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Monday, April 25, 2011

Berlin Diary of 1995 Continued

January 9, 1995
Well, I joined Irving and took a round-trip of the city with his classmates from the Goethe Institute. The trip is part of the Institute program. The city’s history filled me with a sense of awe. Every building and ruin seemed to tell its story – as if it is urgent to do so. It is simply spectacular.

Whether in the eastern or western parts, we saw just about everything that has political meaning: Honnecker's former headquarters, for example; the Reichstag that is in the process of renovation; and the remains of “the wall” to the Brandenburger Tor. The Tor, we were told, will also be renovated.

Our international companions from Turkey, Brazil, England, Russia, French-speaking Switzerland, the Isle of Feroe, and elsewhere were good company. Naturally, they were not taking courses at the Goethe Institute because they loved the German language. Rather most said they were here because they needed to learn German for business reasons.

All I can say is that Mark Twain was more philosophical about it. For example, he was supposed to have said, “I don't believe there is anything in the whole earth that you can't learn in Berlin except the German language.” If you ask me, his words are downright profound. Irving’s favorite assessment of German also comes from Mark Twain: “Never knew before what eternity was made for?” he asked. And answered, “It is to give some of us a chance to learn German.” Let’s face it Mark Twain knew something.

Well, our apartment held no attraction. We swallowed tinned fish and a ready-made salad and returned to look at length at the Prinz-Albrecht-Gelände.

Alas, I must stop here. Stop all foolishness because this is hallowed ground. No, my attitude is not idolatrous. It is simply that, in my mind’s eye, I was looking in the mirror – and saw failure: my failure, the failures of people and of states. I stood and pondered, how did he do it? He and that Briton did not fail – not as persons. But what they intended to do failed and he, but not the Briton, lost his life.

Topography of Terror, but from the Perspective of Hope

Prinz-Albrecht-Straße 8 (today Niederkirchnerstraße) is permanently associated with the brilliant theologian and core man of the German resistance Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) who was held and interrogated there. When he recognized the mortal danger in which his country and church found themselves, he said, “When a madman races his car through the streets, and I as a pastor am with him, I cannot simply console those who were run down or bury them, rather I have to throw myself in front of him and stop him.”

The above picture also shows his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi (1902-1945), who was married to Bonhoeffer’s sister Christine. Dohnanyi was vital to the resistance because like Bonhoeffer he built bridges to other resistance circles in the military, in the foreign ministry, and among Protestants and Catholics. Dohnanyi recognized early on that Hitler and the Nazi leadership had to be removed by force. And he and Bonhoeffer worked toward that goal.

In 1945, Bonhoeffer was sent to the Flossenbürg concentration camp where he was executed. With great shock I would learn later that Flossenbürg was just south of the camp where we ended up after our flight from East Prussia.

Bonhoeffer tried hard to get help from the Western world for the fight against National Socialism, especially, through the English Bishop of Chichester, George Bell. That is the Briton I referred to above. Both were infinitely gracious. They failed to prevent catastrophe but are, nevertheless, figures inspiring hope to this day. As well, George Bell helped Jews who were Christians when they most needed it.

Irving and I walked along the Gelände and learned that here Hitler’s indispensible assistants, Himmler, Heydrich, Kaltenbrunner, among many others, planned the Wannsee Conference, organized the Einsatzgruppen, planned the murder of Jews and the Germanization of occupied Poland. It is truly a place of terror and we felt it in our bones. – Except of course, and in final analysis – the good of the resisters, not the evil of their executioners, triumphed. These are not empty words.

Bonhoeffer’s understanding of resistance was significant for two reasons. First, he understood that he and those like him worked with God but in a world without God, and second, he refused to use the same weapons of terror that his opponents used. What those resisters did, they did despite defamation, in isolation, and sometimes with a sense of utter forlornness.