Berlin: The Honest City

The entire flight from Paris to Berlin, I talked to a woman from California who had made Berlin her home. I have known many Americans who claim Berlin is their true home, and walking through the streets on the very first day, I immediately knew why. My relative that I take the most after lived and loved Berlin before moving to the states. I immediately felt comfortable in a way I had not really known before in a big city.

The German museum was very cool, and definitely a favorite. It focused primarily on the background of German history leading up to the world wars, and how that lead to the rise of the Nazi party. The museum seemed to own up to almost anything I could think of and it taught me background information that I had never heard. Such as the extent of occupation in the Ruhr valley. We only hear about how terrible the Germans were to the French, but never how atrocious they were at that time to the Germans. It was very cool though to see videos and pictures of Germany at their time of the automobile and rise of public transportation. It looked a lot like the US in that way. It was interesting to see the impact of American culture and how it could be seen as far away as Germany, like the German flapper dress I saw. Something else this museum had that I hadn’t really seen otherwise was what happened to Germany after WWII and how the Berlin Wall a two Germany’s came to be.

 

This was a Kaethe Kollwitz sculpture depicting a mother with a starving child. Her artwork was used throughout the museum to show an insider perspective of the incredible and humanly relatable suffering that was taking place leading up to World War II in Germany

This was a Kaethe Kollwitz sculpture depicting a mother with a starving child. Her artwork was used throughout the museum to show an insider perspective of the incredible and humanly visual suffering that was taking place leading up to World War II in Germany

The museums in Germany were very objective museums overall. They don’t try to justify but say how things happened. In Berlin I’ve heard new things never knew before, and saw a new side with background context that  showed what made Germany such a viable environment for that rampant racism.

This was a sculpture of a communist rebuilding and supporting one another after World War II. The German museums frequenlty displayed pieces of art and other things that depicted a wide range of political beliefs and backgrounds other than only the popular or positive ones

This picture was displayed in a German museum was one of the most haunting images I had ever seen. It depicts partly the extent of influence that the Nazi’s had over everyone in the German state, including the Christian church. This was an ugly truth, and was clearly displayed and explained in the museum

This was a sculpture of a communist rebuilding and supporting one another after World War II. The German museums frequenlty displayed pieces of art and other things that depicted a wide range of political beliefs and backgrounds other than only the popular or positive ones

This was a sculpture of a communist rebuilding and supporting one another after World War II. The German museums frequenlty displayed pieces of art and other things that depicted a wide range of political beliefs and backgrounds other than only the popular or positive ones

I think the open and objective manner of the German museums could be seen also in a lot of the conduct in had had while in Germany with Germans. On trains, people look up and smile at each other. Other people would  acknowledge others and accommodate others more than I’ve seen before in the other big cities. People just seemed too busy elsewhere to care about others, and here people seemed to always be aware of what was going on around them (except for tourists walking in the bike path!)

This quote discussed the interesting German concept of "blood shame", which has historical roots in German culture and frames of mind when it comes to reputation and personal regard as well as in an epic stance. It was also wonderful that it was translated and clearly displayed so that American visitors could get more out of the visit to the museum

This quote discussed the interesting German concept of “blood shame”, which has historical roots in German culture and frames of mind when it comes to reputation and personal regard as well as in an epic stance. It was also wonderful that it was translated and clearly displayed so that American visitors could get more out of the visit to the museum

 

I felt very welcomed by Berlin, and it was unforgettable and I’ll definitely have to go back

Berlin

Though many of the places we visited were special, each having qualities and characteristics unique to that location, Berlin had to be by far my favorite place. From its laid back atmosphere and culture to its modern but simple lifestyle, Berlin had to be the most complete city of the entire trip. Keeping in mind that this was a WWII study abroad, it was at times difficult, however, to place yourself in a WWII mentality. Unlike Bayeux, where many of the sites were well preserved, Berlin was heavily bombed during the war. This means that many of the buildings that stood in 1939 are not here today. Consequently, it takes a lot more imagination and visualization to understand some of the places we visited. For example, when we visited the Topography of Terror Museum, where Nazi SS headquarters once stood, it was hard to get the same impression from the place than if the building were still there today. I’m not trying to say that the museum was ineffective, far from it in fact, it’s just not the same.

