Remembering Dictatorship

I’ve been happy that history education in high school in Berlin still seems to be quite different from what it is in Vancouver. My experience from what I was able to see in T’s history classes was fairly disappointing, i.e. a whole lot and way too many multiple choice tests. Obviously teaching toward those tests also doesn’t make for thrilling history classes.

It might be in part that E’s curriculum this year started with the 1848 revolution and has proceeded through Bismarck to the Weimar Republic, all of which I find very interesting periods, so perhaps I’m more interested, but we are talking about some of this history a fair bit.

So, E and I set out to visit the Memorial Berlin-Hohenschönhausen, the site of a former East German secret police detention centre. We will have to return to actually see more of the exhibit and learn more, but our visit was dominated by our guide who very much made this a living memorial. Karl-Heinz Richter helped 17 teenagers escape from East Berlin in 1964, but injured himself fleeing after his own attempt had failed. He was picked up by the secret police a week later and kept at Hohenschönhausen for six months, receiving no medical attention for his multiple injuries. Because the one-by-one escape of his group of friends had become well-known in West Berlin, pressure was applied for his release and he was in fact released after serving a portion of his sentence for the “attempt to flee the republic”.

We walked through the exhibit and “Kalle” Richter told his story and thus the story of the torture and injustices that happened at this prison. He is a real Berlin character, and spoke lightly with a good number of jokes about his experience that was horrifying. A very different way to experience a place of such horror than reading tableaus or looking at artefacts. Very literally, history come to life.

The docents for guided tours are mostly victims themselves which remains one of the focus points for the memorial for now. As the GDR recedes into history/historical memory and as any criticism of capitalism and its impact tempts us to think about alternatives, it is well worth being reminded of the injustices that are perpetrated under authoritarian regimes, claiming to offer better alternatives.


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