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Yang Xiao: Exploring Berlin and Prague


Dragging the suitcases, we came out of the ochre, wall-chipping subway station (there is no elevator) and saw a not so wide socialist style street. Old apartments without face stand beside the street. They are obviously the legacies of planned-economy eras. Also sit beside the street are some strange big boxes, seemingly belonging to the industrial times, or space times. A car drove fast just in front of us, leaving an impatient horn when we were trying to pass the crossing. We had never seen such not-so-decent behavior in Hamburg. Anyway, we kept moving, after one kebab shop to another, under Turkish people’s semi-curious and semi-indifferent eyes, into an old apartment (still no elevator). This was East Berlin, June 23, 2012.

The same day, we cut through the city, stayed two hours in a gallery in West Berlin, and then escaped, hoping to catch the on-going parade of Christopher Street Day. We hopped on an underground train without knowing the direction, and unfortunately there was only one middle-aged woman in this carriage. I stepped up and asked her, almost without hope: “Do you happen to know the route of the parade?” She smiled and drew out a piece of newspaper from the pocket. That was the route! Amazing!

Then let’s go to Potsdamer Platz! We were rocked by the heavy metal music even before we came out of the station. When we finally arrived at the plaza, we were swallowed by the parade.

What a free and hilarious scene! It looked like the epicenter of Europe, a young, energetic and sexy Europe. “Are you man enough to be a woman?” People just acted (instinctively or not) as peacock, monster, bear, queen or SM lover. I saw an old gentleman dressing like Marilyn Monroe – oh yes, this year marks the 50th anniversary of her death. Handsome boys were kissing each other, with tongues… you could even smell the hormones in the atmosphere. Berliners boast the city’s slogan “Poor, but Sexy”. Indeed. It took me only three hours to feel it.

There’s more.

We followed the parade to an area near the Brandenburger Tor, where they turned right into another street. I made a swift glance at the name of the street: Hannah Arendt Street! I happened to be reading the book “Why Arendt Matters” at that time. Why Arendt matters? One explanation is she had found the root of evil in 20 century. 

Arendt once described Adolf Eichmann, a German Nazi lieutenant colonel and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, as an example of “banality of evil”. In Arendt’s eyes, Eichmann had committed huge crimes, but his motive was as banal as dedicating to duties and following the orders. The key to the point is, he is “thoughtless”, said Arendt, he can even recite one of Kant’s moral absolutes: “Don’t follow the principle when you don’t want to apply it to everyone.” However, Eichmann doesn’t know to examine himself, by asking himself a question like “can I still tolerate myself if I do such kind of thing?”

If you transform the absolute to ancient Chinese philosophy, this might be “Jisuobuyu, wushiyuren” or “Do as you would be done by”. Try to put yourself in other’s shoes, and “knowing the difference!” which is the most eye-catching slogan in today’ parade.

Today there are memorials for homosexual NS victims, a museum about homosexuality, the Holocaust Memorial, Jewish Museum, Anne Frank Museum, DDR museum, Stasi Museum, Checkpoint Charlie Museum, Wall Victims Memorial and many more. Yes, there is neither a British Museum nor Musée du Louvre in Berlin, but for me it doesn’t matter at all.

Thanks to this year’s program, I was able to explore three more countries in Eastern Europe. In Prague, I went to the Communism Museum, who is a private one as DDR museum in Berlin, but quite different with the latter.

DDR museum sits quietly beside Spree River and Berlin Church, while Communism Museum neighbors a McDonalds and a casino. Much more important: I saw a relatively objective narrative in DDR museum, and it provides sources when giving statistics or statements. Unfortunately that is not the case in Communism Museum. “According to the statistic, average life of citizens in Communism countries is much lower than those in Democratic countries. Czech people’s average life increased rapidly within five years after the end of communism.” Fine. That is probably true, but please be professional and give me the source! Actually, I got an impression after touring the museum: only the Communist Party and Soviet Union are the ones to be blamed, while every Czech person was a hero in Prague Spring. There was no informers, no collaborators, only victims of the evil system… Wait, is that totally true?

It’s not easy for me to accept that it is same Prague and Czech Republic, where Vaclav Havel (one of my favorite writers and politicians) had been the president for ten years! What a pity I can’t ask him about that any more. However, the disappointment only makes me love Berlin even more. The city will never cease to introspect itself, and it knows very well that no one is ONLY the victim. It will never say, hey, that was ALL because of Hitler (or Honecker), don’t bother me!

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