With that being said, the one aspect of Berlin that no other place we visited seemed to match was their narrative of WWII. Whereas Paris tended to over embellish their narrative, Berlin seemed to be the most unbiased in their depiction of the war. None of the museums really tried to shift blame for the war. On the contrary, several seemed to make it a point to point out that it was the German people who, supporting the Nazi party and thus empowering them, were the most at blame. While at first I saw this as a potential way in which modern Germany might be trying to distance themselves from their past—saying it was them, not us—I soon realized that many of those who belonged to the generation that lived through the Nazi regime are no longer alive. As I rationalized it, those putting forth this information in the museums are already distanced by virtue of their age, therefore there wouldn’t be any logical reason to try and distance themselves any further. Most people alive today didn’t have anything to do with Hitler and his empire, so what motive do they have to distort the truth.

Furthermore, it was interesting to observe how Berlin, and Germany more specifically, dealt with their history with Russia. We all know, perhaps more prominently, that Russia occupied much of Germany throughout the Cold War; however, many forget how brutal and critical the war on the Eastern front was. Because of the brutal actions of Hitler’s armies and his Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units tasked with exterminating conquered populations) during the invasion of Russia, retaliation by Stalin and his armies towards the end of the war was just as merciless. Needless to say, the relationship between Germany and Russia was a strained one. I didn’t expect Germany to pay much credit to the Russian aspect of the war, yet many of the museums had significant portions of their exhibits dedicated to the subject. Museums like the Soviet museum, though obviously focusing on the Russian perspective, did a remarkable job of portraying this often polarizing part of the war.

Berlin is an amazing place, not least because of its ability to self-reflect. It’s remarkable that a city with as difficult a history as Berlin’s is able to not only rebuild and recover, but also to recognize that history and move on from it without forgetting it.

Remembrance : the French and the Germans

Because of its role in the end of the war in Europe it is fitting that the final destination of our trip is Berlin. It was also the most anticipated stop for me and many of my classmates for a multitude of reasons. First, we were excited to experience German culture and to witness Dr. Davidson in his natural habitat. Although I very much enjoyed French cuisine, I often found myself still hungry after most meals; I found comfort in the mere idea of a filling meal consisting of pretzels and bratwurst instead of the petite French portions. In addition to this, the we had been told by many that the Germans are a very kind and hospitable people, and that many of them can speak English very well (Hurray!). All of this turned out to be correct. The food and drink have been amazing thus far, especially the street food (I think I’ve had around twelve döners in only a week’s time), and the German people have been amazing. But experiencing the culture was only half of the reason for our anticipation of Berlin. The other half was that we were curious to see how the German people and government view their nations culpability in World War II. After witnessing the French myth of resistance, how would this extremely dark chapter in history be remembered in the museums and culture of the country that is by far the most guilty?

The answer to this question was extremely satisfying. The Germans make no attempt to save face or push the blame elsewhere. They confront their culpability head on. There were three things that stood out to me in Germany as distinctly different than what I saw in France. The first difference occurred to me during our time in the German War Museum. Here there was no attempt to hide the Holocaust portion of the exhibit as was done in France. In order to continue on to the next portion of the museum one had to pass by the exhibit. In addition to its visibility the quality of the explicative writing was much greater. It was not simply a cold retelling of distant events with statistics, but rather a moving piece that shed light on the suffering of victims.

The second difference between French and German remembrance initially occurred to me in the German War Museum as well, but was exceptionally stark in the Topography of Terror Museum. This discrepancy can be shown by quoting one seemingly simple sentence from the exhibit; it reads “The Germans conducted the war against the Soviet Union as a war of extermination”. The significance of this sentence lies in the fact that it says “The Germans” and not “The Nazis”. There is no mincing of words. This is just one example of the Germans acknowledging their culpability, where on the other hand, the French often said “the Vichy regime” when referring to terrible acts committed.

