Freedom is just another name for……….Berlin
It is easy for us all to get caught up in our lives. It is also very easy to think that times have never been worse in the world, that the world problems of ‘our time’ are more serious than in the past. As a futurist, I try to look closely at the present, but from the perspective of the rhythms or waves of history and recent history to best get a clear view of the near future.
Leaving a U.S. full of news stories about Korean missiles, new killings in the Middle East [no real surprise there], civil war and terrorism in Iraq, fear of terrorism at home and a drifting and incompetent Presidency, I flew to Germany for a vacation trip with my son, starting with 6 days in Berlin.
Berlin is simply the most impressive city I have seen in a long time, but I will write about that in coming posts, as it truly feels like a city of the future. For now, let’s take a look at what I saw in one day within walking distance of my hotel.
First, an outdoor exhibit that has been up for 9 years called “The Topography of Terror” that is in a park-vacant lot that used to be the headquarters of the Gestapo and the SS. In exact and chilling historical detail this exhibit told the history of the two darkest parts of the Third Reich, profiled a number of victims as examples and then told the story of the Nuremberg trials. Running right along side this exhibit was a two block long section of the Berlin Wall left standing. Side by side: a story of unspeakable atrocities and a remnant of the most overt restriction of freedom in modern times.
Second, a massive four to five acre memorial to “The Murdered Jews of WWII” that is one of the most unique memorials I have ever seen. Six to twenty foot long concrete blocks, 2711 of them, ranging in height from one to thirty feet. When walking through this ‘maze’ one gets a feeling of ‘infinite no-way-outness’ that was only broken by the laughter of young children playing hide and seek with their parents. Underneath all these monoliths, underground, was a precise, detailed history of what happened to European Jews under the Nazis. Specific numbers of victims by country and killing camps. I had forgotten that of the six million murdered victims only 200,000 were German, with the vast amount, 4 million plus from Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe.
Third, and for me the most personal was the museum at what used to be Checkpoint Charlie. This was the location that, from 1961 to 1989 was the place for people from the West to cross into East Berlin. As a teenager I had passed through Checkpoint Charlie to spend a day in East Berlin. The stark contrast with West Berlin, the greyness, the constant presence of grey uniformed soldiers with automatic weapons was a lasting experience and a taste of what living in a totalitarian society must be like. I remember coming back to West Berlin, and, with a Swiss army knife, sneaking up to the wall to pick out a couple of pieces of The Wall [I have them still, in a lucite block] and getting yelled at by an East German soldier, waving his weapon at me.
Walking through this museum moved me to tears to read how people had risked their lives to help others escape. How people had spent hours in car gas tanks, or suitcases, or carved out machinery, or jumped from third story windows to get to the West. The desire for freedom and the lengths to which people went to have it was simply overwhelming. This is a museum about freedom. Since it was just around the corner from our hotel, we passed by there several times and of any place in Berlin, it had the most crowds, day and night.
One final note about the museum: I had forgotten, and this was starkly pointed out that over 60 million people had lost their lives in WWII in Europe alone! We know to never forget the 6 million Jews that were murdered, but there were 54 million other people who also died. During the last ten days in the battle of Berlin, 70,000 people died, 30,000 of them civilians. In terms of number of deaths, that is 3,000 civilians, or the equivalent of one WTC tragedy every day, for ten straight days, and this in a city of 2 million.
The years from 1933 to 1989 was when Berlin was under two of the most heinous totalitarian regimes in history. Since 1989 the city has made great efforts to celebrate freedom and to starkly educate all how awful it’s absence can be.
The story of freedom will continue to be written, but let us not get lost in today’s threats so that we think the past were the “good old days”.