By Erin Miller, Berlin trip participant, Together, Restoring their Names fellow, and student at Boston University
If one is privileged enough to receive higher education, one may graduate without ever having to take a history class. One could climb the rungs of the American educational system without ever analyzing or questioning the history education that one has received. The ethics of teaching history is rarely examined in the classroom. Certain historical events, like the Holocaust, if taught at all, are taught with sensitivity and/or analyzed from an ethical perspective. From my experience as someone who has navigated the American public school system, American history is rarely approached with the same critical lens.
Three weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Berlin with Together, Restoring Their Names. This organization, funded by Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, takes college students, like myself, to various cities in Europe to study the Holocaust on a memory-service learning trip. Through studying modern German architecture and the current German political system, I gained new perspective on the various approaches to historical commemoration and education. Through this process, I acquired a newfound criticism of America’s failure to properly display memory work.
The Reichstag, the German Parliament Building, embodies Germany’s past and present. The facade is restored to look like the original building constructed in 1894, but the interior reflects the dark history of the German government. Even though the Reichstag was in use since 1990, after the reunification of Berlin and the Reichstag was once again established as the German Parliament building, it was not renovated until 1999. Norman Foster, the architect who created the Reichstag renovations, utilized the theme of transparency in his design. The entire building, although looking very traditional on the outside, is saturated with windows on the inside. The building reminded me of a glass box. Most famously, looming over the plenary chamber where the Parliament is a giant glass dome, which symbolizes the transparency of the current German government. We even had the opportunity to climb the dome and look down into the plenary chamber where the German Parliament meets. It is clear through the architecture that German government wants the world to know that it has nothing to hide.
Additionally, the architecture is quite modest. It is smooth, quiet, and humble. This directly opposes the original, elaborate architecture which was created in 1894 and remained during Nazi rule. Germany, quite literally, is making a statement in this building. They do not wish to start conflict or cause more harm. This type of announcement through architecture in itself is enough to show the many ways in which Germany is trying to, not redeem, but improve the country and its governing body. As you walk along the corridors of the sections as if the past cannot be erased or forgotten. The new does not cover the old. Bullet holes from the final battle in 1945 still scar the walls. In 1945, when the Soviets took the Reichstag, they proceeded to make the Reichstag a destination for Soviets. The walls were covered with writings, people signing their names, writing phrases, dates, cities where they were from, and more. Today, in certain places, the architect uncovered these writings and displayed them for us to see. For us to remember. The German government did not wash away the graffiti of their defeat and, more importantly, their dark history. Instead, they left it staining the walls as a reminder of what was.
Walking through the walls of the Reichstag I imagined the German government officials who are faced with their dark history every day. I then thought of the United States and our approach to memory work. In the United States, we passionately teach the faults of other countries, the German failure and American victory in WWII. We educate about the horrors of the Holocaust. Yet, when it comes to slavery, racism, eugenics, forced sterilizations, and more, we fail to educate and remember. American students do not learn that the United States was advanced in the field of Eugenics before Hitler came to power. In fact, the United States served as the inspiration for the German Eugenics movement. American students are not taught about the severity of the plight of Native Americans and the crimes against humanity they endured as a result of White colonialism.
I began my trip to Berlin feeling deep seeded criticism of Germany and its past. This was most likely the result of American Jewish sentiment towards Germany after the Holocaust. I left Germany feelings impressed with their present attempts at improvement, transparency, and humility. They do not hide or alleviate their history. In Germany, this critical approach is relatively new. As a nation, the United States should begin teaching history with a similar lens. By diluting the severity of American history in the classroom setting, we are ignoring the ethical implications of our past and failing to prevent injustices in the future. It is important to educate early on about human rights abuses in the United States as a means of commemorating our past and preventing its repetition.