The third difference between France and Germany that I noticed was that there were banners, posters, and the like all over Germany signifying important events, many of which pertaining to the Holocaust. There was none of this in France. Even the State issued memorial to the deported Jews (of all European Jews might I add) was hidden from view. This is in direct contrast to the stumbling stones in Berlin, which signify the location where individual Jews were deported.

The German museums, as well as the city of Berlin with all of its posters, tell a very straightforward story of the Second World War. No detail or event is omitted, no matter how grim. To do so would be a great injustice to not only history, but to the future. In all, it seems that the German people have done have done an excellent job of not only coming to terms with the past but also preserving the lessens that have been learned.

I’d now like to take a moment to sincerely thank any and everyone that had a part in making this trip possible. I came hoping to get a better understanding of cultures other than my own and how they remember the events of World War II; I succeeded in both. However, during the course of this trip I also became proficient in many different forms of transportation (which is astonishing because I’ve never been in a big city or flown in a plane before), learned a lot about myself, and had the time of my lif all the while making friends that I intend to keep in touch with for rest of my life. I’m a better person for having this incredible experience. I will cherish the memories I’ve made forever.

Ich Bin Ein Berliner

After weeks traveling in Europe, we finally reached the last leg of our journey, Berlin, Germany. As I stated in earlier posts (I don’t blame you if you haven’t read it) I had never been out of the country before, and one of the places I have always wanted to visit was Germany. Aside from all of the many historical and cultural draws of Germany, I was excited to visit the country my family (Schneider) was from. Going into the trip Germany was probably the country I was most excited about visiting, and Germany did not disappoint.

I found the overall cultural atmosphere of Germany to be quite agreeable (that’s the fancy way of saying enjoyed it). To begin with, the people in Germany came across as friendlier and certainly more willing to speak in English. The people were very frank and easy to talk to and I personally had a much greater number of enjoyable conversations with natives in Berlin than I did in Paris of Normandy. Again, the willingness to speak English cannot be overstressed. Not only were most of the people in Berlin able to speak English, they never appeared to be upset by having to speak English when talking to me.

The German people are also very orderly. The thing that best exemplified this for me was the German public transportation system. There are no turn styles in the German subway system. The entire time I was there, I also did not once have anyone ask me for my ticket. Essentially, this means I could have rode the underground for free my entire time there (I’ve been told that people do occasionally check for tickets, but I never I never personally saw it happen). The whole time I couldn’t help but think, “There’s no way you could do this in America.” I felt that it would take no time at all for that system to be abused in America. But the fact that that system is still used shows that the Germans must not abuse it. I think this speaks volumes as to the German culture, it shows a very deeply engrained sense of order.

The German culture also appeared to be one of the best nations at remembering the Second World War. Were as other nations narratives of the Second World War were aimed at stirring national pride and presenting that nation in the best possible light, Germany makes no attempt at this. The German culture includes a very frank and upfront view of the Second World War. Try do not appear to excuse or reason away the events of the war, they accept what happened and tell the whole story just as it happened. The German museums were very upfront and honest about the events of the Second Word War.

The German culture was very interesting to experience. It was culture that was at the same time very forward thinking and orderly while still possessing a great deal of respect for and observation of the past. I greatly enjoyed my time spent I Germany and my time spent experiencing the German culture.

Morning in Paris

Paris, city of lights. Unfortunately, I spent almost half of my time there sick in the hotel. None the less! I did get to see many of the hallmark Paris sights, and what I did see was quite nice. Paris is also a city deeply steeped in its own history and its own unique culture.

The first sight we visited was actually the sight that I had been most excited about, the Notre Dame. Now you can laugh all you want, but one of my favorite Disney movies growing up was Hunchback of Notre Dame. And to be at the cathedral itself was breathtakingly beautiful. When we happened to stop in at the Notre Dame there was a choir preforming and it sounded very lovely. I sat down and listened to them for a bit before continuing on to view the rest of the cathedral. The Cathedral was pretty standard but still had a very appealing sort of old charm to it. I know it might sound strange, but I very much enjoy old churches (lucky for me considering how many are on this trip).

