Berlin: A Study in Past and Present

| October 17, 2017 | 0 Comments

“Because of its history, Germany has a special responsibility to actively oppose the violations of gay men’s and lesbian’s human rights.”

This is a line from the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under the National Socialist Regime in Berlin, which I visited last semester for a week to visit my wonderful friend who was studying there.

Berlin is a city steeped in its history. From the horrors of the Holocaust to the Wall that would rend both it and the lives of its citizens for so many years, its history has been often a hard one. But Berlin has mastered the art of living with your past – something the United States could learn a few lessons in.

Berlin today is edgy, young, and (dare I say it?) hipster. I saw a young person sitting under a tree with an actual typewriter at an open-air vintage flea market, so that’s the kind of city Berlin is.

But a the same time, history is physically everywhere you look in this modern city: the Brandenburg Gate, remnants of the Berlin Wall, memorials to the victims of the Holocaust. Berlin has struck a difficult balance; it is not defined by its dark past, nor does it forget that past.

If you walk down the streets of Berlin (or the streets of many other German and European cities), you could easily miss the little bronze squares placed intermittently in the sidewalk, but once you know what you’re looking for they are impossible to miss. These squares, called stolperstein (“stumbling stones”), are placed in front of houses and bear the names and life dates of the people who lived there and were murdered by the Nazis.

It’s a different kind of memorial. There’s a big central memorial to the Jews who were killed in the Holocaust along with memorials to the Sinti and Roma, the homosexuals, the euthanasia victims. You can go visit the memorials and then leave, and you forget about it. But the stumbling stones are different. They’re a constant reminder of the horrors that happened on the very street you’re biking down. They’re integrated into daily life. 

Berlin has memorialized its Wall in multiple ways as well. There are stretches of tall spikes of rebar sticking up from the ground, a skeletal spine of where the Wall once stood. There are sections of the Wall that are preserved meticulously, providing a look into life in that split city. There are signs showing where escape routes were, and where people died trying to cross.

But there are also more celebratory memorials. The East Side Gallery is a stretch of the Wall that has been transformed into an art display. Sections of it are covered in commissioned murals with themes of freedom and equality, and sections of it are left open for the public to paint on. They’re covered in names and slogans, graffiti that is beautiful in a different way from the professional artwork. It’s defiant.

Berlin is a city with a dark past, but it has learned to live with it. It isn’t depressed, but it also doesn’t let you forget what happened there. It refuses to sweep things under the rug and sees its duty as ensuring that those horrors of the past will never happen again.

That’s something the United States could learn from.

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Category: Food and Travel, HTC Abroad, Reflections

Ellen Asermely

About the Author ()

Ellen Asermely is a senior (!) in the Pardee School studying International Relations. Born and raised in Rhode Island, the smallest but weirdest state, she enjoys coffee milk, the Big Blue Bug, and Awful Awfuls. In her free time, Ellen can be found by the ocean, eating anything with cheese on it, reading Harry Potter, or hugging strangers' dogs.

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