Busting Stereotypes in Berlin

Filed in Archive, Blog by on July 15, 2014 4 Comments

Kaiser Wilhelm Church in BerlinTravel can take you to the centre of yourself. Beyond the external distances and slabs of time involved, there can be moments that genuinely transform. I don’t mean the elation of visiting legendary places, tasting exotic food or soaking up postcard views. That’s the obvious stuff.

Nor do I mean unexpected difficulties or mishaps that test character, such as dealing with violence, theft or corruption. I mean the insights that can be gleaned from a change in perspective that might affect you deeply for days or possibly years.

Two weeks ago, a simple story on the wall of a ruined cathedral in Berlin made me confront a lifelong prejudice. The story was displayed in what remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church after World War 2. (The Allies destroyed 70 per cent of the buildings in Berlin.)

My hackles were up as soon as I read the name of the church.  Naming a church after Kaiser Wilhelm seemed a step away from naming a church after Adolf Hitler. After all, Kaiser Wilhelm II was the German Emperor during World War 1. He had built the church in the 1890s and dedicated it to his grandfather, Kaiser Wilhelm I.

The picture above shows the patched-up remnant of the old church standing next to the newer church of the same name. Inside the old part of the church is a chamber decorated with ornate paintings and mosaics. A giant crack in the ceiling has been filled in but not disguised.

At one end of the chamber, you come face to face with a life-sized stone statue of Jesus, which is missing an arm. Such an icon is usually raised above eye level to encourage devotion, but this down-to-earth and damaged Jesus suited the story displayed on a nearby wall.

To summarise, in 1940 the German air force bombed a spectacular medieval cathedral in Coventry, England. Immediately afterwards, the Provost of Coventry Cathedral had two words inscribed on what was left of the wall behind the altar: “Father Forgive.

Even though the Provost had every reason to hate the Germans – his beautiful medieval church ruined – he could see through the immediate storm of his emotions to the beliefs he had dedicated his life to: he practised forgiveness.

An ideal that is easy to preach, but far harder to live. Can you imagine the Mayor of New York asking for a similar banner across the ruins of the World Trade Centre in September 2001?

After the war, the Kaiser Wilhelm Church embraced the Provost’s profoundly moving response. The church is now home to a cross of nails made at Coventry Cathedral as a simple but powerful symbol of reconciliation.

Remorseful Germans seeking forgiveness for World War 2 have never received much air time. Most of the world is used to seeing Germans as bad guys in movies and documentaries about World War 2. Not to mention all the German stereotypes in comedies such as Get Smart or dramas with the likes of James Bond.

So if you were born German after 1945, which means the vast majority of the current population, you had to grow up in the shadow of guilt for a war that took place before you were alive. Although a few extremists denied or justified what had happened, most Germans accepted their history and seemed genuinely remorseful.

A lesson for reconciliation around the world, including Australia.

One week after visiting the Kaiser Wilhelm Church, I was in Rome. Around town there were posters celebrating Italy’s “liberation” from the Nazis in 1944. Apparently, when you lose a war, not even your Axis partner wants to be reminded who they sided with.

There were also plenty of screens around Rome showing the German soccer team up against Brazil in the semi-final of the World Cup. I decided to defy the acceptable prejudice I’d become comfortable with over a lifetime, and barrack for the Germans.

They scored seven straight goals, shared around five players, not just one or two stars. Each goal was celebrated with joy but no over-the-top theatrics. By the end of the first half, it was clear the Germans were quietly achieving a new page in history. Four days later they were holding the 2014 World Cup.

This victory and a battered church in Berlin have reminded me of the value of challenging stereotypes, especially those assumed from a version of history written by the winners. As I re-discovered for myself, a fresh perspective can be well worth the journey.

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Comments (4)

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  1. les terry says:

    Dear Ewan

    You may recall I worked with you at VU. I am wondering if we could meet one day as I am just trying to finish my second book.

    • Euan Mitchell says:

      Hi Les

      Nice to hear from you. I’m back at VU this Fri 15 Aug, first at FP then STA campus. Are you still working at VU?

      Best regards
      Euan

  2. Mary says:

    Thomas Müller – Poetry in motion!

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