I should have known that coming to all these Olde World cities was going to result in paranormal activity. But after a full day of tromping around Berlin, there’s no escaping our collective past. And in Berlin, that past is even more present than it was in Prague.
From the Nazi atrocities to the communist oppression that followed, Berlin is chock full of heinous pasts. And as nice and modern as so much of this city is now, the reminders are everywhere. Memorials to Jewish victims, remnants of the Berlin Wall, the martial imagery leveraged by the Nazis at the Olympic Stadium and the image of Jesse Owens winning four gold medals…Berlin is haunted more than any city I’ve ever visited. Yes, the locals are cleaning it up in that oh-so-efficient German style, but there are some stains that will never come off.
I was wondering today, while I walked around parts of Berlin that were off-limits to me the last time I was here, 22 years ago: is it better to have experienced that thankfully-now-gone world? Or is it better to be like the kids and 20-somethings I saw goofing off all over town and have zero first-hand knowledge of that kind of oppression? To those kids, the Potsdamer Platz is a stylish, happenin’ square with cool buildings and a lot going on; to me, it’s a place that was ground zero for Cold War tensions for 50 years. Is it better to be blissfully ignorant? Or is it better to have those memories and know what human beings are capable of?
And maybe it’s because I’m an American and I take pride in the impact that a countryman made during the 1936 Olympics here in Berlin, but the way the Nazis used the architecture of those Games really pissed me off. I actually got angry at various points as I toured the grounds because I knew what would follow a couple of years after the Games were over. But then I had to realize: we’ve done the same thing. In fact, the Los Angeles Coliseum was touted as a model for the Berlin Olympic Stadium. And as imposing as the Reichstag is, is it any different from our Capital Building in Washington, D.C.?
I might lose some people here but I’m gonna throw something out there: What event in modern times parallels the Reichstag fire? What event prompted a diminution of freedoms in the name of security? The only thing I could come up with is the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Reichstag Fire Decree or the Patriot Act: is there really a difference?
And there’s a similarity between the Nazi inner circle and those in power in 2001 that occurred to me: the Germans touted this genetic ideal — an ideal that none of them even remotely resembled. Along similar lines, the hawks in power in 2001 touted patriotism and a military response to threats — even though they all ducked service in the ’60s when it was their time. In both cases, a small group of power-hungry assholes held up an ideal that all citizens had to adhere to — except they themselves in their little clique, of course. No, we haven’t engulfed the world in war as a result, but hey, our troops are still on the ground in Afghanistan 10 years later.
Perhaps Santayana was right: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If that’s true, the heavy history of the 20th century, particularly here in Berlin, hopefully continues to educate. And as carefree as those kids cavorting on the subway might seem, those ghosts have to be unavoidable to someone who grows up here. I only hope our isolation far away across the ocean doesn’t insulate us and keep those ghosts from haunting us as a society.