Berlin wears its history on its sleeve. Its reputation as the seat of Hitler’s Third Reich and pivotal position during the Cold War, then the collapse of the divide between east and west, make that inevitable. But the modern German state has propelled history further into the public eye, in the hope that frank discussion of extremism will be the antidote to its resurgence. Germany is striving to do this by putting history in the way: on street corners, in pavements, into restored and new buildings as well, of course, by way of many museums and memorials.
A spin-off from all this is history tourism — and jobs for young historians. We joined two English-speaking walking tours, one of Berlin during the last days of the Third Reich and the other of Hohenzollern Potsdam. The first was led by an English woman with a Masters degree in German history; the second by an American, with a Bachelors in history, during which she studied post-war Judaism in Germany. I admit to some disappointment that we did not encounter young German historians; still, it was heartening to see history graduates employed in the field.
That said, the contrast between our two guides brought into clear focus the variety of skills and knowledge a history tour leader needs. It would seem obvious that interpersonal skills would top the list. In fact, neither guide was a natural but the first, Pip, made up for lack of eye contact with her insightful historical interpretation and genuine interest in the topic. The second brought to mind the Yes Minister quip that the ideal hospital has no patients; ergo a tour without tourists would have suited Rachel better. Dressed to suit her mechanical doll-like patter, she had a good spiel worked out. Our small group learned quite a bit about kings in and of Potsdam, as well as a bit about the city’s WWII and post-war story. But questions were effectively discouraged. We went away with a clear impression of what she wanted to say: Potsdam’s palaces reflect royal indulgence. A stroll through the palaces and gardens, with or even without a guidebook, would have conveyed that same message.
Pip on the other hand added to the tour an historian’s interest in changing versions of history and the discussions or emotions memorials can evoke. For example, she suggested that the myth of German efficiency in prosecuting the Holocaust needed to be modified: the megalomania of individuals in Hitler’s entourage did mean the rules were ignored at whim. She referred also to new scholarship about the use of drugs in the German army. While these had proved effective for quick campaigns such as the invasion of France – with soldiers doped enough to go without sleep for a couple of days – the same tactic couldn’t work in the vastness of the Russian terrain.
The determination in Germany to confront extremism today may make it, despite the emergence of the ultra-nationalist party Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), a less likely bed for right-wing radicalism than Sweden or Austria. This was the view Pip presented to our group, which included some young Australian travellers and a couple of ill-clad English lads, all of whom stayed the distance, listening to her explanations and asking questions that were both invited and answered.
The lessons of history are no guarantee against human folly. But seeing first-hand the destruction war creates – yes, the bullet holes in Berlin’s buildings are genuine – and sensing the heartbreak caused by the wall that divided a city and a people for 40 years might just help to stimulate outrage at attempts to repeat past mistakes. In the age of Netanyahu and Trump such optimism could be misplaced; nevertheless, Germans seem resolved now to discuss and debate their past. Let us hope that being able to call out the echoes of Nazism deployed by the Afd and others, Pip is right and Germany will stay its centrist path.
Image: The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe or the Holocaust Memorial, designed by American architect Peter Eisenman. It covers 19,000 m2 in the very centre of Berlin.