Germans nevertheless seem to consider a doctorate a more important credential than in America, and German politicians brandish these degrees even though they aren't particularly seminal to their skills or accomplishments, but manage to impress nearly everyone. Chancellor Merkel wrote her doctoral dissertation on quantum chemistry, which is a source of pride frequently remarked on in conversations about her intelligence, depth and breadth as a leader who passed up the narrow academic life.
Germans in Berlin today with or without doctorates are engrossed in presenting historical facts and setting the record straight, a preoccupation that has beset them since the fall of the Third Reich in 1945. In my frequent trips to Berlin, there's always a new marker or symbol to understand, intended to make amends for the Nazi past. This year is no exception.
On the 80th anniversary of Hitler's ascent to power on Jan. 30, 1933, Merkel opened an exhibit at the "Topography of Terror," the memorial museum built on the site of the Gestapo, the SS and the Reich Security Main Office, where the administrative and torture network ran the police state from 1933 to 1945. Its current exhibition about early victims of Hitler's power is part of a comprehensive citywide theme examining Berlin's robust social, cultural and political diversity that was mercilessly extinguished during those years.
The Berliners harassed and abused include the famous, like Albert Einstein and Bertolt Brecht, and not-so-famous cabaret artists, poets, photographers and scientists. They were all labeled "decadent."
The chancellor urges Germans to fight for their principles and to stand against the complacency that enabled the Nazis to come to power, reminding them that democratic freedoms could not have been erased had not so many German students and academics joined the Nazis with such enthusiasm, cheering the burning of books by "subversives," including American authors Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, even Helen Keller.
"Human rights do not assert themselves on their own; freedom does not emerge on its own; and democracy does not succeed on its own," Merkel said, suggesting that such words have special meaning for the world today, too.
The book burning of 1933 is remembered through a glass plate set into cobbles of a square, with a view of empty bookcases buried below ground. It's across the street from Humboldt University, where a plaque quotes Heinrich Heine, the poet who attended the university: "Where they burn books they will in the end also burn people." That was an astute prophecy, and it wasn't plagiarized.