Germany is much more open than I thought it would be and this is manifested in both "good" and "bad" ways, although I use these terms quite subjectively. The differences I view aren't so much "good" or "bad" as much as they are just different.
One of the manifestations of openness that I was not expecting is a tolerance for graffiti. It may be a "Kreuzberg thing" because that is where I have noticed the most controversial splashing of paint on the walls. A few days ago, for instance, a massive hand went up on the façade of the building, a middle finger proudly pointed upwards towards the heavens, a massive "F-you" scrawled above. The Finger, as I like to call it, has not been painted over yet* and I'm unsure that it will be. What I do know, however, is that if this finger had graced any building in the United States, it probably would have been painted over overnight. If it was allowed to stay up a massive uproar would have ensued. It would be a public relation scandal. A crass attack on family values. Etc. etc. The graffiti here is more explicit, more angsty, more real – it is more open in content. Some people might be offended by The Finger, and at first I was a little surprised that something so offensive could be drawn out in the public so big, but I have come to appreciate it. I mean, don't we all have those days when we're just "---- it?"
The next area of openness deals with memorialization. There is an astonishing degree of preservation, from World War II bunkers to the Wall to Soviet soldiers' graffiti on the Reichstag. There is no shame in keeping these pieces of history alive even if they are ugly or come from a terrible time in German history. German students, I have been told, must go on a field trip to a concentration camp. This stands in stark contrast to the United States, where students are not expected to visit Japanese internment camps or the Trail of Tears, where human rights atrocities were committed. I wonder how history books in Germany portray the dark moments in German history, because American textbooks usually gloss over xenophobia and violence against non-–WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). American school children are unfortunately served a large dose of Charlie Brown Thanksgiving instead of reality.
Related to memorialization is the lack of memorialization of certain things. For instance, Hitler's Bunker was destroyed, replaced with a parking lot. Yet in the US, Andrew Jackson still graces the $20 bill (ironic not only that we celebrate the man who ordered thousands of native Americans to march to their deaths, but also because Jackson single-handedly destroyed the national banking system and plunged the nation into a deep recession). I was surprised to learn, after the Charleston shootings, that the Confederate flag still flies over the capital building in Charleston--why is this flag memorialized in this way? Memorialization is a two-way street. There needs to be a balance between what to memorialize and what not to memorialize.
It is not my intention to glorify the way that things are run here. Germany still has to deal with many of the same issues the United States is dealing with – sexism, xenophobia, racism, income inequality, and a massive influx of refugees with nowhere to go. What the Germans have started to establish, at a much faster pace than the United States, is a national discourse about these topics. Professor Villegas brought up an interesting point during Wednesday's class – what happens when things like racism are not dealt with explicitly but you have easy access to weapons? Something like the Charleston shootings. In the United States, we are perhaps too frightened to call things what they really are, substituting week euphemisms (like "mentally ill" or "troubled" instead). For a place that was "closed" for so long due to ideological and political factors, Germany shifted course and is starting to exhibit the kind of openness Gorbachev hoped for when he declared "glasnost."
*Walking back from the U-Bahn station today (Friday), I noticed that The Finger has been painted over. It lasted a total of five days.