million is more than double that of Hamburg, the next-largest city.
The city's shortcomings are symbolized by everything from the lack of a team in the nation's premier soccer league (sort of like if there were no major league baseball in the New York City area), to the paucity of the city's air and rail connections.
And just as these deficiencies were becoming apparent, the hefty federal subsidies stopped and the special tax breaks began to be phased out. The only leftover plus was Berlin's sudden embarrassment of cultural riches -- East and West Berlin had each built world-class symphonies, opera companies, theaters, museums and zoos.
But the sudden poverty didn't prompt the local government to reduce its size. Nor did it prevent Berlin from becoming a magnet for the poor and beleaguered of Eastern Europe's new democracies.
Led by waves of illegal immigration from Poland, Russia and the former Yugoslavia, Berlin now has 100,000 to 200,000 illegal immigrants, plus 340,000 foreigners living here legally. And in a city with too few jobs even for the earlier residents, some immigrants are joining the growing ranks of organized crime -- whether in Poland-based car-theft rings or smuggling operations run out of the former Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, city officials have cut social programs while raising spending for the construction projects. So signs of decay and disorder can be seen in everything from the spread of graffiti to the beefing up of security on the city subways.
There are the disheartened areas like Marzahn, a bleak community of crumbling, Communist-era high-rises in East Berlin. It is home to roughly 160,000 people, about one-third of them under age 21.
Social workers say the conditions there are only getting worse. Budget cuts have reduced the number of social workers in the district by two-thirds and have forced the closing of several youth centers. That has left large groups of teens congregating aimlessly on plazas, day and night, rain or shine, sometimes fostering violent run-ins between left-wing groups and neo-Nazi skinheads. It has also breathed life into markets for illegal drugs and weapons.
"Berlin should be the heart beating within Germany," says Trudee Able Hoefler, a social worker who once did the same work in New York. "This is where the country's multiculturalism exists. Berlin is the flower of Germany, and right now they're not watering it. When it is overgrown with weeds, they'll have to pay for it -- whether for more police or whatever."
The one constant is the rumbling of the city's history.
At the Potsdamer Platz construction site, for example, there are the ruins of Hitler's bunker below ground, the wasteland of the Berlin Wall above ground, plus a few blocks away the ruins of the former headquarters of the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, a spot now marked by an exhibit called "Topography of Terror."
A few blocks in the opposite direction are the Brandenburg Gate and the hulking Reichstag. All are reminders that Berlin has not really been a stable place since 1914. And almost any walk through the city eventually produces more such reminders, from one era or another.
City's odd appeal
Writer Peter Schneider, in his 1982 novel "The Wall Jumper," captured the odd appeal of this aspect of the city: He liked Berlin, Mr. Schneider wrote, for its "leftover ruins in which man-high birches and shrubs have struck root; the bullet holes in the sand-gray, blistered facades; the faded ads, painted on fire walls, which bear witness to cigarette brands and types of schnapps that have long ceased to exist. . . . There are always new cracks in the asphalt, and out of them the past grows luxuriantly."
People in neighboring countries sometimes worry that a renewed Berlin will once again bring out the worst in the Germans, that the city is in fact doomed to turmoil. But no one seems to express such misgivings as frequently or as passionately as the Germans.
So it was that when talk began of moving the capital from Bonn to Berlin, the angst-ridden predictions of doom followed quickly.
"If we go back to Berlin, we will be tempted to flex our muscles and show our position to the world," wrote Thomas Kielinger, editor of the newspaper Rheinischer Merkur. "I will easily sacrifice the glitz and glamour of Berlin for Bonn as symbol of our benign and quiet role as a team player in the world."
Such is the burden of greatness for Berlin.