Berlin: Remembrance and Acceptance

Berlin, the heart of Germany. It was the heart of the Nazi Empire and it was a major component of the Cold War. Today the remnants of those dark times are clearly evident in the city. Unlike many of the places I’ve seen, Berlin doesn’t attempt to hide what they did during those times. From looking up at the buildings to looking down at the sidewalk and everything in between, I could see the lingering remains of what happened in Berlin during the 20th century.

Train station that was bombed durring World War II. The front is all that remains.

Train station that was bombed durring World War II. The front is all that remains.

Many of Berlin’s streets have some sort of relic of World War II. Only a few minutes’ walk from where I stayed, the remains of a major train station stand. The main entrance is all that remains, after significant bombing during the war left most of it in pieces. The place where it once stood has now since been turned into a park but there are still some remnants of what once was. Even the sidewalks have small plaques that represent where Jews were forced out of their homes and sent to ghettos and camps. These small reminders cover the city, almost forcing its inhabitants to relive the events of the city’s tragic past.

One of the most important reminders that one can find all over the city is the remains of the Berlin Wall. A line

A portion of the Berlin Wall that remains standing.

A portion of the Berlin Wall that remains standing.

cuts through the city, showing the world where the wall had once stood. Even after 27 years, there is still a sense of a divide between the two sections of the city. Newly rebuilt areas of the city are still struggling to rejuvenate after being part of the no-man’s land that prevented people from going between East and West Berlin. What was once East Berlin seems to be lagging a bit behind West Berlin but despite the divide, Berlin is continuing on as it was meant to, as one city.

The biggest difference between Berlin and the rest of the world is how they have coped with what happened during World War II. Places like France and Poland seemed to glorify all the good they did during the war but completely disregarded anything that makes their nation look bad. Berlin is different.  Even the museums within Berlin show a significantly more objective point of view compared to any other place that I have been to in Europe. They are even teaching their children at a young age about what happened in this city and explaining how things got so bad.

Some buildings still have holes left by bullets during the Battle of Berlin

Some buildings still have holes left by bullets during the Battle of Berlin.

Whether it be the Cold War or World War II, Berliners are constantly reminded of what had transpired there. I believe many cities should take note and follow Berlin’s example. You can’t change history no matter how hard one tries so instead of running from it, confront it and learn from the mistakes of the past. I think because Berlin doesn’t try to cover it up, the city has grown so much more than it would have otherwise. No city, that I can recall, has dealt with their complex history as Berlin and that is what separates this grand city from the rest.

Berlin: A City Born of Defeat

The remains of Berlin Anhalter Bahnhof – still standing today as a symbol of German defeat in World War II

Berlin was the third of the great national capitals our group visited and the final stop on our journey through Europe.  After a seven-hour bus ride from Poland, our tired group arrived in the city.  Having experienced the greatness of both London and Paris, I had high expectations for Berlin.  Initially, I was somewhat disappointed

I was struck by the relative new-ness of everything, as well as how dingy it seemed.  Gone were the old buildings and grand architecture seen in London and Paris.  More than any other city I’d seen thus far, Berlin felt more like an American city than a European one.  Despite my relative disappointment, the city quickly grew on me.

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The German Finance Ministry Building – an example of Nazi architecture – next to a remaining portion of the Berlin Wall. The bricks at the bottom of the frame are the remains of the old Gestapo headquarters

One of the aspects of Berlin that struck me were the many remnants of the city’s past I came across, despite the city’s “new” feel – specifically, remnants from the Nazi-era, as well as the Cold War.  The twentieth century was not kind to Berlin.  Much of the city was destroyed at the end of World War II in allied bombing raids and in the climactic Battle for Berlin, which resulted in the final defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of the war in Europe.  Some of the remains of the old Gestapo Headquarters have been preserved, and today, a museum exists on top of the site, preserving the memory of terror, persecution, and genocide that defined the Nazi-era in Germany.  The former German Ministry of Aviation building (constructed in 1936) is one of the few buildings left from the Nazi-era.  I was surprised to learn that this building is still used by the German government today, housing the German Finance Ministry.  Smaller sites also remain, such as the Bendlerblock, which housed the General Army Offices during World War II.  Its courtyard served as the execution site of some of the July 20th Plotters who attempted to assassinate Hitler in 1944, and today, the complex is a museum dedicated to the memory of German “resistance” against the Nazi regime.

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The courtyard of the Bendlerblock – the execution site of some of the July 20th Plotters in 1944, including Claus von Stauffenberg. The final scenes of the 2008 film Valkyrie were filmed here

In other cities, these reminders of a hideous past might be swept under the rug, but in Berlin, they have instead been embraced as learning tools for future generations of Germans.  The city has made an effort to come to terms with its Nazi past.  Where direct sites of Nazi history are lacking, Berlin has attempted to create as many sites of remembrance as possible.  The Holocaust is the most shameful and embarrassing aspect of German history that, for decades, many Germans tried to ignore and move on from. Despite this fact, memorials of the genocide have been constructed all over the city.  The Tiergarten houses a number of memorials to the victims of Nazism (Roma, Sinti, the disabled and mentally handicapped, homosexuals, …).  Most impressive, however, is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  Taking up an entire city block, the memorial is right at the heart of the city, next to the Brandenburg Gate, the American Embassy, and the Reichstag Building.  There could be no stronger effort to remember a humiliating past than a massive Holocaust memorial taking up such major real estate in the German capital.

