One of my favorite things about my classes here in Berlin is the international make-up of the students. We have 32 students in our class from 20 different countries. I love talking about different cultures and politics of various countries so it’s been a great opportunity for me to learn more about places like Russia, Romania, Turkey, China and everywhere in between.
But the program is in Berlin, so naturally we have the most Germans. Of our 32 people, I think 8 are German… so a quarter of the class. Naturally living here has given Adrian and I a lot of opportunities to meet and talk to many other Berliners as well and to learn about the city and its dramatic history. It’s impossible to walk around the downtown are and not see at least a remnant of the Berlin Wall, if not a monument to the Holocaust or some other horrific part of German history.
The truth is, the wars between the US and Germany happened not that long ago, so they do come up fairly often in conversation. Many Americans even to this day when asked about Germany, first think about Nazis. It’s a sad fact that Germans wish wasn’t the case, but in Germany, you soon learn that it is impossible to run from the uncomfortable truths of your nation’s past.
What many Americans do not realize about Germany, is in addition to the time of the National Socialist regime of the 30s and the war, the dividing of Germany into east and west was also an extremely difficult period for Germans… and especially Berliners. When the city was divided, the wall was put up in secret over night. This surprise split up friendships, ended jobs and ruined lives forever.
A friend of mine is from former East Germany and grew up under the communist DDR regime. It is hard for me to imagine what it would be like to live in such a place… where no one is free to speak their mind and the government yields such power of people’s lives. In DDR Germany, the government had the power to uproot and move entire families depending on the labor needs of different parts of the country. Imagine if you received a call today from the government saying there was a shortage of your profession in Alabama and you are being moved there tomorrow… what a horrible thing to have hovering over you! I asked my friend how the East Germans dealt with this. His response was that they went about their daily lives as best they could and tried not to think about it. I guess that’s what anyone would do.
Fortunately, after the Berlin Wall was torn down, East and West German were reunited and Germans no longer have to deal with living in a divided nation. However, like the time of the Nazi’s and the Wars, it is still very much a part of the average German’s consciousness. Germans commemorate the event with German unification day which is the only national holiday in Germany. the fact that they only have one really surprised me as an American because patriotism is a huge part of American culture and politics… in Germany things are very different. Germans are extremely skeptical of patriotism and nationalism for good reason. Having pride in your country is looked at here as a strange and almost shameful thing. “If you have pride in your country, that must mean you don’t have pride in yourself”, Germans tend to think.
Having lived here for a few months now, I have come to respect and admire the Germans. In general (obviously, as with any stereotype, nothing applies to every person), Germans are cognizant of past mistakes, are happy in the present and are worried but hopeful about the future. Not a bad way to be, I think.