I thought that Paris was big. Coming from Brussels, Dublin felt like a small town and Paris felt huge. But all bets were off when I made it to Berlin. In all of the cities that I had been in so far, I felt like I could walk around in them. That if I got lost I could walk in a direction until I found a landmark to make my way back home. This is not true for berlin. Vast squares and monumental buildings were tucked behind quiet streets, so that you stumble upon them completely by accident. It is a disorienting feeling.
With the other cities, they were often crowded around something, so that all of the monumental buildings were within shouting distance. In Brussels everything was crowded around the Grand Place, or the Royal Square. In Paris it was the Sine. Berlin just sprawls, irresponsibly dropping monumental buildings in places that one doesn’t expect.
But enough about the size of Berlin. After a few days I could manage it sufficiently enough, so that in the end it was really not a big deal.
In Berlin I felt the history of the city weigh down on me more than in any other, including Paris. Sure Paris had history, it is an old city. It is filled with vast palaces and the ornamental French architecture. But it never really felt real. It was almost too old, and I couldn’t relate.
Berlin was different for two reasons. First, it has been the focal point for Western History for the past 100 years, which makes it much more relatable than the royal history of Paris. Berlin played a major role in both world wars, and was the axis of the Cold War. I mean, the wall only came down a little more than twenty years ago, and the older Germans still have vivid memories about life during the Cold War. Second, the Germans have done a fantastic job of memorializing their history. They do not shy away from it or try to deny it. They face their history head on, and confront it in order to reconcile.
For example, one night after dinner we were walking along, joking and carrying on, when I saw a small bronze plaque, about the size of a Post it Note, slipped in among the cobblestones. On it was just a name, a couple of dates, and the name of a concentration camp. It memorialized the person who lived there that Nazis arrested, took to a camp and murdered. It stopped us cold. Almost immediately we all grew somber while we reflected about the life that was taken there. After that night, I started noticing them everywhere. Two here, then five there, the little plaques served as a constant reminder of what happened there seventy years earlier. That is the effect that Berlin can have on you. The history hits you like a wall at times, and you have to stop and take stock of exactly where you are.
Seeing the Wall itself has much the same effect. But I think even more than going to the Eastside gallery to see where the wall stands, it is much more powerful to just see the brick inlay that follows the 90 mile outline of the Wall cutting through a street that you go to cross. When you step on the bricks and then over them you realize that you just did what Germans were not able to do for thirty years. And entire generation did not see the other side until they were well into adulthood. Growing up I always thought of the Cold War as sort of silly, political posturizing that never came to fruition The Wall seemed to me to be a little ridiculous, certainly not harmful. But seeing it in person changed that. It had real consequences on Germany that people are still trying to cope with to this day. The way that Germany teaches about its history, unabashedly and starkly, helps them move on.