EDINBURG, July 11 – Berlin is the happening place. Avant garde artists, musicians and actors move there from Paris, Madrid and New York.
In the words of its popular, openly gay mayor, Berlin is “poor but sexy.” Mayor Klaus Wowereit means Berlin is not like business dominated Frankfurt nor conservative Munich. Berlin is a western cultural Mecca. I hope you make a pilgrimage there at least once in your life.
Deutschland, Uber Alles–Germany, Above All—was a familiar anthem until the close score in World Cup soccer. Still, despite defeat by Spain, Germany exhibits not only cutting-edge athleticism but also moral leadership. Germans have learned valuable lessons of history. They refused to be pushed by President Bush into a wrongful war in Iraq. Their capital, Berlin, leads in promotion of the arts and, wisely, in preservation of Jewish history and culture.
I often write about Mexico, Spain or Latin America. I offer this column to extol the benefits of travel to Berlin, encouraged by my colleague, Dr. John Bokina, expert on the Politics of Germany at the University of Texas-Pan American. We both led Study Abroad students to Berlin. That valuable program faces budget cut-backs and internal obstacles. We professors hope to improve the latter problem. You can lobby the Texas State Legislature and the University to improve the Study Abroad option. Our students deserve no less.
Many Mexican Americans—even Anglo students—often choose Salamanca, more comfortable with a familiar language. Neither they nor you should hesitate to choose Berlin, where many speak English. You will not regret the choice. Students from Mexico already admire the German culture and that society’s progressive policies regarding education. U.S. students were shocked to learn that they paid over a thousand dollars for two courses while the German students at famous Humboldt University with whom they chatted studied for free.
The experience of study there is challenging but life-changing. One returns with increased admiration not only for progressive civic policies but for the ambience of everyday living. There is nothing like the elegant Ballet Theatre on fashionable, tree-lined Unter den Linden Street. Continue on, using the easy, inexpensive transportation system of trains and buses. You reach Museum Island with its wonders: the actual bust of Nefertiti, the overwhelming, ancient Pergamum altar and the breathtaking Babylonian Gates.
Cruise down the Spree River. Alight at the magnificent Cathedral. Our Catholic students, entranced by the ornate grandeur, thinking themselves at home, knelt and prayed. They looked up to see to their surprise – not the Virgin Mary, but Martin Luther and John Calvin. Welcome to pluralistic Berlin – the religious, the secular, the profane, all there. Come to the Cabaret!
Nearby stands the imposing Reichstag, the Congress of Germany. Its brilliant all-glass dome is an architectural marvel but also a striking symbol of democracy. Citizens may look down at their law makers, who can look up to see whom they are serving. Glenn Beck’s recent prediction (threat?) of a “Reichstag incident” in the U.S. is chilling, since he neglected to mention it was Nazis who burned the capitol, blaming the left, justifying fascist repression.
Would our right-wing refrain from such treasonous provocation? The right wing now in Germany is small but active; yet flaunting a Nazi flag or salute is still verboten. The right wing here persists—often without stern response—with its aggressive agenda. Sharron Angle, aspiring Republican Senator from Nevada, calls for a “Second Amendment Solution” (she didn’t add “Final”) to oust Democrats from White House and Congress. Haunting parallels abound.
One of the most profound experiences in Berlin can be found literally in the midst of the Holocaust Memorial. Walk through its lonely, extensive field of irregular, grey granite cubes; pause to meditate. Empathy is also inevitable with the victims of Nazism through a visit to the rebuilt Synagogue and to the Jewish Museum, whose baroque entrance and controversial modern wing (by architect Daniel Libeskind) tenuously coexist. The history made vivid there of great people and great tragedy is also part of our history.
Small things count too. One walks down Ku’dam Street, pausing to meditate at the plaques on sidewalks and walls. They remind us that a Frau Grossman or other German citizen of Jewish faith had lived there, had been taken away on stated date, never to be seen again. Less known but as touching is the City Museum in western Berlin. It sits atop a huge underground bunker; descend five flights, five decades. It is a chilling remnant of the Cold War, supposedly (but not really) able to protect leaders and few others from a Soviet nuclear blast.
