I decided to separate this post out from the city-specific posts because those were about having fun and this one has a more serious tone. Going to Berlin, Munich, and Prague was a fun experience, certainly, but it also was an educational one. Something that is different between Europe and America, or at least certain places in Europe, is that history is inescapable. Walking around Berlin, it seemed like every block had a memorial for some group of people persecuted or killed during the Third Reich, or a piece of the Berlin Wall still standing as a reminder of the Cold War. In Prague, even something as simple as a designer store in a certain area of town was significant (the Jewish quarter, now home to a fancy shopping district, had a Hugo Boss store; the designer apologized just a few years ago for having designed the Nazis’ uniforms).
I think there are two reasons for this. One is proximity; in the United States, war has usually occurred far from home. Events that ought to be memorialized—dropping atomic bombs on Japan, the Vietnam War, all the way up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—have taken place on foreign soil. Obviously, thousands in the U.S. have personal connections to events abroad, at least the more recent ones, but we don’t generally have to look out our windows and see reminders of it leftover from those eras.
The other reason, I believe, is responsibility. Think about how little coverage the Vietnam War gets in schools compared to the American Revolution. How often we think about Nazi concentration camps and how little we think about American internment camps (it’s true that the two are hardly comparable, but that doesn’t mean the latter didn’t happen). How Christopher Columbus and the pioneers are still glorified for discovering and expanding America but not vilified for their treatment of Native Americans. America has done many incredible things in its short history, but not everything that has happened in those few centuries has been positive, and we tend not to take responsibility for these things. There is a trend toward changing this, toward acknowledging fault and owning up and recognizing what it took to get where we did, but there’s still an overall feeling of “America, fuck yeah” when we were the victors and “never happened” when we weren’t.
This isn’t the case in these three cities I visited last week. After touring Dachau, we ended up on the same train back to Munich as our tour guide, and she gave us some insight into how history is discussed in Germany. It is spoken about straightforwardly in history books, and people (particularly in Berlin, she said, although increasingly in Munich) don’t shy away from it. People, she said, want it to be remembered, acknowledged. I think that is a good way to go about things. Here are some of my strongest impressions and the things I learned about history in Berlin, Prague, and Munich:
Berlin is the capital of Germany and a main site of many important aspects of history, particularly from the last century. During WWII it was the headquarters for Nazi Germany and afterwards, the city was divided into East and West Berlin until the end of the Cold War. Because much of the city was bombed during the Second World War, most of the history in the city involves these two time periods. The Lustgarten was the site of Nazi propaganda rallies, such as in this famous picture:
One of the most interesting sites I visited while in Berlin was an exhibit called “Topographies of Terror,” located at the former site of the S.S. headquarters. The exhibit basically went through the Nazis’ rise to power, their reign of terror, and their eventual defeat. It talked about the S.S. and the Gestapo especially, and how they would pit neighbours against each other, how they would use fear to silence people or to make sure they would not fight back. As the exhibit showed, political threats, dissidents, and people who fought against the Nazi Party were also put into concentration camps.