Germany Part 2: A Tough Pill to Swallow

14 07 2012

Germany fascinates me.  Not only does its history go back to the very cracks of time (we saw buildings still in use from 1100 AD), for the past 100 years or so, this country no bigger than Montana has had a major impact on U.S. and world history.  It’s an enigma to me.  How did this country allow the events of the 30s and 40s to happen?  How does a country live with the guilt?  How has it managed to rebuild to the point where it now has the strongest economy in Europe?  How should we react to the businesses that had an active role in the insanity called Nazi Germany?

Walking around Berlin today, I was slapped in the face with these questions when I saw the huge revolving Bayer sign high atop a tall building.  Bayer:  holder of the patent of heroin.  Bayer: user of slave labor from Mauthausen concentration camp.  Bayer: associated with the production of Zyklon B, used for “efficient” killing in gas chambers.  Bayer: maker of those little orange chewable aspirins that ranked up there with band aides during my childhood.  Although this trip was Annalise’s to plan, my personal and unmentioned aim was to come to some sort of resolution in my own head about these issues.

Today started off much better.  I managed to get on the Internet and send an email home.  It was more than a little disconcerting how uneasy I felt being so “disconnected.”  After coffee and some rolls at a “bäckerei”we headed to the Reichstag building for our 9:00 tour of Germany’s parliament building. Other than our hotel in Berlin, this was the only thing we had made advance reservations for, and it was well worth it.  Other than a little confusion over what to call it (we got the feeling that Reichstag had negative overtones, whereas Bundestagis the word now preferred) we found it easily enough and had an interesting tour.  After it was burned in 1933 and Hitler used it as an excuse to seize power, the building was not used again until after the reunification of Germany.  The new Bundestag building was designed intentionally to show the transparent nature of the parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany.   A walk up the spiral incline inside the glass dome gave a wonderful view of the city as well as a view down into the room where the parliament meets.  Not a bad way to start to answer all my questions.

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Inside the dome of the Bundestag.  Light is funneled through the middle set of mirrors and down to the Parliament below.

 

Afterwards, we decided that what we really needed was an overview of the city, so we hopped on one of those double-decker buses with a live guide who could get us better oriented.

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The Brandenburg Gate.  Behind is the set-up for a public viewing of the Germany-Greece soccer

We took the obligatory pictures at the Brandenburg Gate (or Brandenburg Tor, in German), that historic city gate that was a symbol of the Nazi party.  In an attempt to make this a balanced tour of Berlin, we walked through what our tour bus guide touted as the largest department store in all of Germany and maybe Europe.  Germans still have a need to be the biggest or best (but don’t we all?).

Back on the tour bus, we rode over to Checkpoint Charlie, the best-known Berlin Wall crossing point between East and West Berlin.  I love history I can touch, and that’s what this was:  the Cold War, up close and personal.  Yes, it was commercialized, with actors posing as guards and a huge McDonald’s sign directly behind it.

Germany 2012 055But the Berlin Wall was there, real and gritty with rusted iron rebar giving stark evidence of the hostile intent of Soviet-controlled East Berlin.  Equally as interesting was the Topography of Terror, a nearby outdoor museum built on the ruins of the Gestapo and SS headquarters where many political prisoners were tortured and executed.  Germany is making a real and concerted effort to remember, memorialize, and educate.

Germany 2012 060Off to another sight.  For reasons I don’t now recollect, we had to hurriedly go through the German National Museum, Annalise threatening to drag me out.  Of course, when I say “hurriedly” I mean we only had a couple hours…not near enough time to read and digest all the exhibits.  I was impressed with the effort the museum went to in order to show how the Nazi Party was able to infiltrate every aspect of German life.  In particular, I remember one dollhouse on display that had miniature wallpaper of Hitler Youth and a miniature framed picture of Hitler hanging on the wall.  With Nazi-ism so intertwined in the popular culture, I can understand a little more clearly the mindset of the German people during that time.

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Child’s dollhouse in Nazi Germany

We managed to find our way back to the hotel without too much trouble.  Naps + Maps = Much Happier Travelers.  After Annalise had a nap and we ate some of the groceries we had stocked up on, we headed out on the streets for another look-see.  Germany was playing Greece in the quarter finals of the Eurocup so the cafes were filled with fans.  Every time the German team scored, a deafening roar filled the city and fireworks were set off.  Although I know that Germany is not the only country to follow its soccer team so fanatically, it still gave me an eerie feeling.  Maybe a Bayer aspirin would help.

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3 responses

15 07 2012
kbfenner

I think the Germans, especially those in the former West Germany, have done more to come to terms with their past than southern Americans have done to come to terms with theirs (my people came over after the American Civil War, but in the 19th century). Can you imagine flying the Nazi flag on a monument to a Nazi officer, as we fly a Confederate flag on a monument to a Confederate soldier, in front of the most important state building? German films and literature never glorify the Nazi regime, unlike much of what Americans produce about the antebellum South and the Civil War….

16 07 2012
eberteach

You are absolutely right! I had never thought about it that way. I wonder how reconstruction could have been handled to achieve a better outcome. Or was it just that the system of slavery and discrimination had gone on for so long that it was thoroughly engrained in the collective psyche? But anti-semitism had been around a long time too. I wonder what the difference was?

16 07 2012
Brian

Yeah! Your vacation got better. I wish I were there. I love watching soccer.

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