Tending to the wounded on Unter den Linden
Marline Otte, Associate Professor of History and Tulane’s resident expert on Modern Germany, is excited to bring her teaching to Berlin this summer through the Honors Summer Program. Her class, entitled “Imagining Berlin: Photography and the Making of a Metropolis,” will draw on the unique resources and context of the city in which it will be taught. Many of the themes of the course will re-appear, in slightly different ways, in a new Honors first-year seminar Professor Otte is teaching in the Fall.
Professor Otte says she is pleased that there is now a Tulane-approved summer program in Berlin. The city is unique, marrying “tension and conflict in every place.” Her own great grandfather designed parts of it as an architect, although much of his work has been destroyed by the onslaught of history. Professor Otte spends almost every summer there, conducting research in historical archives and debating with myriad colleagues who descend on the city each year for a kind of “informal convention of like-minded people.” To be able to experience all of this and meanwhile introduce the city to Tulane students is a truly fun opportunity—an intersection of her life in the US and in Germany.
The central idea of Professor Otte’s summer course is that the development of the medium of photography paralleled the rise of Berlin as a modern metropolis. Photography was invented in 1839, and it was in the following decades that Berlin really began to grow in earnest. In 1871, Germany became a unified nation for the first-time, with the ascendant Berlin as its capital.
Since then the city has been built, re-built, designed, re-designed, divided and re-unified again. Photography has been a constant thread throughout this checkered history. As a medium, it is inextricably linked to the city’s splendor and its trauma, its resistance and its repression, its ambition and its failure. For this class, Berlin is not just a city; it is a historical site to be excavated by peeling away layers of the past.
Berlin will also be a real, observable place for the students in the Honors Summer Program. Sites will not just be discussed in abstract in the classroom; they will be visited and explored in person. Professor Otte’s syllabus is built around using the context and resources of the city to guide learning. Students will visit the German parliament, where internal walls still display the graffiti left by Russian soldiers in May 1945, the Brandenburg Gate, which has been transformed from a symbol of German division to one of German unity in the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Holocaust Memorial, which mourns the loss of the six million Jews murdered by the German National Socialist Regime.
Some of Berlin’s historical sites also carry a personal significance for Professor Otte. Growing up in democratic West Germany, she nevertheless had family in the East, whom she visited through the Friedrichstrasse train station in central Berlin. The station was one of the few places in divided Germany where one could pass across the Iron Curtain, if only briefly. Part of Friedrichstrasse is now home to a small exhibit on life in the communist East entitled “Tränenpalast,” which was the colloquial name given to the station during the years of division. It references the pain of divided families, translating directly to “palace of tears.”
Professor Otte’s Honors first-year seminar in the Fall will touch on many of the same themes, though with less of a geographic focus. Entitled “Memory and Trauma,” it will look at historical remembrance in a number of locations around the world. It will, of course, touch on Germany, where confrontation with historical trauma is an extremely salient topic. As Professor Otte puts it, “it is impossible to be a modern Germanist and not be interested in remembrance of trauma.”
However, the course will also look at remembrance of earthquakes in Italy and civil wars in Spain, former Yugoslavia, and, naturally, the United States. Discussion of Confederate monuments in this very city, and elsewhere across the country, will bring the concepts home for students. The fundamental question will be how a society should orient itself in relation to a dark history. This question, though always relevant, has particular urgency in this current moment. “We are involved, whether or not we are conscious of it, in a massive debate on the importance and nature of historical memory,” Professor Otte says.
The physical manifestation of memory can be looked at from many different angles, and so Professor Otte anticipates a lively interdisciplinary discussion. Insights from architecture, psychology, history, politics, and sociology, among other disciplines, are key to debates. With the small class size that comes with an Honors seminar, she will be able to develop an atmosphere of “true intellectual exchange,” where students learn from each other and come to see issues from new perspectives. Such is the spirit of the Honors Program.
All faculty interviewed recommend a book that they find compelling and important.
For students who want to “understand Germany,” Professor Otte recommends W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction, a collection of essays about the Second World War and German consciousness. She also recommends Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, which is a personal account of Orwell’s experience fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Both authors are “inspiring intellects,” whose works incorporate vital themes.