After the Notre Dame I actually almost got lost in Paris. This happened when I turned around for one second and realized soon after that my group seemed to have moved on without me. I spent about thirty minutes looking around the plaza just outside the Notre Dame for my group. I was a little terrified because I was in a large city that I had only been in for half a day and that I did not speak the language of at all. Luckily I was able to find my group and reunite! After almost getting lost halfway across the world, I decided that it would be best to go straight home. Of course going straight home, meant trying to navigate the underground of Paris. Which was a nightmare. At least that day it was, when I was new to the city and beyond tired, if I recall correctly. That day taught me that Parisians are not very talkative in general, and often won’t try to help strangers.

Remember when I said I went straight home after the Notre Dame? I lied. We had a quick layover at the Eiffel Tower first. It was nice. Got to see the Eiffel Tower. Which was cool but, I don’t know. At the end of the day, it’s just a radio tower (albeit a cool looking one).

That day was the most sight-seeing I did in Paris not related to the trip. I feel like I didn’t really get a good chance to experience Paris as fully as I could of, but at the same time I don’t really feel as though I missed out. One of the biggest revelations I’ve had on this trip I think is this, a city is a city. There might be a different people occupying that city, but when you get down to it, most people are pretty similar and so are most cities. Paris is just a city the same way New York is just a city. We may have slightly different ways of doing things, but that doesn’t make either way necessarily better than the other.

Building Upon, Not Moving On: A Reflection on Berlin and Home

Rendering judgment is typically easier for individuals who are able to remove themselves from the equation. People are often more able to come to an opinion about the actions and responsibilities of others than to appropriately evaluate their own — it’s a theme I’ve seen quite frequently in this trip, and it’s one I’ve found applies in my personal life as well. Here, I’m going to attempt to look at a bit of both.

This idea crept into my head on our ride out to Sachsenhausen. I’ll start with the backstory. We had visited Wannsee the day before, and I was really shaken by it. Racism really strikes me at the core — the crude differentiation between human and sub-human that the Nazis called “science” makes me feel physically ill. But as we talked with the tour guide, she unabashedly made the obvious explicit: none of this started or ended with the Nazis. Racial discrimination began far earlier and still continues today in so many ways. With this on my mind, my biggest takeaway was especially troubling. We entered the room where the Wannsee Conference was held, and a flowchart on the wall showed pictures and biographies of the men involved, as well as their rank within the NSDAP. One man on the chart was beneath all the rest, and he bore one of the few names I recognized: Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann, the head of Nazi deportation efforts, was the lowest ranked officer in attendance.

I could not stop staring at Eichmann. Of all that I saw on this trip, his face haunts me more than anything else, and it’s because he’s so human. In the grand scheme of things, he was just doing grunt work — this is the guy Heydrich has rewriting all the documents about the Final Solution six times until he thought they looked good enough. It kills me that these words about providing “suitable treatment” to the Jewish people who survived labor camps was written in about an hour and a half during a brunch among colleagues at a pretty little lake house. Eichmann later said that, to these men, this was just business as usual over a nice cognac.

The way the Nazis were able to bureaucratize and normalize genocide is what scares me most. Before the war, Eichmann was nothing more than a bookkeeper’s son — a salesman and travel agent in Vienna. Many of the men at the same table with him had just finished law school. These people are just. like. us. That’s what makes how far they went so terrifying. No matter how much I study the Holocaust, it’s still hard for me to fathom that it was something that humans did to other humans in such recent history: that these monsters really were men.

On our way to Sachsenhausen, a few of us were discussing this idea of humanity and its darker side, but we did so on a different topic that’s also of personal importance to me. You see, I’m from Steubenville, Ohio. When I graduated from high school back in June of 2012, that might not have meant anything to most people, and in 2015, it might have faded from popular memory again. But in the years between, you’ve probably heard of it. Steubenville was the site of the infamous rape case that happened in August of 2012: two student athletes from my alma mater were convicted of raping an unconscious teenage girl from a neighboring school, and it hit national news. The case was emblematic of the problem of high school drinking and sex in today’s society, and Steubenville became synonymous with rape culture. Cameron, one of the guys on my trip, is doing some research on the case now for a play that’s been commissioned by the Big Ten Conference, and we delved into the topic of remembrance in Steubenville on the train. This play is tentatively titled Good Kids based on several residents’ quips in major news stories — from what I could gather, it centers on the inability of some to accept the serious wrongs that were done and their willingness to excuse rape with a “boys will be boys” attitude. These boys, they say, were generally good students, good athletes, and good friends, and they made a terrible mistake, but at the end of the day, they’re still good kids. And while I don’t know that that reflects the majority viewpoint in Steubenville, I would not dispute that it’s certainly a belief I’ve heard voiced.

