Trapped: Berlin & Historic Awareness (3/3)

An example of repurposing a dark past, the Hofmann Collection is housed in a former Nazi bunker that became a Soviet storehouse and then a nightclub before its current role as private gallery.

Cities like Berlin are hard to come by. I don't mean this in terms of the amount of history ready to explore or the diversity of its residents. What makes it stand out to me is the painful level of awareness of the complexities of human behavior which it imposes upon its inhabitants. There's no escaping the last century of political and social turmoil when exploring Berlin. The former East-West division is evident in the architectural styling of each half and the memorials of the Berlin Wall celebrate its absence as much as it honors the pain of those it oppressed. Private art collections are housed in former Nazi bunkers that were later run by Soviet officials. The TV Tower, once meant as an imposing display of East Berlin strength and prosperity towards the West, is now better known as a photo spot and overpriced bar/restaurant. Structures like the Berlin State Opera are still undergoing renovation to bring them out of the Soviet milieu and into the new unified Berlin identity - an identity only three decades in the making.

Structures from the Soviet Era, like the famous TV Tower, still dot the landscape and are either carefully hidden from easy viewing or turned into tourist attractions to gird against accidental glorification of the period.

The recency of Berlin as we know it today is truly astounding from an American perspective where we are led to envision Europe as the land of largely continuous cultural identities rooted in ancient history. Berlin shatters that notion and proposes possibly the most aware sense of cultural identity I've ever experienced. There is a deliberate effort to forge an identity for the city, and the nation at large, that avoids re-constructionist or regressive nostalgia for a 'Germany that once was.' Instead, Berlin casts itself as the quintessential European metropolis where multiculturalism and progressivism walk hand in hand with a nuanced understanding of the region's history.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is said to be as much a public space as a memorial, but the way it swallows people up as they descend into its ravines is chillingly similar to my experience at the Jewish Museum.

From within the memorial, I noticed that something about concrete stelae (also featured in the Garden of Exile) seems to resonate with this traumatic piece of Judaeo-Western history.

Instead of hiding from history or misappropriating it for contemporary ends, Berlin utilizes it as a tool to build a complex and highly reflective sense of cultural identity. This same phenomenon can be said to spread into much of Germany as a result of Berlin's broad influence, but nowhere else is it so pronounced. This may be one of the reasons for Germany's deep commitment to the European Union. It's more than an economic advantage. It's the most intense way for this newfound kind of identity to flourish and take hold beyond the borders of a single nation.