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Occupy Berlin: In the Shadow of the Reichstag

Occupy Berlin, in front of the Reichstag, October 15, 2011. (Photo: Brainbitch)

Part of the Series

I was not going to write a Solutions column this week because I am on vacation in Europe. However, I came upon a group that is working to find solutions as a volatile Europe tries to bail out their banks and their economies. It has a special significance because of the symbolism of where the rally was held, so I had to write about it.

I was in Berlin for a few days and, on Sunday, decided to do my favorite walk from the Berlin Dom (largest church) up the Unter den Linden Boulevard to the Brandenburg Gate. I then turned to see the famous German Reichstag that survived a fire that many believe Hitler set to grab power. It survived intensive damage in World War II, the Berlin Wall ran right behind it, and it regained its prominence as a symbol of a united and free Germany. I visited East Berlin for the first time in 1964, when I was ten years old, and many of the beautiful buildings still in East Germany such as the Opera House and the Brandenburg Gate still showed the smoky ravages of World War II. The Berlin Wall was ugly and terrifying and I remember an American guard telling us that a person had been shot a few weeks earlier in the barbwire trying to escape. It was quite a lesson of war and tyranny for a ten-year-old.

When I visited Berlin again in 1987, the Berlin Wall was still up, and I attended an international conference for young Western leaders in the Reichstag. The large hall where the conference was held had a very long curtain covering the row of windows in the front of the hall. After the speakers had finished and we broke into small groups for discussion, the curtains were pulled back to reveal the Berlin Wall that was just yards from the back of the Reichstag. The room fell silent as the group pondered the lack of freedom and the stench of tyranny just yards from where we stood, and I am sure that few in that room would have guessed that that wall would fall in their lifetimes, within two years.

SolutionsBefore now, my last visit to Berlin was in 2007. Even though the Berlin Wall had fallen in 1989, I had my celebration and rejoicing moments as I walked through the Brandenburg Gate for the first time and marveled at the beauty and culture that had been restored from the ugliness of World War II and the scar of the Berlin Wall. Germany had gone on to become one of the more peaceful nations on earth and turned its energy into becoming one of the most prosperous nations in Europe. It was as liberating moment for me of the triumph over wars as the past trips had been sobering over the effects of tyranny. It was a poignant moment when I also saw that the large Holocaust monument had been built near where Hitler’s bunker use to be.

Little did I know at that visit I would, in 2008, be watching on television while 250,000 Germans were wildly cheering a black American presidential candidate when he spoke in the Tiergarten, Berlin’s Central Park near the Reichstag. This also happened within a mile or so of where Hitler died. What would he have thought of his Germany, and would any of us believed that all of this could happen in our lifetimes during the cold war?

So, I thought that nothing could match the impact of my previous trips to Berlin, but as I turned the corner to walk to the Reichstag, I heard someone yell, “Mike check!” and then heard a crowd of around 200 people chanting in a large circle in front of the Reichstag. I instantly knew that I had found Occupy Berlin.

When I had arrived in Berlin late Saturday afternoon, I saw the remnants of the large march that had taken place in Berlin and around the world and also had heard that the police moved in with force when the demonstrators had tried to erect tents in front of the Reichstag for the occupation. But as I walked up to the circle, the police were standing passively in the background and not interfering with the rally. Based on the news reports that I had heard the previous day, I assumed they were chastened and realized that youthful and exuberant Berlin didn’t like what it saw the day before.

The first thing that struck me as I listened at the edge of the crowd was how well the human microphone worked. Used in the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York because they were not allowed to have a sound system, the speaker says a few words and pauses as the crowd repeats it so that everyone can hear. Besides being effective, the speaker has to think about what he is saying, the crowd has to listen to it carefully to repeat it and repeating it makes the crowd remember it more. I videotaped some of the discussion with my iPhone and you can view it below. Unfortunately, my German is lousy and I could only understand about every third word. But as I was filming the circle, I realized that I was also seeing the Reichstag in the background, as these mostly young Germans were discussing the economic tyranny that had befallen the US and Europe. I could also tell that it was a thoughtful and polite group of people, who made sure that everyone had a chance to speak and that everyone could hear. If you wanted to speak, you stood up and said, “Mike check” and began to use the human microphone. It was compelling even though I didn’t understand what most of them were saying.

I was very lucky that one of the demonstrators (thanks Jovo!) agreed to translate my video so I could tell what the speakers were saying. Amazingly, I found out that they were discussing exactly what I was thinking about – that they wanted to stay in front of the Reichstag while the police were suggesting that they move to another part of the park and break up the group into smaller sections. They decided that it was too important to give up the symbolism of where they were and made sure that the cameras would show that the group was in front of this building that had survived so much political turmoil.

Impulsively, I stood up to speak and said, “Mike check!” They were very gracious when I told that I was an American and had to speak English because “meine Deutsch ist nicht gut.” I told them that I was a journalist from a web news site called and was taken aback when about 15 or 20 of the people I could directly see from the crowd yelled, “JA!” and waved their hands to indicate that they knew about Truthout. I told them that Truthout was one of the first news sources to write about Occupy Wall Street and that I was very proud to be at their rally as the movement went international. I also told them how important it was that this rally was in front of the Reichstag, once a symbol of tyranny, and now we had to fight a new type of economic tyranny. This last comment drew a big response. (This was before I knew they were talking about that same subject and maybe I subconsciously had figured out what they were saying.)

It was another Berlin moment I will never forget. But I wanted the Truthout readers to know that this group was focused, respectful to everyone and determined to stake their claim in this new movement. Considering that this movement began little more than a month ago, it was remarkable that the formula set up by Occupy Wall Street translated so well to another country and another group.

But this day full of symbolism was not done for me. After I finished speaking, a young Iranian man approached me to talk. He was a Truthout reader and was very excited that I was there. He was, from a very young age, a journalist/blogger in Iran who wrote about the reform movement. In 2007, the Iranian police raided his flat and took all his writings and his computer and arrested him. He was kept in solitary confinement in the notorious Section 209 of Evin Prison, which is run by the Ministry of Intelligence, for two months. He was interrogated almost every day. They demanded that he pay a large bail, but his parents could not come up with the money. Finally, the bail was lowered and he was released. He knew that he could not get a fair trial and escaped to Germany with the help of a German reporter organization. He keeps up with his contacts in Iran and had a very good understanding of the oppression going on in Iran and the constant attempts to crush any movements to free that country of its tyranny.

We talked about how, several days ago, the Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol said that because of the recent incident of an alleged Iranian assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador, that the US had an “engraved invitation” to use force in Iran. Ironically, this young journalist told me the military faction inside of Iran is trying to propagate war against the US as a distraction to its internal problems and disrupt any more attempts of an Iranian “Arab Spring.” I also met with this young journalist the next day and I am determined that Truthout readers and others hear much of the wisdom that this young man had to offer. He has been helped in Germany, but they aren’t as interested or challenged with what is going on in Iran, so I plan to see if his voice can be heard in the US. He has much to offer and has already paid a big price for his fight against his country’s tyranny.

So, what started out as a vacation ended as another inspirational moment for me in Berlin. As an investigative journalist who has exposed contractor fraud in the federal government for over 30 years, especially in the Department of Defense, I need to see that oppression and tyranny can be overcome if we keep working at it. This new wave of work will take time and effort, but there is a new generation determined to keep the world’s financial systems and governments from catering only to the people who rob national governments of the resources needed by our societies to prosper.

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