Berlin is a City That Remembers
Berlin is a city that “officially remembers.” There is a memorial to the Jews that died in the holocaust. There is a memorial to the homosexuals who were put to death in concentration camps. All around the city are obvious and subtle remembrances of the wall that once separated the East from the West. As there is in much of Europe, there are bronze markers inlaid in the sidewalk in front of the addresses of those who died in the holocaust.` There is even a sign that marks the location of the bunker where Hitler lived out his last days (an appropriately undeveloped site which serves as a parking lot). In the latest remodel of the Reichstag the architect Norman Foster even preserved the graffiti the soviet soldiers wrote on the walls with burnt sticks at the conclusion of WWII. Yes, there is plenty that looks beyond these dark past events, but it would be hard to miss their presence.
My son Ben was 6 years old when the wall separating East and West Germany came down, so anything other than a united Germany is something that he only knows through history. Kathy and I were 4 years old when it was constructed, so the division between East and West and particularly the Communist terror of the East was the truth we grew up with. My mother was 5 years old in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland beginning the European expression of World War II. It is fascinating how having experienced these different realities influences our understanding.
I am a Child of the Cold War
Being born in 1957 means that I grew up with the Cold War. The “Iron Curtain,” otherwise known as the Berlin wall, was the dividing line between ideologies, a separation of people that at the time seemed obvious. This might be a Western view, but it would be hard to miss that West thrived and the East withered. What sat underneath every thing was a great sense that “communism” was an oppressive enemy and that the Berlin Wall in particular, served primarily to keep the East German’s from escaping to the West. At least from a Western perspective, it functioned as a kind of of local containment of the world’s Communist evil. Though this view of communism’s intrinsic evil was fading for me by the end of the war in Vietnam, and the general opening of the east, it was not completely gone. In 1978, one of our classmates was caught trying to smuggle three East Germans out of the country in the trunk of his car and he received a 2 1/2 year prison sentence. We understood this part of the world to be a dangerous place. When the wall came down in 1989, it seemed like an impossible reality.
The East and the West
We visited two former SED sites. Hohenschönhausen prison and the Museum “der runden Ecke.” Both seemed like something out of a 1970’s spy movie and both had a peculiar smell which we were told was the smell of East German plastic. It was distinctive and almost 30 years later it is still there. The past has a way of remaining. The University of Potsdam, where my son Ben is finishing his post-doctoral studies, is not an old institution. It was established in the 90’s on the site of a former SED training facility. The original buildings on campus were used to train the Stasi, among the most hated, feared institutions of the East German Government. On the same campus, he works out the inner working of a chemistry that I will never understand. History should be easier, but this is even harder to understand.
I am told there is a controversy in Berlin these days specifically, and in Germany in general about how central all of this corporate remembrance should be? Indeed, it would be easy to miss– the line of bricks inlayed into the sidewalk and crossing the street that marks the location of the wall. Berlin today is a thriving city. Indeed it would be easy to miss that the hill we climbing to an old and abandoned NSA (National Security Administration) listening post built to monitor East Germany, was placed on a massive debris pile that intentionally buried a Nazi training facility under the remnants of the bombed out remains of the city.
But Do the Victors Remember?
It has long been said that the victors write the history. I think it could also be true that the victors tend to not be bothered with remembering. I have been to the site of Wounded Knee. It is not a likely destination in South Dakota and I suspect most Americans do not even know what the “Trail of Tears” was. We conveniently forget that there were 10 detainment camps scattered across the west during World War II were US citizens of Japanese descent were held, and it is not surprising that there are those who are opposed to the establishment of the new memorial to those who where lynched in Alabama.
It seems that in this era, when the country I live in is considering the construction of a wall, and there seems to be a general sense of the dangers of those who are racially or socially unlike us, we too might consider the past…