A lesson in history

September 18, 2016

Berlin’s appreciation of creativity, colour and freedom of expression

A lesson in history

The luxury of travel for vacation is a privilege enjoyed only by the upper-middle and the upper class. However, one’s passport is also a major determining factor in where and when one can travel to, even if one has the financial resources.

As a Pakistani passport-holder, this reality hits particularly hard every time my European friends from university or my shared flat in Istanbul talk about taking a flight to a Schengen country, like it’s a walk to a neighbour’s house. They often include me in their plans to go to Prague, Paris or Berlin -- unaware that I have to first go through the long and cumbersome process of a visa application (and then fear the possible risk of rejection).

Any Pakistani national will be able relate to my plight; our passport ranks as one of the worst in the world allowing visa-free access to only 29 countries. With the deteriorating security situation and the war on terrorism, obtaining a visa has become even more difficult.

Turkey is not in the Schengen region and Turkish nationals don’t have the luxury of visa-free travel to most of Europe either but they definitely have it easier. In fact, the latest Turkey-EU agreement on the refugee crisis rests very much on this premise -- the provision of visa-free access to the continent for Turkish nationals.

During my time as a student in Turkey, I wanted to avail Turkey’s closeness to Europe to at least see a few places. Hence, I was overjoyed to get a Schengen visa this last winter. A German friend I’d made on her student-exchange stint in Istanbul insisted that I visit her in Berlin and so I flew to the German capital.

Germans relive their history every day. The horrors of the concentration camps, the suffering of the Jews and much else about life in Nazi Germany are taught to them from an early age.

Being in Berlin was a truly educational experience. In hindsight, it was a lesson in history. Home to 3.5 million people, Berlin is full of history and artistic expression. A day after my arrival, I decided to do a walking tour of the city. The tour guide, clearly passionate about his job, narrated the importance of every famous site we visited.

I learnt that majority of the landmarks were a tribute to the victims of Nazi war crimes. From eerie-looking cement blocks at the Holocaust Memorial to the 10,000 iron masks dedicated to the victims in the Jewish Museum, it is evident how much responsibility Germans take for the atrocities committed during WWI and WWII. Germans relive their history every day. The horrors of the concentration camps, the suffering of the Jews and much else about life in Nazi Germany are taught to them from an early age. Acknowledgment and condemnation of historical crimes is an important part of German life -- so much so that denying the Holocaust can earn you up to five years of prison time.

The country treats its 20th century past very differently from other countries like Turkey or Japan. It is still making reparations for the damage it caused seven decades ago. At one point, my friend remarked that it’s terrible how the Germans still have to pay for the mistakes of its ancestors.

In a way, I did agree. For any atrocity committed by the state, there should be a date for an effective end to national shame. The Turkish government, on the other hand, refuses to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and instead slams any country that does.

Although grim and grey in many parts, the German capital shows an appreciation of creativity, colour and freedom of expression: The East Side Gallery, a part of the Berlin Wall which has become a creative space for artists, is proof of this. The humorous paintings of aliens invading earth to the more political ones of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker kissing are a testimony of Berlin’s devotion to artistic expression. Although little remains of the actual wall, it is notable because it was the dividing point of East and West Germany. It also reminds one of the recent-ness of Germany’s history.

The reunification of the East and West Germany occurred only 25 years ago and it is fascinating to think that this happened merely three years before I was born. The changes the city has undergone in my own lifetime are massive. Checkpoint Charlie which is now a tourist attraction was the crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War whereas the majestic Brandenburg gate, a nice background for tourist photos now, still brings back the vivid memory of East Berliners rushing through to the other side when the Wall came down in 1989.

Visiting the site of bunker where Hitler committed suicide was an experience of another kind. Although it is occupied by apartment buildings now, the fact that one of the most brutal people in the history of mankind killed himself here had a spine-chilling aspect to it.

The public transport in Berlin is not cheap but compared to other cities in Europe it is not as expensive. If you make the mistake of getting onto the train/bus without a ticket, which I once did, you could be in for a 60-euro fine. Abiding by the law is very important in Berlin, and the whole country for that matter.

Because a large number of German students come to Turkey for exchange semester/year, I had been friends with quite a few Germans before coming to Berlin. This meant I was acquainted with the lifestyle of an average German. Most Germans are very casually-dressed as opposed to Turks who really love to dress up. Wearing only subtle make-up, I felt overdressed as compared to the people on the U-Bahn (metro) or the streets. Little wonder the shopping-mall culture is much less prevalent in Berlin than it is in Istanbul which is known for its many shopping malls. The population difference, of course, has a role to play in this. The population of Istanbul is more than five times that of Berlin.

The one thing lacking in Berlin, however, is a water body. If I were to live in a city, a sea or a river would be great deciding factor. The Bosphorous in Istanbul, river Danube in Budapest, Main River in Frankfurt or the famous River Thames in London all make them visually stunning. Yet Berlin has a charm to it that probably no other city has.

A lesson in history