Coming to Terms With History in Berlin

Berlin is an interesting city to visit for many different reasons. With everything that Berlin has become known as in recent years- a hip city full of artists, street art, all nigh raves, and an international food scene- it is easy as an outsider to forget that for much of the last century Berlin was at the forefront of European and world history.

Germans, and Berliners in particular, have an interesting way of dealing with their pained history. In the United States we have the tendency to ignore the mistakes we’ve made in the past, to sweep such things under the rug, as though if we don’t face them then it never happened. Berliners seem to have the exact opposite approach.

Throughout the city there are somber reminders of the war that nearly destroyed the country, a genocide that killed millions, and the divided country and city that stood for 45 years. The prevailing attitude here is one of awareness. An attitude of “Germany has done some screwed up things in the past and we are going to acknowledge them and take responsibility for them and, most importantly, learn from them.”

One of the most obvious of these reminders is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a 4.7 acre site in the city center covered with 2,711 concrete slabs. The slabs are uniform in horizontal dimensions (in a shape that some say resemble coffins), but vary in height creating a somewhat dizzying effect. Designed by American architect Peter Eisenman and opened in 2005, the memorial hasn’t been without controversy.

Some have complained that it doesn’t include the word ‘holocaust’, while others are upset by the fact that it excludes the various other groups who were also targeted by the Nazis. There is also some confusion over the meaning of the memorial, or if there is any meaning at all. Eisenman once stated that the memorial was “designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason”, but the official guidebook states “the design represents a radical approach to the traditional concept of a memorial, partly because Eisenman did not use any symbolism”. What the memorial represents, or doesn’t, and even though it is sometimes filled with teenagers running around and smoking cigarettes, it still remains a somber remembrance to the almost 6 million Jews who were killed by the Nazis.

On August 13, 1961 the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) began constructing a wall that would divide the city for the next 28 years. Often referred to by the West German government as the “Wall of Shame”, the Berlin Wall stopped movement between the two parts of the country, separating families and cutting people off from their jobs. In September 1989 East Berliners started staging protests and on November 9 the Wall fell.

Today the wall is almost completely destroyed with only a few key parts still remaining. An 80 meter long piece stands at the Topography of Terror, the site of the former Gestapo headquarters, and the longest section, a 1.3 km stretch along Mühlenstrasse called the East Side Gallery, is covered with paintings from international artists representing hope, peace, and freedom.

The Reichstag building is another, possibly less obvious, reminder of the dark past of the country. The building was home to the German Parliament from 1894 until it was severely damaged in a fire in 1933. Though the fire was officially blamed on Marcus van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist, by the Nazi party as a way of showing the horrors of Communism to the German people, it is suspected by many that the fire was set by the Nazis themselves. The building was unused until after German reunification when reconstruction began in 1990.

Today a large glass dome, open to the public, sits atop the building. This dome provides a 360 degree view of Berlin, as well as a view into the debating chamber of Parliament below. Norman Foster, the English architect behind the project, built the dome as symbol of a democratic and united Germany.

The reminders are there. And though most of them now carry a message of peace, democracy, hopefulness for the future, it begs the question: can you ever really move on when tragic history is constantly staring you in the face?

It saddened me when I learned that many Germans, both young and old, don’t feel that they can be proud of their country. Germany has a rich history of philosophers, composers, inventors, and scientists. 101 Nobel Prize winners have come from Germany. The country has the world’s oldest universal health care system and the world’s fourth largest economy, which is even more impressive if you take into account that 70 years ago much of the country was completely destroyed.

There are many people who think that the atrocities of the past should never be far behind when speaking about Germany, and while I agree it is important to remember and speak about the harder parts of history, it is unfair to categorize an entire country by the mistakes of past generations. While I can’t speak for the people of a country where I’ve spent less than week total, I do hope that the rest of the world starts to look past the tragedies when Germany’s name is brought up and starts to see more of the triumphs.

What do you think about constant reminders of a troubled past?

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