You don’t live in the best country in the world: Lessons learned about nationalism in Berlin

East Side Gallery, where artists painted murals on remaining parts of the Berlin Wall

This might be a tough pill to swallow, but here it is: You don’t live in the best country in the world.

My semester abroad has taken me some exciting places, but I’ve never been more moved than my solo trip to Berlin this weekend. The city itself was incredible: it has an awesome art scene and lots of energy and young people. Looming over Berlin, however, is its dark history. Berlin chronicles the worst and most vile side of humanity: it’s where Hitler rose to power, grasped and held onto control of its citizens through terror and orchestrated the mass extermination of an entire race.

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp just outside Berlin

The Berliners are well aware that they live on the ground Hitler terrorized Germans on. Unlike the rest of the world, however, I noticed that they talk about their country’s horrifying past. They don’t try to sweep it under the rug. They want to learn from it. My biggest takeaway from my time in Berlin:

Nationalism is dangerous.

I’ve been aware of the dangers of nationalism for some time now, especially in an era where politicians seem to be thriving on riling up its people with this idea: for example, Donald Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again”, Brexit, Marine Le Pen’s campaign in France, etcetera. Never, until this weekend, have I thought much about how far it can go past mere ignorance.

Let me take a moment here to make the distinction between nationalism and patriotism. I love my country. I miss the United States dearly, and I can’t wait to return in a month. I am patriotic. Just because I love something, however, does not mean I find it without flaws. It does not mean I think it is the best country in the world. It also does not mean I think I am better than anyone else because I am an American.

This does not just apply to the United States. I took a tour of the important historic sites of Berlin, as well as a tour of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp just outside Berlin. On both tours, the tour guides noted an important mindset of the Germans. Whereas many countries and their politicians condition its citizens to believe that they live in the best country in the world and that no other country measures up, Germans are not so overtly nationalistic. Why? Because they’ve seen the dangers of nationalism firsthand and how far it can go.

Hitler manipulated a overwhelming mass of people by exploiting the struggles of the country. World War I left Germany devastated. The Treaty of Versailles had the people feeling humiliated. Throw in the financial crisis of the 1930s and many people starving to death, and you’ve got the perfect setting for an authoritarian leader to take charge. It’s easy for someone with a strong demeanor to come to power when he’s promising to restore the country to its previous glory.

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp just outside Berlin

The Nazis did a lot of terrible things. Other nations, however, are not the totally blameless saviors they often paint themselves to be. In fact, Germany modeled its anti-semitic Nuremberg laws on the United States’ racist Jim Crow laws, which were in still in place decades after the fall of the Nazis.

That’s not the only inspiration the Germans gathered from the United States. In their letters home, many German soldiers used Manifest Destiny (the westward expansion of America at any cost, often displacing and murdering Native people) as justification for conquering Eastern Europe.

A portion of the Berlin Wall standing outside the Topography of Terrors, a museum about Hitler’s rise/stronghold of power through political terror

I’m not insinuating in any way, shape or form that the United States or anyone other than the villainous Nazis are to blame for the Holocaust. I’m just pointing out how twisted our own history is. We, among many other colonizing nations, kidnapped countless Africans, displaced them from their home and forced them into slave labor for centuries. We massacred Native people because we felt like we had a right to their land. We inserted ourselves into conflicts like the Vietnam War and killed innocent women and children. We had — and still have — major institutionalized racism.

Every nation has skeletons in their closet. They each still have their own struggles, corruption and social issues. The difference, however, is that many modern nations pretend that history never happened and does not still affect the way the country is conducted and the people within the nation.

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp — “Work brings freedom”

(On a quick side note, I would also like to note the difference between remembering and memorializing. Just because the Germans remember doesn’t mean they memorialize. The site above Hitler’s bunker where he committed suicide is now a simple parking lot with a small plaque noting what it was. That plaque was not even placed there by the government, and the government has long since destroyed any entrances and exits to the bunker. They did not want to attract the wrong kinds of people to the site. After the Charlottesville incident, many Americans rushed to the defense of keeping up Confederate soldier statues, saying they were “remembering” the events of the past. No. Those sites memorialize and glorify a dark era of racism and slavery.)

I’m not trying to be completely doom and gloom. Every nation also has its positives. Think of any profession or field, and there’s a famous German that contributed to its growth. Science? Einstein. Music? Beethoven. In every history of journalism class I’ve ever taken, my professors contributed the birth of the modern newspaper to Gutenberg’s printing press. Every nation has so much to be proud of, but one country’s accomplishments or downfalls does not make the people who live there any better or worse than another country.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin

It’s important to not wear blinders. Be educated. Read books. Watch documentaries. For the sake of my journalism-driven heart, read the news. Know what has happened in the world and what is still happening. Don’t get wrapped up in thinking you’re any better than other people just because of your address.

I will end on this note. I spent a significant amount of time walking around and reflecting at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It is composed of 2,711 concrete slabs of various heights. Whenever architect Peter Eisenman is asked about what it means, he always replies that it is up to the viewer’s interpretation. My interpretation is that if you look at all the slabs, they are all slightly different, but are fundamentally similar. To me, that represents that even though we are all different and come from different backgrounds, we are all fundamentally the same: we are all humans.

As we conduct our day-to-day lives, keep that in mind. We are all fundamentally the same.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin
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