Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Living the past

Berlin has always been around the top of my list of cities to visit. For many years its weird situation as a divided city fascinated me, but I had never before managed to pay a visit.
The Brandenburg Gate
The Reichstag

Christmas revelries on Unter den Linden
When I finally did I was surprised to see how much its tourist industry plays on World War II and its 40 year epilogue. Most of the postcards on sale and sights to see are about this period: the bombed out city, the burning Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie and Hitler’s Bunker, for example.

Checkpoint Charlie
Perhaps this has been the catharsis that the country needed: the Germans I have met all seem to be forward looking and not outwardly hung up by a period in history that clearly could create some deep psychological issues.

Several places made a deep impression on me. The first was the Holocaust Memorial. Approaching this from a distance it looks like a small area of black stone slabs arranged in a grid pattern on a gentle knoll, but as you walk into the spaces between the slabs you find yourself disappearing down into a subterranean level where you cannot see out, people appear fleetingly and disappear ahead and beside you and the black stones lurch and lean intimidatingly. 
The Holocaust Memorial

I had not read anything about the place before, but I immediately felt a sense of panic as I slid into the cracks, disappearing from the world and not being able to see an easy way to escape.

The second was the Jewish Museum, housed in an astonishing building whose shape and internal layout has been designed to capture the dislocation and uncertainty of Jewish history through the centuries. I know that Britain is not free of anti-semitism, but I was relieved that my people were not directly involved in the terrible story that it told about Germany and other parts of mainland Europe in the 1930-1945 period. However, had we not been able to rely on the English Channel to save us in 1940 I’m not so sure that we would not have also joined in with what happened, so no self-satisfaction here.

It’s a fascinating, compelling but ultimately depressing exhibition, telling a vitally important story, but I left feeling that it did not deal at all with one of the Holocaust’s postscripts, the situation in Israel and Palestine. I guess I’m just hopelessly na├»ve about people and politics, but would it not have been so much better for the world if this terrible experience had led Israel to steer away from crushing the Palestinians and instead show real humanity in seeking to find ways of sustainable coexistence.

More uplifting was the East Side Gallery.

Lining the River Spree for several hundred metres on the east side of the city, this is the most complete remaining stretch of the old Berlin Wall and is celebrated by artists expressing in a variety of ways what the Wall signifies to them. Great fun.
Freedom means getting Kylie

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