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Berlin worries about its culture after debt ruling

Written by: Staff

BERLIN, Oct 26: The opera houses, theatres and concert halls that have starred in a reunified Berlin's cultural renaissance face a bleaker future after a High Court ruling that forces the city to face harsh financial reality.

Funding for these and other testaments to Berlin's journey from provincial capital to Nazi power centre and Cold War fault line is under threat following the Federal Constitutional Court's rejection of the city's bid for emergency federal aid.

Rather than approve aid, the court urged Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit on October 19 to make cuts and sell assets to cope with a debt mountain that piled up after reunification as the city became the capital again and underwent an expensive facelift.

Saddled with debt of over 60 billion euros and the highest unemployment rate of any big German city, Berlin is heavily dependent on the allure of its cultural attractions, many a direct product of the years it spent divided.

Now money for musicians and artists may be in short supply -- a casualty of the capital's fiscal squeeze.

''In the 'worst case' we'll end up seeing attractions being closed. There will be fewer performances, exhibitions and fewer people working in all of these places,'' said Olaf Zimmermann, managing director of the German Council for Culture.

''That would really be the worst imaginable scenario. Tourism is the only bona fide economic plus point that Berlin has.'' IDEOLOGICAL STRUGGLE When the former capital of Prussia was divided at the end of World War Two, it became a main stage for the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism on which the Soviet Union and Western powers sought to parade their merits.

With many of the old cultural symbols and seats of learning behind enemy lines in the eastern sector, a new opera house was built for the west, along with a separate university and a modern home for the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra.

Today, Berlin has three major opera houses -- the Staatsoper, which dates back to the mid-18th century, the Komische Oper, which specialises in German language productions, and the Deutsche Oper, located in what was West Berlin. The capital also has dozens of theatres and several symphony orchestras.

Although the federal government has assumed responsibility for many major institutions, city authorities say the financial burden is too much for the cash-strapped capital to cope with.

Berlin's financial woes have been compounded by the scrapping of state subsidies and a major financial scandal, which helped to bring down the previous state government.

LOCAL ANGER Joachim Meister, a 32-year-old designer waiting in the rain to visit the newly re-opened Bode Museum, said there might be a case to drop one of the three opera houses. But there could be no question of undermining the city's main selling point.

''Berlin and culture go together like ducks and water.'' Further down the queue, locals were angry that the debt relief ruling had put the city's cultural legacy at risk.

''This would never have happened to London or Paris,'' said 64-year-old Joern Lucke. ''If things were the same there, and they needed the money, the decision would have gone their way.'' After reunification in 1990, hopes that the one-time industrial powerhouse would re-emerge as an economic beacon for the new Germany were disappointed. Jobs and production have melted away.

''People don't come here because there are so many jobs,'' said Mike Keller, a 40-year-old artist. ''They come because of the culture and its diversity. Culture will suffer now.'' Even the city's ministry for culture, which has reluctantly reduced spending on the arts in recent years, is not upbeat and its spokesman Torsten Woehlert said the court ruling had dealt a hard blow.

He said the federal government had to recognise that Berlin was uniquely burdened by its past.

''Berlin is not the successor to Prussia,'' he said.

Zimmermann from the German Council for Culture agreed, saying that if Berlin lost out so would the whole country.

''Berlin is the cultural showcase for Germany,'' he said.


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