why Berlin has taught me so much
Berlin is a city that has seen an immeasurable amount of heartbreak, injustice, and death. From the brutal Nazi regime to the atrocities of the forced East-West divide, this city has endured its fair share of oppression and segregation. Yet, walking through its vibrant streets, flanked by the beauty of both classic buildings and modern architecture, I saw little trace of the bloodshed and trauma that at certain points in history characterized the city. Of course, the many monuments erected around the city ensure that Berliners and tourists alike don’t forget the suffering of those who perished in the 20th century. Still, despite these reminders, the city has refused to be buried under the rubble and has risen above being merely a memorial to the fallen. Instead, it has emerged from the ashes and turned into something new.
As I wandered the city with my very knowledgeable guide (my high school best friend who is a proud Berliner!), I felt like I was navigating a sea of reactions. I walked through the imposing, frighteningly beautiful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, mourning the deaths and celebrating the lives of those lost. A few minutes later, I was at the Brandenburg Gate, a symbol of victory, peace, unity, and welcome that somehow managed to withstand the test of time and war. Surrounding this were pristine buildings whose modern architecture complemented the Gate’s antiquity.
As I crossed decades of Berlin’s history in a short, 10-minute walk, I went from being overwhelmingly sad, to simply overwhelmed, to somehow feeling very at home in a city that is as modern and multicultural as Milan, Paris, or, New York—cities I know quite well. Yet, Berlin’s melange of history, internationalism, and fervent German pride make it unlike any other place I’ve ever visited. Above all, seeing the city’s rustic cosmopolitan beauty, and interacting with its people, who were of every race and religion possible, made me see the world in a completely different light. Berlin is proof that there can be new, vibrant life after death, and that there can be pristine reparation after unimaginable destruction.
The video clips of crowds cheering and standing atop the Berlin Wall in the autumn of 1990 perfectly capture the spirited mood of a city that has seen hatred and intolerance and that has instead chosen peace and unity. This new stance of inclusion and tolerance can be seen in relation to recent incidents. On a memorial to the victims of the 2016 terror attack at the Christmas market near Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, someone crossed out the word “Islamic” on the phrase “Islamic terror attack” to remind those reading that it was extremism—and not an entire religion—that was responsible for the horrific act. That change to the plaque has remained untouched, showing a refusal to fall back on hatred that’s caused by generalization—an attitude that had been a key premise of the country’s mid-20th-century military dictatorship.
Over a mere 20 years, Berlin has removed the lines between East and West, turning the city into one huge melting pot of cultures, religions, and ethnicities. As I rode the bus through the city, I observed how different stops brought on a completely new set of people from the last. Though I am told that there is still a slightly noticeable difference in accent and conduct between those who lived in the East and West pre-1990, the city itself, and the way Berliners interact, shows little interest in that divide. There is no “one way” to be a Berliner. Despite me having caramel skin and clearly foreign features, people did not automatically assume that I was a foreigner. Shopkeepers, waiters, and folks on the street spoke to me in German, and they did not stare as if I were a foreign mule.
The city’s multicultural nature can be seen, in the most straightforward way, through its food. A typical dish of Berlin, Currywurst, sees the Indian spice added to bratwurst (pork sausage). This was a concoction created from the acquisition of spices from British soldiers after the Second World War. Another typically foreign dish, falafel, has become commonplace in Berlin’s gastronomical scene. One of the most delicious ways I ate it was atop a potato salad—a plate that the popular healthy chain Immergrün calls “Falafel Kartoffel.” Thus, once again, we have a dish born out of a mix of typical German cuisine and food brought by the city’s immigrant population. Contrary to what xenophobes may believe, this is not foreigners taking over Berlin’s culture. Instead, this new cuisine is all about merging the foreign with the local to create something innovative and even more interesting.
Berlin’s refusal to be defined by its past is one of the most empowering things I’ve ever seen. During my short stay, I learned more from merely observing my surroundings than I would have listening to a motivational speech or an inspirational TED Talk. Perhaps I am overly sentimental, which is why the city moved me the way it did. Nevertheless, by visiting the museums, memorials, and historical landmarks, and by observing the way the city overcame tragedy and adversity through openness and discussion, I learned many lessons about resilience, forgiveness, and the strength that comes from human goodness. In light of the political and social events of the past few years, it can be easy to fall back on the complaint of “there is so much evil in the world, so much extremism and intolerance, that it is irreparable.” But Berlin’s renaissance, characterized by its multiculturalism and its refusal to be defined by the past decisions of a few powerful men with bad, fanatical judgment, is proof that there is also much goodness and hope within the widely perceived darkness of corruption and fear.
Of course, Berlin is not all perfect and rosy. There is crime and there are grumpy people because the city is not a utopia where everyone holds hands and sings folk songs around a glowing campfire. But the city’s worth lies in the fact that it has come so far from its days of oppression and division, and its journey proves an inspiration to us all.