A Visit to Berlin: War(s) and Remembrance

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin (photos here courtesy of Wikipedia)

I’ve been attending a law and mental health conference in Berlin. It’s the first time I’ve been in the city since 1981, and I thought I’d share my sense of this fascinating place.

Berlin 1981

After a semester at Valparaiso University’s study center in Cambridge, England, I spent several weeks traipsing through parts of the European continent. I recall that with only a few days left to travel, I decided to break off from my travel companions and make a visit to Berlin.

My main impressions of Berlin in 1981, concededly those of a callow college senior, were of contrasts.

This was the last decade of the Cold War. Eight years later the Berlin Wall would fall, but at the time of my brief visit, it was a defining physical, political, and psychological presence.

West Berlin struck me as being self-consciously glitzy, garish and colorful. (Okay, the term “self-conscious” was not in my vocabulary yet, but you get the picture.)

However, when I crossed over to East Berlin via Checkpoint Charlie, it seemed like the city faded to gray. Upon going through security, I quickly found my way to Unter den Linden, once one of Europe’s grandest boulevards, only to find what looked like a dull, lifeless ghost city, devoid of energy, commerce, or pedestrian traffic. My walk concluded at the Brandenburg Gate (pictured above), which separated east from west.

Berlin 2011

Humboldt University, the host of this conference, is one of Germany’s most prominent universities. It is located on the city’s east side along the same Unter den Linden that I found so drab and depressing in 1981.

But how things have changed. The boulevard is once again full of life, with visitors, students, and office workers spilling onto the sidewalks. The Brandenburg Gate is a tourist draw, replete with young men dressed in faux military uniforms for photo ops. And if kitschy tourist traps are a sign of the arrival of a market economy, then some of the shops along Unter den Linden fit the bill.

Remembrance and responsibility

Some claim that Germany’s willingness to acknowledge the horrible sins of the Second World War can cross into self-flagellation. However, I find it an admirable trait, especially when compared to, say, Japan and the Rape of Nanking and Turkey and the Armenian Massacre.

For example, in a short pamphlet describing its history and academic programs, Humboldt University acknowledges the unsavory eras of its history, including the Nazi era:

…(T)he university experienced the most reprehensible period in its history: Among its staff and students were many enthusiastic supporters of the National Socialist regime. There are few examples of resistance to the regime or the countless crimes that were committed against humanity.

At Bebelplatz (pictured above), which now serves as the university plaza, there is a tiny, unmarked square of ground with a translucent underground display of empty bookshelves, marking the location of an infamous Nazi book burning in 1933.

A short walk from the Checkpoint Charlie tourist bazaar is the moving¬†Topography of Terror exhibition, which helps to preserve the painful history of the Nazi era. It is located on the grounds of the “central institutions of Nazi persecution and terror,” and is abutted by remaining portions of the Berlin Wall.


Berlin’s most apparent physical reminder of WWII is its architecture. Much of this old world city was leveled by Allied bombs during the war, and it rebuilt itself during the 1950s and 1960s, an era dominated by sterile, alienating building designs. (As fellow residents of Boston can attest, such ugly architecture is hardly limited to Berlin!)

Thus, most of the city’s post-war buildings range from unremarkable to downright ugly. And yet, the street life of Berlin transcends some of the less-than-wonderful architecture. Modern Berlin has the feel of a busy, lively, edgy metropolis.


In one of those impromptu chats that evolves into a deep conversation, a European colleague and I shared our impressions of spending a week in a city that carries such a difficult and painful history. I confessed that I felt uneasy in Berlin even as I found the city fascinating, and he agreed.

We further concurred that, given this history, Berlin is a psychologically complex place, with historical events — and the discomfort they carry — likely leaving their imprint on the populace.¬†In the 20th century alone, the Weimer, Nazi, Cold War, and post-Cold War eras marked brutal, jarring social and economic transitions. This city was a crossroads for all of them.

Trite but true

Perhaps that very history conveys a special meaning upon a global conference on law and mental health, held at this university and in this city.

After all, ranging from panels on more conventional aspects of civil and criminal legal systems, to a gripping program on health care, medical ethics, and public health in a WWII Jewish ghetto (go here for blog post), the conference stood for applying intellect, research, and understanding to the cause of human dignity. Humboldt University of 1941 or 1981 would not have hosted such a conference.

Thanks for reading these impressions of a city revisited.

-David Yamada

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