The glass beehive on top of the Reichstag building.

As my wife and I were flying into Berlin, I experienced a small wave of panic. What had I gotten us into? Was this going to be boring? What was there to do here, really? My initial pitch for Berlin as a vacation destination was that I wanted to go because of “all the history.” That sounded great and persuasive, in a vague way, sitting in Minneapolis. But now that we were about to arrive and spend a week in a foreign city where we didn’t speak the language, what did it actually mean? A week of looking at historic-site plaques? Was this going to be boring and dumb?

Happily, my little moment of freakout was entirely misplaced, and my initial instincts were right on point. Berlin isn’t a city with a lot of obvious, high-profile capital-letter Tourist Attractions; but it’s something much better: a fascinating, beautiful place where the weight of history is indeed so present and prevalent that if you’re interested in it at all, you can’t help but feel like you’re swimming in it.

I’ve been obsessed with World War II since I was 7, when I stumbled across a series of Time-Life books about the war, full of arresting, graphic photos, that my parents had left sitting around (my parents did a spectacularly bad job of shielding me from age-inappropriate material when I was a kid). My obsession with the cold war started about a year later, when my 3rd grade teacher rhapsodized proudly to my class about how our city of Blair, Nebraska, being just up the road from Strategic Air Command HQ in Omaha, would be one of the first Soviet targets when the missiles flew.

These obsessions were the initial impetus for wanting to see Berlin. My last-minute panic was based on a fear that neither the cold war or World War II lent themselves to spaces that made for fun vacation visits. My salvation was that this didn’t matter when the fabric of the entire city is visibly and irreparably altered by events. I can’t say that it’s fun to stand in the Tiergarten and read a plaque about how the trees surrounding you were all completely deforested by air bombardment and by Soviet troops advancing over the ground you’re standing on, or to stand in front of your hotel and look at the memorial cobbles commemorating Holocaust victims who once lived there; but it’s affecting and awe-inspiring in a way that transcends fun. It hits you on a different, deeper frequency. It drives home the way in which you are part of a larger continuum of human experience.

The Tiergarten in May 1945; lovely place for a stroll. Note the ruined Reichstag building in the background.

It’s one thing to walk into a museum and look at art and artifacts. It’s another thing entirely to see bullet holes in the interior wall of that museum and realize that what you’re looking at is evidence that there was a firefight in this building between people trying to take the building’s contents and people trying futilely to defend them. Again, that’s not fun, but it’s profound and affecting on an entirely different emotional spectrum.

(And about that fight: the scene I’m describing here is in the Neues Museum, which is largely full of Egyptian artifacts looted from Egypt by Prussian archaeologists in the 19th century; the top few floors, though, are European objects. Several gallery labels and signs on those floors pointedly mention that objects formerly on display here were looted by Soviet soldiers, taken to Moscow, and never returned. The irony of this kind of complaint in this kind of building is exactly what makes the historical experience of Berlin so mesmerizing.)

Consider this: in central Berlin, on land that was once part of the Berlin Wall and its “death strip,” is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, an immersive, block-wide labyrinth of pillars that is one of the most viscerally affecting memorials I’ve ever experienced. On a block adjacent to this memorial is the nondescript parking lot that is the former site of the bunker where Hitler killed himself and was cremated. Running between these two blocks is a street named after Hannah Arendt. The historical resonances of Berlin come in a very strong, undiluted form.

History is a river. Things happen, and subsequent things downstream are driven by what happened previously. Hitler hijacked the German political system, started a war and conducted genocide, and Berlin was occupied and nearly leveled as a result; and then, downstream from that, the occupying forces eventually split the city in half, traumatizing the city with an unnatural internal boundary for half a century. That trauma, and the subsequent jubilation and rebirth, are as plain to see in Berlin as the immediate effects of the war. In place names (Rosa Luxemberg Platz, Marx-Engels Platz), architectural styles, and even traffic signage, the old separation between west and east is still plain to see if you bother to look for it. And that’s ignoring the hunks of the wall itself that have been left up as commemorations or memorials or just plain tourist attractions.

