By Guilherme Becker
Berlin, August, 2006. After two weeks traveling from London – where I used to live at that time -, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam, I had arrived in one of the most fascinating cities of the world – at least in my imaginary, which could easily be confirmed later. Summer breeze was blowing through the cafes and bars of Prenzlauer Berg. Kastanienallee was the perfect picture of how Berliners could enjoy their lives on a Saturday afternoon, with groups of friends and families hanging out and experiencing all types of foods and drinks, listening to different kinds of music and appreciating the sunny weather. All way down to Alexanderplatz distinct generations were sitting together in front of yellow, blue, green and red buildings talking about life and keeping problems completely away. Alone, I observed that and could barely believe that only a little more than 15 years earlier that part of the city was not that colourful and had nothing similar to that.
On the other side, Mitte was also full of people on the pavements observing passersby. Unter den Linden was like an anthill made by tourists that after walking the whole day could finally have some rest in the “Biergarten(s)” around. The city was beautiful, alive and tender following a World Cup that Germany had hosted less than a month ago and only a few days after the Swedish trio Peter, Bjorn and Jon had launched the classic “Young Folks”. You could feel the tenderness in the air. You could feel the spirit of happiness flowing freely in such a vibrant and great atmosphere. It was simply wonderful.
I knew, though, that at least in one of the seven days that was going to stay there I needed to take some time to cross the city and leave all that happiness and good vibrations behind. It would not be easy or pleasant, but I needed to do it. The goal was tough: Sachsenhausen.
Southern Brazil, November 9th, 1989. I can still feel the smell of that old tube television that used to take a minute to work properly and that was about to bring some of the most important news of the century. Sitting in a letter sofa with eyes frozen and fixed on TV, watching Brazilian reporters live from Berlin explaining that the wall had fell, I also still can hear one of my grandmothers smoothly saying: “well, now Germany will be just one again…” What this really meant, I just really understood some years later, but the first explanations led me to dive into history books to try to discover why the hell people were crying and celebrating above a mountain of bricks in the middle of… Berlin. It was exactly from that moment on that my sympathy and fascination for Berlin has started.
During my bachelor in Journalism, I realised that Germans, Italians and Japanese – and sons, grandsons and great grandsons of these migrants that were already set in Brazil – suffered terrible consequences by the fact of being descendants of Germans, Italians and Japanese. Between 1941 and 1944, it is estimated that Nazi’s submarines and its air force sunk more than 30 Brazilian ships mostly in the Atlantic Ocean – the first one, though, was sunk in Egypt. Pressured by popular demonstrations, Brazil got into the World War II and fought against nazi-fascism especially in Italy – take a look at the battles of Monte Castello and Collecchio. At the same time, in the region where I was born – a German colony in the Southern state of the country -, ordinary people were victims of persecution by Brazilian government accused of being Nazis. Obviously, some of them were. Some not. Other ones were “only” persecuted. Some were arrested. Some buried German books in the garden. Some stopped going to the church because speaking German was prohibited. Some had to run away and some tried to bear that pression as much as they could. All, though, were thrown together in the same basket: if you were a German or descended from them, you were a Nazi. A very unfair consideration, so to say. As a result, it traumatized entire generations.
For my final paper, I had the opportunity to interview some of these people which were already in their 70s and 80s. I must admit: it was quite complicated to listen, for example, that some families were sacked by other people or even separated during the war time – with some members in jail – because they were accused of being something they were not.
Back to Berlin, 2006. As I had previously study and dived deep into the World War II, I thought it would be pointless being in Berlin and not taking advantage of visiting the concentration camp that run exactly during the time that Nazis were in power: from 1933 until 1945. I needed to see it. I needed to live that experience. I knew it would might be hard, but I needed to witness it in loco.
I don’t think I need to describe details of a concentration camp. Everyone knows what it is about and how terrible this page is in the human history. It is also not necessary to tell each time I looked speechless to the horizon with tears in my eyes, wondering how disgusting human beings can be. But I remember pretty well that two things really caught my attention.
The first one was the fact that concentrations camps had prisons. A prison inside a prison. A separate place with individual cells for prisoners that misbehaved. That was curious, though prisons still have isolation measures from other prisoners as punishment of protection.
