Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 January 2013
“Bad timing. Berlin reunifies, and now the clocks are out of control.” So ran a story in the Boston Globe in February 1993. Havoc had been created in the system that ran public clocks in Berlin when the electrical networks of East and West Berlin, each on a different frequency, were linked up. Public clocks everywhere in the reunified city were showing a different time, and with an experienced eye for the “human interest story,” the Boston Globe described the effects the chaotic clocks were having on the new German capital. Frustrated travelers were missing their trains; despairing taxi drivers were not arriving at the time their customers had requested, causing short tempers and loud arguments; and bank customers were worried that their bank safes would not open. Not only did Berlin's clocks seem to be out of synch, so did life of the reunified city. As the newspaper account summarized ironically, “the new German capital is showing distinctly un-German characteristics.”
The Boston Globe's story is almost too good not to be true, considering the many implicit allusions, subtexts, and narratives. One is the highly moral message that German Pünktlichkeit and Ordnung, considered by so many to be cornerstones of German social order, are at risk. No less important is the implicit sociological-political diagnosis of unsynchronized clocks, namely that the integration of East and West Germany is more than merely a matter of making complicated technical systems compatible. East and West are tantamount to differently paced social systems; they represent different rhythms of life, which, as experience shows, have not been easy to bring together. The people in the East and West “tick” differently, according to a popular stereotype. The synchronization of clocks is in this respect a metaphor for the various processes of integration, with the once divided city of Berlin quite naturally as the focal point where these processes of integration have been felt most directly, if sometimes painfully. A third implicit narrative is more abstract: modernity can be described either in a positive sense, as a history of an emerging rule of clocks that goes back to the Middle Ages, or in a negative sense, as a history of the precarious co-existence of unsynchronized clocks. As Berlin evolved through the nineteenth century, it became a modern city, a city of clocks. As such, it epitomizes traditionally not only the modern metropolis but also what the German philosopher Ernst Bloch described as Ungleichzeitigkeit, that is, the simultaneous occurrence of contemporary and what appeared to him “non-contemporary” phenomena in political, cultural, and social life.