As we discussed the play, Peter (another friend from the trip) mentioned how striking the comparison was when you considered our destination. It stopped me dead in my tracks, because I’d never had that thought before… and then the gears started to turn. I’d like to pause here to say that what follows will not be an attempt to make a direct comparison between these two events. But I will say that this comparison completely altered the way that I thought about remembrance, not only in Germany, but in every place we’ve been, because it made everything so much more real. The undeniable similarities between the two horrors are the questions they make you ask about humanity. Why would anyone do such a thing? How could they go this far? And finally, what I’ll be examining here: who is responsible?

The first analogous characters, and the most obvious at the time for me, were Eichmann and Heydrich. Because, much like my observations about Eichmann, the two boys in Steubenville didn’t seem so different from the rest of us to start. And just as Eichmann had a superior in Heydrich, my understanding is that of the two boys who perpetrated the rape, one was a ringleader, and the other was more of a follower, and both were responsible for terrible, terrible consequences. Neither was absolved legally, nor should they have been. And, as you may have guessed, this was the easiest portion of my reflection, because it’s still the type that allows me to remove myself from the equation. If I stopped here, the answer would still be true (albeit incomplete): these two were responsible for what happened.

But if you dig a bit deeper, the next level gets trickier. Another perspective we noticed in Berlin’s remembrance was that of German national responsibility. The notion of bystander culpability and of National Socialist actions as an extension of German culture was one that Berlin owned, which was impressive. It’s something Steubenville has struggled with a bit, because it’s easier to point at the individual perpetrators as if they’re the exception and not the rule. It’s easy to pick a scapegoat — especially ones who largely deserve it — and to hide in the shadows as if they’re an anomaly. The problem is that it just isn’t true. And just like the Nazis played on the antisemitism and other forms of racism that already existed in Germany to enact their Final Solution, the boys from my hometown who raped a young woman would not have been able to do so had it not been for the culture that surrounded them. There were only two boys who committed rape, and there were only two boys convicted for that night in August, but it would be a disservice to say that their actions were entirely independent. Most directly, there were older boys with them throughout the night, videotaping their actions and laughing at the cruel words they spoke in jest. There were people at various points in the night who could have intervened and did nothing, just as many neighbors of the deported Jews turned a blind eye because it was more comfortable. And on the more indirect end of the scale, there were plenty of us who laughed with friends who had blacked out over the weekend after too many cheap beers, and there were plenty more who inflated the egos of young student-athlete stars. I’ve come to believe that the small things like that add up to the actions they committed — while the line is hard to draw, it’s important to understand that even seemingly harmless acts can contribute to a much larger problem. Even men like Eichmann, whom we view as monsters today, were often relegated to inundated tasks such as drafting documents without physically massacring the millions whose death he commissioned. His mundane office behavior and the millions who stood silent while his schemes were being implemented helped to normalize the barbarities that happened. And just as Germany has accepted a national responsibility for its role, I believe the people of Steubenville must do the same.

I understand the shame that comes with that. At Sachsenhausen, Megan van Almsick mentioned that the memorials that span Berlin seem to spark a constant guilt in people who, in 2015, had nothing to do with the Holocaust. I was immediately reminded of two things. The first was one common reaction in Steubenville during the initial media storm: people wished it would all just go away — that what happened had happened, and that they felt terrible about it, but that they had no control over it and wanted the spotlight to shift from our small town so normalcy could return. The second, which applies in both scenarios, is Audre Lorde’s view on guilt as a response to anger — namely, that it is insufficient. We must be forced to think through difficult issues and confront them if we hope to avoid falling into the same traps in the future, but resorting to feelings of guilt often keeps individuals from critically engaging with the problem at hand. Whether in Berlin or at home, it is most important to meet these topics face-to-face, uncomfortable as they may be, and rise above guilt to genuine reflection on how to improve upon our past behaviors and attitudes if we aim to move beyond them. This shameful responsibility is not something we can ever truly “move on” from — it is an onus that we earned, that we deserve, and that we must build upon in order to shape a better future.

