Last summer, during The Enhancing Life Project’s residency seminar in Berlin, our group had the opportunity to tour the Reichstag, the historic German parliament building. The Reichstag has had a remarkable career as a building, from the attack against it that provided the crisis used to erect the Third Reich, to its use as a strategic military position in the final days of WWII, to its reconstruction as part of the reunification of united Germany.
The reason I’m still thinking about Berlin generally and the Reichstag specifically is not so much the quality of our tour (or our fascinating parliamentarian-guide), but something important about what it means to enhance life.
Everyone—all nations, all groups, and all individuals—incurs pain in the course of time. We receive grievous injuries of all kinds, and we almost inevitably inflict grievous injuries on those around us. When we are in pain, or in guilt for the pain of others, it is seductive to obscure or erase our errors and brokenness, and tempting to envision this as an ‘enhancement.’
My own nation struggles only reluctantly with its history. Rather than talking deeply about the injustices of America’s past—the wholesale death and displacement of native peoples under White settlement; slavery and racism towards African Americans; apathy toward the poor—there are many in my country who prefer to insist that America is Great (or should be Made Great Again), that everything in America is The Best. American nationalism reflexively shouts its self-importance and ignores all counter-evidence.
But Germany is different. Berlin, and the Reichstag at its center, have very difficult pasts—painful, dark, and in many ways humiliating pasts. Berlin is where Hitler came to power, ruled, died; Berlin is where Soviet occupation led to the division of the country into East and West; Berlin is where the Stasi grimly monitored the population. Downtown Berlin is an easy train-ride from the Sachsenhausen camp, where tens of thousands died: Russian POWs, Jews, gays, labor leaders.
These are uncomfortable histories: truths that it would be incredibly tempting to overwrite or purposefully forget.
Berlin remembers, however—in thoughtful and beautiful ways. A stone church bombed in the 40s was preserved broken, but supplemented with a modernist glass chapel. Across from where Hitler shot himself, there is a city block filled with towering and irregular granite blocks, among which you can wander to get disoriented and overwhelmed, a memorial to experiences of the Holocaust.
The Reichstag itself is a massive act of memory, a place where difficult pasts are preserved. In the main parliament hall, the war-like Weimar eagle was grafted onto a softer post-reunification eagle, making each more beautiful. In places where the new construction from the 90s merges with the old structures from the 19th century, the jointures are left bare to be seen—scarred brick next to smooth wallboard. In one corridor, the removal of Soviet-era walls exposed graffiti from Russian soldiers who occupied the building in 1945, and the reconstruction left these messages from the past uncovered.
In the basement, an exhibit reminds visitors that the Third Reich’s leaders were initially elected into conventional government. An artist fitted tin biscuit-boxes to resemble an old-fashioned card catalogue, labeling each with the name of someone elected to parliament. Upon reaching the middle of the display, there suddenly appear familiar names from the last Weimar election. It is insightful, chilling, and exquisite.
Berlin (especially its Reichstag) takes the brokennesses of its history, and makes beauty. It remembers and learns with its spaces, and publicly challenges itself to be better.
As someone struggling through both a national political transition and a divorce, I’ve been thinking a lot about enhancing a broken or painful life. I think the lesson from last summer in Berlin is to look squarely at the pain, and seek opportunities to reassemble shattered pieces as art.