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All old European cities look like the same to me. Berlin is no exception. Like any other great and old European metropolis, the German capital is a bold and beautiful blend of the old and new, and tradition and modernity living, in harmony with each other. It’s fascinating and quite instructive how Europeans take care of their cities.
The past is celebrated and protected with great love and care. Unlike in South Asia, where a rich history is taken for granted and forever abused, no landmark and monument is allowed to go to seed in Europe. The tiniest slice of history is cherished and conserved for the posterity. The past is ever present. This may be why cities like Berlin live and breathe history.
Going around the German capital, it’s hard to believe this is the city that was at the center of action during World War II and that, as the headquarters of Hitler’s unstoppable juggernaut that ravished one European country after another, witnessed the most catastrophic war in human history.
Nearly 70 million people—about the size of Iran’s population—were killed, not to mention the economic and other incalculable costs of the war. The Nazi monster was eventually reined in, but not before it had wreaked havoc all across Europe and beyond. It took the collective might and firepower of the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and the rest of Europe to do it.
The endless Allied bombing during the War totally decimated Germany with the victors partitioning the country and even dividing Berlin right down the middle. Indeed, the wall that came up between the two parts of Berlin came to define not just the division of one country, but epitomized the split of the world into two constantly bickering blocs and a nuclear holocaust that the Cold War threatened.
Not surprisingly, when the Berlin wall came down, the world celebrated with the Germans. More importantly, it marked the beginning of the end of the so-called evil empire setting off a tsunami of change, much like the Arab revolts today, across Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and finally in Russia itself.
So it all began and ended here in Berlin. For years and decades, Germany was made to pay for Hitler’s crimes and delusions of grandeur. Just as happened after the First Great War.
Today, the scars of that destruction and all the evil that took place in this land are hardly visible. What is truly remarkable is the swiftness with which Germany has managed to spring back to its feet. Like the mythical phoenix, it has risen from its ashes, just as it did before, emerging even more powerful, and let’s hope more mature, in its new avatar.
It hasn’t just managed to survive the last Great War and humiliation and punishment that followed, it has emerged as the largest economy and a lead player in Europe once again. Although thanks to its past, its military wings remain clipped, and like Japan it’s still largely reliant on the US for defense, Germany has begun to come into its own slowly and surely.
With the continuing economic meltdown claiming one formidable EU economy after another, the impregnable fortress Europe has suddenly started wobbling like a house of cards. The only port that looks safe in this storm is Germany. Save for some awfully polite protests demanding higher wages, Germany hasn’t seen the chaos ruling the streets of Europe these days. Its economy remains robust. Indeed, it’s helping others and playing a decisive role in determining who gets to come in from the cold and on what terms.
Germany is the biggest contributor to the EU rescue package put together for Greece with conditions that have inflamed the Greek street. And it’s not just Greece. Spain and Ireland have already been there. Italy, another big economy, finds itself on the ropes even as Hungary, formerly of the communist bloc, is fast discovering the glorious uncertainty of West.
But if Germany is demanding a high price for offering help, it seems justified in doing so. After all, it has invested in a great deal of hard work and famous German dedication over the decades to reach where it finds itself today. The Germans put in the longest working hours in Europe.
The country has moved on other fronts too. It appears to have learned from its past and is remorseful over what happened to minorities under the Nazis. There are no attempts to gloss over the past or brush it under the carpet. The city guide on television in my room at InterContinental Hotel goes to great lengths to highlight the memorials and sites associated with the Jewish suffering and persecution.
So is the mindset that created the Nazi Frankenstein and sent millions of innocents to their deaths dead and buried now? The answer is in negative. It’s still seen in occasional targeting of Jewish and Muslim cemeteries and centers. However, it’s a tiny fringe and is firmly shunned by the establishment.
Although Angela Merkel, the conservative Chancellor, talks tough on immigration and is opposed to Turkey joining the elite EU club, when it comes to safety and general sense of security for minorities, Germany is perhaps far ahead of many European nations that trumpet themselves as champions of human rights and tolerance.
In neighboring France, the vilification of Muslims has acquired ludicrous proportions. President Nicolas Sarkozy, desperately fighting for reelection next month and trailing behind his little-known socialist rival, has returned to his familiar tactics, unabashedly pandering to the right and talking of halving immigration by half. He has already made the wearing of burqa or veil a punishable offense.
Marie Le Pen of the National Front, France’s answer to Bharatiya Janata Party, has been running a campaign against halal food as though consumption of the meat slaughtered according to Muslim custom was a national catastrophe. “We have a right to know what we are eating,” she protests, demanding to know which hotels and restaurants in France are serving halal food, just as Muslims would demand to know if they are being served pork. Not to be outdone, Sarkozy this week nixed halal food out of schools and banned separate hours for Muslim women in public pools.
Germany appears to be bucking this increasing trend of demonization of the Other. The country is home to nearly 5 million Muslims, a majority of them from Turkey (two-thirds of them), the Balkans, and North African Arab countries, forming 5 percent of the 82 million population. For their part, Muslims are at peace with themselves and their adapted nation even as they remain loyal to their tradition and faith.
You see Turkish and Lebanese eateries all over Berlin and elsewhere with the Germans queuing up for their regulation shawarma or kebab and in some cases even Turkish/Arabic coffee with their characteristic discipline. While my Jordanian friend exults over the ubiquitous blonds, repeatedly gushing “Wallah Kullu Jameelat! Every one of them is pretty! How can they all be so beautiful?” I couldn’t help notice quite a few Muslim scarves wherever we went.
A 2009 survey by the German government together with the Islamic Conference revealed that the Muslims were far more integrated in the German society than other European societies. Compared to France and Britain, second generation German Muslims, especially girls, are better educated and more upwardly mobile than their parents. Clearly, when it comes to tolerance and cultural diversity, today’s Germany can teach a lesson or two to the rest of Europe. Adolf must be tossing and turning in his grave.