The following is an installment of my column in the Loch a’ Tuath News – Litir Dhachaigh.
This is one of the many photos I took on my recent summer holiday. It’s certainly not the most interesting snap that I’ve ever taken. It’s especially dull when I tell you there are no stunning vistas or azure seas to be seen if I’d shifted my lens just a fraction. It gets even less exciting when I tell you that I’m actually standing in a car park.
When you choose to visit a place like Berlin, you know there are certain things you can expect. Places of interest at every corner, statutes, buildings and monuments with their own significance and rich legacies. What I didn’t expect was the wash of emotions that accompanied being confronted with the reality of this city’s history, especially considering how entwined it is with our own island story.
My brief stop at the site of Hitler’s bunker came as part of a city-wide walking tour. I listened to our guide describe how the German people struggled to agree on what to do with the site around the bunker after World War Two. They did not want to create a place that could later become a shrine for those who still chose to subscribe to Hitler’s twisted beliefs. This is why it is now a car park and why the only hint to it’s historical significance is a small information board. Standing beneath a tree, feeling grateful for a moment of shade from the midday sun, I thought of every islander, every fisherman, crofter and student who was ripped from a quiet life of peace and shipped to the front lines as a result of what was essentially one man’s crazed ideology. I thought of the families who were torn apart and fractured for reasons that weren’t always clear to them. I thought of how my fellow Hebridean companion and I could travel so freely and see the world at our own pace, whereas many our age would have experienced their first taste of foreign life in the context of the bloody battles of war. It all came down to the man who met his self-inflicted end in the bowels of his beloved city, in a room below my feet.
This was not the last strange stop of our trip. Later we visited an exhibition in a building named the Topography of Terror. This detailed some of the Nazi’s actions throughout WW2 and is built on the site where the notorious SS (Nazi Secret State Police) and Gestapo Headquarters once stood. The question of why someone would choose to visit such a site in the first place is not an unfair one. The answer I would give is best iterated by our tour guide who, when questioned about the nearby concentration camp of Sachsenhausen, answered “this is our past. We need to learn from it but we almost must try and move on”. These were not words to undermine the reality that was the horror of WW2 but served as a reminder that, as with all aspects of history, we need to confront what happened and remember how these situations arose. I was reminded that her words were almost identical to those of the philosopher George Satyanana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. I recall my first encounter with these words – as an inscription on a wall in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp.
Later that evening, as we found respite by the River Spree, I asked my friend what those who fought against the Nazi’s might have thought if they could have looked ahead and seen us that day: standing above the site of their enemy’s safe haven. We also wondered what Hitler would have thought of our multi-nationality, multi-faith tour group walking freely and happily around the city he once envisioned as the centre of his new Aryan world empire. We could have forgiven ourselves for feeling somewhat pensive having spent a day following the path of such a dark period of European history. But to stand in those spots, and watch people pass us by whilst enjoying the sunshine, laughing, talking and going about their business freely brought a comfort that evil will never prevail when there are forces of good to stand in its way. We agreed that not only did our forefathers’ sacrifices manage to quash a fascist; the ripples of their hard won victory continue to expand and are still felt today.