October 12, 2011

Learning from the past

I am standing amongst hundreds of giant concrete blocks, rising up like sentinels on every side. They throw sound, so that the boy that comes running down the path to my left sounds like he is miles away until he appears suddenly before me. This is Berlin’s Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe: hardly a conventional medium of remembrance, but an immensely powerful one nonetheless. Because of its structure, the memorial forces you to constantly be aware of what’s around you even as the blocks work against your efforts. It is an apt parallel to Germany’s struggle with the darker points in its history.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is just one effort of many by the German government to ensure that the horrors of the Nazi era are never forgotten. Walk down Unter den Linden a bit further, and you’ll reach Bebelplatz, a spacious plaza framed by the State Opera House and Humboldt University. Look a little closer, though, and you’ll notice a plaque off to the side commemorating May 10, 1933, when Nazi students burned hundreds of books here. Through a window in the ground, you can see row after row of glaringly white bookshelves, each one empty.

Later, hop on the U8 train to Kochstraße. Weave your way through the crowds of tourists here to see Checkpoint Charlie (which used to be where diplomats and foreign tourists could cross the Berlin Wall) and stumble across the Topography of Terror, which at first glance appears to be an open-air exhibit situated next to a field of gravel. Explore a bit and you’ll learn that this unassuming field of gravel is actually the former site of the SS and Gestapo headquarters. And over it all presides one of the few remaining fragments of the Berlin Wall, rough and raw and intimidating. Someone has spray-painted “madness” near the top.

You think you can escape Berlin’s past. You think there must a place in the city where you can leave history behind. And then you trip over a small stone slightly raised up from the sidewalk. It’s a Stolperstein (literally translated, a stumbling block), which marks the home of a Jewish person deported, killed or otherwise harmed by the Nazis. Even here, on an otherwise unremarkable side street, the city’s history remains a fact of life. Whatever Berlin is today, it cannot forget what it once was.

And perhaps that is how it should be. It is all too tempting to try to forget about the Nazis and all that happened under their regime. After all, why spend time bringing up painful memories when modern Germany has proven itself to be a liberal, progressive country? There are several reasons. First and most importantly, to ignore atrocities such as the Holocaust would be to do their victims a grave disservice. Second, because forgetting is too easy — and too dangerous.

A few weeks ago, we watched “Die Welle” (“The Wave”) for one of my classes. At the beginning of the film, which is based on a true story, students declare fascism dead and insist that it could not happen in a developed, modern country. In order to demonstrate otherwise, a teacher gradually introduces more and more autocratic elements into his classroom only for the project to spiral out of control as students ostracize peers who are not a part of the experiment more and more severely. Even as students begin to realize how quickly they are succumbing to fascism (the movie spans less than a week of time), they find themselves unable to resist its pull. Even today, after all that the world has been through, fascism still holds incredible power and, for the unsuspecting, a terrible allure.

Fascism was not something I intended to dwell on when I came to Germany, and Berlin does not mean for me to do so. Instead, it places stones in the sidewalk. Remember, they say. Remember. And so I stand amongst hundreds of giant concrete blocks, and despite the logical side of my brain screaming for me to do anything else, I remember. I read the stories of victims of the Nazi era, even though my mind says I can’t stomach them. I visit the memorials and the museums alone, silently. I stand. I see. And then I turn to leave, and Berlin’s modern skyline rises up before me, people of every color and creed walking its streets. I know what Berlin is, and what it has become, and the knowledge of the former makes the latter all the more precious.

Anna Meier is Co-News Editor for The Knox Student.

Anna Meier

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