Even if you had somehow come to Berlin with no previous knowledge of Germany’s history in the dark 1930s and 1940s, by the time you left the city, you’d have a firm grasp of the atrocities that took place: the ugliness, the horror, the evil…and, years later, the sincere regret and honesty with which the city and the German people reflect upon their history.
The beautiful city is essentially a gigantic memorial to the people it harmed in years past. There’s the deeply moing Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under the National Socialist Regime, the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under Naziism among many others—and something else that was never built, necessarily , but can be felt in every corner of the city: the sense of ownership for its past wrongdoings, and regret. Berlin owns up to its past in a way I had never seen before. In the city’s museums, in the exhibits about genocide or war or any of the evil things human beings spend their time doing to each other, the wording of the captions or informational pieces is harsh and untempered—there is no filter. There is no hesitation to make the reader feel uncomfortable with their semantics. In Berlin, any information given on informative plaques at historical sites or in the numerous museums, the wording is such that the reader must understand and accept what happened here as sincerely and completely as Berlin has. Berlin hides nothing—and even endeavors to help the visitor understand the atrocities that occurred on a deeper and truer level than they did when they first arrived.
This phenomenon first stood out to me at the Brandenburg Gate. Outside the Brandenburg Gate, there is a large wall filled with historical information about the significance of the Gate in National Socialist history and the general location in which it was erected. Of the many horrifying images from the Nazi regime recreated there, one is an image of a crowd of schoolchildren burning thousands of boks. They are smiling at the camera while libraries-worth of books burn before them. The caption of the photo: “Schoolchildren can be seen here—clearly happy to be burning the books.” The use of the word “clearly” stuck out to me. The information given here isn’t objective—and the writing doesn’t aim to temper the delivery of this imagine. Berlin wants us to know that in the past, not only did they burn books, but they “clearly” relished it. That’s how terrifying a place it was. But that’s not the extent of it. Informational panels will opt for harsher words like “murdered” instead of “died,” they’ll use more emotional terms like “death camps” instead of “concentration camps.” They don’t give themselves a break.
It is, indeed, difficult to travel through this city without an occasional lump in your throat, or a burning in your eyes. Perhaps, though, what stuck with me the most were the pillars scattered throughout the city with 4 faces on each of its sides telling us the story of an accomplished Jewish person in his/her field who, at the height of their creativity, success, brilliance or philanthropy, were unceremoniously shipped to a concentration camp and killed. The tourist is confronted with the reminders of the brutality and pointlessness of the Holocaust wherever they go. Not only can we never forget such an ugly era in history, but, as Berlin makes it clear—we should not want to. It is our duty as members of the human race to remember these people who suffered such an unjust end. And Berlin makes that ideal its mission.
It’s so important that Berlin does this, too, because, as a world class European city that sees visitors from all over the world, it’s an excellent opportunity to remind the entire world what happened there, and what must never happen again.