Heavy History Lessons in Berlin

I was thrilled when I learned that the Fulbright Belgium Commission was sending me to Berlin for the Germany Commission’s annual seminar. Having never been to Germany, it was a chance to share my research with Fulbrighters from around Europe and learn about their experiences on the continent. Also exciting was the prospect of checking out the city’s vast contemporary art scene and coffee culture.

research workshop
Ms. Drayer presenting at the research workshop of the Berlin seminar

To this end, I co-led a research workshop for humanities and social science students at the seminar. I met Fulbrighters with grants in Germany, Poland, Spain, Austria, and the UK. Before the conference I visited art galleries in the Mitte neighborhood and the East Side Gallery bordering the caffeine-saturated Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg neighborhood. But there was one element of the trip that left me ambivalent. Germany had to deal with its Nazi past over the decades following World War II. As remorse, acceptance, and repentance became the norm following the fall of the Berlin Wall just before 1990, Germany grappled with how to explain and move forward with its history.

research workshop
Ms. Drayer during the research workshop of the Berlin seminar

memorial plaque
Memorial plaque

This came in the form of numerous memorials: the large Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the intimate memorial to Sinti and Roma people, both in the shadow of the Reichstag. One of the largest Jewish Museums in Europe was built as well as a Holocaust Museum. There are plaques in the sidewalk by the houses and workplaces of those who were arrested and murdered by the Nazis. These tributes to Jews, Sinti, Roma, people with disabilities, those who were gay, and political dissidents dot many neighborhoods around the city center.

Sinti and Roma Memorial
Sinti and Roma Memorial

As a Jew who had German relatives killed by the Nazis, I appreciate this move to remember and accept what happened. In many nations where genocide took place – Turkey, Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan, Bosnia – there is still a struggle for adequate remembrance or even basic recognition of the genocide. Hitler’s glib question, “Who remembers the Armenians?” holds true today in much of the world, even as his regime’s own atrocities are common knowledge. In the spring before I left Washington, DC for Belgium, Armenians and their allies marched through the city demanding recognition for their ancestors’ murders in Turkey, which still does not acknowledge the killings as genocide.

Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe
Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe

The scope of Nazi penetration into German society means that in Berlin, citizens and visitors are constantly faced with a history of horror. German Fulbrighters explained that the specter of their predecessors still haunts the country’s people today. Any display of nationalism is seen as suspect. Everyone now wants to believe the country is proud of its diversity. And learning about the Holocaust begins early. I felt the weight of this history during my brief stay, too. My hostel was steps away from a synagogue that was reconstructed after being destroyed during Kristallnacht. It could be overwhelming and feel quite inescapable, even if you were just wandering a popular neighborhood.

Many of my peers in Germany felt that not all of these tactics worked. Germany has one of the most welcoming policies towards Syrian refugees. Angela Merkel is trying to drum up greater support across the EU for the thousands of displaced people who pour onto the continent weekly. Yet beyond the capital, Fulbright English Teaching Assistants spoke of anti-refugee rallies. A research grantee talked about seeing black and brown face in a recent theater performance. Some felt that the young Germans went numb to their history, experiencing it so often. Others mentioned teachers who did not feel the need to correct young students’ prejudiced language, saying, “They are just kids.” While Germany has reformed its perception of Jews, exclusion or discrimination against other populations persists.

These challenges are not unique to Germany. Belgium faces them as well, as the country accepts refugees from Syria and deals with the aftermath of the recent attacks in Brussels and a shooting in its Jewish Museum two summers ago. The same problems with casual racism in Germany and America appear here too: people of Middle Eastern appearance being denied entry into clubs, veiled remarks about “those people” by individuals. These problems defy borders, and can be seen surfacing throughout Europe.

None of this means we should turn our backs on history or that we should not memorialize and recognize atrocity. Rather I think my own experience and the experiences I learned of from Americans in Germany emphasize how hard it can be to reconcile acceptance of history with ideal modern action. History is heavy, but turning our backs to it invites it to continue to repeat itself.

Jacqueline Drayer at the East Side Gallery

Addressing the Berlin Seminar, the German Commission’s executive director emphasized that now, more than ever, we need international exchange. Americans, Europeans, and people from every continent need to have the chance to meet one another and more importantly, develop compassion and understanding of those different from themselves. It is no coincidence that the Fulbright Program was founded the year after the end of World War II. In a world where difference is inevitable, it is crucial to be able to appreciate it, rather than vilifying those we barely know.

— Jacqueline Drayer,
2015-2016 U.S. Fulbright research student to Belgium

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