Empire.

There’s always something a little heavy about walking through the streets of Berlin. Around the start of Unter den Linden (nick-named “Idiot’s Mile” by the Eastern Berliners who lived here in the age of the wall, as it was the only section of the city that visiting Westeners saw in any detail), there’s the rather imposing Platz within which the infamous 1933 Nazi book burnings took place.

The very spot is now marked with the above memorial. A plaque reads something along the lines of, “whomever burns books will soon burn people.” We walked past the memorial earlier today, a group of tourists gawking down from its glass surface. A set of empty, glowing bookshelves.

As our walk continued, we wandered through the Monument for the Murdered Jews of Europe, through the Brandenburg Gate, and finally onto the fields of the Reichstag. All heavy locations. All scenes of major upheaval and history. The wall first fell at the Brandenburg Gate. Hitler first seized power by burning down the Reichstag. The Monument for the Murdered Jews of Europe is most often shortened down to “Holocaust Memorial”, but that’s just to make it a little more tourist-guide friendly.

Local cinemas are packing them in with Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, an excessively violent portrayal of the RAF’s 1970’s terrorist actions against the powers that be in Germany. I flipped through the pages of the infamous Die Toten (The Dead), photograph after photograph of dead terrorist next to dead victim. Meinhof’s blackened neck. They started as heroes, much like Hitler was the people’s hero when he steered Germany out of financial ruin.

But then, of course, there were some other things he wanted to get done too.

1933 is 75 years from 2008. 75 years is no time at all. My great aunt was 15 years old, 75 years ago. When someone ancient strolls past you in Berlin (or more commonly is wheeled past, wheezing), is it wrong to wonder what exactly their experience was with what was happening 75 years ago? Were they involved? My Mother’s side is half German, half-Austrian. There are skeletons in the closet which, due to her wishes, will die with her when she is gone.

I know next to nothing about it. She spent a life with purposely-closed ears. She knows very little either.

The streets of Berlin are marked with monuments and commemorations of what happened 75 years ago. (Some are arguably a little abstract, yes, but perhaps that very abstractness leaves the interpretation up to the beholder. The weight of what hapened is for all of us to carry in our own way).

Our family has no mementos or commemorations of these things. If my children ever ask me what my Opa did during the war, I won’t really ever quite know how to give an accurate answer.

What do those 90-somethings strolling / wheezing around Berlin think of the free-wheelin’ sex-obsessed place it’s become?

We spent part of the day on the grounds of Sans Soucci in Potsdam. Friederich’s reign is approaching its 300th anniversary. His Prussian empire fell, to the point where parts of Sans Soucci are under such intense restoration, they won’t be ready for unveiling until 2012.

Empires crash and burn all of the time. Berlin’s seen more than its share of falling empires.

So just what were the RAF and Baader-Meinhof after in the 1970s? Every German I’ve discussed it with invariably comments that from the outset, they were right in their desire to fight a commercialized society, to push out the past regime once and for all. (For, of course, why were high-ranking Nazi officials now once again running the country under the guise of Conservative government?)

They just weren’t particularly smart, the story goes. Things got too violent too quickly. Instead of revolutionaries, they became terrorists. Sure, sure, the department store bombings went off late at night when no-one would be hurt by the explosions. But once the hostage-takings and shootings started taking place, popular consensus turned away from the RAF as a viable source of change in the country.

Lest we forget, Germany was still divided by a wall through the heart of its biggest city.

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex might fail where The Lives of Others succeeds by missing out on the humanity of those experiences, what the terrorists, the victims, and the country itself went through as a result of their actions. The RAF were human beings so strong in their misgivings about their home country that they were willing to kill for what they believed in. The film glorifies their actions as Bonnie & Clyde-style shoot-em-ups.

That’s not what it was ever about.

But is anyone ever right when they first pick up a gun and see it as the answer?

Meinhof wrote, “Burn department store, burn,” and lit off a mini-revolution that soon lost what that clumsy call to arms was hoping to ignite. But it’s not a sentiment that’s altogether dead in Berlin. Near the Oberbaum Bridge, right across from the longest extant piece of the Berlin Wall, there’s a new Subway sandwich shop in operation. The windows are smashed and cracked, the walls graffiti’d with “SUCKS” after the Subway logo. The neighbourhood is up in arms. How dare a Subway enter our neighbourhood full of independent shops and cafes?

Someone will always throw rocks in Berlin.

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