“When the generation that survived the war is no longer with us, then we will find out whether we have learned from history.” -Angela Merkel, 20 July, 2018
I don’t really believe in the progressive theory of history–that is, the idea that human civilization is on an upward arc toward enlightenment. I think there are definitely certain eras and cultures that are better for certain types of people than others, and I am constantly grateful to have been born a woman in the West in the latter half of the 20th century; I never had to fight to get basic rights such as education, bodily autonomy, and things like my own line of credit. But in general, I think human history is a story of ebb and flow from tyranny and oppression to freedom and back again, and that ideological extremes of any stripe tend toward the former and not the latter.
With all that said, hey! the world is pretty crazy right now, isn’t it? I often feel like I am surrounded by extreme voices on all sides and very little reason. But in the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time in two European cities wracked by wars and profoundly divided in the 20th century: Barcelona and Berlin. What I find heartening is how much those cities have recovered–which is not to say they don’t bear scars, both physical and psychological. There’s something extraordinarily moving about encountering the physical remnants of those scars in the present day, and the way that people go about their lives around them–because one of our simultaneously best and worst attributes, as humans, is our ability to adapt.
Just a few blocks up the street from me in Berlin is one of the former checkpoints between the former West Berlin (where I live) and the former East Berlin. Today, I zip from my flat in West Berlin to my friends’ flat in East Berlin on the tram in under 15 minutes, or walk there if I have more time and want to stretch my legs. Thirty years ago, that would have been impossible.
“Mauer” is German for wall.
This is a remnant of the wall that once divided my neighborhood, Wedding, from Prenzlauer Berg.
Imagine waking up and learning that literally overnight, a “wall” (it wasn’t yet a wall then, of course, in 1961) had been constructed that divided your city in half.
There are panels up about the construction of the wall, and photos from the night it came down, juxtaposed against what’s left of it.
Now, it’s just an ordinary bridge. Unless you were looking out the window from the tram or car at this particular point, you’d speed right past without knowing it.
It takes more than a generation or two to recover from a devastating war and a totalitarian government, but cities, places, people heal. New generations are born who are largely untouched by what came before, which is both a blessing and a curse.
It’s a shame we don’t learn a damn thing from history.