„What does she mean by a ‚Word Sight‘?“ you may ask yourself. As I wrote about last week, and in my About me, and probably in a gazillion other posts as well, I have a thing for language. Now you may think that is true for any writer, but I really don’t think that is the case to just quite my degree, because I haven’t met many people that share my obsession of inscriptions, epitaphs, or really any other kind of writing in the public sphere. And that when it is so ubiquitious on buildings, monuments, pavements and statues, and in many other places! Couchsurfing hosts have suffered from my incessively nagging questions about what anyting written on any kind of surface from the parliament building to a banknote in foreign currency means. Meanwhile, I cannot really understand how anyone would not desperately want to know the meaning of those words.
In this spirit, I have something that I want to introduce you to today. Let me take you on a very quick walk through Mitte.
The Reichstag building must surely be on your itinerary when you come to Berlin. It has a long history that is intertwined with the history of the entire country. This was where Germany (that is, back then it was Prussia) was first declared a republic in 1918. Also, the dome of the building caught fire in 1933 under unknown circumstances, and the Nazis used this incident as pretense to fuel antisemitism by blaming it on the Jews. After 1945, the building was unused and left to decay until reunification. Today it is once more the place where the German parliament meets – a democratic one.
When you face the building, the large inscription above the front gates cannot be missed. In capital letters it says DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE, which means „For the German People“. The inscription was put there in 1916, not very much to the liking of the Prussian king who found it to be too democratic a gesture. Today, I personally know quite a few people who dislike the inscription for very opposite reasons: They think it sounds nationalistic, and that it should be removed.
Granted, the German word Volk, people, has been connotated in all the wrong ways during national socialism. It can carry a weird undertone when used in the wrong context, and for some people, the wrong context already is in the word deutsch, German. To me, however, this inscription on the Reichstag building is not the wrong context. I like the idea that a member of parliament would be reminded when entering the building that they are there as a representative of the German population, to work for the people in this country, and not solely for power, fame or money. To me, these three words are still a reinforcement of the democracy we are lucky enough to live in today. Looking at the historical facts about the place I sketched out above, I feel very aware of the fact that democracy is not to be taken for granted.
There is a second „word sight“ close by that I am sure many tourists overlook, and that is quite in keeping with the theme of reinforcing German democracy in the public sphere using words. When you pass by the Reichstag on the left side in the direction of the Spree River and walk toward Friedrichstraße station along the so called Reichstagsufer, you will soon notice a glass wall with writing on it to your right. Behind it is the Jakob-Kaiser-Haus, the biggest German parliament building holding offices.
What is written on this glass wall, easily overlooked, are the first 19 articles of the German constitution – althoughthe German constitution is not called „Constitution“, but Grundgesetz, „Basic Law“. When the Federal Republic passed it in 1949, the idea was that one day the German Democratic Republic would be part of Germany again, and a constitution for the entire country would only be discussed then.
After reunification, the Grundgesetz just stuck and we still don’t have a law that is called the Constitution. I kind of like Grundgesetz. Because that is what it is, it is the most basic law that we have, it settles our very basic rights.
I can never restrain a feeling of being in the presence of something grand when I come to the place where it is written down. Laugh at me all you want, but I think these words, be they technical as they may, be they nothing but a dry and dusty law, are of sublime beauty. When you come from the Reichstag building, you start by article 19. The further up front you go, the more basic the content of the articles. §5 Freedom of Speech and Press. §4 Freedom of Religion. §3 Equality before the Law for all People. §2 Right to self-development and personal freedom. And finally, my favorite, §1:
Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar. Sie zu achten und zu schützen ist Verpflichtung aller staatlichen Gewalt.
In English that means:
Human dignity is inviolable. To respect it and protect it is the duty of all governmental authority.
And isn’t this what it all comes down to – that we are all human beings and that we all have a dignity that deserves to be protected? Isn’t that the essence of democracy, that we all deserve equal treatment and should all have equal rights and opportunities, and that the government we choose is a means to that end of protecting our rights and opportunities so that we can live a life worth living? I may curse politicians at times, I may have a very critical view of what is happening in this country – but the basic principles are the right ones, and this place states that for the whole world to see.