Never have I sat before a man as animated as he is intelligent. This afternoon, though, I had the opportunity to both hear historian Joseph Pearson speak on “Commemorating the Berlin Wall,” and watch his cinematic performance; his eyes bulged, his arms gestured and beyond all that, he offered a storyline—plot—a start and end. So generous, he was, to provide such a concrete trajectory, making temporary sense out of German temperament. In his allotted hour, he blazed through over a hundred years of German unification, de-unification, reunification and the sludgey, muddy, muddled realities binding these events together. It was then no surprise that as he opened for questions, the issues raised all seemed to deal with the fragmentation that Germany—Berlin, in particular—is still dealing with today. The residual effect, or one residual effect, of such chopping, dicing and consequent poor re-stitching of Berlin has manifested itself as a bit of an identity crisis. Who is German? What does it mean to be German? These were the guiding questions for our Q & A.
In our discussion, we summoned opinions and feelings that we’d heard expressed by German encounters as a sort of first attempt to answer these questions, but only arrived at more curious intersections of ideas. These Berliners, from East, West, North and South, all harbor both individual and collective sentiments regarding their national identities; some feel guilt, others victimized. Proud, punished. Isolated, entitled. While we were unsuccessful in forming a precise identity for what has become an extremely internationalized population, we undoubtedly stirred up a new curiosity regarding the future of this historically chaotic culture (culture(s)?). I couldn’t help but press Pearson for his thoughts on immigration and just how the German politico might approach integration of minorities—an issue that was noticeably side-stepped in Berlin’s recent elections—but he wisely responded that historians really shouldn’t try to predict the future. Stay tuned, he said instead. The intrigue lies ahead.