The following article is from our May 2006 issue.

The Secret Behind the Stage. Berlin's Enchanting Waldbühne Amphitheater. By Gunnar Schupelius

Berlin might have a stagnating economy, high unemployment, vacant housing and empty office buildings, but the country's capital is also a cultural Mecca that attracts artists from all over the world. Widely recognized by today's top stars, one of Berlin's legendary performance venues is known by a quintessentially German name:
The Waldbühne.

True to the translation, this "Forest Stage" exists in perfect harmony with its natural setting. Nestled at the bottom of a ravine that dates back to the ice age and surrounded by a towering 200-foot wooded slope, the stage area faces a steep 270-degree amphitheater. With 88 rows in three tiers divided by two circular walkways leading to massive stone staircases, this classic arena easily seats 20,000 concertgoers.

As the sun sets over the white-canopied Waldbühne on balmy summer nights and flocks of bats soar overhead, an almost eerie, sublimely romantic atmosphere magnetizes the audience and electrifies the performers on stage.

Thousands of moonstruck lovers (who later said "I do") have sat under the stars at the Waldbühne while artists like Bob Dylan, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, David Bowie, Tina Turner and Yehudi Menuhin rocked their world. Most of the world's top stars have played Berlin's wooded center stage. Tina Turner said she'd rather perform once at the Waldbühne than three times at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall - home to one of the world's best symphony orchestras.

The Waldbühne is Berlin's window to the world. People young and old flock to the popular arena to see their favorite folk bands and top international acts. Singles, couples, punks in packs: they all come to enjoy picnics with family and friends - and to see the Rolling Stones up close. This summer's calendar featured performances by blues legend B.B. King, young jazz diva Renée Olstead and opera virtuoso Placido Domingo.

Waldbühne audiences mirror the Berlin mind-set: internationally hip, self-assured, and perfectly at home with the local culture. Berliners know what their city has to offer and are always ready to welcome the world's top stars with open arms. This year's Waldbühne highlights included a concert series by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

But something that Berliners rarely think of when they're enjoying the jams at their beloved Waldbühne is the stage's dubious past. As part of an intact ensemble of National Socialist architecture, Waldbühne amphitheater was a venue for Hitler's 1936 Olympic spectacle. Along with the Olympic Stadium, pseudo-religious bell tower and massive "Maifeld" parade grounds, the Waldbühne was one of Hitler's favorite projects. The dictator had it built for the Nazi theater production "Things," a mass event glorifying ancient Germanic rituals and signaling Germany's departure from Western civilization.

Hitler called the amphitheater the "Dietrich Eckart Bühne" (stage). He also dedicated his book "Mein Kampf" to Eckart (1868-1923), one of Germany's most fanatical and vicious anti-Semites. Eckart was the first to systematically brainwash Hitler with his racist theory, planting the seeds of the dictator's undying hatred of Jews. In a show of gratitude to his racist mentor, Hitler made Eckart the editor in chief of the Völkischer Beobachter, an infamous Nazi newspaper.

Casting off the past, the Waldbühne has emerged as a symbol of Germany's metamorphosis from a fascist state to a Western democracy. The Olympic Stadium and the Waldbühne survived World War II. This former platform for Nazi terror was destined to reemerge as a cultural sanctuary.

Like Olympic Stadium and Hitler's Volkswagen, Waldbühne has come to symbolize a free, Western-oriented Germany. The once-bizarre forum for murderous fanatics is now an international platform for cosmopolitan culture.

This summer, when the recently modernized Olympic Stadium hosts the FIFA World Cup finals, Berliners will proudly welcome the world to parties, picnics and concerts at their very own "stage in the woods," Waldbühne.

- Gunnar J. Schupelius is chief reporter for the largest daily newspaper in Berlin, B.Z.


Waldbühne: Highlights From the 2006 Program

June 6: Metallica

June 28: Depeche Mode

July 7: Anna Netrebko,
Rolando Villazón,
Placido Domingo

July 9: Soccer Party
for the World Cup Final

July 12 and 13: Depeche Mode