A question I get a lot from other students here is: ‘So you’re an Australian studying and living in the US…and now what are you doing in Berlin?’
Apart from the usual goals like experiencing a new culture, having an international friend network, and improving the language etc., I do have a few specific reasons I would like to share with you.
My German family heritage and love of history drew me to the idea of studying in Germany. Berlin was always a kind of underdog city; it didn’t share the same status as an attractive, timeless metropolis like Paris or London. It was decided Berlin was to be the capital after unification in 1871, and even then poor Berlin was the unwanted capital, seen by Germans as uncultured and without character.
The course of history was also changed from the city in the 20th century: Here the culture of the Weimar Republic thrived among political turmoil and inflation, the Nazi party marched through the Brandenburg Gate when Hitler seized power in 1933, the cityscape was bombed to pieces during the 40s, and here east and west Berliners lived two completely different lives until the wall dividing them fell in 1989.
Since then, Berlin has become a new, progressive, and modern city that is always under construction. At the same time, you can feel the history woven into the landscape as to never forget what the city went through and overcame. A term the Germans have for this we do not have in English is Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or coming to terms with one’s past.
Talk about history where you walk – These stolpersteine, or stumbling blocks, are memorials that mark where members of the Jewish population lived before they were deported and murdered by the Nazis.
In addition to the cityscape, I also sought to learn about my area of interest through a German frame of reference. For those of you that haven’t read previous blog posts, my historical interest is in the Nazi era (I will talk about my current research later!). So in addition to an intensive German language course (which is excellent, I might add), I am also taking a class called ‘Berlin: history, memory, literature’ and ‘The Human Condition and the Totalitarianism Experience.’ So far they have both been thoroughly engaging and interesting classes, that have added yet another dimension so my understanding of German history.
Another reason why I wanted to study overseas: Research! I am also taking part in the Research Rookies program for a second year at NIU. My last research project in this program (see earlier blogs) critically studied the way historians that study the Third Reich from the 1980s to the present utilize and interpret photography as historical evidence. This time round I am doing my own archival research into photographs, comparatively studying the representation of civilians in official and unofficial photography in Eastern Europe during WWII.
While the United States Holocaust Museum has a decent collection of said photographs, this was not enough to be able to explore this topic thoroughly. The sources I need are in German archives, so I have organized a trip to the military archive in Freiburg as well as the state library and German Historical Museum in Berlin. Despite some language barriers, doing the footwork on the online databases in preparation for my visit has actually been really exciting and rewarding. I will be visiting the state library and museum in two weeks during my mid semester break – I am looking forward to finally getting my hands on some material! I am really glad I set this challenge for myself, I didn’t think I would be able to do something as cool as this as an undergraduate.