Australia to Berlin. 

It’s an odd feeling you get burning away in your belly; when you leave the world you know behind and when you return you won’t quite be the same person who left. 

In just under a month Andrew and I will stand in the place where thousands of our countrymen lost their lives and the notion of Australian nationhood was born. But what is Australian nationhood and what is the ANZAC spirit?

It is a beautiful mythology, our very own Iliad. Young men and women called to serve an empire only to find who they truly were in the heat of battle. They held on against insurmountable odds against an enemy defending its homeland. And in the face of enmity they created a special bond with the men in the trenches opposite. They saw themselves through the hardships with laughter and mate ship. Then when it came to retreating our very own Odysseus, Lt. Col. Charles Brundell White hatched a plan truly worthy of Trojan horse fame and not one man was lost. 

It’s the stuff of glorious paintings, plays, movies and legend. It’s quite a daunting thought to think that we will forever be a part of that mythology, in the smallest of ways as we remember those who fell in a foreign land. 

But before all that… Berlin, Munich, Berchtesgaden, Salzburg. There will be drinking and carousing and many many museums. 

Yesterday, we left Berlin behind us. It was a sad leaving as it seems to be a city that can crawl under your skin and beg you to stay. I read a quote from the Dali Llama that said 

We can let the circumstances of our life harden us, so we become increasingly resentful and afraid. Or we can choose to let them soften us, so we become kinder …

It seems Berlin chose the latter of these two options. The people of the city are exceedingly polite and tolerant. Perhaps it’s because they purge themselves through art? Everywhere you look in Berlin, people’s voices are being heard, even if it is in the uninteresting scrawl of graffiti adorning a train carriage that you pass by, it’s still there and for some reason so permissible. 

This is the way the city chooses to engage with the horrors of its own past, it turns them into art. 

   

  

The East side gallery, a poignant expression of division and reconciliation. 

You can’t help but be overawed by the way Berlin uses art to express and heal its wounds. They have the truth of art itself, as a medicine and a hammer with which one can affect change. This is of course one of the central lessons of my great theatrical idol and it seems only appropriate to me now that this is the city in which he would choose to create his theatre and leave behind his legacy. 

 Brecht and I out the front of his Berliner Ensemble 

  

Dem Deutsches Volk, “The German People”, simplicity itself adorns the German parliament. A glorious reminder that in a true democracy the people are governed by the people and for the people. It seems to sit there as an almost ironic statement given the division the city has passed through over the last 100 years or perhaps it is a very timely reminder of those words from Primo Levi:

“It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.” 

At the end of the day Berlin and Germany makes me think a lot about Australia. At the moment there is a very strong, very nationalistic ideal amongst many Australians. To be fair it has always been there, but perhaps a little obscured or glanced over. In the 30’s there were race riots in Kalgoorlie, the Italian population was sent packing into the desert, we had instances on the gold fields of white prospectors scalping Chinese immigrants and we as a nation still struggle to find reconciliation with the treatment of indigenous peoples. And now we also have a media blackout on the fate of people who come to Australia seeking asylum, what is worse is we are taking those people and subjecting them to the terror of detention centres; men, women and children. 

It all catalysed for me as Andrew and I visited the very solemn grey concrete rectangles of the holocaust memorial. Soaring above you and always at a slightly different angle, they reminded me of the irrationality of persecution, but being laid out in a grid it spoke of the regularity with which it happens. Again here is an artwork that invites you to engage with it, to play an active part in remembrance. 

   

I found myself questioning when we may have to erect such memorials of our own. To remind ourselves that our past as a nation is bloody and fraught with injustices, but that knowing our past we as a nation can come together and seek a brighter future.  

So, where does this all fit in along the Road to Gallipoli? Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to that yet. It’d be nice to tie it off with a little bow, but there’s still a long way to go. 

Borne Back Ceaselessly into the Past

Memory plays an important role in Berlin. It serves a dual purpose: to remind us of the past, and to prevent that past from happening again. It is embedded in the foundations of the city, where brand new bars and cafés exist alongside buildings that have survived two world wars. Monuments and memorials are scattered across the skyline. And on the streets, a double line of bricks mark where a wall once divided the world.

We arrived in Berlin on Wednesday night, amidst a freezing torrent of snow and rain, dazed and exhausted after the long flight from Perth. Berlin was our first stop on our long journey to Gallipoli, and it seemed like an appropriate choice.

 

Standing at the East Side Gallery
 

Berlin occupies a unique position in the history of the twentieth century. No other city helped to shape the events of that century – and was subsequently shaped by the events – than Berlin. It was here in the heartland of Europe that the feuds and alliances that inflamed the First World War were formed. And it was here, in the decade after that war, as Germany struggled to repay its debt, that the foundations of the next war were also laid. Berlin still bears the scars of the Nazi occupation of Germany – in many ways, it defines what the city has become. For almost thirty years, between 1961 and 1989, Berlin was the physical manifestation of the divide between East and West, as the two sides faced each other, sabres rattling, over the wall. And when that wall came down and Germany was reunified, Berlin was finally able to achieve the prosperity that it long deserved.

As students of history, it was easy for Garreth and I to lose ourselves in the past of Berlin. The Brandenburg Gate. The Reichstag building. Checkpoint Charlie. The Holocaust Memorial. The East Side Gallery. Everywhere we looked, history was beckoning. And since the reason for our trip is indelibly linked with that history, we felt an obligation to explore these sights and contextualise those events. Gallipoli is still far away, but the reason why Australia went to war can be traced right here to Berlin.

 

The Holocaust Memorial, Berlin
 

There’s no escaping Berlin’s past. It follows you around whether you want it to or not. It’s the big things – the imposing stretch of the East Side Gallery, or the field of rectangular monoliths of the Holocaust Memorial. But it’s also the small things. Shrapnel damage to statues. Old facades showing through fresh paint. Those eastern industrial districts that still don’t have the affluence of the former West.

But after a few days, the sheer number of memorials and museums we had visited began to blur into one. We were always looking into the past, always seeing Berlin through the lens of history, rather than focusing on the city that currently stands. I am reminded of a city from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, one that is always looking backwards, never forwards, one that is entrenched so deeply in its own history that the present has ceased to have meaning.

 

Moonrise over Friedrichshain
 

It was with great effort that we pulled ourselves away from the tourist traps and tried to seek out Berlin of today. It wasn’t hard to find. It was visible in the back streets of Friedrichshain, where a blooming art movement has sprung up around the host of small bars and clubs. It was visible in the enormous number of cranes that dotted the horizon, the number of streets that had been cut open to lay new U-Bahn tracks. And it was visible in the people we saw – the smiling football fans on the train, the bartender at the Easter Markets. 

Perhaps that’s the greatest thing about this city – no matter how dark the past, new memories are being made every day. And it this wild melange of old and new that shapes Berlin for a new century.