Stepping into history

My ancestors were from a part of the world that had been sheltered from everything that most people would know as world history. Even if consequences did reach them, it would be days, even years after the passing of an event. That is until the late ’50s, when the modern era broke into the lives of people living in the lee-ward side of the Himalayan range.

Once it did, the modern era was probably too much to take in for my great-grandparents. My grandparents stumbled through it, my mother eventually found her footing while we have been feeding from a steady drip of exposure to western perspectives. In the last few years, an explosion of perspectives has enveloped us, and sometimes we are washed onto distant shores, muttering quae regio quae mundi plaga? And yet, even in the confusion of all the commentary on the world, the invisible string of the puppeteer is faintly visible, but again I seem to digress.

To get back to my trip, I loved Berlin because I am fascinated by places that are steeped in history. We have places like that in India too, but here we have a fatalistic and tragic truth…we bulldoze over our past. We tear down the walls or we let it sink into obscurity. We believe that if we raze down structures and rebuild pastiche over it, we have made our history even better. Additionally we have displacements of humanity by the millions. That always reminds me of the stray dogs.

The story of the stray dogs of Delhi

This used to happen a few years ago and has thankfully become less noticeable of late. Every few months, an animal sterilisation van used to round up the stray dogs on our street. After a few days the van would come round again, and release dogs back on the street. For a few days you would see hungry or scared looking dogs sniffing around, jumpy and anxious. Vicious fights would break between them and always the weakest would run across the street, tail between its legs and howling into the night. So frightened that it would smash against grills and thorny bushes, trying to get away, anywhere. This was very strange behaviour from dogs that had been born and brought up in these streets.

Only when we got closer to these poor confused animals did we realise that..these dogs were different from the original residents. The sterilisation van was callously mixing up where they picked up the animals from. Everything was one big chaotic operation and the boys in the van were probably completing their daily quotas, 10 dogs to pick up and 15 to drop back, plus dog-bites, chasing the animals down, stomachs to feed all for a few hundred rupees.

This was what is happening to the dogs, people and history every day in the poorer parts of the world. We are not even sure that we will die in the same city where we were born.

Today we walk so casually across the “wall”. But over fifty years ago it stood like an impossible end of all dreams for so many Berliners.

Back in Berlin…

Forgetting who lived here and why, that has not happened in Berlin, and rightly so. As they say, if you do not learn from your past, then you are destined to repeat it.

The Detlev Rohwedderhaus was the centre of Reich Aviation Ministry and was “Goring’s centre of power”. During the Soviet era, the building continued as part of the military administration. Today the building has been converted into the German Finance Ministry.

In Berlin, I took the Sandeman tour on the first day, just to orient myself. I could have walked to Brandenburg Gate, but the U-bahn connects very well, stopping at historic stations whose names I think I still remember (in random order) Oranienberg, Rosenthaler Platz, Friedrichstrasse etc etc. Every station name made me google its history and some of it was sobering- old Jewish quarters, or the names of brilliant people with tragic lives.

Somewhere under this carpark is Hitler’s bunker. The bunker was flooded with water and buried under earth. Some things you really do not want to preserve.

Whenever I walk around a historic part of a city, I always imagine a person born at the beginning of a period, say just near the end of the war. I imagine all the experiences that the person would have gone through in his or her lifetime. Perhaps as she went through life, she did not recognise the momentous events for what it was. She would live every day, every week and year like the rest of us, until one day she was old. Only then would she realise the phases of history that she had gone through. Was her father a Nazi? Was her husband a spy? Did her son make it to the other side of the wall? Where was she when the wall fell? How old was she when it went up? Did she die in unified Germany?

Here I am, super excited to see the Humboldt University facade. Humboldt was a familiar name to me, the explorer and early scientist, whose South American travels was so vividly covered in one of my first National Geographic magazines. So this was like meeting a familiar person in an unfamiliar land. ha ha!

It was fascinating to learn on the tour that many parts of Berlin were rebuilt after WWII, and that people were given a choice- did they want absolutely new structures, or did they want buildings similar to what they had before? I am glad that they chose to mostly rebuild their city. No matter how far below they sank, the German people chose to rebuild, removing the stains and trying to retain the great ideas that some of its true luminaries had.

Before my visit, Berlin, and indeed all of Germany, was stained by Hitler. This trip helped to understand a lot more about German history and the far-reaching consequences of every event that a country can go through.

Even more interesting was to see how quickly people’s lives could change and adapt to the most displacing external shocks. Truly fascinating, our human history.

Modern Berlin is radical, underground and hopefully always going to encourage her visitors to always strive for the frontiers of human freedom

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