It’s On Us: Honest Retellings of the Past in Berlin, Germany

There was no better place to end my month long stay in Europe than Berlin, Germany. Berlin is a lively and vibrant city whose streets seem to seep with both history and modernity. In my short time there, I found the city to be full of contrast, with remnants from Germany’s tumultuous past preserved alongside the city’s newer additions, buildings that have emerged under contemporary efforts to move forward from that past. The majority of the city as it exists today has been rebuilt in the time since WWII. Yet it was nearly impossible to walk down a street in Berlin without coming across a memorial or marker calling back to the city’s complex and unsteady history. Segments of the city’s infamous wall, for instance, are still scattered throughout Berlin, acting as lasting evidence of the days of Cold War division. Near a popular metro station, the ruin of a magnificent former train station rises as a testament to a past age of prominence, destroyed by the violence of war. And tucked away down a side street, a bronze statue of a pair of Jewish children, arms laden with suitcases and supplies, stands dedicated to the Kindertransports, the pre-war effort to remove young children targeted by Nazi discrimination from their increasingly desperate situation in Germany. These scattered testaments to history, present across Berlin, help to materialize Germany’s national identity, which is rooted in a deep determination not to forget its past.

Memorial to the Kindertransports entitled “Trains to Life, Trains to Death”

The clash of old and new was perhaps none more so apparent than in the reconstructed Reichstag building, which houses the contemporary German parliament. The building’s contrasting design is apparent from its exterior, which combines the stone façade from the original building—burned down during World War II—with a very modern all-glass dome resting on top. This juxtaposition extends into the building’s interior. The main parliamentary room consists of bright blue chairs, and the adjoining spaces—though decorated only sparsely—contain the works of modern artists from the United States, Britain, and Russia. As our excellent and engaging tour guide explained, these bold choices were made in part as an effort to make a complete break from the past, separating the new democratic government from the corrupt regime of old. However, Germany has found a way to navigate this break while still acknowledging the past and its lessons. On the lower floor of the Reichstag, portions of the old Reichstag brick have been preserved and incorporated into the new walls. These segments from the original building are still covered in the graffiti of Soviet soldiers, who marked their victory with coal or chalk when they reached the center of Berlin in 1945. The Reichstag’s combination of new and old features seems to successfully reflect Germany’s modern identity, which has had to emerge out of its dark past and root itself in a progressive and functional new beginning.

Interior of the Reichstag building, beneath the glass dome

Throughout this trip, my experience has been inherently effected by my own national identity. As an American, the narrative of WWII that I have grown up with is the story as defined by the Allies, the victors. Berlin presented me with the opportunity to explore the ways in which the defeated tell history. This is a feat that Germany has taken on with exceptional poise and honesty. Of all the places I have been to on this tour, Berlin seemed to treat the war with the most directness. Rather than shy away from its own brutal role in the war and its horrors, Germany has committed itself to a truthful, open and unblemished historical retelling. This is apparent throughout the city, in everything from the Reichstag, to the “stepping stone” plaques in the sidewalks that memorialize the deported, to the large Holocaust memorial in the center of the city. It is also apparent in Berlin’s museums. The German historical museum, for example, dedicates a very large space to its exhibit on the rise, reign and fall of the Third Reich, acknowledging that this period of time is as much a part of German history as the nation’s brighter moments.

Out of all the German museums we visited, my personal favorite was the Topography of Terror museum, which resides on the plot of the old SS headquarters building. This museum consists entirely of photographs and text, which made for a surprisingly powerful experience. Pictures of gestapo members vacationing and laughing were hung side by side with images of the horrible crimes they committed. Photos of Hitler and Himmler playing with small children rested beside photos of Jewish death camps. The captions to these images were straightforward and blunt to the point of being startling. One image of Auschwitz guards laughing and playing music, for instance, was captioned with the striking “taking a break from mass murder.” These captions were profound, and the exhibit as a whole was incredibly thought provoking. As I discussed with several of my fellow comrades afterwards, the photographs on display were not ones that we had seen before, despite our extensive study of WWII. The images of the Nazis that are widely dispersed and present in the history books tend to depict these men as calculated, serious and cold. Because of this, it can be easy to write Hitler and his party off as monsters. The Topography of Terror offered a reminder that the Nazis were in fact human, and that their capacity to commit evil atrocities is perhaps all the more frightening because of that fact.

Photographs on display at the Topography of Terror depicting Auschwitz guards taking a break

Germany’s ability to account for its past has led me to reflect on how we in America convey our own history. Like Germany, the United States is a nation with its fair share of dark moments. Since my time in Berlin, I have thought a lot about how we as a nation deal with the shameful moments in our own history. Although the United States may have been on the right side of WWII, we still seem to struggle with coming to terms with other, darker parts of our past. American classrooms and museums tend to skirt over issues like our treatment of Native Americans, slavery, Civil Rights, and the Vietnam War. These are events of immense importance that have had a massive impact on the U.S.A.’s political, social, and cultural climate today. I believe Germany’s response to WWII offers insight into how one can maintain pride and patriotism towards his nation while still acknowledging the moments when his country has been in the wrong. Because of this, I believe America would do well to take a page out of Germany’s book. As I make my return to the states, it is with the revitalized hope that the U.S. will grow to acknowledge the times in which it, too, has acted as an oppressive and corrupt nation. After all, if I have taken anything away from this trip, it is the immense importance of public history, and in extension, a deep appreciation for the ways in which the past can and should endure.

Segment of the Berlin Wall, now part of the East Side Art Gallery

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