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Berlin & Rhetoric

The Power of Words


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Our final piece of the puzzle was actually one of the places that started it all: Berlin, home of buildings where democracy was used to create a dictator and where an economic depression had made people willing to listen to those touting solutions.

We began our tour at the Brandenburg Tor (gate), which was built in 1791 by Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm II to congratulate himself on being a winner. It’s got six giant columns and Victory perched atop with her four horses. It has a great plaza on one side and the other points straight toward his castle outside of town. Poor Friedrich didn’t remain victorious long because less than two decades later Napoleon came along and decided “Victory” was his; he promptly took all 5 tons of her to the Louvre. She was returned when he was defeated and her body was altered—now her gaze rests upon the French Embassy keeping them in line. Fast forward to the 1930s, and Hitler and the Nazis decided they wanted to be associated with “Victory,” hence the many images of soldiers marching in formation through the gate and the plaza.
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Right around the corner from the Brandenburg Tor is the Reichstag building. In this place Hitler used law and democracy to grant himself emergency power when he was Chancellor; he never ceded it. This building was home to countless injustices and persecutions of those whose beliefs were in opposition to the Nazis. From this place of power, the party told the German people they would make their country strong again—a nearly familiar turn of phrase. The building itself is capped by a glass dome that is supposed to represent the transparency of government and where citizens (or tourists) can look down on congress at work. The day we visited, the wind perfectly unfurled the German flag.
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After a walk through the Tiergarten, a park with many statues and people enjoying the outdoors, we arrived at one of the more bleak and austere memorials we’ve seen. It was created by Peter Eisenmann in 2005 and consists of 2,711 concrete rectangles, each of a different height and angle, placed in sort-of-straight rows on uneven ground. The slabs toward the perimeter are lower leading to slabs that are towering to the wanderer in the middle. Eisenmann never gave a statement as to their meaning or how they should be interpreted. As I walked through, it felt cold and labyrinthine. The uneven ground was unsettling. The low slabs leading to the tall ones reminds me of the way we sometimes wave off little acts against humanity forgetting that little gives way to big eventually. The aesthetic is not pleasing; it’s very harsh like much German architecture—-purposeful, efficient, planned…just as the Final Solution.
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Our next discovery was a memorial and a mural at the Finance Ministry. 70 years ago, 1953, workers were told they could no longer get overtime pay but would instead receive higher quotas for their regular hours. They went on strike marching to the Ministry. They were shot at by police and many were killed. A pool ringed in flowers and showing a picture of the workers linking arms stands forward of the building to honor them. On the wall behind, ironically, is a mural predating 1953 that shows the propaganda these citizens were delivered—-happy socialists working and playing. The rhetoric doesn’t hold when your family is starving.
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We also saw Bebelplatz, the place where the Nazis burned 20,000 books deemed inappropriate. The plaza itself is just a large stone square sittting among buildings of Humboldt University. The memorial is a tiny window, maybe 3 feet by 3 feet that looks down on empty library shelves. It had potential to be very powerful; however, the glass is terribly scratched and hard to see through. Still, as an English teacher I couldn’t help being moved by the intention of the memorial—-words are power, and censorship is one way to make sure nothing is left to challenge ‘your’ ideas. I consider it weakness to try and have the other point of view erased.
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From there we went to the Topography of Terror museum and saw a portion of the remaining Berlin Wall. This site used to hold Gestapo headquarters where the Final Solution was planned and enacted. Those buildings are no longer, but the site invites you to imagine the evils done there as you walk the perimeter. Below the remains section of the Wall is an outdoor exhibit that chronicles Berlin from the 1930s through the 1990s. It’s got an amazing collection of propaganda that attempts to show what Germans were told about what was necessary to save their country. They were told what to celebrate and how, they were inspired to Nationalism by targeting all ages as important, and they were delivered a picture of who was and who was not part of the Germany to come. It was really scary stuff—all done with words. My students are never overly excited to study rhetoric, but having experienced the extreme effects achieved by the Nazis and Soviets, I firmly believe this is one of the most important skills I can teach them. If we can’t decipher the intentions behind someone’s words, then we are just blindly following. (End soapbox.).
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We were able to see remnants of the wall—poured in small sections in case it was breached. We also saw Checkpoint Charlie where East met West in 10 lanes of traffic with one little hut between. Since I clearly remember the “fall” of the Berlin Wall when I was in junior high, I was very excited to see it. It seems so close and yet so far away in history.
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Posted by Jackie2074 07:17 Archived in Germany

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