Monday, October 17, 2011

A Visit to the Reichstag (Germany #2)

BERLIN--From the moment I stepped onto German soil yesterday, I felt oddly at home. It was a feeling I've never had in any of the other countries I’ve visited in recent years (England, Wales, Scotland, Italy, Spain, France, Costa Rica). Standing on a Berlin street corner, I might as well have been in Indianapolis or Cincinnati; the Germans looked just like Americans (although the 200,000 Turks who live here may not). I myself already have been mistaken for a German.
          This morning, after an hour-long Q & A with a young woman who works as an assistant to a member of the German parliament, it was off to the historic Reichstag building, which symbolizes the new unified Germany. The Reichstag housed the German Empire’s parliament from 1894 to 1933, when it was burned by the Nazis. It fell into disuse until 1999, when it became the meeting place of the modern German parliament.
The Bundestag meets in a large gray-walled, carpeted chamber brightened by blue chairs and a glass dome ceiling. (Two cleverly entwined winding pathways connect the dome overlooking this city of 3.5 million.) Political parties control the portion of time allotted to each speaker; no filibustering is possible. Voting is by raised hand unless there is a tie, in which case they leave and file back in through one of three doors: aye, nay, or no vote.
          Walls throughout the building contain a smattering of graffiti and bullet holes from the end of WWII when the Russians occupied the Reichstag. Much attention has been devoted in the restoration to both art and the victims of war. A Jewish artist who lost loved ones in the Holocaust created a piece out of the old walled mailboxes of parliament members. He chose to leave even the one belonging to Hitler (who actually was elected before taking over in a coup d'etat) because he felt that being human outweighs the evil men do. Not everyone agrees; Hitler’s mailbox is kicked in every week or two.
In the afternoon I meet my tour guide, Burkhard, a youthful fit-looking German actor with a resonant voice who speaks flawless English and displays a ready wit along with deep knowledge about Berlin. For the next four hours, it’s on and off the bus many times to actually see the settings of events that Burkhard is describing. There's a plane that took part in the airlift the Allies mounted when Stalin closed the border to Berlin in 1949. At Checkpoint Charlie, we're reminded of President Kennedy’s famous 1961 speech and the standoff  that almost started WWIII. At the Brandenberg Gate, Burkhard talks about the Berlin Wall finally coming down.
But what makes the guide's commentary even more lively and interesting are his personal memories. At seventeen, Burkhard was thrown into prison by the East Germans for being a few minutes late for curfew as he was leaving East Berlin. He jokes about it being an adventure, but admits those were also the longest two days of his life. The story illustrates the random and totalitarian manner by which the Communist sector was ruled during the Cold War.
          At that time, watching western television was illegal in East Berlin. But Burkhard had an aunt who still lived there and wanted to know what was going on in the outside world. He took a tv set to her so she could secretly watch the news. Meanwhile, her young son and his classmates were asked to draw crayon pictures of what their family watched on television. Soon came a visit from the secret police. “We know what you’re doing, and we’ll be back.” This terrifying threat is not the end of the matter.
Years later when secret East German police files are opened, Burkhard learns that his aunt’s son, who’d always wanted to go to college, has been prevented from doing so by the East German state. A note confirming this punishment is found, along with the crayon drawing, in the files. Neither Burkhard nor his cousin ever tells the aunt what happened so she won’t feel guilty. Even today, after all these years, the subject is verboten at family gatherings. Such are the scars left behind by the Cold War in Berlin.

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