This is what I appreciated most about Berlin. Everywhere you look, their history is built right into the city. Bricked paths and remaining fragments allow the Wall to still run right through busy roadways; stumbling stones on neighborhood sidewalks bear the names of Jews who were deported from the same streets we walk; somber memorials spring up in the midst of parks, buildings, and riverbends. Berlin has not forgotten, and yet it still lives so fully in the here and now. The same barrier that once served to divide people now unites them at Mauerpark, where I ate lunch with people from all over the world while sitting on the wall itself. This city has managed a feat that no other city I’ve seen has even attempted: even with a darker history than most, Berlin has allowed itself to thrive not in spite of but in conjunction with its past.

Berlin – A City of Memory?

Berlin was a totally new city for me, with an unfamiliar layout and a totally foreign language. Nothing drives home what you read in books by being there. Last year, the maxims about the extremely mountainous landscape of Greece were driven home. This year, the lesson to see was that Berlin had been destroyed by the war. Completely different from London, Paris, or even Bayeux, there were very few older buildings. What older ones there were often showed visible exterior signs of wartime damage: pockmarked surfaces and stones that did not match. If the Reichstag, the Pergamon Museum, and the Neues Museum are any indication, many of the old-façade buildings are only shells – the interior is strikingly modern. The Neues Museum interior was once designed as a work of art in itself, with various rooms attempting to replicate the feel of the ancient civilization whence their contents came. All that remains are sad remnants in places and audioguide recordings that can only describe lost rooms. I can imagine that this is the case in buildings across the city. I certainly can understand the sentiment that modern Berlin lacks its own architectural character, something feels off about it. Perhaps it was the weather, perhaps it was because I got sick, or maybe because I had just come from the incomparable Paris, but I did not particularly love the city of Berlin. I did enjoy its museums however.

In each of the museums visited in Berlin, what happened during the war has been dealt with in a forthright and factual manner. What is more, it is difficult to find fault with the museums for having attempted to glaze-over or sugarcoat anything. Again, Germany has the greatest guilt to carry. In spite of or perhaps because of this, they have held nothing back. For example, in the German Historical Museum, the Nazi rise to power and the war is presented more through a cultural lens rather than a political or military one. There is a potentially dangerous line between explaining and excusing. The cultural approach allows the information to remain on the ‘explain side’ of that line.

image2 Nazi poser in German Historical Museum

The holocaust and other oppressive actions of the Nazi State are given equally honest treatment. Many of the concentration camps are preserved, such as Sachsenhausen, and open to the public. There is also a specific museum about the totalitarian government standing on the site of the old Gestapo headquarters. Within this museum, all the hardship of living under the Nazi yoke in Germany is laid bare. Again, nothing is held back. Something notable that seems to be common throughout all museums here is that when people were executed by the state (not killed in a camp but tried and executed), is that it is always said that they were murdered, stressing the total illegality of the action. Utterly different from France, I was very pleased overall with the honest approach of their World War Two Museums, although I think the suffering of their civilians and soldiers is severely under-memorialized. This dearth of grief is also totally different from Britain and France, where it often seems like there is a monument on every corner.

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View of the Riechstag – Outside vs inside.

The Great Divide

Arriving in Berlin on May 26th gave me more culture shock than I initially expected. Being that it’s Germany and, well, it is very westernized, I expected it to feel fairly similar to America in that it’s a big city with modernized buildings, however when I began walking around, I felt that it was a little different than back home. First things first, the Berlin Wall was just standing in various parts of town, sometimes with only a small plaque to tell you what you are looking at. This happened on multiple occasions. I would be walking down a main drag, see a small piece of the Wall or see the line of bricks indicating that the Wall was standing there some 25 years ago, and wouldn’t realize that I was literally crossing over from East to West until seeing the plate on the ground. Granted, it isn’t divided into the different sectors anymore, but regardless, it was pretty awesome.

