Berlin: The Perfect Place for a History Major

This past summer I had the incredible opportunity to study Humanities in Berlin with Dr. Behrend and eleven strangers who I now consider to be my good friends. We spent a month learning about and experiencing so many of the things that make Berlin and Germany unique. From the cheap food in any direction you walked, to dogs that walked without leashes and obeyed traffic laws, we experienced things that we never would have had we not stepped outside our Geneseo bubble. 

Berlin is an incredible city that is rich with dynamic and tangible history. On the very first day of our trip we took a walking tour of Berlin Mitte, the center of the city. In just two or so hours we saw buildings that had existed for centuries and were centers of both the best and the worst to come from Berlin.

A street in central Berlin.

For instance, Bebelplatz, a square bound by Humboldt University, an opera house, and St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, was beautiful. It is an indescribable feeling to stand in the center of a cobblestone square and know that the likes of Albert Einstein, Marx and Engels, and W. E. B. Dubois stood there too. This being said, in that very same square there was a monument commemorating the 20,000 books burned there during the Third Reich. This is a phenomenon we continually saw across the city and is indicative of just how complicated Berlin’s history is. It is something we had to wrestle with in our short month there, and it is something that the people of Berlin have had to grapple with for years and years. 

In this same vein, we spent a weekend in the city of Weimar. The city itself was everything you’d imagine a little German town to be; like the Epcot version of Germany. The buildings were colorful and old, the streets were cobblestone, and it was a beautiful green, sunny day. Walking around, it felt like we should start singing “The Sound of Music.” We got a tour of the town, which included many historic buildings and the former home of Romance writer Johann von Goethe. Standing outside a church in the center of the city, the tour guide told us that the building was about 1000 years old. He was humble about it and told us he knew it wasn’t that old, but it was the oldest building they had. That made me laugh, considering that our country is only a quarter as old as that church. 

View from the dome of the Reichstag.

This lighthearted fun was then in stark contrast to Buchenwald concentration camp just outside the city. It was still a sunny day and the scenery was beautiful. It made me sick to find beauty in something so wretched. Again, we had an excellent tour guide who vividly explained what it had been like for the people who were imprisoned there. He also told us about how the people of Weimar denied having any knowledge of what was happening there. That the two things could exist simultaneously still blows my mind. That morning we spent at Buchenwald is certainly something that will stick with me for the rest of my life. It really highlights the importance of learning from history. 

These lessons from the past were all over Berlin. The city is full of museums that commemorate both the highest highs and the lowest lows of German history. While we got to  see artifacts like actual writings of Martin Luther at the German Historical Museum, or Frederick the Great’s flute at Sanssouci Palace, we also saw former torture chambers at the Topography of Terror Museum and remnants of the Berlin Wall. Berlin is a flourishing, vibrant city and it’s easy to forget the horrors that happened there. Still, a lot of that history is recent. The events that we study and read about were real life for the people of Berlin. Just walking around the city makes that abundantly clear. 

Katherine, the other members of the Humanities class, and Professor Justin Behrend, in front of statues of Goethe and Schiller in Weimar, Germany

On the last weekend of the trip we visited the Alte Nationalgalerie. The art displayed there was incredible, and I’m so glad it was how I chose to close out our trip. The gallery featured the talent of many German artists, as well as a number of paintings of Berlin.

After a month spent falling in love with the city, generations of artists were there to reassure us that we made the right choice. The images we saw there were no longer of distant places we’d only see in a textbook. They were real places where we stood. They depicted real history that we felt. As a history major I couldn’t have asked for a better program, or a better city, to fully immerse myself in history.  

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