Wow. To describe my first day in Berlin, that’s the word I would use. This place is crazy cool. The history, good and bad, is fully confronted here, and today, we got to see some of this conflicting culture in the places we saw.
To start off, we saw the famous Brandenburg Gate, a gate which has different meanings to different people. It was a symbol of openness and safety for people entering Berlin, as a sign of refuge for weary travelers looking for a place to call home. After Nazi control, the gate stood as a reminder of the freedom once had, and what was lost. It was partially destroyed during the battle of Berlin, when the Russians came to Berlin and defeated the Nazis in 1945. The bullet holes are still visible even though they have been patched up. Finally, once the Nazis fell in Germany and Berlin was divided up, the Berlin wall stretched through the courtyard by the gate and citizens were not allowed to pass through, making the gate a symbol of division and struggle during the Cold War era. Today, it is open and easy to pass through, but the history and symbolism behind this historic gate is amazing, from the Quadriga at the top of it to the bottom of its massive pillars. It serves as a reminder always that freedom, in itself, is a struggle.
By far the highlight of today during our tour of Berlin (also, shout out to my group, team Charlie! These people were amazing and I could not have asked for better people to surround myself with) was when Dr. P led us to an archway just off of some road in the Southwest corner of the city. This place was known as Treptower Park. When I first saw the gate, with the symbol for the Soviet Union on it, I thought it was just another way that the Soviets influenced Germans during their rule of East Berlin, and was just another way of flaunting their power over Germany. I was way off. As we pass through this gate, we saw a statue of kneeling woman. All the trees were in a uniform “U” around her, and they lined the sides of this long walkway that led straight behind us. We turned around, and there was a massive statue of a soldier carrying a baby and a large sword in the distance. Up ahead, on the sides of this path, were two soldiers kneeling, facing each other, out of respect for the soldier carrying the baby. Behind both of them were massive stones in the shape of trapezoids in what looked like red marble, which Jake Lynn pointed out look like spaceships. After tilting your head a little bit and thinking about it, you would realize that these are actually Soviet flags, bent at an angle as to salute this unknown soldier.
So this guy must be a big deal, and my mind immediately went to Josef Stalin. The soldier had to be him. However, as we continued to walk closer, I saw that the statue was not him for the lack of the distinguishing mustache that Stalin wore. Before the soldier were 5 rectangular plots of land with big wreaths on them. We would come to learn that those plots of land were massive graves of soldiers who died in the battle of Berlin. Around the edges of the concrete area leading up to the massive statue of the soldier were big white stones with carvings and quotes from Stalin. They told the story of how the common people rose up to form the army and fought and won the battle of Berlin, and the very last tablet was of people carrying a dead soldier, pointed straight towards the massive statue. That statue was above the grave of one unknown soldier, the product of the struggle of the Russians and the willingness to stand up for his country and fight, and who will never return home. The statue itself had deeper meaning though, and we came to learn that the woman at the beginning actually represented Germany, and the child that the soldier was holding? That was hers, which symbolized the future of Germany. The Soviets held the future of Germany, and underneath his feet he was crushing a swastika, symbolizing the end of Nazi rule and the installment of a new era for Germany, held in the hands of the Soviets.
Pictures do not do this place justice. I gained a new level of respect for the Russians today after seeing the fine detail and work they put in to make this gravesite and memorial. I saw a lot of similarities between America and Russia today, as I share pride for my nation and pride for my people as they do. I saw a nation that embraced their heritage and made something to commemorate a great triumph and have pride in who they are. I also saw a reason why America and Russia butt heads. Both nations have so much pride in who they are and how they do things that sometimes they lose sight of their true goals and struggle for power in the world, with one wanting to be bigger than the other. Yes, the way both nations do things are different, and they are both seen as wrong or right, but pride amplifies these differences. Pride for one’s nation is good, but when it causes one to lose sight of their own values, it becomes a negative. Both America and Russia want what’s best for their people. Putting pride aside and focusing back on the people could be part of the solution to peace among all the nations, not just America and Russia. It could be a way to rewrite a conflicted past.
Berlin today showed me a history of conflict and struggle, but not one that was offended by difference and struggle and not one who ran away from conflict, but one that embraced it. And because of this embracing of conflict, Berlin has also become a great site of resolution and brings me to the conclusion that conflict, if embraced and done in a respectful way, can bring about positive change through discussion and community.