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The Soviet Union constructed the Berlin Wall in 1961 and it stood throughout Berlin for almost 3 decades, creating two distinct cultures on either side of the Wall. In the West, life became modernized fairly quickly since western powers controlled this sector which was quite different from life in the East. It was fun to walk past Checkpoint Charlie and try to imagine what it must have been like trying to get from one allied sector to the next, let alone from the West to the East across the Wall.

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Surrounding the Wall and throughout the city, street art was definitely in style. It was everywhere! You would walk down an alley or walk alongside a small piece of the still standing Berlin Wall and see art painted on every square inch. At first I thought that spray painting such an historic landmark was destroying the history of the Wall and city, but then I realized that it’s the street art that had been there since the time of the Wall. The street art showed the colorful culture of both sides of the Wall and helped to explain some of the thoughts that people must have been thinking during the tumultuous times of the Cold War. It completely changed my perspective on how to look at the so-called street art.

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My time in Berlin consisted of walking around the city and taking in all of the sites where historic battles took place during WWII, political reformation, and the dissolution of the Nazi Socialist Party. The food was delicious and the atmosphere of German life in a big city was just breathtaking. I am so glad that I decided to travel with the WWII Study Abroad program and I can’t wait to share my memories with those back at home.

Memorializing Nazi Victims–Berlin

[I could not get photos to upload so I will add them later]

 

Of all of the places we visited on this whirlwind study tour, my favorite by far is Berlin. The city itself is exciting—gritty yet beautiful, historical yet in construction new. It seems that Berlin has changed just in the short time that I’ve walked the streets because countless construction cranes scream development, which is good for Berlin’s economy but not so good for it’s street culture. Berlin rolls many of my favorite things into a vibrant and vexing urban space. Hundreds of years of history, food from around the world along with delicious German dishes, dynamic public spaces with old monuments alongside truly magnificent urban art. I think I enjoy this city so much because of this mismatched nature. I could wander here for years and still find perplexing pieces of street art or commemorative plaques every day.

 

In World War II terms, this city is oozing history. Since Berlin endured such heavy bombing near the end of the war, many parts of the city (at least the ones I had a chance to explore) are new. But the Germans, more than any other country I’ve been to (including the United States), have engrained history into their everyday life. WWII as well as other historical events are commemorated and memorialized almost everywhere. Seeing this city for myself lends so much more meaning to the WWII knowledge I learned in the classroom. Visiting the Reichstag allows me to understand how terrifying the Reichstag fire of 1933 would have been to Germans and it starts to make sense that the Nazis used the event so strategically. Standing in the shadow of this enormous and democratically symbolic building made the history so much more real than any book or photograph has.

 

Each WWII site that we visited in and around Berlin spoke to me in a different way but all were powerful. The war started and ended here, not in London or Paris. The Nazis orchestrated their reign of terror from here. It is hard to fathom those facts in the middle of a modern city. But those historical places still exist. Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, where the Nazis murdered thousands of people, is still standing less than an hour outside of the city center. Our visit there was indescribable and I am certainly not going to attempt to discuss it here. The Topography of Terror Museum stands on the grounds of the old Gestapo (Secret Police) headquarters, where countless crimes against humanity were committed and coordinated. German museums held very little back and were the most comprehensive of most visited on this trip.