Escape for a while to wooded, dream-like Potsdam where world leaders made postwar plans in one of its exquisite palaces. The dream is broken by a visit to ominous Sachsenhausen, a nearby concentration camp. You can place a stone if you like, as I did, on top of one of the markers. My heart was aching, hearing the crunch of the gravel underfoot, echoing the ten million victims – Jews, Gypsies, Socialists and homosexuals – marching to their incarceration or death. Berlin does not hide its history; in fact, it forces its citizens and visitors to confront it.
But, I repeat, all is not sad, poignant history. The joy, openness and ethnic diversity of Berlin – people, foods, music, and art – overwhelm. One entire floor of Ka-Da-We, the stylish, premier department store, is filled with chocolates. Another floor, overlooking the city, is an elegant deli. One serves oneself by the gram. We went overboard. It was our most expensive meal in Berlin, which otherwise is the least expensive capital city in Western Europe.
What do we bring back from such places? Not just a German flag or Berlin Bear. We bring increased knowledge and appreciation of a progressive people. Only one student was in such cultural shock that he had to leave early. Others were profoundly touched and wrote excellent appraisals of their unique encounters. One shy boy wound up not so shy. He traveled by himself to Prague, not knowing the language and, by that time, not caring. He found a new girlfriend, perhaps adding to a growing Mexican-European genre?
The students studied Sociology with Professor Malena Elias Mounce and U.S. Politics and Government with yours truly. They did that very well, adding the perspective of a comparative and international approach. Travel to other places could provide that possibility. But, in this case, the model was progressive, environmentally green Berlin, filled with parks, lakes and zoos, its streets alive with bicycles, students and tourists from around the world.
The model includes a fairer (necessarily higher, but progressive) tax system. Students saw that the rich still lived very well. They welcomed the comprehensive health system. They utilized a technologically efficient transportation system of urban rapid transit, essential for business and economic development. They relished the beer (contrary to myth, not warm). They reveled in, if not exactly the special Gemutlichkein of Munich, the cheeriness of Berlin.
Berlin is unique in Germany. Still very German, but it is more – a living museum, ever creative and experimental. Take the famous Berlin Opera. As it happened, my confused students saw Verdi’s Aida set not in Egypt but in a U.S. fundamentalist community. Of course, it was magnificently sung. But instead of elephants, jugglers and Nubian slaves in the triumphal entry religious school boys competed in a pie eating contest – a daring but perplexing choreography. Angry aficionados shouted insults, tore up their tickets and left. Don’t like the performance one day? Choose diversity the next – at traditional or avant garde venues.
You will see where the Berlin Wall stood, encircling the city in the midst of East Germany. Some of it remains, colorfully painted by famous and street artists. The Kennedy Museum, near the Brandenburg Gates and the U.S. embassy, is not to be missed. JFK’s napkin is there, with scratches of the famous phrase (he meant to say), Ich bin Berliner – “I am a Berliner.”
You pass Checkpoint Charlie, now replaced by fashionable shops. You can have your picture taken with a fake U.S. or Soviet soldier or lovely fraulein in a short, sexy uniform. Capitalism and commercialism are alive and well. But the German government regulates the economy and business much more responsibly than does ours.
You can savor history while being stimulated by the latest in trail-blazing arts and culture. Return as often as you like to grimmer political realities. You can tour the former East German Stasi building with its bizarre chair for (literally) making those interrogated squirm, absorbing their perspiration under the seat, storing the scent for the dogs, should they escape.
Then, thankfully, you emerge to the light, join the fun and return to the river. You see where Matt Damon jumped off the bridge in the Bourne Identity. You catch up with modernity, with entertainment, with at least that part of freedom. You will appreciate your freedom more after absorbing profound lessons, after returning from pilgrimage to your Mecca in Berlin. I did. You will be a better American or Mexican citizen. Indeed, you will be a better human being.