We took an early train out of Torgau. Our next stop is Berlin. I'm not sure why we are going there. The city, of course, has so much history—one cannot help but be aware of the powerful forces arising from this place that through the centuries have shaped our world. The draw is almost irresistible. We arrived in the afternoon of July 16.
Berlin, the biggest city in Europe. It is bustling, building, fast paced. It is also so very “German”: massive buildings, granite and marble pillars, and oversized statues. There are large churches scattered all over the city—steeples pierce the skyline in every direction. Many of the biggest and grandest, of course, were converted into government buildings during the Soviet/GDR era. That era also contributed significantly to the secular nature of the city, secularism already there by virtue of being a big city.
Berlin is also international and vastly multicultural. You can find a wide variety of ethnic food on just about every block! We did our best to do so.
On Tuesday morning, July 17, we went first to the Brandenburg Gate—isn’t that where everyone goes first? We walked by the Reichstag (the main legislative government buildings.) As we walked down the street, we came to Fassbender and Rausch's chocolatier. Besides making magnificent chocolate, they also have amazing sculptures in chocolate. A nice interlude to the day!
Then we made our way to one of the other famous locations in Berlin: Checkpoint Charlie.
The Berlin Wall was put up on August 13, 1961. It was 155 km long. 106 km were concrete, 66 km were metal fence. There were 302 towers and 259 dog runs. Checkpoint Charlie was one of the main border crossings between East and West Berlin and became one of the focal points of the Cold War. It was in place for 28 years, from 1961 to 1989. The museum next to the site contains a large collection of memorabilia, photos, and commentary on the history of the post-war partitioning of Germany, the development of NATO, the political and military aspects of the Cold War, and of course the Wall itself.
Of particular interest was a large room devoted to Ronald Reagan. His whole life history and his role in the end of the Cold War were displayed all around the room in four languages!
Some other aspects of this fascinating and intriguing story also jumped out.
In one display was a collection of quotes from former East German guards. Many of them revealed that they had never shot to kill anyone attempting to escape. We are shaped by the movies we have seen to believe that all those guards were soul-less automatons. One guard said, “Please look past the uniform. See the person who is inside it. Do not judge us too quickly.”
There was also a large exhibit on non-violent resistance. All along the way, there had been demonstrations against the Communist government in East Germany. GDR citizens marched, protested, and demanded freedoms in numerous cities. They published illegal newspapers, sometimes they used humor. After the wall went up, the resistance changed more to escape attempts and the role of “escape helpers.” The message: violence is the weapon of weakness and fear and aggression. Non-violence, truth, justice—and love—are more powerful weapons. (Jesus said something like that in the Sermon on the Mount.)
People want to be free. There were 5,015 escape attempts. It was dangerous business. Total fatalities were 1,613. The longing for freedom gave rise to all kinds of risky and creative efforts: hot air balloons, escape cars, zip lines, small submarines and tunnels. Military might, secret police, “re-education”, threats of imprisonment, exile, and death could not ultimately conquer the human spirit.
In 1989, the Soviet Union crumbled. In 1990, the wall was gone. East and West began the process of reunification. The world goes on. There are still and always will be aggressors, tyrants, and cruelty. Our job is not done just yet.
Here I have to add that our journey with the Anabaptists reveals that they were about some of these very things: they sought freedom from civil and ecclesiastical restraints placed upon conscience, worship, and Bible interpretation; they practiced non-violence (they supported the government is its rightful role but insisted that the government could not constrain their faith or exercise of it. They were willing to pay the price rather than take up arms. One group of Anabaptists did take up arms and came to a grisly end—but they were an anomaly. We will see their story when we go to Münster.
So, I wonder: how much are we willing to consider, talk about, study, and pray about these things? Are we willing to see past the uniform or costume or exterior appearance and behavior to the person inside? What difference would doing this routinely make in our relationships, our church, and our community? Should we be exploring non-violent means of resistance to injustice? How might that really work in our world? Do we understand freedom? Are we prepared to do what is required to preserve and sustain it?
The Brandenberg Gate . . . it was just inside East Berlin.
A traveling curmudgeon at the base of the Gate . . . for perspective.
The Reichstag . . . an impressive structure.
Where the Wall ran right behind (on the east side) of the Reichstag.
This is the sign on the ground you can see in the previous picture. "Berlin Wall, 1961-1989"
The front of the Reichstag Building.
This is the "Protestant Church". It became a museum during Communist days and remains so.
The Reichs Museum . . . just about every building in this part of the city has the characteristic bold, powerful statement of the massive columns, statuary, classical Greco-Roman styling.
Fassbenders . . . the Titanic in chocolate.
The Reichstag in chocolate.
The Brandenburg Gate in chocolate! OK--enough chocolate.
The guard house that still remains at Checkpoint Charlie.
A portion of the Berlin Wall that was allowed to remain intact, for a reminder.