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A portion of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

This effort at coming to terms with the past is also reflected in the historical museum exhibits I went through in Berlin.  One of the most common excuses made by Germans ever since the end of the war is that the Nazis lacked popular support, and that the crimes committed under the Nazis (both before and during the war) were committed only by dedicated party members.  Such narratives make it all too easy for Germans to place the blame on a defined group (the Nazis) while glossing over their own complicity in the atrocities committed.  The museums in Berlin, however, tackle the matter of German complicity directly.  Time and again, when addressing the crimes of the Nazi-era, these museums address the perpetrators as “the Germans” rather than “the Nazis.”

One placard in particular at the German Historical Museum caught my attention, concerning the role of the German military in the Holocaust.  The “Final Solution” was primarily an operation conducted by the Waffen-SS, the military-wing of the Nazi Party.  Since the SS was separate from the German military (the Wehrmacht), many Germans have used this fact to argue that ordinary Germans in the Wehrmacht had no role in the Holocaust, and therefore, had no responsibility in the crimes of the Nazi-era.  Again, this narrative goes against reality; the Wehrmacht took part in a tremendous amount of war crimes, including the massacre of Poles, Jews, and Soviet POWs on the Eastern Front.  Avoiding the common excuse, the museum exhibit explicitly mentioned the role of the Wehrmacht in perpetuating the Holocaust, therefore wiping away any defense made for the general German population.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is located at the heart of the city. Next to the memorial in this photo is the United States Embassy

Unlike at the end of World War I, the German people truly felt defeat at the end of World War II.  Berlin was divided by the victorious powers at war’s end and was split into East and West by the Berlin Wall in 1961.  Despite the fall of the wall in 1989 and 1990, its remnants are everywhere throughout the city.  The standing sections of the wall today stand not only as a symbol of the Cold War, but, more importantly, as a symbol of defeat.  Germany bears a large responsibility for the suffering of the two World Wars in Europe.  The German people can’t ignore this, especially in a city like Berlin, where symbols of defeat (such as the Berlin Wall) remain.  Just a block away from our hotel was another symbol of German defeat – the remains of Berlin Anhalter Bahnhof – a great railway station destroyed by bombing during World War II.

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Bricked paths run through the streets of Berlin, marking where the Berlin Wall once stood

Berlin is a city that has both accepted and learned from its past, precisely because of this defeat.  Unlike the victorious Allies, the Germans were forced to question their own past and their own sense of nationalism – to question their role in the widespread misery that accompanied the two World Wars and the Cold War.  I couldn’t help but compare Berlin with the other cities I have seen – London, Paris, and Kraków.  The British, the French, and the Poles were on the winning side of the war, and have never been forced to question their own national histories (history is written by the victors, right?).  As I mentioned in a previous post, the British still celebrate and glorify their former colonial empire, despite its legacy of oppression.  Likewise, the French, on the victorious side at the end of the war, were free to rewrite their own national history, lionizing Charles de Gaulle, the Free French, and the French resistance – all despite the fact that a majority of the French population accommodated their German occupiers and that thousands of Frenchmen actively aided in the Holocaust.

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The glass dome of the newly renovated Reichstag Building, meant to symbolize democracy and political transparency

While London and Paris look back to a mythical national past, Berlin has tried to come to terms with its own harsh reality, and instead, looks forward to the future.  The Reichstag Building, renovated after German reunification in 1990, reflects this outlook: avoiding the grandiose architecture of other national capitals, the building embraces modernity and democracy.  Its glass dome stands as a symbol of political transparency.  This outlook is also reflected in present day politics.  In Britain, France, and Poland, nationalist movements are on the rise (UKIP in Britain, the National Front in France, the Law and Justice Party in Poland, …).  Germany, however, remains one of the few countries without a resurgent nationalist movement.  In the wake of the Syrian Refugee Crisis last year, Germany accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees into its borders, a move derided by nationalist movements in most other European countries.

Berlin is a city born of defeat, a defeat which, paradoxically I think, has made it stronger – prepared to accept its terrible past and to move forward.  On a section of the Wall in East Berlin is a quote from the Austrian Poet, Erich Fried: “he who wants the world to remain as it is doesn’t want it to remain at all.”

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“He who wants the world to remain as it is doesn’t want it to remain at all.”

How Berlin Remembers the War

The glass dome that sits on top of the Bundestag. It allows any person 360 view of Berlin.

The glass dome that sits on top of the Bundestag. It allows any person 360 view of Berlin.


 

During one of our days here in Berlin, we got a tour of the Bundestag, the German parliament building. As our tour began, our guide pointed out how easy it was to see from one side of the Bundestag to the other and how the heavy usage of glass within the building made it possible for a person outside the building to see into the main chamber of the Bundestag. The tour guide made sure to emphasize that the Bundestag was created around the idea of visibility and that nothing was hidden from the public. (German citizens are actually free to sit in on government sessions if they really want to know what is going on in their government.) I feel that the concept of visibility can also be extended to how Berlin chooses to teach people about the Second World War. Out of all of the cities we have traveled through during this trip I feel that Berlin has the most comprehensive memory of the Second World War. There are monuments and museums for the villains and the victims, the well-known figures and the average people, for Germans and non-Germans.

