On Monday I leave for Germany along with 14 students for a two week travel course starting in Munich, moving on to Bonn, and ending in Berlin. The focus of the course is on Germany twenty years after unification – have East and West come together, or are they still quite different? Added to that, of course, will be history and culture.
Last year I blogged extensively during a similar travel course to Italy. I’m not sure if I’ll be as prolific this time.
Germany is special to me. Besides the fact most of my ancestors are from there (I’m 3/4 German 1/4 Norwegian), I’ve lived a year in Bonn and Berlin, have traveled there frequently and its my area of expertise – German foreign policy and more generally the European Union. I’m fluent in German, but rusty. When I lived there all year I was thinking and dreaming in German.
I first visited Germany when WWII and the holocaust was more keenly felt than now. True, over 35 years had passed, but I’d see elderly folk with missing limbs and realize that the war generation was still there. I watched the mini-series on “The Holocaust” with young Germans (odd seeing an American series about Germany synched into German).
In those first visits (taking place during breaks from my year studying in Bologna, Italy), I saw Chancellor Helmut Schmidt fall from office when his coalition partners ditched him for Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democratic party, and a radical new party called “The Greens” entering the Bundestag for the first time. I was there on March 6, 1983 to witness that election, it was exciting. At that point German TV had three or maybe four channels. Trains were efficient, but relatively slow. Seating was in compartments of six, with smoking cars outnumbering non-smoking ones!
Perhaps one of the most powerful experiences I had was on a train heading north in 1989. I was heading to the Netherlands from Munich to visit a research partner. I found an empty compartment, but a ways north a group of elderly women entered. I was reading Der Spiegel and one of them asked me a question. “Wie bitte?” I replied (“Excuse me?”) She repeated it, it was something about the train. I explained I was an American and didn’t know.
She complimented my German and asked what I was doing in Germany. I said I was working on research (at that point comparing German and Dutch foreign policy). At some point we were talking about Germany in the world and they started talking about the war. It was amazing. I heard stories how one hid in a haystack to avoid being raped by Russians, another talked about how her brother had been active in the Hitler youth “and never really recovered.” The talked about difficulties of the war and its aftermath.
One mentioned the holocaust; all shook their heads. I asked “Did people know what was happening.” The four chatty women went silent. One finally said, “no, but it was a choice. We could have known. We should have.” The others agreed, and talked about how Jewish people disappeared. They heard rumors. But it was war, it was easy to say we have to support the troops and the fatherland, Germans could never do anything so evil. The conversation continued until they had to disembark in Dortmund. One woman grabbed my arm as she left and said “I’ve never talked so frankly about those years with anyone, not even my own children.” I thanked her and wished her well.
First, at that point I realized that learning a foreign language had been priceless. I had heard first hand the experiences of people who had lived history – the side we usually don’t hear, from people who usually don’t want to talk about it. I sometimes think of that as I ride on the 21st century high speed ICE trains where compartments have given way to “airline” seating.
1989 was a dramatic year. I spent a lot of time that summer interviewing members of political parties including a young upcoming Horst Seehofer, who is now Minister President of Bavaria. I interviewed academics. I asked about the possibility of German unification and was told by everyone it would not come fro a long time, if ever. Maybe after a long period of American-Soviet reconciliation. The dramatic events that would change the world would begin just weeks later, but no one saw it coming.
The highlight was early August. I had an interview with Dr. Michael Staack at the Freie Universitaet in Berlin. Should I keep it? He was (and remains) prestigious, but it cost 50 extra D-Marks to cross through East Germany into East Berlin. Would it be worth it? I decided to go. En route zipping through the East I was at the window the whole time. I’m seeing real existing communism! Tiny cars puttering about, houses with antennas, train stations looking a bit run down. It wasn’t a hell hole, but it clearly wasn’t vibrant. On the way back it was 95 degrees and we went through the industrial region – Bitterfeld, Wittenberg, etc. Huge factories belting soot into the sky – towns where people had to wipe soot off the windshields of their cars like we do snow. The train had no A/C but we closed the windows – stifling heat was better than adding the soot from the air.
I got to walk through East Berlin that trip. I crossed at Friedrichsstrasse, enduring two and a half hours of lines before getting into the city. I had gone from the hussle and bustle of vibrant West Germany to a city that seemed like a different world. The historic buildings were magnificant, but the traffic light, the cars miniscule, and it seemed almost sleepy. I had lunch at a cafeteria, then a beer, later a bland ice cream sundae. I went to the central store, which bragged the best merchandise in the East (since it was visited by anyone who crossed to Berlin). It had nothing worth buying, I got some cheap post cards.
I walked Unter den Linden, the historic boulevard over to the eastern end of the Brandenburg gate. I saw people in the West on a platform looking over to the East. I had been there the day before. So close, and yet a world away. It was then I realized how insane the division of Germany was, how painful the Wall was for Berliners, and how Communism was an obvious failure. “Das ist Wahnsinn,” I muttered, “es muss geaendert werden.” This is crazy, it has to be changed.
I am so glad I made that trip. A few months later I had tears running down my cheeks in my Minneapolis apartment as I watched on a small TV the events unfold as the Wall started to come down. The story of how it happened is amazing too. I’ve visited Berlin many times since then, watching the city transform itself at an unbelievable pace.
Hopefully I’ll find time to reflect on that and integrate my past experiences in this blog over the next couple weeks. Germany is a different country than it was. United, with hundreds of cable and satellite television channels, an economic and political leader of Europe and one of the stronger economies in the industrialized West. The best part is that I can share my thoughts, experiences and expertise with students, many of whom will be out of the country for the first time!