. Also, expect that some of my entries might be a bit....soft, or something, while I'm there. I'm not going to risk anything by writing something on my blog that could be misunderstood by the wrong people and end up landing me in an interesting situation. Anyway, we'll see what happens, but of course, my first and most important decision will always be in the interest of my safety. I know you'll understand.
Anyway, back to my last couple of days in Berlin. Well, yesterday, I finally made it to the Stasi prison and it was an extremely fulfilling experience. It's been 10 years since I wrote my senior thesis paper in college on the topic of the Stasi, East Germany's secret police. The visit to the prison reminded me anew why I love travel so much. Often it boils down to the unbeatable fuzzy feeling you get when you see something in real life that you've only read about or seen on film. What seemed like a kind of fiction is now suddenly real. Sometimes it works in the reverse, of course. When I'm home, I'll see something on TV or read in a book about something that I've visited in my travels and I get that same fuzzy feeling of familiarity. That's what my visit to the Stasi prison was like. I took a 2 hour tour in English that was fascinating through and through. To hear the guide telling some of the same stories I'd read about and written about in my thesis paper was at once validating and refreshing
. It also deepened my knowledge of the Stasi tremendously and makes me want to dig out my paper when I get home and revise it and improve it. I won't go into too much of the details here, because I already have the feeling this blog will be lengthier than normal, but man oh man was the Stasi bad to the bone. So much worse than you can imagine. They were the masters of manipulation and paranoia. The prison processed up to 4200 people every day at it's peak, many of them suffering intense psychological torture and were detained sometimes for 17 months to 3 years without any charges being filed. I won't go so far as to compare the prison to Guantanamo, because despite the shadiness of what has been done there and the similarities in terms of due processing, I still feel like America has maintained a semblance of diligence there and criticism has been open and challenging for the last decade. So, if you have ill feelings whatsoever about GB, imagine a situation 100 times more horrific and less accountable and you'll have an idea of what the Stasi did here. If you don't have any ill feelings whatsoever about Guantanamo and feel it is 100% justified and proper, then I would challenge you to question where the line is. For those that suffered at the hands of the Stasi for decades, how different would their perspective be? Anyway, I left the tour feeling like the Soviet Union really was the evil enemy we'd always been raised to believe.
Next stop on my tour yesterday was the Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park
. I'd never heard of it nor seen pictures of this memorial before, but was surprised to read that it is the largest Soviet Memorial outside of Russia. It was built after WWII to honor the Soviet soldiers who died in the Battle of Berlin. 22,000 Russian soldiers died in that battle alone (just a drop in the bucket compared to the 30 million who died during the course of the war, depending on which source you read). Of the 22K, over 7,000 are buried at the Soviet Memorial in Berlin. It's really a stunning memorial, actually. After all the bad stuff I've seen the last few days regarding the Berlin Wall, the Stasi, etc., this memorial reminded me that during the war, we were essentially on the same side; we had a common foe: the Nazis. Despite the fact that geopolitics took our two nations on diverging and conflicting paths after the war, we had a common interest in defeating Nazism and liberating innocent people from this horrible regime. The statue atop the memorial depicts a heroic Russian soldier stomping on a broken swastika, brandishing a down-turned sword, and carrying a German child, symbolizing the future of Germany being freed. Of course, it is typical Soviet propaganda in all its grandeur, but still beautiful and touching nonetheless. At least it reminded me that the Soviet Union suffered tremendously during the war, far more than we did, and it might help to open the mind as to why they chose the path they did. I don't agree with it, but maybe I can understand it a little bit better, softening my feelings that have been growing the last few days.
That was yesterday, today I ventured even further back in time to the era of Hitler and the horrors of the Nazis. David and I visited the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in the morning and the 1936 Olympic Stadium and Bell Tower in the afternoon. I won't go too much in depth about the camp, since much of my feelings were the same as in Dachau that I expressed in an earlier blog, but each experience is numbing in the same way
. This camp was far more reconstructed than Dachau, and had a clear Communist slant to the way things were presented, since the memorial was created by the East German government under the direction of the Soviet Union. For example, until the wall came down, there was little to no mention of the Jewish prisoners here, nor of the fact that the Soviet Union themselves used the camp for 6 years after the war to detain and execute former Nazis and opponents to their regime. It was billed as a Nazi conentration camp that held communist opponents to the Nazis. In fact, the large memorial in the center of the camp only depicts the red triangle patch worn by communist inmates rather than any other patches worn by Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and others who were held and murdered here. Once the wall came down, efforts were made to honor and recognize everyone who died here. Since this camp was so close to Berlin, it also contained a special prison within the camp for Hitler's personal prisoners, including clergy, a man who attempted to assassinate Hitler, and several high ranking officials, including the prime minister of France who was ousted by the Vichy government after their surrender. It also contained the remnants of a crematorium and gas chamber as well as an execution ditch where over 10,000 prisoners were killed in the span of weeks by firing squad. All the while this was being built, less than 30 minutes to the south the 1936 Olympics were being held, celebrating the Nazi regime and selling a bill of goods to the world about what was really going on here in Germany
. That's were we headed next, visiting the Olympic Stadium (now home to the German soccer team and host to big venue concerts), and then went up in the Olympic Bell Tower to get some excellent parting views of the entire city of Berlin. I've posted a lot of pictures so I'll let them express the scene rather than drathering on about it here.
Lastly, I want to address the next phase of my journey again. Jadie asked the other day why I was going to Iran. This certainly wasn't the first time I've heard this question, and I've gotten my fair share of funny looks over the last months about my decision to go there. So, why am I going? It's simple, because I cherish the freedom that I have that so many others before me didn't have, and so many today do not have. I'm going there because I can. This last week has been a constant reminder to me that when we build up walls and live our lives in fear, or perpetuate a culture of fear, or persecute those who are different, we lose something essential about ourselves. We should all live our lives in the constant pursuit of peace. Peace can only thrive in a world in which we understand one another, when we can cut through the layers and see that our world is one tribe. We are stewards of our own future and have to live our lives every day with that charge. I never travel to a place to change or challenge, condemn or support their way of life. I simply go there to understand. The lessons I learn along the way will pay forward for generations because my stories, my story, is a part of our story and I fully intend to be a part of its telling.
With that, I bid you a fond adieu until my next post!
Well, today marks yet another turning point in my summer: my last day in Berlin until I come back through in August on my way back home to the States. It's been a blast, but I'm also very excited about the next phase. For this entry, I'm going to try to sum up as best as I can the last couple of days I've had in Berlin and then set the stage for what comes next. Despite a LOT of research and preparation, in many ways I'm not really sure what to expect when I arrive in Uzbekistan and begin my journey through Central Asia to Iran. I'm hopeful that I'll be able to have at least semi-regular Internet access so that I can update my blog as I go, but I"m also prepared for the fact that this may be it for a while. At least on your end. I plan to write my blog regularly over the next 3.5 weeks, but I will be writing it in Word and then pasting into the web whenever I can. So, if you don't see anything for a while, don't fret. And if you suddenly see like 10 posts at once, don't be overwhelmed