Three small plaques situated in the sidewalk right outside of our hotel in Berlin mark the place where three people were deported from Berlin during the war.

Three small plaques situated in the sidewalk right outside of our hotel in Berlin mark the place where three people were deported from Berlin during the war.

On our first full day in Berlin, we headed for the German Historical Museum where we visited their modern warfare wing. I have to say that I felt a little overwhelmed with just how much information the museum was giving us. Everywhere I looked there were pictures, old propaganda posters, newspaper clippings, and a seemingly never-ending wall of text that worked to tell the tale of Germany through the twentieth century. I felt like all the information was presented to us in an unbiased fashion and that nothing was hidden. After the German Historical Museum we headed to the Topography of Terror museum which focused solely on the perpetrators of the war. Again, I felt overwhelmed by how much text there was in the museum, all of it focused on making sure the visitors knew the facts about the past.

The Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism, tucked away in a corner of the Tiergarten. This memorial, dedicated in 2008, is the third of only 3 memorials in all of Germany dedicated to the gay victims of the Holocaust.

The Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism, tucked away in a corner of the Tiergarten. This memorial, dedicated in 2008, is the third of only 3 memorials in all of Germany dedicated to the gay victims of the Holocaust.

Considering the fact that Germany was the main perpetrator, I wasn’t that surprised by how many statues, memorials, and museums there were dedicated to the victims of the war. I found that the memorials could be extremely vague sometimes and other times so specific that it was dedicated to one person. During our first day in Berlin, we briefly visited the Neue Wache which houses the National Memorial to the Victims of War and Tyranny. This memorial seemed too broad of dedication to actually mean anything but perhaps they created the memorial in case a specific victim group felt unrepresented. When it comes to more specific examples, I found small memorials around town dedicated to individual victims of deportation and the Holocaust. It was a little chilling to look down at the small plaques in the middle of a sidewalk and think of how someone had been taken from that very spot years before and sent to a ghetto or a camp. Other memorials I visited that were dedicated to the victims of the Nazi regime was the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known just as the Holocaust Memorial. The Holocaust Memorial is a large and relatively well known memorial within Berlin- every time I passed it there were plenty of people visiting the site –but the memorial to the persecuted homosexuals seemed not only just out of the way but also a little underwhelming. I understand that the persecution of the Jewish people was much more extensive and well known but perhaps it would have been better if the monument to the homosexual victims of the Holocaust was not tucked away in some dark corner of the Tiergarten and instead somewhere more visible.

Original graffiti written by Soviet soldiers in 1945 still remains on the walls of the Bundestag.

A section of original graffiti written by Soviet soldiers in 1945 still remains on the walls of the Bundestag.

Something that I was initially surprised about was how many memorials to the Soviets there were around town. However, after some thinking, it made sense. The Soviets were the first to reach Berlin and liberated the city. After the war half of Berlin was put under Soviet control; it’s understandable that they wanted to make sure their people’s efforts were known and praised. Perhaps the most interesting nod to the Soviets I saw during my tour of the Bundestag. In one of the halls in the Bundestag there was still Soviet graffiti on the walls from when the Soviets took over the Bundestag during the fight for Berlin at the end of WWII. I definitely was not expecting the graffiti inside such a modern and clean building but it just serves as another example of Berlin putting its history out into the open.

The Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park was one of the largest memorials I've ever seen. The memorial was completed in 1949 and served as the main war memorial for East Germany.

The Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park was one of the largest memorials I’ve ever seen. The memorial was completed in 1949 and served as the main war memorial for East Germany.

Although there is still some room for improvement, Berlin is a city that works hard at coming to terms with its past and I am so thankful that I got the chance to experience such a city because of this study abroad program.

 

Wrapping Things Up – A Few Things That Make Berlin, Berlin

Berlin was a very different city from what I was expecting. As far as my knowledge of the city goes, I’ve generally only ever associated Berlin with World War II and the Cold War because of what I’ve learned in school and the lack of depth at which the information was taught. Nonetheless, I expected Berlin to 100% fully-vibrant all the time. A large part of Berlin is vibrant and vastly expressive, but the place is definitely a large Eastern-European city filled with its ups and downs. I loved the program activities we did here in Berlin (things like touring the Reichstag, going to Potsdam and Wannsee, and Treptower Park), but I definitely leave this city not feeling like I got to everything that I wanted to and not having the most pleasant experiences here. Part of this was sheer exhaustion from the first three weeks of travel, while another reason was having a nasty cold that even resulted in a trip to the ER. Regardless, I’ve noticed a couple different things that in my mind make Berlin, Berlin. This city is highly expressive in the way its citizens display their emotions, political viewpoints – really anything – through public art. I’ve also noticed that many Berliners are very friendly and especially towards Americans. I really got the sense that inter-continental relations amongst Americans and Berliners is something the latter quite enjoys in 2016.