The second one happened before heading there, still in East Berlin, where I invited a great German friend to come with me. The answer was clear: “No, thanks. I have already been in places like this before…” And he explained me about the job done by German schools to teach upcoming generations about what happened in that period – something that Brazil should take as an example regarding slavery history and talk about it more openly as nobody seems to give a damn about it.
After Sachsenhausen, I though nothing could shock me more. I was wrong.
Berlin, December, 2018. One day before the New Year’s eve, very opposite to that marvelous August of 2006, the freezing wind obliged people to wear gloves and winter hats under a dark gray sky. The itinerary was about leaving Kreuzberg by the end of the morning and heading deep into East Berlin by the beginning of afternoon. The target: Stasi Gefängnis, the prison maintained by East German secret police who used to investigate opposers of the communist regime. Undoubtedly, one of the worst and most important places I had the opportunity to be.
Though our guide was such a humorous performer, attentive, full of historical knowledge, promptly answering any questions with a lot of details and useful information, it was quite impossible to smile. First corridors led us downstairs to one of the most dark moments of human history, exposing the fear, the anger and the impotence of the wronged. Underground cells show a savage underworld, with prisoners being held for months in a tight-no-window small place. There were dozens like this. Humidity and darkness grow along with the noise of guard’s boots walking from one site do another. It is a kind of tick-tack that makes you count the seconds again. The problem: you have already lost the perception of time since it has been days since you haven’t seen the sun or any sign of light. Only darkness.
There are other corridors, there are other kinds of cells. Some of the newest ones built in the 1970s had even windows. But the obfuscated glass could only allow you to see if it was day or night – – it was impossible to clearly distinguish something outside. Some prisoners, alone in their cells, were obliged to sleep straight in the bed. As soon as they fell asleep they naturally changed the position, which allowed guards to knock at the door and turn the lights on, saying that they should keep straight.
At least for some prisoners there was a library. A library full of books. Mostly, about tourism and beautiful places to travel around the world. The psychological torture was everywhere, like in the corridors that led to interrogation rooms. Side by side, these rooms had the same characteristics in terms of colours and furniture. The way it was arranged, though, was slightly different. In every each of dozens of them. Small details that made prisoners not really aware where they really were each time. After being obliged to sit in a small bench in the corner of the room – with two empty chairs facing them -, prisoners had to put their hands below their thighs while talking to the interrogator. Reason: after sweating a bit, the smell of that prisoner was kept in cloths inside pots and filed after having been redirected to dogs.
During these interrogations, conversations could even be friendly in the first ten or twenty minutes, but then the phone rings and, inexplicably, the prisoner is informed about some random fact involving his/her family and was sent straight away back to the cell. Why did that happen? The prisoner had no idea. The real reason was to affect him/her psychologically. Alone in the cell, he/she had enough time to think of what the hell was going on with his/her relatives. A tough task, so to say.
In the end, prisoners became a commodity to be negotiated by the German Democratic Republic and its communist party (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) with the Federal Republic of Germany. An opportunity to make indescribably filthy money to a dictatorial and stupid regime. You could be innocent, you could be just a worker, a student or an old retired man. But once you were in that jail you could not have any idea of how much time you would spend there.
No more details are necessary to describe it. I would even need three articles to say all impressions I got during this visit as well as to Sachsenhausen and to the interviews that I did with Germans and their descendants in Southern Brazil. One of the precious lessons that these events taught me is that we can not think of our future without getting in touch with our past. It can be hard. It can be rough. It can be disappointing. But it is the history of all of us.
The other lesson is that, coincidentally or not, all three regimes mentioned in this article (Germany in the 30s and 40s, Brazil in the same period, and Germany again from the 40s to the 80s) were populists and nationalists. It fits quite well to observe it only a bit more than two months before the European Parliament elections – set to happen in May. According to a study made by British newspaper The Guardian and published in November, the prediction is quite scary as it says that one in four Europeans will probably vote for a populist – be right or left-wing. It means that populists may have more seats than ever in the European Parliament.
No, I do not think that another Stasi will raise in Europe again, for instance. I also do not think that Europe is actually threatened by a sudden loss of democracy or even that the democratic process set in the continent can suddenly fail or disappear. I really do not think so. But I do think it is worthy to alert and keep an eye open on it. Populists are on their way. People have the right and the vote to fight against them.
Featured picture: Matthias Mühler, Flickr.