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George Vlahakis
University Communications

Michel Chaouli
Germanic Studies

Last modified: Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Historic German capital of Berlin is setting, subject of new IU class

Nov. 15, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- While overseas study courses frequently take students to fascinating destinations, a unique new Indiana University course is making one of Europe's most significant capitals not just the setting but also its key subject.

Glass Dome of the Reichstag

Deutscher Bundestag/ Stephan Erfurt

Glass dome of the Reichstag

Beginning in June, the Department of Germanic Studies in IU's College of Arts and Sciences will offer a four-week program in Berlin, Germany, where many settings -- including those seemingly innocuous today -- will help students appreciate the country's rich history.

"This course aims to think of the city not merely as a cluster of streets and buildings, but as a historical text. Like every city, Berlin does not live in the present alone. It consists of many historical layers that exist together and often react to one another in unpredictable ways," said Michel Chaouli, associate professor of German and the primary instructor of the course.

The new English-language course, "Sites of Memory: Berlin, 1871 to the Present," will allow the city itself to tell its story of a place that came into its own in 1871 with the formation of the German Empire, then ravaged by defeat in World War I, followed by the rise of Hitler and fascism, division under communist rule and then reunification after the "Iron Curtain" fell in 1989. The nation's capital returned to Berlin after reunification.

The class, offered June 3 to 30, 2012, joins several of IU's other summer programs in Germany, including those at Freiberg, Vallendar and Bonn.

"Starting in 1871, when Berlin became the capital of Germany, every major development in German and European history has left its marks on the city, some conspicuous, some subtle," Chaouli said. "Berlin, in confronting its past, memorializes not only triumphs but also failures. This is unusual for most cities outside Germany and opens up entirely new ways of understanding both the past and the present."

Brandenburg Gate

Berlin Partner/FTB-Werbefotografie

Brandenburg Gate

Chaouli noted that Berlin has undergone a stunning transformation over the past two decades -- from a city cut in two by a concrete wall that mostly was known as the setting for Cold War spy films to a vibrant place with a thriving art and cultural scene. His class, however, will show how it still is coming to grips with its past.

For example, Berlin commemorates perhaps the darkest period in its history, the Holocaust, in a wide range of ways. There's an official central Holocaust memorial that is considered architecturally significant, but several others are either semi-official or completely private.

"It will be quite interesting architecturally but also historically to look at these differences in the way this crime is commemorated there," Chaouli said. "Another very uncomfortable, unsettling aspect is the degree to which the historical layers of the Nazi era and the East German Communist era lie on top of one another."

In the middle of Berlin and not far from where the Wall used to be is an outdoor museum called The Topography of Terror. It is at the site of the former headquarters of the Nazi Gestapo and SS police agencies, where political prisoners were held and often tortured. Portions of the building remains were used for similar purposes by the Communists after World War II -- something many do not want to acknowledge, he said.

Another example is Berlin's subway system, which mirrors historical developments starting with the Weimar Republic and through the Nazi and Communist regimes. A subway museum today shows how they were used as shelters during World War II as well as by people fleeing to the West during the Cold War.

"If you look at the map, it will look like any other subway system in the world," Chaouli said. "Something as ordinary as the subway, which millions of people take every day, all of a sudden is charged in a completely new way once you see what kind of a role it plays in history."

Students will meet three times a week in a classroom at the IES Center in the heart of Berlin, before going out to see historic sites in and around the city. Among other places students will see are the Reichstag, the Olympic Stadium, the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Checkpoint Charlie and the former Stasi headquarters.

Class enrollment will include academic fees, outings, lodging, health insurance, access to the libraries and other facilities at IES, unlimited use of the public transit system and some meals. Cost will be $4,138 for Indiana residents and $4,438 for nonresidents. The application deadline is Feb. 6, 2012. Students will be able to make personal arrangements for an extended stay before or after the course is offered. For more information, go to