How do you make sense of a country’s politics?

I spent a few days this New Year in Berlin with my family, seeing the sights and eating the food and avoiding the fireworks.

It’s a fabulous city, for so many reasons, not least because the last time I was there was when I interrailed around Europe in 1992 and it’s changed a bit.

But you don’t care about my holidays, I assume. You’re here for the question in the title.

Since there was only the one person in the group who’d studied German history at university and he “kept using his teaching voice” [fine. whatever.], we decided it would be good to sample some of the numerous museums in the city, including the DDR Museum.

This is a private venture, telling people about the life and nature of East Germany.

Aside from the obligatory Trabant and a bit of Wall, that included a mocked-up flat, multimedia resources and – oddly – a diorama of nude sunbathers on the Baltic coast.

It’s maybe best summarised by the fridge magnets in the shop (pictured above): the reduction of forty year’s to a set of atomised images and memories, packaged for your convenience.

We all found it underwhelming. Me because it left out so much; everyone else because they didn’t know how it fitted together at all.

And this is a frequent problem when teaching comparative politics, both in strictly comparative terms and when doing the “politics of X” course. Where do you start? Where do you go? How do you hang it all together?

Berlin was a great place to ponder this, since there is not simply the East Germany element, but also the Nazi period, the Holocaust, Prussia and – too easily forgotten – contemporary German politics. There is an awfully large amount of stuff here, all connected and all entangled.

To sit in the Bundestag, in the remodelled shell of the Reichstag, next to the Brandenburg Gate, is precisely to make your past part of your present and any attempt to build students’ understanding of the dynamics of power today has to take that into account.

It would be trite to suggest that we all have to live in Berlin for an extended period to really to inside that complex: most of us don’t have the time and those that do still have to work out how to share that with those who don’t, so the problem remains.

As much as a city contains multitudes of spaces and sights to trigger reflection, maybe we come back to people as a way into it all.

It’s just because so much has happened there in such a compressed time period that we risk missing out the way in what individuals experience events that we tend to think of as seperate.

This was underlined to me by my choice of reading when I got back home.

“Tunnel 29” is a podcast and book by the BBC’s Helena Merriman, telling the story of a man who escapes East Berlin soon after the Wall goes up in 1961, then tunnels back to rescue friends and family.

But his childhood is shaped by fleeing eastern Germany in the face of the Red Army in 1945, just as his contemporary reflections are coloured by the fall of the Wall in 1989 and Germany unification.

His experience might be extreme, but it is also unexceptional in that millions of Germany lived through a ‘then’ before the ‘now’ of today.

Taking students into that swirling miasma is part of enabling them to better appreciate the nature of what they study.

And if you do get to Berlin, then the one thing I will totally recommend is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, because it very viscerally communicates the way one can suddenly be lost in a way that speaks louder than any diorama.