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Berlin: A dark past and a bright future

The memorial to the Berlin Wall in Berlin. Melanie de Klerk

It’s been a few weeks since my arrival in Berlin. It’s not quite enough time to feel completely at home but a bit too much time to still feel like a tourist.

I now walk my neighbourhood with the confidence of someone who “knows the area” and have even managed to give directions to a Chinese tourist who found himself lost in the wilds of Mitte.

Mitte is what I have now started referring to as my neighbourhood. Loosely translated, it’s the “centre of Berlin” because, as anyone here will tell you, there are several centres, given Berlin’s unique history as a divided city.

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Mitte is decidedly one of the hip places to live in Berlin and it boasts many bars and quaint restaurants carved into the ground floor of refurbished apartment complexes. Mitte also boasts a unique tech vibe.

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As I soon found out on my walks through the neighbourhood, it’s the birth place of many a start-up born in the area’s coffee shops, particularly the St. Olberholz café located smack dab in the middle of Rosenthaler Platz. This café is famous for its free Wi-Fi and the birth of the globally successful music sharing service, SoundCloud.

While Berlin is the place many future companies have chosen to accelerate onto the world stage, it is also a city with deep historical roots and wounds. But unlike other cities, Berlin wears its scars with a sense of acceptance.

Reminders of the Wall

Just a block from my home in Mitte lie the remnants of what was once the Berlin wall. It’s marked by a memorial park that spans several blocks, built in exactly the same place where the Berlin wall’s “no man’s land” once stood, dividing the city into East and West.

Throughout, there are memorial plaques and monuments to the separation of the two parts of the city. There is even an entire section built to show exactly what the wall system would have looked like during the time it stood.

The memorialization of a painful history is almost unavoidable in this city, more so than in most. I walk past that wall memorial park on a daily basis and even the local S-Bahn train station looks as if it’s frozen in time, memorialized as one of the so-called ghost stations. Ghost stations were those left abandoned, sealed up once the wall was in place. Today, the Nordbahnhof station has a sort of museum leading to the train platform commemorating its place in history.

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The wall is a central figure in Berlin. Even today those remnants are never far and Germans here seem to embrace that. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Theatre on Potsdamer Platz. This is where the musical, Hinterm Horizont has been running almost nightly since January 13, 2011. The musical follows the fictional love story of Udo Lindenberg, a real 1980’s German rock star, and Jessica, the young East German girl who falls for the star. It’s a fascinating glimpse into what the wall meant here. The love story becomes just the vehicle to convey the ever present importance of the wall in daily life.

The audience in attendance is almost all German and they all seem truly engaged in the narrative. All around the theatre people are on their feet singing along and I even spotted some, clearly old enough to remember life in the divided city, with tears streaming down their faces.

Sections of the Berlin Wall on display at Potsdammer Platz in Berlin. Melanie de Klerk

Impact of the Second World War

But it isn’t just the history of the wall that Berlin is faced with: the ghosts of the Second World War also haunt the city.

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“Whatever you do don’t mention the War when you are in Berlin!” These were the parting words from my 97-year-old grandmother who fought with the Dutch resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War. I found this funny, partially because of its connection to the classic British comedy, Fawlty Towers but also because it’s now been more than 70 years since that dark period in history and of course much has changed in Germany. But, as I soon discovered, the ghosts of the Second World War remain intentionally on display here.

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From the Holocaust memorial, almost right next to the Brandenburg Gate, to the chilling reminders of what Hitler and his National Socialists concocted as “the final solution” the past is on full display. That past is not displayed with pride but with a sense of acceptance of their place in history and the staunch, unwillingness to return to the past.

At the deceptively idyllic site of the Wannsee Conference, where Hitler and his deputies devised the final solution to exterminate the Jews, there is no attempt to hide the brutality of the era. Housed on the grounds of what was once a German industrialists summer home, the documents laying out the means of extermination of an entire people are on display, a chilling reminder of the depths of depravity racism and hatred can lead to.

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Wall plaques explaining the Nazi past at the summer home of Jewish painter Max Liebermann whose home was taken over by the Nazis during The Second World War. Melanie de Klerk

Memorializing the past

Reminders, memorials to the past, are indeed almost everywhere you look in Berlin and it’s almost impossible to find people who don’t agree with them here.

Throughout the city, like in many other places in Germany, there are small memorials in the form of a brass plaque replacing a cobblestone that can easily be missed but stand as a powerful daily reminder. These plaques, called stolpersteine, meaning stumbling stones, are German artist Gunter Demmings’ way of commemorating those who lost their lives in the Holocaust. They can be found marking the street in front of the last address of people who perished in Nazi death camps, in 610 different towns and cities in Germany. The project has not been without controversy, but they can be found all over Berlin and most Berliners seem proud of this memorial. In fact, a number of Berliners I’ve met bring up the memorial, asking if I’ve seen them.

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Stumbling stones on a Berlin street commemorating the last known address of families who perished in the Holocaust. Melanie de Klerk

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Accepting the past as part of the future

Germans living in Berlin seem to be resigned to the place Germany’s Nazi past and the wall hold in history.

They see it as part of the city’s landscape and part of what has made Berlin what it is today.

Some I spoke with see that history as a scar that will never fully heal, and shouldn’t. Still, others believe that the only way to exercise the ghosts of that past is to continue moving forward as a progressive and tolerant city, and that includes helping those refugees fleeing brutality in places like Syria by sheltering them from it within Germany’s own borders.

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Melanie de Klerk is currently living in Berlin as one of the 2016 Arthur F. Burns Journalism Fellows.

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