The expressiveness of Berlin street art was vast and in many different forms. The East Side Gallery was a really cool example of this. Situated along the longest stretch remaining of the inside part of the Berlin Wall, the wall serves as a gallery for different artists to express themselves through paint. Regardless of what they’re art is trying to express – styles, religion, or politics, etc. – the main point in my observation of having this gallery is to express wholly freedom from the divisiveness caused by splitting up Berlin and Germany after World War II.

I acquired a really rather awful cold while traveling in Poland and the cold got even worse as we went to Berlin. I became congested, non-stop coughing, runny nose – the typical nastiness that happens when germs spread. After being prescribed aspirin and another cough-type medicine, I thought I was feeling better. In reality, I was, but wasn’t. With aspirin being a blood-thinner and me constantly blowing my nose, I guess I should have realized that a nosebleed would have been worse than normal, but I guess the pharmacist should have as well. So, on cue, I got a nose bleed after dinner one night and it just flowed like a river. I was freaked out. We got the bleeding stopped eventually but I still went to the ER for some tests just to make sure I was okay. While in the process of leaving and on my way there, I talked to the German EMTs who had come to help me out. As it turns out, we have a lot of similar interests. The three of them loved looking at my passport. Comparing it to a German passport, they described the differences between the two, mainly the American one having a lot more color and the various watermarks throughout the pages. On the ride over, we talked a little more, mainly about how I was causing them to miss a big soccer match on television, at which I prompted the guys about what they thought of American football. Immediately, the first one to respond says “crazy” and playfully thumps his hand in a fist on his head to simulate the brunt force of a helmet to helmet hit experienced in American football.

What was important to me about the conversation wasn’t the content, but more or less the ability to have such conversations. Seventy-five years ago, when all this war and destruction was taking place, this conversation wouldn’t have happened. The experience I had with the Berlin EMTs made the process even smoother than it already was. It was nice for that to be able to happen, and to see how far our two nations have come since the Second World War, because we know it wasn’t always like that. The conversations had reminded me of an episode of the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. During the episode “Why We Fight”’ Shifty Powers spoke on the same situation he wishes he could’ve had that I was able to take advantage of because of the efforts of him and so many others during the war. A rifleman in Easy Company for the 101st Airborne during the European campaign, Darrell ‘Shifty’ Powers expressed a solemn idea about the enemy while interviewed for commentary used in the series during its production in the early 2000s. “We might have had a lot in common. He might’ve liked to fish, you know, he might’ve liked to hunt.” Shifty said. “But under different circumstances, we might have been good friends.” Shifty understood who the enemy was, but definitely had the ideas in his head that things could have been different. I’m glad that in 2016 I can now communicate with and admire the Germans and have the same mutual respect for Berlin and for Germany. Berlin was a fitting end to my time here in Europe. I will be grateful for the time I spent here for the rest of my life.

The Emphasis of Trust in America and Germany

The final stop on my study abroad tour brought me to Berlin, Germany from May 26 to May 31. Serving as the culmination of our efforts to study the European theater of World War II, we visited German and Soviet memorials as well as museums like the German Resistance museum and the SS museum. In addition, we visited the Reichstag, the place where the German parliament operates and also the location of an intense battle between Nazi and Soviet forces in the closing days of World War II. During my time in Germany, I was able to pinpoint an interesting cultural difference that I was surprised to encounter. In the United States, we love security. We’re hesitant to trust and we are big on making sure everything is fair. This is not always the same as what I’ve seen in Germany.

On top of the German Reichstag in Berlin.

On top of the German Reichstag in Berlin.

When I’m at school in Columbus, I work at a job downtown. I have to use the bus system to get to work every day. Every time I want to board the bus, I have to swipe my card. If I don’t have my card, I won’t be able to get on the bus. That’s the way it is. In Germany, we got a pass to use the rail and bus system in Berlin. After we had it activated on our first ride, we never had to show it again. We merely had to walk into a station and board the train we needed. There were no ticket machines. We were told that occasionally men would walk around and check for tickets. However, I never saw them. This was even different from Paris and London, where we had to swipe our passes every time we wanted to enter the metro.

One of the remaining sections of the Berlin Wall.

One of the remaining sections of the Berlin Wall.

Restaurants in Berlin were a place where I also noticed a cultural divide. In the United States, it is not rare for people well older than the drinking age to be carded. In Europe, I was never carded. I don’t think I can pass as an 18 year old anymore (the drinking age in most European countries), but I think there is a point to this. The Germans seemed more willing to trust the word of others. When we were done with our meal, we would often just walk up to the register and tell them what we ordered before paying. They took my word for it every time. This is unlike the American way of bringing checks to tables already detailing each expense.

Almost all of my classmates and one of our professors on the last night.

Almost all of my classmates and one of our professors on the last night.

