Even though I’ve lived in Berlin for more than a year and spent around 2 1/2 months here on two separate occasions before that, I’m often still struck, as though it’s my first day, by how amazing this city’s 20th century history is and how amazing it is to be living here amidst it all, a place that I grew up reading about: the wars, the Berlin Wall. Berlin is a story in my head, and it’s also a real place, and I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to get to know it even a little bit.
(“Do you know Berlin?” I asked a German friend living in the U.K. before I came here the first time. He laughed and said, “Does anyone know Berlin?”)
I think Berlin has integrated the past century of history into the cityscape so thoughtfully and intelligently, preserving it without glorifying it. There’s nothing to mark Hitler’s bunker, although you can go there–I have, it’s a car park. But there’s a street I was walking down one day and I realized there were little plaques set into the sidewalk, and I stopped and looked at them. They were the names and birth dates and death dates of the Jewish people who had lived in the apartments I was walking past. Entire families, extinguished in the death camps. Memorialized not with fanfare, just there. A street, bearing witness along with everyone who walked along it and looked down.
Today I went for a wander in Prenzlauer Berg, the neighborhood next to mine, and wandering brought me to a museum. “Museum in der Kulturbrairei,” the sign outside said, which wasn’t really very descriptive given that I was literally standing in the Kulturbrairei, but it also said admission was free and you know what, I love museums. So I went inside, where a man at the door told me that the museum was free and that I could leave my backpack in one of the lockers. I still didn’t know what the museum was all about, but I went over and struggled with the lockers for about five minutes until a couple came in and watching them I realized OH THERE IS A LITTLE SLOT INSIDE THE DOOR I NEED TO PUT A EURO COIN IN which was a really good thing as I otherwise might still be there, now, trying to get one to lock.
It turned out to be a really good museum! Museum in der Kulturbrairei is a museum about everyday life in the DDR/GDR/East Germany. It’s wonderful because it has loads of interesting items and a lot of video and is quite interactive, but also because it’s just a museum about ordinary people and their lives. I like a grand archeological find like the Staffordshire Hoard as much as the next person (and did I nearly die of excitement at seeing some of it? I DID), but there’s nothing like learning how people lived day to day. There’s something profoundly humanistic about making museum pieces of children’s essays, of the complaint book left for supermarket cashiers, of the longed-for Levis that could be bought in Hungary, if you could afford it and could manage to get a visa.
I wasn’t going to bother taking any photos because the battery on my regular phone needs replacing which means I am using my ancient phone with a broken camera, but I couldn’t resist a few shots–apologies for the dreadful quality.
I was, as ever, particularly interested in some of the displays on youth movements and artists’ resistance, especially efforts to circulate forbidden material. I’m a passionate believer in free expression, including free expression I dislike and disagree with, created by people I dislike and disagree with. I found myself thinking about all the ways that art and expression can be discouraged–it’s not always just about the government knocking down your door–and how often it begins from a well-meaning place, a belief that it is a good and necessary thing, to protect people and a way of life. There were some examples of samizdat literature, which I remember hearing about in the 1980s. I really wanted to be a dissident fighting against a totalitarian government–it sounded exciting and glamorous and meaningful. Vaclav Havel, the playwright-turned-revolutionary-turned-statesman, was kind of a hero of mine in those days, so I was struck by his name on the cover of this one. Too bad it was under glass!
I saw photos of and read about youth movements, including the “hitchhiker” movement of the 1970s. This was all new to me.
I loved this little window into the youth movement of the East exploding just as it did in the West.
Of course, as the Cold War raged, over in the West the story was that we were endlessly unfettered and free and They were miserable and oppressed. Neither of these is entirely true, of course, and as East Germans liked to go on holiday with the family as much as anyone, I was also quite taken with this display: the car tent. When you fold it up, it’s the shape of a double mattress on top of the car, a big rectangular box. The tents were easy to pop up. Apparently camping was a very popular pastime in East Germany. How much weight could you put in a car tent, a reporter asked the inventor in the video footage about the tent. A Trabi could take up to 250 kilos, he said, so three people of 70 kilos each, no problem. Unfortunately, the inventor’s company folded after reunification as he couldn’t keep up with demands as well as his competitors.
(again, sorry for the terrible photo.)
There were some wonderful examples of what I think of as Soviet-style propaganda posters although of course they were East German (and I’m not really a fan of the word “propaganda” because I remember as a kid thinking of propaganda was something their government did and not ours, which is of course nonsense).
There was also this.
History doesn’t so much repeat itself so much as it does, as someone who was almost certainly not Mark Twain said, rhyme. In other words, the cyclical juggernaut of history is deceptive: because now never looks quite like then, so surely, we are not repeating ourselves; perhaps there are parallels but we are not like them.
We are not just like them, we are them, being human, in our endlessly blundering ways. We keep making the same mistakes and we’re too myopic to realize it. But we also keep being wonderfully, endearingly, human, and a place like the Museum in der Kulturbrairei reminds us. The city of Berlin itself, the fact that it still exists, and thrives, and changes (and does not change, is still that city of artists and intellectuals and decadents and dissidents it was 100 years ago) reminds us, if we’ll just listen.
*title is from the memoirs of former Chancellor of West Germany and former Berlin mayor, Willy Brandt