Across Northern Europe: Terror in Berlin

I’m in Belgium now but I have a word more about Germany because simply being a tourist in Berlin will get you thinking. I’d love to take a history class on the last century in Berlin: WWI leads to Hitler leads to WWII leads to the DDR leads to the fall of the Berlin wall. How’s that for a syllabus?

A couple days ago I was at the Topography of Terror, an outdoor museum that lost funding before it was completed. The exhibit stands where the Gestapo and SS once set up shop and is complete enough in it’s telling of terrible things.

“World history sometimes seems unjust, but in the end it reveals a superior justice.” That quote was translated into English on one of the displays from the WWII period and it reminded me of Martin Luther King Jr.’s hopeful formulation that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

But in 1944 it wasn’t that kind of movie and the quote is from Joseph Goebbels the Nazi propaganda minister. He was right, I suppose, but I’m not sure he knew it.

I spent a fair bit of my time in Berlin wishing I was traveling with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian president has famously denied the Holocaust and when Mike Wallace interviewed him on “60 Minutes” some months ago, Ahmadinejad basically asked, “If it happened, where is the evidence?”

Berlin, indeed much of Germany, is an answer to that question. Perhaps most stirring at the Topography of Terror are the audio recordings which play with the push of a button at several of the displays. One live radio report describes the hysterical crowd on the night Hitler was named Chancellor.

But the button I wished Ahmadinejad would push was from October 4, 1943. It was Heinrich Himmler, the SS commander speaking at a Nazi party meeting. “I want to talk to you quite openly here about a very difficult topic,” he said. “The extinction of the Jews.”

Germany is peppered with such horrible things. But tonight I’m in Belgium where the museums and monuments don’t make you think so much. That might not be fair though, since it was only a few decades before Hitler that Belgium’s King Leopold II’s pursuit of rubber led to the death of 5 to 22 million people in the Congo.

Back home in the United States of America our wealth was derived with the help of an unspeakable forced migration. Slaves worked land that was free because it’s native inhabitants had been exterminated or relocated.

I thought of that sometimes as I walked through Berlin; how Germans face their grandparent’s misdeeds much more than the rest of us.

“This was the worst event in the history of the world,” a thirty-something German told me. “And it’s important that we remember it, so that it never happens again. But sometimes it’s too much.”

I thought he was right and I thought if there were fewer people like the president of Iran, it wouldn’t be so necessary.


Previously on Across Northern Europe:

  1. Shining a Light on Iceland
  2. Lonely Love on Iceland
  3. Iceland Gone Wild
  4. A Trip to the Airport
  5. Why Bother Going to Berlin?
  6. A Perishable Feast
  7. Globians Film Festival
  8. The Elusive Dutch Drivers License

Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.