Like the beginning of a bad joke or a clichéd saying, it happened. A bull charged into the china shop.
The Topography of Terror is an incredible free museum that stands at the site of the old Gestapo and SS headquarters in Berlin. The museum traces and analyzes Hitler’s rise to power and details the atrocities committed in such a short period of time. Through imagery, video, and audio recordings, the visitor is taken through a chronological account of this unbelievably horrific time in modern European history.
I had ducked into the museum to escape the dreary, freezing cold of mid-February Berlin weather, only to be plunged into another form of iciness, albeit one felt from the inside out.
Visiting museums alone gives me the chance to immerse myself, take my time, and skip over or linger in whichever topics or sections I please. Taking it all in in this way can be overwhelming if it’s a topic as intense as that covered at the Topography of Terror. The horrors of Hitler presented in totality, with such strong visuals and description, boggled my mind. The parallels with the current state of affairs in the U.S. were chilling and hard to ignore:
Over and over again like a mantra, I wondered, “How could anyone visit here and not see the similarities?” It seemed impossible to me. My body got chills just looking and reading the signs and seeing the images. The speculative fiction writer and reader in me jumped to an alternate version of the future where this had become the reality of the United States.
Just as these thoughts were passing through my mind, I heard next to me, “Crazy, isn’t it? It’s unbelievable.” I turned to see a mild-mannered looking man with a head full of white hair.
“Yeah, I know.” I agreed amicably, shaking my head. The backdrop of genocide hadn’t exactly put me in the mood for small talk.
To my dismay, he kept following me around the exhibit, asking me questions about my life in Madrid, how I got there, etc. I gave short answers, hoping to satisfy his curiosity so he would leave me in peace. But when he realized I was American his eyes lit up.
“Have I finally met an American that doesn’t hate Trump?” He asked excitedly, and for no good reason because I said nor implied nothing of the sort.
I gave a nervous laugh, more than a bit taken aback at the strange question. “Uh…no.” I said, determinedly turning away this time.
“I don’t get what the big deal is. I think the media is being too hard on him.” He said with a smile in his voice, in pursuit.
“Are you serious?!” I was shocked. I couldn’t believe what was happening, but it was shaping up to be exactly that: A Trumpster in THE Nazi Museum. The universe (or whatever you want to call it) has a dark sense of humor.
“At least he never killed anyone, like Hillary.” He continued, and my eyes widened. I told him I wasn’t in the mood for a political discussion. “Oh, this isn’t politics!” He laughed, and I shook my head in disbelief. His accent said Scottish – ironic considering Trump’s recent history with the Scots. (Comedian Samantha Bee’s video gives a great quick run-down of this).
I wish I was better at arguing while maintaining a cool head. I could feel myself getting flustered, with my arguments flying out the window. I had no idea how to begin to approach his statements.
So instead, I went to one of the audio stations, put the massive sound-blocking headphones on, and listened to victim’s interviews until he had passed out of view.
Thinking back, I’m frustrated that I couldn’t engage in a discussion. But also thinking back, I’ve gotten even angrier. Can you imagine a man approaching another man at a museum, following him around, instigating uncomfortable conversation, and not leaving when it’s clear that the other person isn’t interested? No. It seems laughable. But a woman on her own is seen as non-threatening, someone who surely wants to have a conversation.
The experience also made me revisit the idea that travel does not automatically make someone more tolerant and informed. People can still travel hundreds, thousands of miles from home, but a choice needs to be made to go deeper. It can be too easy to head back home with a suitcase of souvenirs and selfies in front of all the famous landmarks, without having broadened any horizons.
As an American abroad, now more than ever I’m seen as a social ambassador. I get questions from friends on both sides of the pond about public opinion on the current situation in the U.S.
Witnessing an unraveling from the outside gives perspective. The U.S. hasn’t had a dictator, yet. On the other hand, many European countries have and they know one when they see one. On the day of Trump’s election, I went to an American friend’s apartment to watch the news. Her Spanish roommate came in to see us lying around all lethargic and defeated. She commiserated a bit but wasn’t surprised. “It happened here.” She shrugged.
Visiting Berlin, it was impossible to avoid the marks of the city’s still very recent and dark past. Memorials, museums, and plaques are everywhere. It was surreal to come across someone who acknowledged the Nazi atrocities but was blind to the contemporary rise of demagoguery.
We travel not just to experience new cultures, but to learn about our own.
“The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” – James Baldwin
If you’re headed to Berlin, be sure to check out our Alternative Guide to Berlin’s Subculture, Squats, and Street Art and our Berlin Vegan Guide!