 

I spent a lot of time thinking about how Germany remembers the war. Last Friday evening I visited three memorials: Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the memorials to the Roma and Sinti and Homosexuals (I hate that terminology but it is what it is) murdered by the National Socialist regime. I could write and write about all of the sites, but there were several things that I noticed. First, the size of the memorial pretty much corresponded to the amount of people that were killed by the Nazi regime. This may seem like a very obvious observation, but the more I thought about it, the more interesting it was. The Jewish memorial is situated across the street from the United States Embassy within view of the Brandenburg Gate and takes up almost two blocks of space. The 270 stones stand in stark contrast to the area around them. The Jewish memorial is incredibly visible and incredibly well marked, while the homosexual’s memorial is hidden in trees with no signage around it. If I hadn’t looking for it, I would not have found it. The memorial itself is a large block of gray stone with a small hole in it that loops a short film of a gay couple kissing. Since homosexual victims of the Nazis were less visible than other groups, it makes sense that this memorial would try to make the viewer try to engage up close to the subject matter, but the way that this memorial is so tucked away could make it even easier for people to forget that homosexual people were targeted by the Nazis. This is important today because the LGBTQ population still does not have enough representation or rights around the world. I’m not saying that a good memorial needs to be Statue of Liberty size to be meaningful, but some signage would be nice. The Roma Sinti memorial was interesting because of its proximity to the Reichstag/Bundestag. I could see the quotes written on the memorial while standing in the Reichstag yard. Since there is still so much discrimination of Roma and Sinti people in Europe today, the visibility to lawmakers could have been on purpose.

 

It’s hard to believe this trip is almost over. I am coming out of this month a better world citizen with immersive historical experiences under my belt and a new group of friends that I am able to discuss many historical questions with. The trip was definitely an adventure with some trip ups, but it was the experience of a lifetime.

Berlin

This is my last (required) blog post for the World War Two Study tour as I am now in Berlin; I can’t believe the trip has gone by so quickly!

Being in Berlin has been an amazing experience thus far; I’m sad that I only have tomorrow (Sunday) and Monday left with the group!

Culturally, Berlin has been a learning experience.  As opposed to Paris or London, I haven’t been in as many places where I have felt rushed or in an area with overwhelming numbers of people (of course, I’ve been in some relatively busy areas, but none of them have ever felt quite as crowded).  Everything also feels much newer than any of the other places I have been in; this contextually makes quite a bit of sense because of Berlin’s history, especially in relation to the Cold War and the Second World War because so much was destroyed.  Being on the Reichstag and seeing all the cranes building new things added on to the idea that something new is constantly coming up here.

Going off this, it was interesting to see the history of Potsdamer Platz.  I saw a lot of photos with descriptions in one of the subway stations; though Potsdamer is now a major commercial area of the city, this was not really the case until recently because so much of it was destroyed during the Second World War (it had previously been a bustling area in the 1920s).  This explains why everything is so new and modern.

The amount of English spoken also surprised me a little.  While I wasn’t worried about being able to get what I needed in Berlin, I was surprised that I seemed to be greeted in English more than I was greeted in German.

Considering other aspects of Berlin’s culture, I find Germany’s remembrance of its events within everyday life to be interesting as well as humbling.  The Holocaust remembrance stones, for example, were not thrown at my face; neither were other monuments and signs all over the city.  Their presence, though, was still enough to remind me of what happened; hopefully these reminders are still very visible to those that live in Berlin day in and day out.

Today, we went to Sachenhausen.  It was difficult for me because I ultimately was not sure of how I should feel: feeling sad about it didn’t seem to be quite enough for the place we were in.  All I really can say is that I know I will never be able to completely understand what happened because I was not there; because of this, all I can really do is to respect the lives that ended there and try to learn all that I can.  (I will say, however, I thought it was pretty disrespectful that there was a coffee shop there, just as one of the other students mentioned.  I don’t think that it’s right to make money off a concentration camp, especially because it was a place where many people starved to death).

As much as I want to go home, I’ll definitely miss being in Germany.  It’s been a great experience and I certainly would want to visit again! Until next time, I suppose.

Edit: On my free day, I also went to a flea market with several other students on the trip.  It was an interesting thing to go to because it was a cool way to see something Berliners would go to in modern life.  It was a pretty large market; there were several hundred people there just walking around and taking everything in.  There were all sorts of vendors with lots of different types of food (German foods, of course, but many other things, like Indian food and even falafel, my favorite food).  It was really neat because a lot of older items were being sold as well (old electronics, old pins from the East German government, etc.); it was like a window to the past in its own way.  It was fun to do this because it was a way to participate in something modern, and of course, the shopping was great.