Berlin Remembers

Memorials of Past Darkness for a Brighter Future

Flowers and candles outside the American Embassy in support of Orlando victims
Flowers, candles, and gay pride flags outside the American Embassy in support of the Orlando victims

Beneath a thin layer of grit and a heavy mound of history, Berlin thrives today as a vibrant, cosmopolitan capital. A young city that was rebuilt after its destruction in WWII, divided for around 40 years into communist East and capitalist West, it was reunited 25 years ago as the capital of the unified Federal Republic of Germany.

Among its busy streets, funky cafes, and modern office buildings, Berlin seeks to acknowledge the most recent periods of Germany’s past and to educate the public for a better future.

Berlin remembers…

Jews,

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

IMG_6210

Roma and Sinti (aka Gypsies),

Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism
Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism

homosexuals,

Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism
Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism

and politicians who opposed Hitler

Memorial to the Politicians Who Opposed Hitler
Memorial to the Politicians Who Opposed Hitler

who were dehumanized and killed during the Holocaust.

The memorials that stand in place of the many groups of victims embody the idea of loss itself. Stark stone columns, a dark pool surrounded by stone slabs… each memorial is dark, angular, and abstract in its concrete nature, seeming to reflect perhaps not the people themselves but their absence.

Berlin remembers…

Those who died attempting to escape from East to West during the Cold War

Berlin Wall Memorial
Berlin Wall Memorial
Illustration of the defensive layers around the wall
Illustration of the defensive layers near the wall
Preserved section of the Berlin Wall
Preserved section of the Berlin Wall
Recreated escape tunnel
Recreated escape tunnel

A photograph of each of these 136 people, including several children, is displayed in a memorial wall opposite a remaining section of the Berlin Wall, which was built in 1961 to prevent citizens of strictly controlled East Berlin from escaping into West Berlin. The Berlin Underworld Tour explains attempts (some successful) to tunnel under the wall or to make a break for it (mostly attempted by young East German military officers or subway staff) through “Ghost Stations,” or heavily guarded subway stops in East Berlin.

Berlin remembers…

Those who were considered a threat to life in the DDR (East Germany) by the Stasi

Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen (Former Stasi Central Investigation Center and Prison)
Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen (Former Stasi Central Investigation Center and Prison)
Single cell used in the 1940s
Single cell used in the 1940s
Cells from the 1950s-1980s
Cells used during the 1950s-1980s
"Tiger Cage" outdoor exercise area
“Tiger Cage” outdoor exercise area
Interrogation room
Interrogation room

The central investigation center of the Stasi, formerly a restricted area left conspicuously blank on maps, now serves as a memorial and museum, staffed by many former political prisoners who lead guided tours to educate the public about history and their personal experiences. From the end of WWII to the fall of communism in the late 1980s, anyone who was seen to be counter to the mainstream culture could be rounded up by specially recruited secret police and, through calculated physical and psychological torture, coerced into confessing to crimes against their country. The older and newer sections of the prison remain as they must have looked when in use, a powerful reminder to reflect on who the real threat is and how a way of life should be fought for.

Berlin remembers…

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” – Primo Levi

May we all learn from history and remember what makes us human.

A Venture into Former East Germany

Modern university mixed with old church in Augustusplatz, formerly Karl-Marx-Platz
Modern university mixed with old church in Augustusplatz, formerly Karl-Marx-Platz

I wasn’t familiar with the term DDR. In English, our abbreviation is GDR. Deutsche Demokratische Republik = German Democratic Republic. The former East Germany.

I had started taking German lessons when I arrived with several goals, one of the main ones being to be able to converse with James’s relatives in Germany. This past weekend, I felt that this goal had been achieved. Of course, still with a lot of room for improvement.

We had been kindly invited for a visit by relatives in Leipzig, four hours or so hours east of us. Now retired, they were born during World War II and lived in the DDR until Germany became reunited in 1990. In DDR times, children learned Russian as a foreign language in school, and citizens could only enter West Germany with special permission even if they had family members there. (The rest of this branch of the family was, in fact, scattered throughout West Germany.)

The highlight of the trip, of course, was getting to know these cousins and learning more about family history from a completely different perspective. We also had the opportunity to tour Leipzig and learn about the historical context of the city firsthand.

Café with medieval tower and flags for the World Cup
Café with medieval tower and flags for the World Cup

The main downtown area is a complete mix of old and new. A medieval tower on the corner of a modern café; a shopping center with a bar that Goethe used to frequent (and included in Faust); parts of a church left in the center of a main university building.

Leipzig currently has a large university student community, and people-watching was particularly interesting while we had lunch along the Marktplatz square by the old town hall. Colorful stockings, brightly-dyed hair, black clothes with buckles. A colorful cast of other non-university characters drifted through the square as well.

Altes Rathaus = Old Town Hall
Altes Rathaus = Old Town Hall

From a Hop-on Hop-off bus, one of the first sights we saw was the remains of the Hotel Astoria (now closed), covered in graffiti and short an “S.” But not far away we saw many extremely modern hotels, expensive riverside lofts, and extensive public parks.

The Leipzig Hauptbahnhof (main train station) is the largest terminus in the world. Sachsen, or Saxon, and Prussia operated two separate state railway systems from different wings of the building in the earlier half of the 20th century. Bombings during World War II badly damaged the Hauptbahnhof, but the glass and other structural features have since been restored.

Part of Leipzig Hauptbahnhof
Part of Leipzig Hauptbahnhof

Leipzig is also home to the Monument for the Battle of the Nations. Standing tall over a long pool, it commemorates the defeat of Napoleon’s armies in 1813. Russian, Prussian, Austrian, and Swedish forces had triumphed over French, Italian, Polish, and some Rheinland soldiers.

Monument to the Battle of the Nations
Monument to the Battle of the Nations
Bach's grave in St. Thomas Church
Bach’s grave in St. Thomas Church

We visited two churches that we had seen from the bus tour: One related to the Reformation and one to the Revolution against the DDR government.

The composer Johann Sebastian Bach had worked in both churches during the 18th century. In fact he is buried in St. Thomas Church, where Martin Luther had led his Reformation movement about 200 years earlier. The world-renowned St. Thomas Boys’ Choir was first formed here some 800 years ago.

In 1989, St. Nicholas Church was where the East German peaceful freedom demonstrations began. People filled the streets and walked through the city, ultimately gaining rights as East and West Germany became reunited a year later.

DDR protest mural
Freedom mural

One of the most striking sights I saw was an enormous mural, still in progress, depicting this nonviolent struggle to independence. Colorful people cover every inch of the side of a building, displaying their unity. Their absolutely cartoonish appearance belies the powerful messages in the mural. Asserting, accusing, demanding.

We are the people.”

“Fat cats in production.” “Stasi in the opencast mining.”

“The Wall must go.” “Visa free till Hawaii.” “New forum.” “Freedom of the press.” “Free elections.”

“No violence.”

“Democracy.”

Freedom.”

The whole mural (part of the middle remains to be filled in)
The whole mural (part of the middle remains to be filled in)