The last three weeks have been the wildest adventure of my life. England, France, Poland and now Germany have each offered me insight into different ways of life. This trip has given me so much that I know I have not only learned a lot and had many incredible experiences, but I have also grown as a person. In both big and small ways, my perspective has changed. For example, I had never previously had to pay to go to the bathroom. Now, I pull out my wallet every time I approach a restroom (not a big fan of this cultural difference). Being abroad has made me appreciate my life in the United States even more. The simple pleasures that we never take the time to appreciate have made me feel so blessed to be an American. At the same time, there is so much more to be seen in the world that doesn’t include free wifi, four bedroom houses in the subdivisions and modern skyscrapers. If you search, you will find. I found out many simple things. There are still old-fashioned squares where people gather to sell artwork and other materials (Krakow). If you try hard enough, you can take a picture that includes both an 800 year old prison and a modern skyscraper (London). I would have never guessed it was so easy to actually get lost in a museum (Louvre – Paris). Study abroad has made me realize that the world is out there waiting for you. Waiting to transform, enlighten or amaze you. A broadened perspective awaits on the other side. My sense of place has come in to question, but only in the way that I now see myself as a piece in an interconnected, global puzzle instead of on an island. What I learned abroad isn’t something you can take notes on in class or watch a video about. It’s an experience that can’t be tested or graded. You have to live it.

 

Thank you for following my journey,

 

Ben

Eyssen.5@osu.edu

Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin

IMG_0002Like our visit to Poland, I found Berlin’s culture to be captivating. The language barrier between our group and the locals helped to solidify our thoughts of this “foreign” country, and remained ever-present on every street sign, menu, and doner-kebap advertisement. The “ß” is the most prominent departure from our English alphabet, and made pronunciation of the street of our hotel, “Stresemannstraße” nearly impossible without Dr. Davidson’s guidance. Another pinnacle of Berlin street signage is the adorable “Amplemann.” This bourgeois figure originated on Eastern German streetlights, but survived the fall of the wall and tells pedestrians when to walk throughout Berlin in present-day. These lights, which are unique to Berlin, are both whimsical and historical—like so                                                                                                  much of the city.

 

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bike festival at dusk

Immediately upon arrival to our hotel, I learned of how bike-friendly the city is. I almost was side-swiped by a bicyclist who rode on the city-mandated bike path that occupied 1/3 of the sidewalk. The bike path was present throughout the entire city, and I was surprised at just how often I heard bells alerting our large group to move out of the way. People of all ages and occupations could be seen commuting to and from work or otherwise taking advantage of the excellent transport option. Visitors are also encouraged to use the bike paths, and can rent bikes per day on various blocks around the city. I was cut off by a never-ending line of bicyclists one night in a remarkable exhibition of Berlin’s many bike riders. Hundreds of locals took charge on their bikes and continued on what must have been a loop around the city. This group, primarily composed of twenty-somethings, toted wagons with speakers, food, and even children during this biking festival. I watched at least a dozen riders impressively juggle steering and drinking beer as they whooshed down the streets of Berlin. This show of bikers inspired both a cacophony of car horns and a hint of spontaneity in the air. If I had not already fallen in love with the food here, I could tell this city-vibe would soon do the trick.

 

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We visited many museums and memorials for our program, but also had a large amount of free time to explore the city. My dinner in the Görlitzer-Park area one night was a heavy contrast from what we had explored near Brandenburg gate. This neighborhood, on the East side of Berlin, was recommended by Dr. Davidson for those looking to be “adventurous.” When my friend Avery and I got off at the U-Bahn stop in this area, I instantly saw what he meant. Every building, and really any surface here, was completelyIMG_0008 covered with graffiti. This excited me, however, as it is exactly what I had hoped I would find in

Berlin. I loved looking at the beautiful and modern buildings in the center-city, but had longed to find a grittier and more colorful section that aligned with the city in my imagination. In the old area of East Kreuzberg, I found it. Every street in this city sported unique shops and restaurants that would make the most minor foodie drool. Signs for fancy burgers, goth bars, and even all-vegetarian plant themed joints were squeezed between vibrant arrays of artistic expression. The young and indieIMG_0004 population also seemed unique amongst the vine and graffiti covered buildings. I felt that I had walked through a time machine when Avery and I wandered through Görlitzer Park and found so many groups scattered through the grassy pit who were picnicking, hula hooping, and even playing guitar. It was dusk by the time we decided to get dinner, and the streets we walked through were much darker than around Potsdamer Platz. Still, eclectic gastro-pubs and greasy diners illuminated the street with a subtle glow. We ate with a view of the U1 train line in sight, and enjoyed the exceptional food and drinks almost as muchIMG_0007 as the diverse night-scene we observed while people watching. Like many of the European cities we’ve visited, the coveted sidewalk seats were in high demand as they provided the perfect viewing platform for the busy streets ahead. A Spanish guitar and piccolo duo performed in front of our restaurant, and we listened as bikers and Saturday night-goers bustled behind. The whole experience was charming, and left me with a youthful yet aged impression of Berlin.

 

 

 

IMG_0012The next night, I returned to the area to view the East Side Gallery. I walked across the bridge above the Spree river, and quickly found the 1.3 km section of the Berlin Wall (painted in 1990 and restored in 2010.) The gallery, which is a section of the wall, can be viewed from the sidewalk. The murals of peace, political activism, and contempt for the wall itself were stunning in the yellow glow of the streetlights. It surprised me how quiet and accessible the wall was, although the occasional graffiti are combatted by rented guard rails in front of the art. When I viewed the gallery in the day, I noticed slightly more traffic to the wall and how vivid the colors and messages really were. My favorite quote from the gallery is “Wer will dass die welt so bleibt wie sie ist der will nicht dass sie bleibt,” [Erich Fried] which was kindly translated by the artist and reads: “He who wants the world to remain as it is doesn’t want it to remain at all.” This is clearly aimed at