I can’t think of any American cities that have left me this strongly with the sense of standing amid the structure of history. The closest I’ve come is the southern end of Manhattan. New Orleans probably can provide the same effect if you walk around with your eyes open in the right way. I haven’t been to Boston, but I’m sure it has some amount of resonance. But overall, American cities operate under a couple of different conditions: no American city has undergone repeated traumas as massive as Berlin, and the American mode of operation is to march stridently away from the past, not to acknowledge it. You’ll find precious few memorial cobbles scattered around American cities to commemorate the victims of slavery or the Native American genocide. And as far as that goes, I’m painfully aware of my own white middle-class nature here; when I say that “no American city has undergone repeated traumas as massive as Berlin,” I recognize that, say, Dakota people currently living in Minneapolis no doubt have an extremely different viewpoint on that matter.

To my perception, at least, the everyday culture of 2019 Berlin had a laid-back, free-spirited vibe that I found immensely refreshing. In all kinds of little ways, from casualness with dogs to willingness to abruptly repurpose old buildings to surprisingly low levels of fussiness (and disclaimer paperwork). In the aggregate, this seems to me to add up to a much greater tolerance for uncertainty and risk in Berlin than one finds in litigious, fear-dominated America. Maybe that’s just the German national character now, or at least the Berlin civic character. But maybe it has something to do with living in a city that’s been through several different flavors of hell within living memory, much of it self-inflicted, and then undergone a rebirth. After all you’ve been through, all of which you still viscerally feel just walking down the street, why worry about whether people on a bike tour are wearing helmets? What’s the worst that could happen?

In 1933, a fire gutted the Reichstag building, giving Hitler the political opportunity to consolidate power and bring the Weimar Republic era to a formal close. In 1945, the shell of the Reichstag building served as one of the final redoubts for German soldiers defending the city, and the central objective for Soviet soldiers fighting through the Tiergarten and across the river Spree. After Germany reunified, the building was rehabilitated to serve as the seat of the new German parliament. To symbolize the new era of governmental transparency, the Reichstag’s original 19th-century dome was replaced with a large glass beehive lined with spiraling walkways, from which one can climb up and look out at the city, or down at the legislative chamber directly below. The vagaries of trip scheduling dictated that we could only get in to climb the beehive at 9:45 on the last night of our time in Berlin, so we visited it on a clear, slightly chilly spring night. It is by far the most beautiful and aesthetically powerful governmental building I’ve ever been in, so emotionally affective that even the presence of an enormous group of rowdy Italian teens wasn’t enough to stop it from being wonderful, standing there at a focal point where history happened and where the future is created, staring out at the rest of the city. It turns out that Berlin does indeed have some world-class tourist attractions.

Suppose you’re a painter, and you want capture a realistic scene of two men playing chess in a parlor. How would you do it? Most people, I think, would sit in the room and paint what they saw. Or, depending on their era, maybe they’d work from a photograph. A very meticulous artist might pencil out  couple of single-point perspective lines to guide the recession of the room’s furniture. Vanishingly few artists would use a separate sheet of paper to create a 3-dimensional gridded space where everything in the room was geometrically plotted out with each object considered as its own individual study. But this is exactly what Thomas Eakins did.

Eakins’ perspective workup for The Chess Players

The Chess Players, Thomas Eakins

There’s a decent chance your reaction is: Thomas Who? Eakins is an odd case, a man considered one of the leading American painters of the back half of the 19th century who has slowly slid into something that isn’t quite obscurity but is pretty far from household-name status. You’ve probably heard of the people considered his peers at the time: Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, James McNeil Whistler, (kinda) Mary Cassatt. A combination of scandals (Eakins was heavily involved in art education, and was involved in scandals revolving around nude models and students, and it’s a dense thicket that’s almost impossible to judge from 130 years out without getting lost in the gap between then-contemporary and current social mores; last time I looked, his wikipedia page was dominated by speculation about his sexual preference), changing tastes, and the random drift of history have shunted him off to the side. But in his day, Eakins was a big deal, renowned as a new kind of big-brained artist.

Eakins was a creature of his time. He worked during a period of unprecedented exuberance about the progress of science. He brought that spirit into his artistic practice, pursuing representational realism through a combination of techniques derived from science and mathematics. His approach was powerful but flawed, with inconsistencies that led to visual paradoxes; similar paradoxes lurked around the edges of the very science world that inspired him.

Eakins’ belief that perfect representation of reality could be attained in painting through advanced science-based technique was a manifestation of a mode of thought pervasive in late 19th-century American and European intellectual circles, an idea that science and knowledge had reached a summit. His social position in the academic elite of Philadelphia put him in contact with scientists, artists, and thinkers whose output presents a similarly teleological outlook. He basically soaked up their hubris. And this isn’t something I can claim to prove, but I’d guess that the passing of that particular scientific worldview has something to do with the slow drift of Eakins into semi-obscurity.

