Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A little bit of history repeating

"Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

- George Santayana

Berlin's a fascinating city. There's a sense of tragedy about this place that's embedded into the fabric of this city. Everything that's happen in the 20th century has left its mark on Berlin. The pathos from this place is palpable.

From the Prussian empire, the Germans learned nationalism, and from nationalism came the first World War. From the Weimar Republic came the Nazi Party, and from ashes of the second World War, the Cold War started. Marx and Engels lived here, and communism was born here. Communism divided Berlin and turned the city into a symbol of the world divided. And when the wall came down, Berlin became a symbol of a world reunited.

There's this street in Berlin, Unter den Linden (under the lime trees). It's the sweetest sounding street I've ever heard. Frederick Wilhelm intended it to be the grand boulevard of Berlin. On one end is the Brandenburg Gate, and at the other end was the former Imperial palace. The street itself is flanked by palaces and cathedrals and all the trappings of Imperial Germany.

But the building that's most moving is an unassuming brick building between Humbolt University and the Berliner Dom. In the time of the Kaisers', it was the Imperial Guardhouse. In the time of the Nazis, it was a memorial to the victims of war and communism. In the time of the Communists, it was a memorial to the victims of war and fascism.

But now, it's a memorial to all victims of war and terrorism. It's haunting in its simplicity. Inside, there's a single statue of a mother holding her dead soldier son. There's a hole cut in the roof, and the statue is exposed to the elements. In summer, she's warmed by the sun. In winter, she's covered by snow. And when it rains, she's crying for her lost son, and she represents all the mothers who have ever lost sons before their time.

And all throughout this city, there's this almost desperate sense of impressing onto people that THIS history must not happen again. It's a race against time, because as the prime witnesses to the horror of the Holocaust die off, the lessons are being unlearnt. It's scary, but that's the way of the world.

I went to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp today. The most disturbing thing wasn't the barracks, or the gas chamber, or even the pathology lab where Nazis would inflict their medical experiments on the prisoners. It was the fact that neo-Nazis set fire to the Jewish barracks, the ones that were rebuilt to remember the atrocities inflicted upon those people.

Humanity has a short memory. In the end, all memorials end up forgotten. In the end, the only way we learn is by making the mistakes of our parents. It's profoundly depressing, but Santayana was right.

Still, Berlin been fun, as well. Quite liked my time here, despite the morbidness. I'm leaving for Prague tomorrow, and for the first time in a long, long while, I'm excited more than anxious.

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