BERLIN—One Thursday in March, Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, strode the light-bathed halls of the Reichstag building in Berlin on her way to its plenary hall, to address Germany’s parliament on Russian aggression in Ukraine. Her pace was purposeful. And yet, even without stopping, she must have glanced, for the umpteenth time, at the hallways’ walls, as almost everyone does when inside this building, the German equivalent of America’s Capitol. That’s because they are not only pockmarked by bullet holes but also covered by Cyrillic graffiti—faded but meticulously preserved.
Young Russians scribbled the graffiti after they took the Reichstag on April 30, 1945. The Soviets regarded the building’s capture as symbolic of their overall victory against Nazi Germany because they mistook it for “Hitler’s lair,” as one graffito calls it. (Adolf Hitler, in fact, had never given a speech in this building and committed suicide on the same day in his actual lair, a bunker 10 minutes away on foot, abutting the grounds of today’s Holocaust Memorial.) Some of the Russians wrote on the walls in charred wood that they found lying around. Others wielded red or blue chalk, which they had used during their push into Germany to mark the shifting frontlines on their maps: red for the advancing Red Army, blue for the retreating Germans.
Most simply wrote their names (“Ivanov,” “Pyotr,” “Boris Victorovich Sapunov”) as they would today take selfies. Or they marked the dates and routes of their personal journey (“Moscow-Smolensk-Berlin, May 1945”). “We weren’t proud,” said Sapunov, the first Russian to find his own name again after the graffiti’s restoration in the 1990s. “We were drunk. And we were afraid that we could still be shot right at the end.” Some of his comrades vented different emotions. Their phrases ranged from standard public-toilet fare to the apparently unspeakable (the Germans, often at the suggestion of the Russian embassy, removed some graffiti in the 1990s). Only one vulgarity remains today, barely legible in the building’s southeastern corner: “I fuck Hitler in the arse.”
No other capital deals with its past quite as Berlin does. At one extreme are cities like Beijing, where people traversing Tiananmen Square still look up at a huge portrait of Mao Zedong. Such architecture suggests obstinate denial. Jerusalem is at the other extreme. Like Berlin, it arguably has “too much history.” […]