Berlin: A City of Tears

View of Reichstag & river
A view of the Reichstag from the River Spree, which ultimately flows into the Elbe.

Believe it or not, it is possible for me to be serious when I write (although if you scroll through every entry below you’d be hard pressed to believe that), but this portion of our Berlin tour calls for nothing but seriousness.

I looked forward to visiting Berlin mostly to see firsthand how the Germans have commemorated World War II, which was the deadliest military conflict in human history. My anticipation was well-rewarded; Berlin has done a good job making sure residents and visitors alike remember the horrors of that time.

Potsdamer Platz
Potsdamer Platz was once one of the most important intersections in Europe.

While Berlin probably can’t be described as a beautiful city (lots of plain-Jane Soviet-era buildings still exist in what was east Berlin, after all), it is certainly not an ugly city, and is rich in history and culture. Berlin is also very cosmopolitan: only 71% of Berlin’s residents are ethnic German. The rest is mostly a mix of eastern Europeans, Middle Easterners, and Asians. In addition, Berlin is a trendsetter in music, art, and dance. International artists, entrepreneurs, and young people are flocking there to be part of the scene.

Acceptance and tolerance are now woven into the city’s fabric. You could say it is now the antithesis of a Hitler city, although Berlin was always more liberal than the rest of the country during those times. It was not the hotbed of Nazism, it’s just where the capitol was.

Berlin in 1945

The devastation of World War II was not just the holocaust. The holocaust was simply the most mind-numbing and senseless aspect of it. Estimates of total deaths due to the war reach as high as 85 million people killed, over 50 million of which were civilians. The USSR alone lost over 25 million people. Someone tabulated the cost of the war relative to 2005 dollars, and came up with $11,292,682,078,166.46. That’s over eleven trillion dollars. And 46 cents.

Despite the fact that blaming Jews for anything related to World War I or Germany was totally irrational and ludicrous, millions of Germans were willing to rally behind the policies and/or turn a blind eye to the mass extermination of an entire group of blameless people.

I believe this is central as to why so many folks are very uncomfortable seeing men like Donald Trump in power (as well as some of the world’s other strident right-wing leaders) with his obvious bigotry (don’t even think about denying that even if you support his policies). Bigotry led to the outright murder of six million Jews. I believe most Europeans are far less willing to allow bigotry to take hold again than many Americans, because the results of going down that road stare them in the face nearly every day.

While it seems as if we should be smart enough to learn from disaster, the main message you see when you enter the Holocaust Museum is this:

IMG_9407

The wholesale slaughter of six million Jews just because they were Jewish should be enough reason for most politicians to pick their words carefully even today. As our leaders and representatives, they should stay as far away as possible from even hinting that just because someone might look or act different, or believe in a different version of God, or speak another language, or come from another country, they should be treated any differently from anyone else. When a politician chooses to ignore history and fan the flames of racism or sexism, or wields patriotism as a sword with which to keep the hordes of foreigners at bay, or build another goddamn wall, many people become very uncomfortable. For the life of me I don’t understand why American politics are so all-in. You can support some things, but you should hate other things even if it’s from the same party or politician, and denounce it any time you see it. One of those is bigotry.

John McCain did that, and earned the respect of many who would otherwise oppose many of his policies. Where have all the John McCains gone?

The apt and starkly named Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is not a memorial designed to shove the reality of the actual brutal acts in your face. What you will find are the victims’ stories. The museum, which is housed beneath the concrete slabs, emphasizes the lives of those who were so senselessly shipped off to torture and death. These were real people whose only crime was to be born Jewish. Of course the Germans also efficiently disposed of many others, such as Gypsies and homosexuals and the mentally challenged. Or because you were liberal.

Above the museum, 2,711 concrete slabs sit on 4.7 acres of undulating ground. At first glance, this is an unusual and puzzling design. If you read up on it you’ll find all sorts of interpretations as to what it all might mean. I think only ingenious works of art can result in so many people walking away with so many varying interpretations.

