Berlin, Then & Now: People, Places, and Experiences

For my STEP experience, I studied abroad in Berlin, Germany to learn about and experience the history and culture of Berlin. Throughout the Berlin, Then & Now: People, Places, and Experiences class I was taking, I research and created a blog about an influential Berliner with a classmate. I travelled to Dresden, Hamburg, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, & Hannover in my free time and experienced the Berlin culture in the capital of Germany.

During my STEP project, my view of the world, and Germany/Berlin in particular, changed quite a bit. Being in a city where so much history and conflict has occurred in the past has really affected my view of the city and its people. A few activities in particular influenced my view point on the German people during World War II. In school, children are often taught that Germany was the “bad guy” in World War II and most go on to make the assumption that all Germans agreed with Hitler. However, that and other assumptions of ignorance were not true. In addition to my perspective of German history, my knowledge of German culture was also exponentially transformed. I learned a lot about the German culture, some in the class, but mostly through observing and experiencing the culture. I have also grown in my ability to navigate my way around unfamiliar places when I don’t speak the native language. In a way, I also feel that this has allowed me to feel more relaxed when I am not in my hometown or in Columbus.

At the German Historical Museum, the tour guide showed us footage of the destruction after the bombings during World War II. He told us that this footage was shown to Germans by Americans and asked us why we thought they would do that. After our guesses, he told us it was to make sure that all Germans knew what happened, even the ones out in the country away from the main fighting and destruction, and, through showing that destruction, to try to prevent history from repeating itself. Our guide talked more about the German perspective of WWII and how the people suffered before, during, and after it due to their leaders. That trip and tour guide really showed me that history is truly written by the victors and the losing side is often solely portrayed in only one light. It made me think about the experience of the German people, those that agreed with Hitler and those that didn’t, and how that is never really discussed in schools, which normally paint all Germans with the same brush. The Berlin Wall, where it still remains, is still a reminder of the history of Germany and has such meaning that it could not be ignored. I visited three different sites of the Berlin Wall, all accompanied by different displays, and all were very powerful in representing the history of Berlin and the people that lived there.


A piece of the Berlin Wall that says “Astrid,maybe someday we will be together.”

Visiting the Jewish History Museum, a concentration camp, Sachsenhausen, and the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, which is often incorrectly referred to as the Holocaust Memorial, also made a significant impact on me. In school, I have learned about the Holocaust and seen some pictures but the seeing an actual concentration camp was a completely different experience and made me take a step back and think. Additionally, the visit to the Jewish History Museum showed the struggles Jews went through even before Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power, which made me think about the lives of German Jews who were treated inferiorly due to their religious beliefs. The memorial also left me in a contemplative mood and feeling grateful that I live in a time and country where people are free to their religious beliefs.

IMG_1055 Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe

Finding my way around Berlin without speaking the language has also impacted me personally. I now feel confident that if I need to, I could find my way around Berlin if I were to return. I learned how to use the S-bahn and U-bahns, figure out what food is on a menu, and order in mostly German. I feel as if learning how to navigate the city has let me become more confident in knowing that I can figure out things that I need to by myself. If I were placed in another country, I now feel as I would be able to find my way, whereas before I wouldn’t be so sure.

An experience that changed the way I saw German culture was the Carnival of Cultures. It was a huge celebration in the Kruezberg district of Berlin. There were booths representing different cultures and music being played from the different countries the immigrates to Germany came from. A huge parade was the main focus of the celebration on one of the days and it was extremely different from American parades. In America, only the people associated with the floats are allowed in the street and they are usually kept on a fairly strict timetable. However, people were dancing in the streets, following the floats with music they liked and there were gaps in between the floats for these dance parties. The number of cultures there also surprised me, as I didn’t realize how many immigrants Germany has, especially in the past decades. This celebration was a unique way for me to see some of the many cultures that combine to make German culture unique.

This experience has been valuable for my life in a few ways. Firstly, it has helped me achieve one of my goals, which was going to Germany. I had always wanted to go to Germany and experience the culture there and now I have. I was able to experience the culture in more than just a surface level, which was only possible because I was there longer than a few days or a week. Academically, I have completed a G.E. in a way that meant more than just a credit hours. I was able to gain more from this G.E. than any other G.E. course I have taken, or probably will take. Lastly, in respect to my future plans, this experience strengthened my desire to travel to more countries and learn about the people there, rather than just look at the sites.

IMG_1468“OHIO” at the East Side Gallery (part of the Berlin Wall)

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