Editor's note: This is the third in a series of seven collaborative reflections by students and faculty in the Honors College at Southern Oregon University (SOU) participating in the The Democracy Project (DP), a comprehensive international examination of democracy that includes its historical evolution, the role of minority groups, and concepts such as citizenship, cultural assimilation, equality, freedom, imperialism, nationalism, security and sovereignty.
About 20 SOU Honors College students, professors and others spent 14 days in September, traveling through Switzerland, Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic. The trip was focused, primarily, on democracy and democratic institutions.
In pursuit of that focus, we touched what remains of the Berlin Wall, traces left of a wall that a few short years ago divided East from West. We saw the bullet holes intentionally left on buildings as a reminder of the Nazi era. We ate samosas in the Indian Embassy. We asked questions of officials and journalists in the high mountain air of Gstaad. We walked through castles. We drove through an area of Berlin where the parks are filled with pushers and prostitutes. We were overwhelmed at the largest Russian monument to the fallen of World War II.
Architecture can be seen as monuments to what a culture was feeling or experiencing at a point in time. Although Europe can be seen through medieval, baroque and classicist architectural lenses by the common tourist, the resolve of these nations can also be shown through this same work. For instance, the cities of Munich and Berlin were essentially destroyed by the Allies during World War II. Their history, infrastructure, art and lives all were lost in the Allied bombings, but not their resolve as a people. In the last 70 years, both cities have been completely rebuilt to complement and even replicate what they looked like in the years preceding both world wars.
Of course, the United States helped in the rebuilding. But through the eyes of an American, we can most likely admire the will of Europeans to protect their lives and culture from both internal nationalist threats like Nazism, as well as external threats such as Allied bombing runs. Europeans in the last 100 years have been caught in a crossfire that most people alive today cannot understand. Their resolve as a people is something that Americans could use as a reminder, especially in times when refugees — now, like so many times before — have sought political asylum in the western world.
At the same time, in the large cities of Prague, Munich, Berlin and Vienna, life seems more relaxed than in the U.S. People in all the cities we visited lived much of their lives in the streets. Street cafes and coffeehouses are bountiful. Bicycles are part of an alternative and healthy culture in Europe. As one of our guides told us, the cities can no longer handle the individual car and Europe is moving back toward various forms of public transportation. The subways and trolleys of Munich and Berlin are easy to navigate and one can go anywhere throughout the city.
The modernization of Europe does not just stop there; several scientific advancements have been made in central Europe, the result of a democratic process. The particle accelerator at the Geneva-based European Organization for Nuclear Research, called CERN, is an overwhelming technological wonder. It has taken widespread cooperation to make the accelerator work, to make the 10 million connections jazz up protons, to watch the way the protons are sifted and shot through space.
The CERN particle collider stands as one of the fruits of democratic cooperation. Of course, science is done there, but the collider represents more than an achievement of science and technology. Democratic institutions and international cooperation are capable of achieving the most complicated and imaginative outcomes. CERN, as a whole, is representative of this.
Another aspect of European life is something we as Americans are not forced to deal with on a regular basis: understanding our history as a nation. Bullet holes are scars upon what were once beautiful buildings. Bombs leave craters in the sides of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. Concentration camps lie riddled in the countryside of Germany and the Czech Republic. Children of war were born in times of hate, forced to grow up on another side of a wall that separates. Russian graffiti can still be seen in the interior of the Reichstag Building in Berlin after it was captured in May 1945.
The history of America can be seen, but one must look for it much more actively. One could travel to Camp Tulelake today on the outskirts of Klamath Falls and find a place of forced internment for Japanese Americans as a result of Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. But as Americans we sometimes want to forget history. Forgetting is not something Europeans are granted. They see it every day in the physical structures in which they live. Perhaps our forgetfulness is aided by our size and physical distances across America.
The average American, we wager, is struck with how old Europe is. Many of the buildings date back centuries and like the larger cities in America, everything is covered by graffiti. The graffiti is a reminder that we were, in essence, reading Europe. We read the signs everywhere. We read the graffiti, we read the buildings and we saw the history enacted in democratic institutions.
Europe and the United States, the evidence indicates, are not static institutions. Each day Europe and the United States help create a picture of a global reality — two giant democracies struggling and fumbling in a chaotic struggle. This is because a perfect nation simply does not exist. We have much to learn from Europe, and they have much to learn from us.
Bill Gholson is a professor of English at Southern Oregon University and Cole Barnes is a sophomore Psychology and pre-Nursing major and Honors College scholar at Southern Oregon University.