Picasso's "Guernica" (devastating fire-bombing of the town during the Spanish Civil War) reimagined in terms of Berlin

Picasso’s “Guernica” (which depicts the devastating fire-bombing of the named town during the Spanish Civil War) reimagined in terms of Berlin

the communist occupiers of Berlin during the wall era, but it reminded me of lessons we’ve learned about the lead up to WWII. Indifference can be just as horrible of a culprit as aggression, and utter control at the expense of individuality and progress is detrimental to the human experience. After WWII, the German people’s change towards utter democracy (on the West End) was embraced much more fervently than during the period of the Weimar Republic. People sought more freedom and power, and their devotion to democracy can even be seen in the architecture of the renovated Reichstag building. The transparency of their government is mimicked in the glass designs, and care was taken to ensure the “people” would be on the same leIMG_0013vel of their representatives. The generation after the war wanted their world to change, and saw through that it happened. This is starkly different from Soviet occupied Berlin, which switched from one totalitarian state to another. In Fried’s quote I found a warning that can be followed even in the present day. Future generations must be willing to accept and contribute to social change in the name of what is right, and cannot stand idly by to accept what is comfortable.

 

 

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I was sad to say Auf Wiedersehen to my friends and professors last night, but found Berlin to be a beautiful place for such goodbyes. I’ve enjoyed every minute of the past month, and am incredibly grateful for this opportunity. I’m writing now on my bus to Prague, where I hope to begin my next adventure.

German Objectivity

As we walked through the German History Museum, I was surprised by the objectivity of its presentation. Throughout this trip, we have visited numerous museums, each with different methods of presenting information. In my opinion, the French museums glossed over information the most, – indicative of their history of ignoring France’s collaboration and the Holocaust – the Schindler Museum in Poland was the most nationalistic, and the Churchill War Rooms in London were able to be objective because they held no blame in the Nazi narrative. I expected the German museums to be as nationalistic as the Schindler museum and as inexplicit as the Caen Memorial. I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

The German History Museum did not conceal the facts of Germany’s past. From the start, the modern war exhibit discussed World War I and explained the German defeat. The displays and audio guide walked you through the Treaty of Versailles and the consequences of the public’s ignorance to the true German position at the end of the war. It explicitly mentioned the anti-Semitism and anti-bolshevism that already existed in German society and how it increased after the war. Being that the German public at the time were entirely ignorant to the means of their defeat, I was happy to see that this is no longer the case.

Further into the exhibit the rise of Hitler and the National Socialist Party was expressed through facts. This was strikingly different from the entrance to the Caen Memorial with its descending stairway to hell. I say “descending stairway to hell” because the entrance to its main exhibit was a downward spiraling ramp that depicted the rise of Nazism as evil. Although facts were presented, the spiral made heavy use of mise-en-scène, a term we discussed in Dr. Davidson’s class. Mise-en-scène refers to a style of visual production that is meant to lead your mind in a particular way. At the Caen Memorial, this was accomplished through a gradual change in the wall’s material, from smooth and white to dark and rough, as well as many pictures, posters and videos of the Nazis rise to power. By the time you got to the bottom of the spiral, you could look up and see the difference between the first, stark white wall and the final wall that resembled a jagged rock. At the German History Museum, there was no such thing. All of the facts were presented in sequence with explanations of their significance, but then you were free to interpret them however you chose.

The contrast between the wall gradient at the beginning of the Caen Memorial to the bottom of the spiral.

The contrast between the wall gradient at the beginning of the Caen Memorial to the bottom of the spiral.

The descending spiral at the Caen Memorial was covered in media showing the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.

The descending spiral at the Caen Memorial made heavy use of mise-en-scène. The walls were covered in media showing the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. In this picture you can see the contrast in gradient of the walls. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The German History Museum’s exhibit was comprehensive. Not only did it include World War I and the Nazi’s rise to power, but also the tactical aspects of the war, the same model of Auschwitz II- Birkenau on display at the camp, and the extensive Nazi propaganda. I was excited to see the posters for films we watched in Dr. Davidson’s class and thoroughly intrigued by the high degree the Nazis went to indoctrinate the German people. There were even dollhouses with pictures of Hitler in their living rooms and wallpaper displaying scenes of Hitler Youth. The Nazis truly tried to cover every audience.

The dollhouses produced during the Nazi Era had framed pictures of Hitler hanging in the living rooms.

The dollhouses produced during the Nazi Era had framed pictures of Hitler hanging in the living rooms.

A poster for La Habanera, a film we watched in Dr. Davidson's class that portrayed the Aryan race as morally superior to others.

A poster for La Habanera, a film we watched in Dr. Davidson’s class that portrayed the Aryan race as morally superior to others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I mentioned, there was a scale model of the crematoriums at Auschwitz II-Birkenau included in the exhibit. Although it caught me off guard, I was pleased to see that it was included in the museum. The audio guide we used throughout the exhibit often had a children’s version. So out of curiosity, a few of us listened to the children’s version about the crematorium model to see what the nation was teaching its children. The audio was extremely explicit, using words like murder and describing the process of going from the undressing rooms to the gas chamber to the crematorium. The adult version was even more detailed. Though even we thought this may have been too much for children to handle, we were impressed that the museum was going to such lengths to teach their people from an early age about the Holocaust. Later, Dr. Davidson shared that most German school children are required to visit a holocaust site several times throughout their education as a part of their curriculum. Overall, I was very impressed with the German History Museum’s objective presentation and Germany’s commitment to owning up to its past.