More »

One of the recurring themes of my adult life has been my getting the itch to go back and take a look at some book or movie or album that I loved when I was younger but haven’t re-engaged with for a while. The vast majority of the time, I walk away from the revisit shaking my head and telling myself that hey, it’s no crime to have liked something bad or silly when you were younger.

So, recently I got the revisit urge for Lord of the Rings. I was pretty sure I knew how this was going to play out; I hadn’t read Tolkien since 2002, and I did vaguely remember not digging it at the last go-round. Which had been a bummer- these were foundational books to me in the 80s and 90s, but my turn-of-the-century reaction had been that the books were humorless, and trite, and just generally kind of bad.

A few things have happened to me since 2002, though. Big-picture, I’ve lived an adult life, with attendant ups and downs. More directly relevant, I’ve gained a historical consciousness, reading a ton of history (both cultural and political) and particularly boning up on World Wars 1 and 2.

And that’s the key. While I think there’s a lot of valid criticism that can be aimed at Lord of the Rings, I absolutely loved it on this reread, and a great deal of that love is based on my fascination with the way that Tolkien’s experience in World War 1 is smeared onto every page of the book (even beyond the physical descriptions of places around Mordor sounding almost word-for-word like descriptions of Western Front battlefields). Tolkien was at the Somme, arguably the most disastrous and harrowing British military experience of the 20th century. As he points out in the preface to The Fellowship of the Ring, by 1919, most of his close friends were dead. British tactics at the Somme were, essentially, to hop up out of somewhat-safe trenches in waves, charging into a maze of barbed wire covered by German machine guns. You’d watch the wave ahead of yours go over the top and get cut to pieces. And then the officers would blow their whistles and your wave would go. Tolkien survived the war because a serious illness brought on by lice bites took him off of the firing line. But he saw a lot of people he knew die. And, as a junior officer in WW1 infantry, he was trained to order men to immediate, useless deaths and display leadership by joining them.

More »

goebenI’m about halfway through Barbara Tuchman’s exceedingly excellent The Guns of August; World War I had always been a gap in my 20th century history, and I’ve always heard good things about the book. I’m really happy to say that it justifies the hype. It’s fascinating and – weirdly – hilarious. The more I read, the stronger my impression that Europe in 1914 was under the collective rule of one of the biggest gang of boobs in history, and that if World War I didn’t have such a horrible body count associated with it, it would rank as one of the great comedic acts of mankind.

Consider the case of the German battleship Goeben and her companion, the cruiser Breslau.

At the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, Goeben and Breslau were stationed in the Mediterranean. Shit hits the fan. War breaks out. Because of a network of pacts, you abruptly have a situation where noted world powerhouse Serbia is allied with Russia who’s allied with France who’s allied with England, opposing Austria-Hungary and their allies the Germans. The Ottoman Empire is neutral as things start out. They don’t like the Russians much, but they have a longstanding relationship with England, and there are a lot of German sympathizers in the Turkish military. They could go either way. And they’re strategically important, since all of the good warm-water ports supplying Russia depend on shipping traffic through the Dardanelles.

So. The Ottomans, a crucial swing state that could go either way. What do the British do to win them over? They seize a couple of completed battleships that they’d been building for the Ottomans. Ace diplomacy there.
More »

An idea I co-developed with Chad Cook. You’d better believe that if I ever somehow get to fuck-you money status, I’ll be buying an old Charger and making this happen.

(this originally ran on a now-defunct site called Modern Humorist)

by Keith Pille

Feedback on Midterm Paper
US History, 10th Grade

Richard:

I find it very painful to say this, but your midterm project is unsatisfactory in virtually every way an academic paper can be. I can only hope that this is a one-time occurrence and not a sign of deeper problems that could compromise what promises to be a fine scholarly career.

I must say that it was rather unorthodox to open your paper with what I can only characterize as a personal attack on me and my so-called “revisionist history.” While I grant you it is academically healthy to question the veracity of the information you are given in your textbooks, it is hardly constructive to couple your claims with crude statements about my family life, moral character, and mental capacities. I did my best to prevent my evaluation of your work from being colored by your opening remarks. More »