History --- LONG....
History. It was hard not to notice the difference in history between the US and Europe. Our attention was caught on the first day as we walked around Konstance, Germany. Konstance lies right next to a Swiss city, Kreutzlingen, partially divided by lake Konstance but then merging together on the west side of the lake. There is no natural border. This led to happy consequences for Konstance -- since the night bombers in WWII could not distinguish where the German city ended and the Swiss city began, neither city was bombed in the World Wars. As a result, there are really old buildings here. Some of them have painted walls and others have stone murals that tell the history - back to the year 1000. Now THAT's history.
I was also impressed, as we toured German museums, how honest they were about their history - and the role of the leaders, princes, popes, bishops and then Germany as a nation played in their history and in world history. In Germany, the arc of recorded history stretches long - and there has been much fighting for power, for land, for glory.
In Leipzig, we visited - by accident - a museum on the educational system. Children were exploited (particularly during the years of Nazi power but also in East Germany (to which Leipzig belongs) during the time that the Stasi police infiltrated everything.
We then went to the actual Stasi museum. It was eery to walk through former offices of the Stasi police. I had no idea how pervasive their oppression of the people had been. This was particularly striking for Barret since he had studied in Germany during the time of the Stassi - and so somewhere in their files is his picture, crossing the border (legal but still watched). One exhibit showed how they read everyone's mail. And the people knew it. One example: A man wrote to his grandmother, "Thank you for the handgun grandmother, I buried it in the garden." Two weeks later, he wrote, "You can send the orchid bulbs now, grandma. The police have dug up the garden for me so I'm ready to plant."
Spies were everywhere. There was a file on EVERYONE. The Stasi police staff tried to destroy the files when the wall started to come down and they realized that the "secret" files would soon fall into public hands. But the people did not allow them or the government to destroy the files. Now, however, people who lived in East Germany have a challenging moral and personal question. Do they look in their file? If they do, they may discover that people they thought were friends, good neighbors and even loyal family members may have reported on them. Is it better to know? Or is it better to forgive - and not have to have a face to forgive?
On a positive note, I was thrilled to read about the transformational role of the Nicholas Lutheran Church in Leipzig. People had been gathering at the church for prayer for years. The police did not see anything particularly dangerous about prayer and candle vigils. But then more people started to gather at the church. By October 9, 1989, just after the forced 40th anniversary celebrations of the East German Government, the GDR (German Democratic Republic), the few hundred gatherers at Nicholas church swelled to 70,000 (out of a city of 500,000). They united in peaceful opposition to the regime. They did not have a single leader but were unified by the commitment that the protest would be peaceful. The next week, on Oct 16, 1989, 120,000 showed up. The following week, there were 320,000 people. The Stasi knew how to handle violent protests. But they did not know how to address prayers, candles and peaceful protests. The Wall fell. And, as they say, the rest is history! But history is not over....
Checkpoint Charlie museum in Berlin continued the story by sharing the stories of the many people who tried to escape East Berlin. There were some ingenious methods: Tunnels were built; cars were changed to hide a passenger; some flew out by creating their own light craft airplane or balloon. Others escaped by mistaken identity or stolen papers. Even some soldiers (in the beginning) - fled to the other side. But many died trying.
Interestingly enough, the Stasi museums and the Checkpoint Charlie museums were not begun by the government or foundations but by individual citizens who wanted to preserve the history - and tell the stories - even though they weren't always pretty. Checkpoint Charlie museum began as a 2 room display by a human rights activist, Dr. Rainer Hildebrandt. He collected the stories and the pictures beginning in October 1962 when the Berlin wall was erected - and he and friends - never stopped.
The most challenging part about the Checkpoint Charlie museum, however, is that the stories that it tells are not over. The history of oppression did not end with the wall coming down. There are current stories of innocent people being held or "disappearing" that continues today. As much as we would like to see the Nazi oppression and the Stasi police as things of the past... we have only to listen to the news to know that people are still oppressed. Current stories include the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky from Russia, Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist and activist who wrote against the war in Chechnya, Sergei Magnitsky a Russian accountant and auditor who was arrested and died in custody for telling the truth as well as the strife in the Ukraine. But it is not just Russia. There are other stories of oppression told - some closer to our home -- of injustice and oppression. It reminds us that "it's not just history."