IMG_9412In fact, Carolyn came up with her own interpretation after seeing the rain drops trickle down the sides of the slabs. They reminded her of tears. I don’t know if the designers planned that, but she’s right. And there’s no event in human history that deserves more tears than the holocaust.

IMG_9257Inside the museum, which fittingly costs nothing to enter, you are shown story after story of real human beings. It is a great reminder that the holocaust is not just about statistics or unfathomable numbers of people killed. It’s about six million innocent persons, each of whom was just like you and me, with hopes and dreams and loves and heartaches. And their lives were brutally taken from them simply because one man developed an irrational hatred of them because he couldn’t bring himself to believe that the Germans had simply lost World War I on their own.

IMG_9408IMG_9411Unfortunately, the tragedy of the war didn’t end when World War II was over. Europe was a complete mess. Most Jews and many more permanently lost their homes and possessions even when they returned to claim them. Millions of people were scattered about the continent, and the infrastructure was devastated. To make matters worse, the Soviets stayed in almost all of the countries they crossed to get to Germany. So those who lived in East Germany, for instance, went from the horrors of Nazi Germany to the horrors of Soviet rule. The East German security service, known as the Stasi, was just as feared and brutal as the SS. Eventually the Soviets built a wall around West Berlin, and sealed off the countries they controlled.

On of the most famous border crossings in Germany was between East and West Berlin, and is known as “Checkpoint Charlie.” It is now a tourist attraction.

There is also a section of the famous Berlin Wall that has been preserved. I’d heard that it was just a small segment, but I definitely wanted to see it. It turns out it’s bigger than I thought, and we found it a very interesting place to visit.

IMG_9333There is a memorial wall honoring all those who lost their lives trying to cross the wall into West Berlin.

IMG_9316There is the wall itself, which actually was just the last line of defense.

IMG_9319Even if you could climb over that wall, you first had to make it through a no-man’s land patrolled by guards in towers, with mines and dogs and sirens and in some cases guns automatically triggered by motion detectors.

IMG_9327Residents on both sides could see across to the other. But the wall created a chasm between countrymen that could only be healed once the wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed.

IMG_9331Many of the buildings in the area that face West Berlin have large murals painted on them showing what the area looked like during the cold war.

In the end? Those millions of lives lost and trillions of dollars spent was all completely senseless, borne on the backs of lies and policies with no reality behind them. Sometimes I despair at the state of a species that is so willing to believe lies and to hate so easily, enough so as to allow six million of their fellow human beings to be tormented and slaughtered. It’s exceedingly important that we remember what humanity is capable of, both the good and the bad. This is why I get shivers up and down my spine when I see the frickin’ President of the United States tweet this:

Screen Shot 2018-12-21 at 11.36.16 AMWhile he has a point about the inequity of military spending (to which many might say, why the hell is the US paying 4.3% of its GDP when that means it spends more on defense than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, the UK and Japan combined?).

But the issue I have with the tweet is that Mr. Trump demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of history: There was no such thing as a European military; they were fighting each other. In fact, Europe formed the European Union mostly to ensure something like World War II didn’t happen again. Again, no matter what your politics are you should be horrified that the leader of the most powerful nation in the world is so clueless when it comes to world history.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

As a side note, many people don’t know that when Germany fell, many of the upper level Nazis escaped to the Middle East, where they had cultivated allies. Once ensconced, they continued their anti-Jewish efforts, which explains some of the irrational hatred the Arabs have against the Jews. Mr. Adolf Hitler is a gift of evil that keeps on giving even to this day.

In the end, Hitler received his own just reward. I think it is so fitting that the place where he killed himself, the Führerbunker, is now simply a dirt-covered parking lot.

Hitler's Bunker

A fitting memorial to the most evil monster in human history.

 

 

Laine Berning
Laine Berning

2 thoughts on “Berlin: A City of Tears

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