Aging has its downfalls. On this travel course, while I still out do some of the students (I love to walk), my back is in pain after a few days on uneven pavement, and I keep a slower pace when climbing, such as the walk to the castle in Salzburg.
But there is a real joy and beauty to having a perspective that spans decades. I was first in Munich in 1982. As I looked at the train station and imagined it then and now, it struck me that the changes reflect cultural shifts. More consumption, more fast food, everything more colorful and electronic. There is now an electronic billboard where the old train arrival/departure board stood. It flipped numbers and letters to change, now a big screen simply lists the trains.
I was in Berlin for the first time in 1989 – late July and early August. In retrospect, I was there literally in the last days of Cold War “normalcy.” I was fascinated by the ride through East Germany, observing villages with TV antennas atop the homes, cars covered so deep with soot from the huge factories near Bitterfeld and Wittenberg that one would need to brush it away like snow in the winter.
Going to East Berlin I was shocked by the economic conditions – the central store on Alexanderplatz had nothing worth buying, and that was their showpiece department store! I ate lunch, walked and observed. I can’t describe the emotion I felt when I walked down Unter den Linden to the east side of the wall. I could see observers on a platform in the west looking over. The division of the city was absurd. Little did I know, it was also going to last only three more months. In early August, no one knew what was about to happen.
Going back to Berlin, I find myself at times with a few tears in my eyes. It’s strange, but the power of the transformation moves me. The communist system in the east was so oppressive, dysfunctional and immoral that I still feel a sense of real joy when I’m on Alexanderplatz, or viewing the city from the dome of the Reichstag building. I was contemplating all of this with a few students and said, “we notice all the disasters of history, but the last 25 years it’s gone right for Berlin.”
To think, the Cold War, the Wall, Communism…those are abstractions for anyone under 30 in Berlin. It’s history, stories from their parents. Their reality is smart phones, social media, the Euro (it’s been 12 years since they used the Deutschmark) and globalization. I see that in my students too. Most had never heard for the 1972 terror attack at the Munich Olympics (we discussed that while visiting the Olympic grounds and tower), their questions about the division of Germany and the Cold War show most don’t really understand what it was all about. Their reality is much different than the reality of my generation.
Though part of me envies the fact they are young, have their lives in front of them, and are in a world where globalization offers profound possibilities and unpredictable change, I embrace the fact that I can experience these cities now with the perspective of time. I can see what’s changed and what has not. I understand how dramatically the world has changed since the early eighties, when most Germans only got three television stations and credit cards were an American phenomenon. In the 80s they were still catching up to the US, in many ways they have now passed us.
In Salzburg we saw an exhibition on World War I – “Trauma, Art and War,” showing how people enthusiastically welcomed a war they would all come to hate, and which would only make things worse in Europe. In Dachau we visited the concentration camp. The power of that place was such that I had to leave the students for awhile to be on my own, again, the emotion welled up in me and I was brushing away tears. It wasn’t just about the victims, but thinking of Germany itself, how they give in to the horror of a radical fascist right wing dictatorship.
I told the students that one lesson of history is that ideology is dangerous. The far right and far left were seductive in their simplistic explanation of what would make the world better. They also each tried to paint the other as not really being their ideology – the right says that fascism was leftist, the left calls communism ‘red painted fascism.’ Now Germans embrace pragmatism over ideology, and that has put them in very good condition.
I am writing this on the train between Munich and Vienna. Trains rarely have compartments any more, now it’s wide open seating. The windows can’t be opened as the trains are air conditioned. Yet there is a consistency to train travel that brings the years together for me. Gliding on the rails (even if it’s a tad quieter), the announcements, one of the conductors blowing a whistle when the doors are about to close and the train goes on, that holds the experience together across time.
Looking at the Austrian countryside, the villages look the same, though the solar panels on a surprisingly large number of roofs also show the 21st Century. On to Wien! (Posted from Wien – some trains have wifi, but the one I was traveling upon did not!)