Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

An American in Paris and Berlin, through the Lense of 20th Century Horrors

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

An American in Paris and Berlin, through the Lense of 20th Century Horrors

Article excerpt

Berlin and Paris are separated by 550 miles and joined by a long history of rivalry and bloodshed. Even in their bustle and magnificence, there are plenty of monuments and signs of the old hatreds that eventually drew the happily isolated United States into the tangled tale of Europe.

Fortunately for civilization, Paris was spared in the two world wars. Its astonishing beauty is intact. Every street scene is a postcard, each intersection a tourist's crisis whichever way you go, you reject two other enchanting possibilities. Berlin, while thoroughly rebuilt and prosperous, bears scars of World War II, Nazism and the city's four-decade captivity as ground zero of the Cold War.

I recently visited both cities to see our son and daughter. She is working and studying in Berlin; he was doing post-graduate research in Paris. They were my interpreters and guides.

Because I am 64, I observed the sites through a lifetime of stories about World War II and the Cold War Hitler at the Eiffel Tower, the liberation of Paris, the 1,000-bomber raids over Berlin, the tank standoff at Checkpoint Charlie, all the people penned up by the Soviet Bloc's grotesque Wall.

Many buildings in central Berlin that survived World War II have gashes from bombs and projectiles. The jagged tooth of a towering steeple, the only remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, is a memorial to the ruin of war. Along the River Spree, a mile-long stretch of the Wall is preserved and brightly covered with murals. The city is a patchwork of charming old buildings next to modern replacements built where rubble used to be.

Periodic sidewalk markings describe who, or what, was there before the horrors. The most haunting are those naming the Jewish residents, when they were dragged from their homes and where they perished, or last were seen.

Both cities have monuments to the power of conquest to glorify, humiliate and breed revenge. Berlin has the Brandenburg Gate, built in 1791 as the expanding kingdom of Prussia became a serious player. In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte's marauding army stole the gate's crowning bronze statue of the victory goddess and hauled it to Paris as booty. When combined European powers defeated Napoleon in 1814, Prussian soldiers rescued the goddess. (Napoleon's towering Arc de Triomphe in Paris wasn't finished when he was defeated for good at Waterloo one year later. Etched onto its walls are a litany of French campaigns.)

In 1871, after newly consolidated Germany defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War, Kaiser Wilhelm I celebrated in the Hall of Mirrors at the French palace in Versailles. It was a profoundly insulting gesture. When Germany surrendered in 1945, the French wanted to blow up Berlin's 220-foot Victory Column, then settled for removing bronze panels that celebrate the Franco-Prussian War. France didn't return them until 1987, two years before the Wall finally came down.

Visitors can climb to the top of the column for a vista of the city. Its stone exterior is pocked by war.

Paris was spared during World War I because the German invasion in 1914 stalled 30 miles away. In 1940, Adolf Hitler's army marched around the Arc de Triomphe. The Allies didn't bomb the city center. The Germans retreated in 1944 with the city largely as it was. The Western World may not deserve it, but Paris endures for the treasuring.

In Berlin, a good place to begin is the Brandenburg Gate, in the city center, where a sign elaborates upon Napoleon's theft. A zigzag line of stones set into the adjoining avenue shows the path of the Wall that was the scene of jubilant crowds on the night of its sundering in 1989. To the north is the Reichstag, burned in 1933, heavily damaged in 1945 and restored in 1999 for the reunified German government. To the west is the Tiergarten, once the royal hunting preserve and now a spacious and pleasant park of woods, fountains and monuments, including the Victory Column. To the east is the Unter den Linden, a wide boulevard with embassies and department stores. …

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