“The question is not whether we can change but whether we are changing fast enough”. Angela Merkel
“Guten Tag”. After the drags of Hamburg (not a big fan of this city) we were pleased to enter the realm of modern history mixed with age old Germanic architecture in Berlin. As we wondered the historical area of Berlin, we were treated to a feast of cultures colliding at various points.
How often have we seen pictures of pristine solider formations from the Brandenburg Gate to the Reichstag Building? The Goddess of Peace and the four horses (Quadriga) could be seen as slightly apocalyptic.
Recently, statues were pulled down across the US, UK and Africa. Statues which were not seen as endorsing peace between the various groups who were affected by the people these memorials were glorifying. Some folks decried the vandalism as removal of history, their history. What is our history and is it bringing peace through one set of interpretations? A tree is neutral. A flower garden is neutral. Nature has a way of bridging gaps and creating impartiality where words and actions sometimes cannot. Instead of monuments which offer too many viewpoints, why not have something which is universal to human beings?
All around Berlin are reminders of a time when the world sat on the knife edge of global despotism. Not since, have countries breathed such treacherous ambitions through border intrusion. Now, we simply use satellites and atoms to vie threat.
Travelling to Christmas Markets in Colmar, we crossed the Rhine from Freiburg, only in history lessons had I understood the significance of the Rhineland. Yet, here we were, driving through land which had seen it’s share of bloody battles in my textbooks. As an island girl, I began to appreciate the roads and fences which marginalise whole countries. History makes one appreciates the delicacy of borders and threats.
There is an eeriness to the Berlin Wall, even now. The markings on the remnants suggest desperation, the atmosphere around these memorials stink of restraint. As one war came to an end, another started. The very allies that brought a halt to the Third Reich’s brutal ambitions then turned on one another and a country which had seen rights diminish overnight was thrust into the midst of a blistering cold war. The structure stood operational from 1961 to 1989. Families were torn apart. Cultural differences highlighted. It is suggested that even now the differences between ‘East and West Germany’ can be felt. To wake up one morning and find that I cannot visit family or friends on the other side of a wall and that if I try to leave, I might be shot.
One memorial which is hardly recognisable is the Bunker where Hitler and his beloved, Eva Braun committed suicide. Just a small plaque denotes the place, the bunker long since filled in to make a car park, almost highlighting the need to ‘bury’ the past. Yet that plaque a small cue of what power in the wrong hands can ‘achieve’.
As we wondered the maze of grey stones which has been placed to remember those lost, it all seemed so surreal. I felt the memorial was bleak, maybe it is meant to be this way. One website suggests it is a place of contemplation. How can we ever make the killing of millions of people vibrant and colourful? Outside of the Reichstag sits neat rows of slate which commemorate members of Parliament who died ‘unnaturally’ during the conflict years. As we ready ourselves for the Island’s General Election, we breathe easily as we enjoy freedom outside of dictatorship.
St Helena has never known harsh dictatorship. We have not been hit by brutal natural elements. We have not needed steel bars in windows to ward off unsavoury characters. We have our challenges to face but we have not known what is like to be restricted from essential public services because of the colour of our skin, our religion or sexual orientation.
Whilst Checkpoint Charlie is surrounded by modern retail outlets and the ‘US Soldiers’ seem as if they have made excellent use of the products from these outlets (KFC & MacDonalds), East meets West. The prosperity of post war US met the harsh, often poverty stricken conditions of the East as the City was carved up.
We crossed ‘The Line’ and there were indicative differences of a past time, any coalition was suppressed by ideologies. Traffic lights were different. Building styles were different. This was not to say that the ‘richer’ part of Berlin had been gifted to the West. Indeed not, for there were many buildings in the East which were superior to the West. However, there was a notable difference in Development and Investment, post war.
I am not sure that this fella would have been able to protest so openly pre-1989. It was cool enough with coats on, so he must have been freezing in some way or other. He protests peacefully, yet in dark corners of every society there are groups who would repeat the past and more, given half a chance.
There are so many beautiful buildings around the city. What I noticed time and again was the sizeable Platz (place) in front of each building and how clean so much of the district was.
When the historical tours are over, the bier (beer) and bratwurst is quite excellent. Of course there is so much more to the culinary delights of Germany than sausage, but nothing beats a hot chilli bratwurst on a cool Autumn day. The bier is the best in the world (I think). Thankfully, there are also some awesome non-alcoholic German biers about.
Like any major city, Berlin offers the visitor a glimpse into the country’s economy. We took the train to the outskirts of the City and beyond the bright lights of the Brandenburg Gate, we found areas that although likened to the grunge of London, really weren’t places that I would like to reside in any time too soon. Every city has a few of them. It reminds me how harsh Urban living can be for the person not on a pretty penny.
History has always been a subject that I enjoy because of the philosophical element. As I ready myself one day to perhaps visit the Asias, communities which are ancient in comparison to parts of the world, I know that each destination, each culture, each conflict has something compelling to teach humanity about how we can go forward with preservation in mind. Perhaps I am naive to think that we can slow down the growing nervousness about conflict repetition, but I suggest we must try.