Germany Struggles with Its History

November, 2014

Berlin -- Germany still struggles with its history, and not just the Nazizeit.

The state of Thüringen, after recent elections, is trying to put together a red-red-green governing coalition; that is, two parties of the left (SPD and Die Linke) along with the Greens (die Grünen). But to some it is unthinkable that the leader of the government might be a member of Die Linke, in that he has ties to the old East German state, the DDR. The president of the entire federal republic, Joachim Gauck, is weighing in, saying it is going to be hard for those of his generation to agree to seeing such a person come to power. The SPD in Thüringen is polling its membership to see if it will accept being in a coalition with a member of Die Linke as its head.

Others, including a friend of mine in Berlin with impeccable credentials on the left, say there was an election and Die Linke should be allowed, in a democracy, to take leadership. I tend to agree; there's nothing like having to take responsibility for governing in a coalition to make people and parties face real issues rather than forever carping from the ideological sidelines. It can also be a good way to clean up a tainted past.

Meanwhile, in the middle of Berlin a new palace is rising, a reconstruction of the palace of the Kaisers. It is a huge edifice and will soon be the talk of the world. What is Germany trying to do, bring back the Prussia of Frederick the Great? Indeed, the palace is just down the street from the benevolent gaze of a statue of Frederick that dominates Unter den Linden boulevard. I remember in the 1990s when the new palace was proposed. The building on the site at that time was the former East German Palast der Republik, the parliament and cultural center of the DDR. It had to go, not just for symbolism but because it was riddled with asbestos. The new palace was just to be a reconstruction of the palace that was torn down by the Soviets in the 1950s, a nice tourist attraction if nothing else.

Technically, the new palace project is called the Humboldt Forum. The building will serve as a scientific and educational conference center, named for the Humboldt brothers (after whom nearby Humboldt University is also named). Inescapably, it will also glorify German science. With such a colossal building, it is going to be tempting for the German government to use it for diplomatic goals as well as educational and historical purposes. This may all be for the better. Germany has been a responsible world power now for several decades, but the country must be ready for raised eyebrows as attention starts to be drawn to the completion of a splendid new palace of the Kaisers.

Now if only a few Euros could trickle down from the palace to complete the construction work around Kottbusser Tor, in my neighborhood, which has been a mess for years and years. This is where the world meets: Turks, Germans, Britons, French, Eastern Europeans, Americans, Africans.... Finishing up the project would signal that Berlin also cares about the diplomacy of the street.

Upcoming 25th Anniversary

November, 2014

Berlin -- A week from today will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. I remember being present on the day it fell. Tumultuous times.

Today, Sunday, November 2, 2014, I got up with the sun, walked a block and a half to where the wall once stood, crossed over Bethaniendamm at Melchior Strasse into former East Berlin, bought three breakfast brötchen at a little bakery, and walked back home back past the great St. Thomas Church in the former West. A remarkable walk in that it was so ordinary. Twenty-five years earlier (or fifty years earlier, for that matter) such a walk would have been impossible.

On Christmas day of 1963, Paul Schultz, an eighteen-year-old East German, tried to cross at the same spot and was shot by border guards as he was about to jump from atop the last barrier into the West. He died that evening at Bethanien Hospital, a block away. The guard who shot him was rewarded with a new briefcase and wristwatch by the East German government.

Is history's verdict about the wall (or about anything in our lives) up to those of us who are still around to write the last chapter? Yes, I'd say. And perhaps it is our duty to intervene to make the last chapter a happy ending, to the extent such an ending is possible. How should we write the last chapter of the wall's demise? A celebration of the ordinary and the mundane seems appropriate to me, like my walk this morning. For others there are still scores to settle and lives to avenge. So be it.

Glad to be Away

November, 2014

Berlin -- For me it's a good time to be in Berlin on this November 1, 2014, as I have successfully avoided Halloween hullabaloo in the States and will avoid U.S. election day on Tuesday. I voted early before coming here. Weather's been much better here, too. The grounds and gardens at Sans Souci yesterday were incomparable. My daughter and I walked eleven kilometers altogether, through train stations and palace promenades, every step a delight.

Had I been in the Washington suburbs last evening, I would have given the trick-or-treaters peanuts in the shell, as usual, not candy. This year I would also have been tempted to give them a copy, for their parents, of Mark Bittman's op-ed "Two Rules for a Good Diet." It's sad to see so many little obese children asking for candy and junk food.

I'm not ruling out some election day surprises on Tuesday that I'd like to be around to witness, but where I live in Nebraska and Maryland, there haven't been any real surprises for years. Both are essentially one-party states where office holders are simply not held accountable. Nebraska state government, under Republicans, has witnessed several years of ineptitude and scandal in its human services and corrections departments, but the Republican candidates for state offices are all ahead in the polls. Maryland state government is about to be headed by a Democratic candidate, currently lieutenant governor, who failed miserably last year in setting up Maryland's health insurance exchanges. But he won the Democratic primary over a similarly weak candidate, so he's likely a winner in the general election.

It's past time to look more critically at our election institutions that lead to such situations.

The election surprise I'm really hoping for is in Oregon, where better food labeling is on the ballot and has a chance, despite millions of dollars being thrown against it by Pepsico, Monsanto, Coca-Cola, ConAgra, and the like, whose favorite holiday is probably Halloween.

POST-ELECTION UPDATE: Apparently a lot of Marylanders felt as I did (see above), and did not turn out for the Democratic candidate for governor as predicted. He lost. The Democratic congressman for whom the party gerrymandered a district almost lost as well. Maryland may be heavily Democratic, but voters pay attention. In Nebraska, party label was everything, and Nebraska government will be the lesser for it.

Food labeling in Oregon lost by the narrowest of margins. Big Ag ran an astonishing disinformation campaign against it, successfully. The hope for better food labeling might rest in consumer choice rather than ballot initiatives.