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Learning from Berlin

This is the last non-Reformation post. It reflects some impressions I had in our first few days in Berlin.

Berlin is such an interesting city because, though ‘full of history’ as our tour guide put it, its buildings are somewhat inauthentic. 70% of Berlin was destroyed during the Second World War so just about any ‘historic’ or ‘old’ building you see is actually a replica or the rebuilt version. Still other parts of the city were destroyed or covered over depending on the ideology of the government in the split Germany.

Being in Berlin reminds me of the time I’ve spent in places like Tasmania. I loved seeing the convict prison at Port Arthur, but it’s been through so many stages that few of the buildings could be classified ‘original’. Similarly, where once stood the ‘Female Factory’, a notorious prison for convict women just outside what is now Hobart, there is now only the traces of one courtyard. The rest was covered over with factories and other buildings. This might just be the progress of history, but it’s likely that it was also the whiting out of what was felt to be an embarrassing part of Australia’s history.

The convict history is proudly embraced these days, but there’s plenty we don’t like to talk about. And that’s where I think Australia has a lot to learn from Berlin. Unlike Australia, where the heroic defense of a people whose land was invaded is largely ignored, bullet marks from the Battle of Berlin are still plain on many buildings. Unlike Australia, where families were ripped apart silently by government initiative, the stories of separated East and West Berliner families haunts every telling of the erection of the wall. Unlike Australia, whose former White Australia Policy is ignored by current governments, the anti-semitism of the Nazi regime is on view and the fate of European Jews front and centre in countless memorials and museums.

Of course, the symbolism of WWII and the Cold War are far stronger than Australian indigenous issues. But I take it that it’s not the world’s recognition of the victims of these wars that makes honesty about their suffering right. What makes it right to acknowledge this is that it happened and so their stories need to be told. And not just told but owned, by a country whose very architecture and landscape testifies to it. Berliners can’t escape it and there’s something very healthy about that.

The burnt out Kaiser-Wilhem Memorial Church towers over the zoo and train station between Hardenbergstrasse and Kurfürstendamm in the former West Berlin. It is not to be re-built but to stand as a testament to Berlin’s history. It’s part of the city’s identity and rightly so. Coming to terms with your past is about more than just saying sorry. It must be a daily living with the reality of wrongs committed because healing doesn’t come from ignorance.

I think we Australians like our convict history because we know how to be underdogs and larrikins. But the downside of that is that we’re not good at taking responsibility or mourning our failings. We too quickly dismiss suffering or look to ‘move on’. But being here in Berlin, I wonder whether ‘moving on’ is the right language, because there’s a sense in which it’s impossible to do so without taking the past with you.

Categories: Tanzanian culture Uncategorized Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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