 

Mind the Bike Path

The last leg of our trip was to Berlin, Germany. I was very excited to go to Germany because I have German ancestry. I was ready to attempt any German word that I knew, although that mainly consisted of “nein” and ”guten tag.” I expected to not be able to communicate with any of the locals and to have to resort to gestures and guessing. I was shocked that most people were able to speak English during a conversation. Ordering food was a lot simpler and asking for directions was less intimidating. I can honestly say I was a little disappointed there was not more of a language barrier. I wanted to be fully immersed in the German culture and seeing English signs, although useful, was kind of a bummer. I enjoyed when Professor Davidson would speak with the locals in fluent German. There is something fascinating about watching two people communicate and not knowing what is going on.

Although there were English signs and people were able to speak English, the German transportation system was the hardest for me to learn by far. You could travel by bus, train, or subway with the same ticket. There were so many different options, I never knew which was the best to pick and what options combined would get me to my destination the fastest (or at all). I was grateful for the times when Professor Davidson and Professor Steigerwald would travel with us. Even though I know I should not have, I basically followed them blindly while in Berlin.

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Something that will forever be engrained in my memory is “mind the bike path.” If you walked in the bike path, you were guaranteed to get it. It was a common phrase for us to use because we loved combining the warning with “mind the gap” from the London Underground. It took a while for me to get use to, but I started to really like the idea of a bike path and wondered why this was not something commonly used in other countries, like the United States.

While “minding the bike path,” I loved looking around at the city as I walked. The history of Berlin was so evident, whether it was the remains of a bombed train station or the graffiti covering every surface. World War II and the Cold War were so prominent within the landscape and architecture of the city. It was so fascinating to see history right in front of my face. Seeing the Berlin Wall and the East Side Gallery were two times that I was staring straight at history and there was no ignoring it.

A section of East Side Gallery, once the Berlin Wall.

A section of East Side Gallery, once the Berlin Wall.

My time in Berlin will be a cultural and historical endeavor that I will never forget.

The Importance of Auschwitz

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Building at the entrance to Auschwitz I.

Ever since getting the itinerary of all of the stops we would be making on our World War II Study Tour, I had been waiting to visit Auschwitz with much anticipation. As the largest concentration camp, it is a site that most people recognized when I told them where I would be going over the course of my travels across Europe, probably because when most people first begin learning about World War II in grade school Auschwitz is always mentioned. Because I had first learned about Auschwitz several years ago, I had quite naively set expectations for what I was about to be seeing at the site. I imagined it would look exactly how it looked in the pictures taken over seventy years ago during the 1940s: a miserable looking camp located in the middle of nowhere. It would be intense, and at times hard to handle. I didn’t really expect many tourists, and the tourists who would be visiting during the same time as us would be visiting would be subdued and respectful. However, when we pulled into the camp, almost every expectation I had was completely shattered. The area surrounding Auschwitz has been built up. There are now businesses, including a KFC and a McDonalds. I wasn’t even aware that we were pulling into Auschwitz until I saw a sign directing our bus where to park.

Aside from the urbanization of the surrounding area the thing that took me most by surprise was the sheer number of people that were there to visit Auschwitz. There were just groups of people everywhere, many of whom seemed to be laughing and joking around. Not only that, but there was a gift shop for people to poke around in while they waited, along with several places to buy food. It made me feel like we were about to visit a Disney World rather than the site of where 1.1 million innocent people lost their lives. It was upon seeing all of these people that I began to question whether or not a site like Auschwitz should even be open for public consumption.

The masses of people did not seem to diminish when we entered into the camp. Just before we made our way to the main gates we met with our tour guide and were given headsets so we could have an easier time listening to him. The tour guide was another area where my expectations didn’t coincide with what we actually experienced. In Professor Steigerwald’s class we read a piece by Frederick Kuh who visited Auschwitz in the early 1950s with a tour guide who seemed to get exhilarated talking about all the horrors that took place at Auschwitz. To my surprise though, our tour guide spoke about Auschwitz with very little emotion. Combined with headsets that made you feel a little cut off from the rest of your group, his emotionless voice allowed visitors to really take on their own interpretation of the things that we were seeing.

Because of the isolation inherent in the setup of the tour it was easy to ignore the masses of people that surrounded us, except for when their behavior didn’t match the somber tone of the rest of the camp. One such case was when we entered into the room full of human hair. In the display case was two tons of human hair that the Nazis took from the prisoners of the camps. The display seemed to go one forever, but what was most unnerving was the Nazis accumulated an estimated seven tons of hair, over three times what was being shown to visitors. This room was one of the most unnerving parts of the whole tour. Also included in the display was a blanket made out of human hair. As our tour guide put it the Nazis “made killing an industry.” A few of the guests in front of us in line decided it would be appropriate to take pictures in this room despite being told repeatedly not to. Despite the powerful display we were seeing it was hard not to question again whether or not Auschwitz should be open for the general public to see.

