Who is silly enough to decide on a Tuesday in early December to journey to Berlin by train the following day, spend two nights in a hotel, and three days to sightsee? And to use a booklet from 1973 as one’s guide? At least it was the 8th improved version from 1983!
My youthful optimism and burning desire to re-visit Germany’s capital which I only knew from an organized tour some thirty-odd years ago made me choose this course of action. During all my previous sojourns in Europe, I did not have or make the time to plan such a trip, and, lacking the foresight again during this last one, I resorted to this whirlwind excursion. As I knew full-well before I left, three days (two and a half, to be exact) were not nearly enough, but only afforded a brief glimpse into a metropolis with a convoluted history. I am glad I had the opportunity to get this glimpse, but when a friend asked me afterward about my impressions, I responded that they were mixed. I am still in the process of digesting them.
Berlin became the capital of Germany in 1871, after Iron Chancellor Bismarck’s multi-pronged machinations united different German regions and interests. Immense growth at the turn of the 19th century was followed by intense bombardment in World War II, and the division of the city into four allied sectors after Germany’s capitulation. This separation culminated in the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, and the subsequent existence of two parallel universes that lasted for 27 years, until the Wall was torn down in 1989, Germany reunited, and Berlin resumed its original role as capital of a unified Germany. As I moved across the Atlantic from Europe in the mid-1990s, I followed subsequent events from a distance only, but was curious to see the changes since reunification for myself.
I remembered vividly the concrete, steel, and barbed wire from my visit in the early 1980s that separated the city into two, and West Berlin from the surrounding German Democratic Republic, a bizarre reminder of a bizarre situation. If the Brandenburg Gate was previously the center of the divided city, today it embodies the new Berlin. This became evident when I was able to simply walk up to it, and through all of its five arches. Even though remnants of the Wall are scattered along streets and thoroughfares, and former checkpoints and museums continue to recall this chapter of German history, I had the impression that this is something the country has, largely, put behind.
What Germany has, and probably should not, put behind is its infamous role during WW I and WW II, especially its racist, elitist views that led to genocide and a bottomless pit of pain and death. While it is impossible to ever right the wrongs committed, Germany has tried to take responsibility for its past actions. Monuments have been erected to commemorate the murder of Jews, Sinti and Roma as well as homosexuals during the Third Reich. Even though it took three generations to reach this juncture, persistent undercurrents in German society continue to laud Hitler’s “accomplishments” and espouse his evil racial views. I have always had trouble with my German heritage, on account of my birth country’s horrendous history: two catastrophic wars which led to the demise of at least 16 million in the first, 60 million in the second. Unlike a former chancellor, I can’t lighten my conscience by claiming “the mercy of late birth”.
I grapple with the tension of how this nation can take responsibility for its past, and continue to celebrate its achievements, institutions, and elites, without belittling other states and claiming, once again, supremacy. Germany – and Berlin – still struggle to find answers to yesterday’s troublesome questions, while trying to heal internal divisions, and solve today’s challenges.
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