The distant agony of past wars is suddenly revived by the attack on Ukraine
When my daughter was investigating colleges three years ago, we toured five universities in as many locations across Germany. Each city we visited is imbued with memories of WWII, the Cold War or both. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this history has been reanimated almost overnight. With a vengeance.
The inner German border
To get to Berlin, we drove north from Bavaria into Thuringia. My husband shuddered as we crossed the so-called inner German border, which denotes where former East and West Germany meet. As a one-time tank commander in the Bundeswehr, the German army, he was assigned to this territory. It’s still hard for him to simply drive through this area and forget that it’s just history.
Turns out, it would have been a mistake to forget.
Now Russia, heavy-handed backer of East Germany and its repressive regime in the form of the Soviet Union, has invaded Ukraine. The European order has been turned upside down. Many ghosts have been awakened by this attack. This goes for every German I know. No family is without a tragic memory associated with WWII or the subsequent Cold War. Or both.
The story of the two Frankfurts
Frankfurt an der Oder – “Frankfurt on the Oder River” – is a small city. Poland is just across the bridge, reachable on foot in 10 minutes. This is part of the famous Oder-Neisse border between former East Germany and Poland, long a serious bone of contention both within Germany and between Germany and Poland. This was finally settled by Chancellor Willy Brandt’s initiative to officially recognize this border in 1970.
We visited Frankfurt an der Oder to see the European Viadrina University. The staff there were super friendly and the curriculum international. European, as it would be. It is fitting that a university located directly at this controversial border is dedicated to strengthening Europe. After we left the university, I stood on the nearby riverbank and looked across at Poland on the other side, trying to imagine how this border could have ever been a flashpoint. It seemed innocuous to me, with the Oder River slowly snaking past. There wasn’t much going on.
Now Ukrainians are thronging across this Polish-German crossing. Both the Poles and the Germans here have vivid memories of repression and are welcoming these new refugees with open arms.
The other Frankfurt is Frankfurt am Main – “Frankfurt on the Main River” – whose university we also paid a visit to. This is a much bigger city and it’s also the one you usually hear about on the news. It had a very American-looking campus for my eyes. I would have felt very comfortable studying there. But my daughter felt otherwise.
Frankfurt is not only the financial capital of Germany but also the home of the European Central Bank. To call it the financial heart of the EU would not be an exaggeration. Germany insisted on having this important institution on its territory. Centuries ago, Frankfurt also played a role in Bavaria’s history as the seat of coronation.
This city also served as a hub for receiving refugees in the 1990s following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ensuing collapse of Eastern bloc countries. This included not just East Germans, but also Volga Germans from the former Soviet Union and Transylvanian-Saxon and Banat-Swabian Germans from Romania. After arriving, refugees then fanned out to other German cities.
Now, Frankfurt is receiving Ukrainians, too.
Our visit to the University of Potsdam was highlighted by the beautiful Sans Souci Palace, a name that means “no worries” in French. Frederick the Great built this palace, which was his favorite. Its park now harbors many university buildings. Neither Frederick nor the city had a life of no worries; the city gives its name to the Potsdam Conference, site of the final meeting of the Allies to decide the fate of Germany post-WWII. They couldn’t meet in Berlin, the capital, because all suitable buildings had been destroyed by bombs.
We climbed the stairs of the Neues Palais, the New Palace, to meet with a possible future professor, who was so convincing that my daughter opted to study here. She’s also partial to Baroque buildings and creaky wooden stairs. “New” for this palace means it was built in 1763, a time when my countrymen in the U.S. were still milling about trying to decide if they should become independent. Another university building houses the skeleton of Frederick the Great’s favorite horse, which, logically speaking, is also older than my country.
The Orangerie (yes, King Frederick copied this from Versailles) is another major building of Sans Souci Palace. It has now been converted into a center for Ukrainian refugees.
One university we visited was very close by, in Augsburg. This charming city is only 30 minutes by train from Munich. Here is where an East German friend went to university after escaping to the West, only to discover that she was expected to speak fluent English. But East German secondary schools taught Russian. She spent much of her time at university flipping through dictionaries just to understand the material, on top of having to actually learn it.
This is the city where the Peace of Augsburg was reached in 1555 by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, in part because of Martin Luther’s agitation. Years later, it was the center of Messerschmitt airplane production in WWII. The Allies visited it accordingly with their bombers, but the city reconstructed much of its Middle Age charm in the following decades.
The Town Hall of Augsburg, originally built with the intention of becoming the permanent seat of the Holy Roman Empire, is now flying the flag of Ukraine. This city, too, is welcoming refugees.
We paid only a brief visit to the Humboldt University of Berlin and left quickly. It was very large and imposing.
A special kind of museum in Berlin just opened its doors a few months ago. It grapples with a subject dating from WWII so controversial that no agreement could be reached any sooner on exactly which topics should be dealt with – or how.
This is the Dokumentationszentrum für Flucht, Vertreibung und Versöhnung – the Documentation Center for Flight, Exile and Reconciliation. The German word Vertreibung, meaning to be exiled, is extremely fraught. It brings to mind the 12 to 14 million ethnic Germans who were forced to resettle in West Germany during and following WWII both by the advancing Red Army and at the behest of the remaining Allied powers. This resettlement is the main subject of the museum’s exhibits, alongside a general history of exile in the world.
During our visit, the guide asked if anyone in our group of 12 – all Germans – had a personal history of exile in their family. Two hands went up. They were descendants of some of these exiled Germans. In this case, with roots in the Sudetenland and Silesia, located in the Czech Republic and Poland, respectively.
How ironic – and tragic – that just months after this museum opened, hostilities in Ukraine would unleash the largest flood of war refugees in Europe since World War II, the war that triggered the exodus of refugees documented in this very place.
It took 70 years to reach a point where the controversy and trauma surrounding exiled Germans and refugees had subsided sufficiently to open this museum. Watching the footage of Ukraine being bombed and the resulting outpouring of refugees – two million as of this writing – I shudder to think of how many years it will take to heal the damage being done.
And this is only the beginning.