Trauma – A Tale Of A City

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Photo by Markus Spiske on trauma

Just before the Covid pandemic I spent a weekend in Berlin, Germany’s capital city. Thinking about my experiences with mental health and trauma, it is amazing how much I could relate to the city. So profound was the impact I was urged to write down some of my impressions. Impressions that I thought I would share with you……

April 2018

Berlin is not a particularly pretty city. It is filled with modern housing blocks, offices, derelict looking industrial units. Most are in need of some serious repair or indeed demolition. Many buildings have been renovated, some rebuilt on top of soot blackened and battered foundations. It is a city defined by trauma.

In amongst all, it is this trauma, dark and tragic, that looms across the city like a sullen spectre. Trauma in the form of a bitter and heart breaking history. Just like a person, Berlin lives with a past it cannot hide from. No matter how much the people and the politicians have tried so desperately in years gone by. It simply cannot be escaped, history is everywhere, in plain sight and unavoidable.

Trauma everywhere

Its trauma is both physical and mental; you see it everywhere. One doesn’t need a history book or city guide to realise that this city has suffered terribly in bygone eras. Relics of its cold war past are to be found everywhere. Vast sections of the Berlin wall still remain across the city, like a giant set of broken teeth, jagged, decaying and painfully exposed. So too do the long abandoned watch towers, their presence unsettling, foreboding and unapologetically authoritarian. 

And yet there is more, something far less tangible that hangs in the air in certain places. A psychic presence that is extremely unsettling when experienced. In a quiet spot, it is as if the city whispers to you, sharing with you its dark secrets. 

Its not just the wall that makes it clear to even the most naive of visitors that this was once a divided city. Travelling from west to east reveals so much of both the city and its division. For so long its very soul was fractured, one body shared two, so very different personalities. A short train ride reveals so much, as the architecture changes dramatically and quite obviously.

A divided city

The west of the city, though clearly rebuilt, is modern, gentrified with nods here and there to a gloried past. A supposed better age of royalty and of emperors. Not so in the east where the past was deliberately forgotten and where a new age began in 1949. The year when East Germany was established. To those in power at the time this was to be a better age, heralding a productive and bountiful future. However to those actually living in the area, it was to be the start of a bitter and harsh chapter in their lives; bleak and grey. Their sentiments are coldly reflected in the architecture of the east. The buildings here have no frivolity , they are plain, utilitarian and industrial. Built for workers who were part of a vast, unrelenting machine. 

The dreams of those in power were not the same as those they controlled. Despite efforts to build a utopia for workers, people fled west in their droves. Hence the construction of the wall in 1961. Which ultimately would do little to slow the haemorrhage. For it would be torn down by those trapped behind it in such spectacular fashion in 1989.  


Despite the dividing of Berlin and efforts on both sides to conceal their immediate past, neither side was ultimately able. The scars left by the Nazi era and the city’s eventual total destruction during the Second World War have cut deeper into the flesh of the city than possibly any other period of its history. Sometimes subtly and sporadically at other times dramatic and obvious. Signs of it are ubiquitous over the entirety of the city both east and west. A modern synagogue built on the shattered remnants of what was left by cruel and destructive hands guided by a hate fuelled ideology.  Bullet and shell marks on what is left of the foundation blocks of buildings. Statues burnt black and mutilated stand as witnesses to unimaginable violence and destruction. One cannot help but shudder to rub ones finger across such contusions, pain and terror ineradicably etched on their surface.  

Acceptance of trauma

When placed in the context of the documented history of the city, these visible and visceral reminders of the past bring home not just how much suffering Berlin has borne over the years. They are also testament to its resilience. How this city and its residents have been able to contend with such trauma and tragedy. And yet at the same timemove forward, growing all the while. It is nothing less than extraordinary. 

Residents, who endured so much. Held in the grip of one brutal authority after another, being told what to do and how to do it, have finally taken control. Yes, outwardly it is not the prettiest of cities, it is scarred, it is battered. Yet it has a dignity and a strength within it. It is something that is inextricably ingrained and shines brighter than any outward appearances could ever do so. And so to the present. By not trying to hide from the past, by letting the outside world see its scars, to realise its consequences and impact, the city has allowed itself to move on. With great self compassion and understanding the city, so how comes to terms with and accepts its trauma. And can very much be understood and appreciated by those who visit it. 

There is a beauty in this realisation; that after so much heartache, a celebration can and should take place. The city is now unbound, free from the constraints of both conformity and authority, the most bitter and stifling of ghosts from its past. 

Freedom from Trauma

Here you can be who you want to be, welcomed to the city and accepted as who you are. Anyone can be a Berliner. It is no wonder that artists flock here, that whole neighbourhoods of immigrants have sprung up across the sprawling metropolis. Not just to be accepted but to become beloved by the native population.  People who were once marginalised or forcibly removed from the city, have now returned, hailed as fellow Berliners, as fellow Germans. Beautiful diversity and equality following in their wake.

Using the past to create a better future has been fundamental to the city in its latter day. It serves as a potent warning to both the new generation growing up in the city and those from outside. That without care such calamities are never far from occurring once again. As the last surviving generation fades the city takes care that this legacy is passed on and nurtured. Never to be forgotten. From such a darkened past the future of the city is bright. Dreams that once would have meant imprisonment and death, can now be turned into a glorious and gregarious reality. 

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