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Barbed wire in Berlin

September 11th, 2017

By Leia Lawrence

NORTH NEWTON, KAN – Amidst a strained political and social climate that has again illuminated the importance of German-American relations, I traveled with seven other Bethel College students and Bethel German professor, Merle Schlabaugh, to Germany as part of a January interterm course on Language and Culture. While each of the cities we visited gave us some idea of this evolving dynamic, our visit to the American Embassy's cultural branch in Berlin offered the most poignant and sobering symbol of the current frustrated connection between nations. Along Berlin's boulevard of embassies, the U.S. embassy was the only one barricaded. Concrete blocks diverted traffic away from the front. Armed guards stationed access points as far as a block away. The smaller branches, like the one we visited, added barbed wire and chain-link fences to these measures. Security cameras were everywhere. No one entered without a passport and a thorough weapons check. All personal cameras, but one, were locked away. We were instructed that no photos of the facility were to be taken.

Yet, here was a place that encouraged cultural exchange and learning—a place that, in the past, had opened its doors to everyone interested in the intersection of American and German history and culture. Certainly, we took advantage of this function as much as we could, asking about our weak dollar and their strong Euro, Germany's political system in comparison to ours, the country's economy, its role in the European Union, its cultural peculiarities and attractions.

But the atmosphere of openness, so important to the process of exchange, was gone, and had been for some time. This was something that even the two Embassy staff with whom we met had difficulty justifying. Three times during our visit to the Embassy, different speakers wryly noted that the room in which we met had lost its title as "library" because people no longer used the books lining the many shelves. Things, they said, had changed.

The barricades on the outside seemed a manifestation of the larger atmosphere of guardedness on the inside. When we asked how the Embassy had responded to the anti-war demonstrations, official political statements of dissent, and the general populous' disapproval of U.S. foreign policy, our speakers were quick to note that the goals of the Embassy were directly linked to the goals of the current U.S. political administration. All discussion was aimed at explaining, not mediating.

One speaker did hint that, within the Embassy, there were some who disagreed with U.S. military aggression in Iraq, as well as other policies, but professionally were obligated to support and speak for the U.S. current administration. Personal opinions were strictly relegated to private life.

Despite professional adherence to current American political ideology, however, those working in the Embassy are certainly not ignorant of Germany and its response to the United States. Half of the staff, in fact, are German citizens. Almost all positions require that a German and American work in tandem. It is this intimate, inside knowledge of the culture flowing back and forth that makes Embassy operations possible. German staff often come into positions having already built up networks and resource bases, helpful to the Americans, who generally have few connections. The Germans help maintain organizational continuity by remaining in their positions for longer periods of time than the Americans. Because of this lower turnover rate, the Embassy maintains an efficient and experienced staff that is able to train new members.

At the end of our meeting, we shook hands and walked out the doors in a fraction of the time it took us to walk in. The front guard escorted us through the barbed-wire gate, and we hopped on the nearest double-decker bus headed east toward the remnants of another barricade.

Certainly, our group experienced much outside the Embassy and its sphere of American influence: visiting around the dinner table with a German-Mennonite family; shuffling through a palace in oversized slippers; lighting a candle in a dark cathedral; tasting sauerkraut for the first time; running into the waves of the North Sea; hiking and skiing the Alps; flying past garden-hut villages on the Inter-City Express train at 150 mph; watching Rossini's "Cinderella" from the very highest seats in the opera house; discovering an addiction to apple strudel; walking the same streets as Brahms, Mozart, Goethe, Mann, Luther, Bonhoeffer, and Hitler; sleeping soundly every night beneath down comforters.

In these ways we continue and expand the tradition of connection between cultures, making ourselves part of the nature of the relationship.

Students in the course were Leia Lawrence, Goessel; Michael McKitrick, Brandon, Fla.; David Goering, Hesston; Mychal Thompson, San Antonio, Texas; Matt Kaiser, Inman; Johann Reimer, Reedley, Calif.; Matthew K. Steinmetz, Bluffton, Ohio; and Braden Hiebner, Henderson, Neb.

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