2012 Conway Scholarship Report - Irreducible Enthusiasm by Erika Robertson

During the summer of 2012 I was privileged to participate in the Berlin Group Study Program through Go Global at the University of British Columbia. The Conway Scholarship made it possible for me to see the places, hear the language, and immerse myself in the culture that I have studied for the past five years. I was completely amazed by the richness of Berlin. After four months of classes and travel, I left with a strong impression of the complex interactions between the multiple identities of Berliners, and Germans at large.

Even down the bronze squares under my feet, the city constantly reminded that historically significant events occur not in books but in space and time. Every piece of ground has three distinct and vivid phases in its recent memory:  the early twentieth century under the National Socialists, the period of division between East and West, and the present reinterpretations.

Just outside of Berlin stands Sachsenhausen, the first prison camp built by the Nazis. Built mainly to house political prisoners, it was intended to show the ideal panoptic layout for future camps to follow. In 1945 the camp was captured by the Soviet army who renamed it “Special Camp No. 1” and replaced the population with prisoners of war and other political prisoners. Under the German Democratic Republic, a church-like museum was erected to honour Communist victims and further Soviet propaganda.

Since the fall of East Germany, a new museum has been built and every demographic of Nazi victims, from Jehovah’s Witnesses to homosexuals, have the opportunity to place their own memorials around the walls. I was particularly struck by the diversity of reactions to atrocities, including mourning, despair, anger, desire for revenge, remembering, and forgetting. Almost every building in Berlin has a dramatic story of its own, but Sachsenhausen made the layers of history and their impact on current German culture particularly clear to me.

Because Sachsenhausen is geographically removed from the urban rush of Berlin, it has an atmosphere of contemplation and perseverance. In contrast, Templehof Airport reflects the rapid changes for which Berlin is famous. It is an area of controversy and creativity. I visited the historic airport for an experimental outdoor art exhibit called “Die Grosse Welt Ausstellung,” in which several local artists’ collectives erected structures that played with the concept of world fairs.

Even more striking than the artists’ creations was the overwhelming scale of the space. I was shocked to find a rolling prairie in the centre of the city. The defunct runways served as tracks for runners, bicyclists, and land windsurfers. Some areas had been fenced off to protect habitat for birds and plants while in other zones community gardens sprang up. A German friend of mine described the passionate debates and protests surrounding the park’s creation. Yet all this energetic human activity was still dwarfed by the uninterrupted acres of grass.  From that experience especially, I would characterize Berlin as a city that embraces its scars as a source of inspiration.

Living in Berlin for a summer also gave me a sense of the current changes and controversies that impact Berliner’s lives. Typically the North American media portrays Germany as financially responsible and politically stable, despite the economic downturn. It struck me as funny to learn that Berliners know the city budget to be in very bad condition. Many citizens of the city protested when the city government began construction on a luxurious new museum called the Humboldt Box.

The giant, blue box near Museum Island will house a reconstruction of part of the palace used by former Prussian kings and German emperors. Not only did citizens feel this was an irresponsible use of tax money, but the result would glorify a part of history of which they were not particularly proud. In response to these criticisms the Mayor responded that Berlin is “arm aber sexy”—poor but sexy. This phrase has become a sardonic motto which appeared in murals and objects all over the city. I could not understand the city’s self-awareness and its contentious relationship with their history from a classroom.

I went to Berlin with enough of a foundation in its history that it would be a city of scars, reconstructions, museums, and memorials. For example, I was not surprised by the wide, straight streets and modernized city centre. However, my studies could not have prepared me for the most interesting aspect of Berlin’s culture: the city’s drive to respond to the past with abundant reconciliation and creativity. Rather than fleeing the shockwaves of destruction, people from around the world rush to constructively engage with the past and redefine Berlin. I am grateful to Professor Conway’s generous scholarship which enabled me to gain awareness of the complexity and beauty of German culture. These vivid impressions cannot be taught in classes, but my experiences in Germany have renewed my enthusiasm for learning about the German language, history, and culture at UBC and beyond.