Watching Charlottesville from Berlin

With the six-hour time difference between the East Coast of the U.S. and Germany, I often hear about things that happened in the States in the afternoon or evening when I wake up the following morning. This makes for a strange disconnect from home sometimes, particularly for someone who used to cover the minute-by-minute happenings of Washington and the current administration.

It was especially strange — and incredibly sad — to wake up last Saturday morning to tweets and images out of the Friday night white nationalist march in Charlottesville, and to follow the events the following day from afar as well. And watching Americans chant Nazi slogans and wave Nazi flags, spewing hate toward their fellow Americans, felt even stranger because I was seeing it unfold from Germany. (The president’s response over the following days was equally astonishing.)

What happened in Charlottesville last weekend, I think it’s fair to say, couldn’t have happened in Germany today. As one of my German teachers put it to me days later, it’s not that there aren’t still Nazi sympathizers here; it’s just that it is so socially unacceptable to espouse those beliefs that that kind of public display seems unthinkable. And more than being socially unacceptable, overt use of Nazi symbolism or gestures here in Germany is literally against the law. As The Economist put it this week, in Germany, “Free speech is upheld … but this right to expression remains firmly distinguished from a right to publicity or acceptance.” (This is why it’s not surprising, for example, that a drunk American man recently got punched for giving the Nazi salute in Dresden.)

For all America’s good qualities, self-reflection about past mistakes isn’t necessarily one of them. In Germany, however, the past is everywhere — Germans are confronted with it at seemingly every turn. That’s part of, I think, why the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has had less success here than its sister parties in Austria, France or the Netherlands have had: Germany knows what happens when populists with these kinds of views get too much power.

Thinking about this topic has had me reflecting on an article I read last year by Deborah Cole, a Berlin-based correspondent for AFP, about the culture of memory in Berlin — one that at times feels in-your-face and inescapable:

I have lived and reported from the heart of peaceful, prosperous Germany for more than two decades but am still not entirely steeled to the jabs to the gut you can get walking through its public spaces. No one does memorials quite like the Germans, accosting you in the streets as you go about your business. Particularly in Berlin, the past is never the past, even in a city with a knack for constantly reinventing itself.

First-time visitors often find it overwhelming. Friends from my hometown Boston, an older Jewish couple, for years couldn’t bring themselves to make the trip. When they finally did, they were bowled over by the city’s charms but had to brace themselves for what they called “the creepy factor” — those reminders of the past that seem to sneak up on you at every turn. My own walk to and from the office each day takes me through a beautiful, bustling and — when you open your eyes to it — harrowing landscape. It’s history that never lets you be.

This piece rings true for me in the two times I’ve lived in Berlin: my old office in 2013 was down the block from the Friedrichstraße station, which features a memorial outside to the station’s history as a starting point both for journeys fleeing Nazi persecution and those sending people away to concentration camps (“Trains to life, trains to death,” the inscription reads). Meeting my friends for dinner in a favorite biergarten, I would ride my bike home alongside the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Straße, past the metal poles symbolizing the concrete wall that not so long ago divided this city. And outside countless homes and buildings around Berlin (and elsewhere in Germany), golden Stolpersteine commemorate the fate of Jewish individuals and families who previously lived there.

Germany’s got some obviously dark times in its recent past. Germans have confronted them — and continue to do so every day. When Americans show up at a white nationalist protest bearing Nazi flags and shouting Nazi slogans, it’s a reminder that America hasn’t done nearly enough to reflect on the less-than-sterling parts of its own history.