We moved to India last week and are settling into our new life here, but first let me share a few more cities in Europe that we visited. It’s been a while since I’ve written, probably too long now, but I want to get it all down before it’s too much of a distant memory. Writing has been particularly hard because I can’t but help analogize and historicize what we learn on our travels, especially as it pertains to the very precarious political situation in the US right now, but I suppose the point is to push through the paralysis and write anyway.
The last leg of our trip after Vienna and Prague was Berlin. This was probably my favorite city to visit to critically think about the arc of European history up until so recently. Here we were challenged to not only honor and memorialize, but also do some hard analysis of some of the darkest events in history.
We took an early train in from Prague and made our way to the hostel, which turned out to be the nicest one we have ever stayed in. Getting a private hostel room was not much more expensive than booking beds in a shared room in the already relatively inexpensive city, so we opted for that–it was spacious, clean, near luxurious complete with chocolates on the pillows and free Sprudel (fizzy water)! (This is in contrast to other hostels with bare bones setups and might charge you, for example, to rent towels, which is normally fine with us, but compared to that, we felt particularly fancy at this one in Berlin.) They had a nice bar and comfy living room/library/lounge and downstairs was the dining room, where they served a full breakfast. As it turns out, a fellow traveler who was on our train in from Prague was also staying at our hostel, so we were pleasantly surprised to see her! We got to explore a bit together and share her bottle of wine. 🙂
We did our typical free walking tour to get an initial lay of the land, followed by independent exploring. During our tour we were introduced to the concept of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which can be translated as ‘coping with the weight of history’. This is a mentality that is ingrained in the German cultural consciousness from childhood that blatantly admits the historical atrocities of Nazism and accepts responsibility for it. Let me repeat that: Admits and accepts responsibility for the atrocities of Nazism. Then does everything in their power to remedy the wrong. Then moves forward to never, ever get there again. They learned the lesson of what can happen with unthinking nationalism and are embarrassed about it. And they do their darnedest in everything in education and public policy to check themselves. And this is normalized. It is a widely accepted fact that Nazi Germany was horrible. I contrast this to the American exceptionalism I grew up in and around where everything is “USA #1” and how people are proud of everything their country does because official history tells us that it’s something worth being proud of. Vergangenheitsbewältigung is something that I have not encountered in any other country on an official level, where everyone from the bottom up sees the sober realities of history and does something about it rather than mythologizing for the sake of building the national narrative.
We typically don’t visit museums together, as TA enjoys wandering off the beaten track, to see the actual city, and if there’s a “must-see” museum in a particular city I’ll usually check it out solo if TA is otherwise occupied with maths things. However, we did end up in two (or more) museums in Berlin, the Topography of Terror and the Deutsches Historisches Museum. I found them to be excellent and so important to have visited, though I wouldn’t recommend it if you don’t like to be confronted with the weight of history. (See what I did there?) I don’t have any photos of these places, except one in the main hall of the historical museum, for various reasons: cameras were forbidden in certain exhibits, and sometimes I was just too absorbed in them to think about taking pictures. The Topography of Terror is essentially a museum of Nazis. It’s not a museum for Nazis, and they were also careful to explain that it is also not a memorial. It is a place where we were challenged to push through natural emotional responses to the atrocious images and data of the Holocaust, to deep and thoughtful analysis of how Nazism came to be, how it grew, and how it was dealt with after the end of the war. Essentially it was always legal and became so acceptable because ‘basically good’ people didn’t think it concerned them because it didn’t directly affect them or their families. People may have started to draw the line at the euthanasia of the sick because sickness and old age was a universal reality, but by then it was too far gone. Nothing happened to the former Nazi officers after the war. Basically nothing. Maybe a few were sentenced because they worked in departments with undeniably racist motives, specifically targeting Jews. What I wanted to know from our historian-expert tour guide who was so, so great was what he would have to say about the rise of white nationalism/neo-Nazism in the US that has been happening at the very same time as our conversation? He answer was simple. He seemed to take solace in the fact that Germany lost the war. And to the Russians, no less! (A particularly embarrassing fact for them.) That Nazis have and will lose! Take heart, anti-fascists in the US. The thing that troubled me about his answer was that a war was required and millions of people were murdered in the process of the Germans losing, which doesn’t seem to comfort me a whole lot. I still don’t have an answer for the flea circus of death that is the current US federal government. Vive la resistance.
We visited the Deutsches Historisches Museum specifically to see their exhibit on German colonial history. I must say, this was the best museum exhibit that I’ve ever visited, not because there was any particular artistic masterpiece on display, but rather because the entire point of the exhibit was to highlight the atrocities that have been committed by racist and paternalistic practices of overseas imperialism, particularly of the Germans in the Congo, Cameroon, and Namibia. I hate it when museums glorify the colonial history and justify it with all kinds of whitewashed and glamorized nonsense that erases the suffering that it caused.
Part of telling accurate histories is not glossing over the dirty and exploitative realities that happened (read: are happening), but unfortunately whitewashing has been the way of the world since the people in power were able to write stories of how they got to be there and control the narrative while making damn sure that their subalterns were silent. What I mean is yes, show me how east met west. Show me how people move around and how culture is mutable. But also, show me how west murdered and enslaved east, how racism and colorism got internalized and passed on across generations. Show me how anglophilia and eurocentrism is perpetuated in our priorities large and small, and in the microaggressions we commit against ourselves. What our trip to Berlin showed me was that people are capable of owning their part in history on an official level, though this is more the exception than the rule.
Berlin was an important place for me to visit, particularly because I had read about so much it in years of German classes and consumed tons of media out of this city, but just from afar with no context. And mostly because of the innumerable lessons they teach us that we need to pay attention to because history is repeating itself before our eyes. Another part of this really excellent experience was the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall Memorial) open-air exhibition along Bernauerstraße, which gives you a little bit of a sense of the physical landscape that the families in Berlin were dealing with and dying over. At each station there’s tons of information and accounts, which again reminds me of the need to constantly contextualize and historicize. There wouldn’t have been a Berlin Wall without Allied Occupation, and that without the war, and that without x number of other things. Also really amazing was the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe aka the Holocaust Memorial), which we visited on the morning of our departure. So many stories and firsthand accounts in the underground museum, final goodbyes people wrote to their families as they faced certain death. We also learned about this controversy in which the company hired to implement the anti-graffiti spray for the monument was also the one that produced the poison gas used in the gas chambers. And no, it had nothing to do penitence, which was my initial (hopeful) thought. Pro tips: No selfie sticks at the memorial. (It’s disrespectful.) Also, don’t buy any souvenir “pieces of the Berlin Wall”–they’re bound to be fake.