Once we moved on from the hair room we made our way to a room containing displays with shoes from the victims, glasses from the victims and other personal items that the Nazis stole. I had been aware of the shoe display before even visiting Auschwitz, but the display of glasses really hit me hard. Up until this point in the tour it was easy to think of the victims in large chunks. Our tour guide had put such an emphasis in the beginning about the amount of people killed that it was hard to really wrap your head around the victims as individuals. Seeing the individual glasses really brought this into perspective for me. In the hair room it was hard to see individual people, but glasses are such an individualized thing. Each person has their own pair, made especially for them and their needs. Not only that, but it was easy to begin counting the number of glasses in the display case causing the visitor to focus even more acutely on the individual people.

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View of the train tracks from the entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

When we made our way over to Auschwitz-Birkenau my original expectations were met a little more. Most of the Auschwitz pictures I had seen had come from Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the surrounding area wasn’t nearly as built up as the surroundings of Auschwitz I. That didn’t make the experience any less powerful. We got to see the train tracks and the gate that the prisoners had to pass through. Many of these people didn’t realize that they were headed towards their unavoidable death, thanks in large part to the Nazi propaganda. We saw the tiny train cars that these people were packed in to along with all of their belongings. After touring the grounds we stopped by a holding cell where prisoners were taken shortly before they were sent off to be killed. The room itself was dark and miserable, and it’s incredibly upsetting knowing that so many people spent their last days starving, cramped together with other dying or dead people. In such a depressing room, it was surprising to find graffiti left behind by past visitors on the walls of the building, showing a complete disrespect for those people who had suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

Obviously, visiting Auschwitz is an intense and powerful experience, yet having people vandalize and show a complete disrespect for the people who died there could serve as proof that Auschwitz shouldn’t be open for people to visit. However, I believe it shows the opposite. Visiting and studying places Auschwitz, and to a greater extent studying history as a whole, propels society forward because we are able to learn from our mistakes in the past. There are always going to be people who don’t “get it.” But in a society dictated by majorities, as long as the vast majority of visitors respect and understand the importance of Auschwitz, it should remain open as a reminder to everyone of what could happen when there is a complete break down in public morality.

Berlin

View from Wansee House

View from Wansee House of everyday life near the historic site 

Berlin is an interesting city from culture to architecture and overall atmosphere. Berlin has remnants of art and buildings that are hundreds of years old next to buildings and locations from World War II and memorials and sight markers in between everything. This mix of old and new and how the city has formed is a lot different than other cities we have stayed in over the past several weeks. Both London and Berlin were subjected to urban remodeling from the bombings of the Blitz in London and the many bombing runs on Berlin. Even with both cities suffering terrible loses from the war they both developed differently since it ended.

The mix of buildings is not what makes Berlin Berlin. The people who live in the city make it have the unique charm only Berlin could have. While at Bletchley Park the tour guide said that if the Allies lost the war then maybe he would be giving the tour in German. While here in Berlin, almost everyone speaks some English. I think after all the post war involvement from the US and British that English became common in the city. This ability to communicate with a Berliner in English was something that Paris did not offer.

Berlin is also very unique by the way the residents do not speak if they can avoid speaking. While in Berlin I have seen two huge events on the roads. One was when bicyclist blocked traffic and ran red lights with what seemed like dedication to delay drivers and take over the road. The second event was with motorcyclist who drove down the same road the next day but were going in the other direction. This event seemed more coordinated with people waiting to block traffic at the intersections to make sure cars did not enter. During both events drivers honked their horns repeatedly to express that traffic needed to flow. This is the same action that bicyclist take while on the bike paths. No cyclist ever yells or makes and expression instead they repeated use their bell and continue on. The system of ringing a bell or honking a horn my be more practical, but it loses the human element.

This lack of human expression and interaction has reminded me of how after the war the Germans did not speak about the events and what happened during and leading up to Berlin being overrun by Soviet forces. During our tour of the Reichstag our tour guide told us about how the building had panels installed over the Soviet writing. This reminded me a lot about whitewashing away what was written and even removing the walls themselves from being seen.

After being in Berlin I cannot see how not coming to terms with what happened was possible. Everywhere I turned there is a reminder of what happened. There are markers on the ground, signs on the road, monuments and memorials everywhere. One interesting place that we went to was the Wansee House. At the house we went to the back and looked at the water behind it. It was filled with boats of all types and people on the other side of the lake. It was shocking knowing what happened at the house and how being around it people could go boating and would want to spend time even around it where it was in sight.

At Potsdam, I was shocked by how honored the Germans were of the site. The site itself is under construction to help prepare it for its centennial. After learning about World War I and seeing how the Germans felt so betrayed that when given the opportunity to insult the French the same train car was used to sign the peace treaty for the invasion of France. I was expecting something similar to this and the site to be neglected and run almost by force and set up by the Soviets. This was not entirely the case but the front garden still has a soviet red star visible.

Berlin has been an interesting and modern city. I think that it is a good thing that within the city are plenty of memorials and museums showing the history and that people in the city are talking about it openly. I also think that the more modern buildings are a good thing for the city to help Berlin not become a depressing city that is only remembering and living in the past.