12 August 2006

History’s Lessons

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Here in Berlin, history of all kinds is unavoidable. Where the history of life in New York is generally left to those with long memories and longer grudges (Who of my generation remembers the original Penn Station? No one!), in Berlin it is hung like a heart on a sleeve for all to see: almost every building or street corner does something to convey to the visitor its role: in the city's history, in the development of the German nation, or to support (or, sometimes, undermine) its people. One can, I suppose, say much the same thing about other European cities – Prague or Paris, for instance, which are both older than Berlin; or Rome, which gives a different meaning to the word "history" by comparison. Still, Berlin's experiences and presentations of its history are striking.

What effect all this history has on the culture is hard to say. There are certain things that are quite obviously different, and contrasting: a society in which everyone smokes with careless abandon (or so it often appears), despite the knowledge they all share about its dangers, many people bicycle yet few wear helmets, and yet a society in which no one, absolutely no one, crosses the street against the light; a city where the subways and buses operate on the honor system (with the occasional, random checks for fare cards), but where the mere act of living in a district means registering with the police in that district (even if you haven't done anything wrong). Every nation, every society and culture, has its unique signifiers, but here in Berlin they stand out starkly as contrasts, not just national characteristics. Perhaps the contrasts are the characteristics. I suppose this also contributes to the energy of the place, and why the sense of risk – personal and societal – seems different.

While traveling, it's easy to tune out certain things, like the events of the surrounding world, though it does creep in periodically when one catches the news, such as on TVs filled with images of police at London airports. People want to talk, too, about what's happening, about Israel and Lebanon and other disasters made or in the making, things for which there seem no solutions, events we feel powerless to stop. But that may be Berlin's biggest history lesson: that things can, or could, be stopped, if the voices of the people can make themselves be heard, and if they are not afraid to speak. Generations down the line, our descendants will be wandering through different lands, foreign and native. What will these places tell them about their history and their people then? And what will they say about us, and how we responded to the challenges the world has posed?


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