Germans live with history, Berliners especially so. The city is dense with memorials and museums, each of which documents or remembers an aspect of the country’s fractured past. In the previous post I wrote about three examples of the memorialization of the Holocaust in Berlin. In one short walk in the centre of the city the visitor will encounter several more.
It is true, of course, that we are all, of whatever nationality, surrounded by buildings, monuments and memorials that represent our past, but as Neil MacGregor observed in Germany: Memories of a Nation, ‘German monuments are not like those in other lands. I know of no other country in the world that at the heart of its national capital erects monuments to its own shame’.
As Berlin has been rebuilt there has been a conscious attempt to make public the most painful memories, the supreme example being the Holocaust Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe.
I took this photograph standing in the midst of the 2,700 concrete stelae that form the memorial, extending over 19,000 square metres. (Imagine an area outside the Houses of Parliament that filled the area of Westminster Abbey and its grounds). Beyond the Memorial stand the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag. Together, these monuments speak of modern Germany’s unique attempt to wrestle with its historical inheritance and its complex and changing memories.
After World War II, in a divided Germany, memorialization
of the Holocaust was also divided into two narratives – that of the communist GDR which focused on commemorating German victim-hood and fascist persecution of the Communists, while in West German responses to the Nazi era shifted from repression of the memory to acknowledgement. During the 1960s the student movement began to challenge the silence about the Nazi era and expose the continuities between Nazi and postwar Germany in terms of those occupying public posts.
Even so, student radicals tended to present the Nazis as the perpetrators, rather than the general German population: they had begun to publicly
acknowledge that crimes had been committed, yet were still hesitant to assume a wider personal responsibility. It was only in the 1980s that Germans came to acknowledge a general civic and personal guilt for the Holocaust.
Collectively, Germans have faced an enormous challenge in deciding to memorialise the Holocaust: how can the nation that perpetrated the largest and most systematic mass murder in modern history a mere sixty years ago honour the dead, and at the same time publicly assume the burden of guilt?
In the last quarter-century, Germans have struggled with the problem of how to memorialize the evils of the Nazi period. What form should a memorial take which will evidence the weight of the burden of history, and demonstrate the deep remorse for crimes which today’s Germans did not themselves commit but by which they feel tainted, and through which they are often viewed by the rest of humanity?
The then-President of Germany, Roman Herzog, perhaps best summed up the purpose of such memorialization in a speech in 1996:
Remembrance gives us strength, since it helps to keep us from going astray. … It is our collective responsibility to keep the memory alive in order to overcome evil and to understand the precious nature of democracy and human rights.
Less than a ten minute stroll from the steel and glass towers of resurgent Potsdamer Platz, at the intersection with Hannah-Arendt Strasse, the ambling visitor encounters an enormous field of 2,711 gray concrete blocks of varying heights spread over nearly 5 acres of prime city centre land. Unnamed and with no explanatory signs, this is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
A visitor who was unaware of the existence of such a monument might remain bewildered about its purpose and meaning, especially given its non-representational character. However, I imagine that most people arriving at the site will know what they are looking at. How each individual visitor interprets the structure is an open question. The complete abstraction of the work, and its lack of narrative (no pictures, no words) mean that the visitor is forced to think and reflect for themselves.
As you penetrate deeper into the field of stelae the experience at first suggests a maze, one’s sense of disorientation increased by the unevenly sloping passageways between the blocks, the way the stelae lean slightly, and their uneven height. There are moments when you find your view out towards the city skyline blocked, or feel a sense of being completely overwhelmed by the columns rising above your head.
Fleetingly, the idea that the stelae represent headstones in a graveyard passes through the visitor’s mind, though there are no names engraved on the blocks. Then the repetitive, grid-like nature of the layout invites thoughts of the rigid discipline and bureaucratic order that implemented the horrifyingly efficient mechanised process of extermination.
A recurrent strand in criticism of the Memorial has focussed on the difficulty in experiencing it as a sacred space: children play hide and seek in the narrow passageways, tourists sit on the lower stelae as if they are park benches, teenagers take selfies. At first, this seemed wrong. Then I thought that, perhaps, this suggests one of the Holocaust’s most tragic lessons: that we have the ability to carry on with our daily lives, even in a climate of hatred and repression, while others suffer and lives are destroyed.
The Memorial was designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman, and opened on May 10, 2005 with a dedication ceremony that was broadcast live on national German television. Eisenman has said that the abstract nature of the Memorial represents his rejection of any tendency to sentimentalize the Holocaust: ‘I don’t want people to weep and then walk away with a clear conscience.’ In a text about the project he wrote:
The enormity and horror of the Holocaust are such that any attempt to represent it by traditional means is inevitably inadequate. […]
In this monument there is no goal, no end, no working one’s way in or out. The duration of an individual’s experience of it grants no further understanding, since understanding is impossible. […]
Personally, my overwhelming feeling as I left the site concerned its scale and location. Is there any other capital city where such a huge site in the centre and just a few hundred yards away from the nation’s assembly and ministerial quarter has been set aside for a national admission of guilt and responsibility?
What makes the location even more significant is that this was the administrative locus of Hitler’s killing machine. His chancellery building, designed by Albert Speer and since demolished, was a few hundred yards away just to the south; his bunker lies beneath a nearby car park. During the construction of the Memorial, construction workers discovered a World War II bunker that was built for the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Later, this land was part of the death strip when the Wall divided Berlin.
Though there are no signs or information boards – nothing to explain the meaning of the sea of grey concrete blocks – there is an underground information centre (which we did not visit as it appeared to be closed off by temporary fencing). The main approach in the centre is, apparently, to attempt to personalize the inconceivable suffering of the victims: because only through personalization, state the organisers, can the ‘anonymity of the victims’ be overcome.
In one part, the fate of individual families are presented with great care; in another the deportation routes across Europe are shown. Most significantly, in the Room of Names, the names of individual victims appear on the walls while biographical details are heard constantly through loudspeakers. For this, in a German-Israeli collaboration, for the first time, the Israeli memorial, Yad Vashem, opened its database in which the names of all the Holocaust victims have been collected since 1954.
It’s interesting that, in its title, the Memorial does not speak of Holocaust or Shoah. By using the word ‘murdered’, the title clearly states what occurred: Jews from all over Europe were murdered and this is a memorial to them. The crime is named so that Germans – and all of us – will remember what
happened. You can’t hide behind the term, ‘murdered’: it’s too overt, too
James Young, an expert on the articulation of Holocaust memory in art and memorials, was the only non-German and the only Jew to serve on the commission to select the design for the memorial. He writes:
Rather than prescribing a form … we described a concept of memorialization that took into account: a clear definition of the Holocaust and its significance; Nazi Germany’s role as perpetrator; current reunified Germany’s role as rememberer; the contemporary generation’s relationship to Holocaust memory; and the aesthetic debate swirling around the memorial itself.
Any conception of the Holocaust that reduces it to the horror of destruction alone ignores the stupendous loss and void left behind. The tragedy of the Holocaust is not merely that people died so terribly but that so much was irreplaceably lost. An appropriate memorial design will acknowledge the void left behind and not concentrate on the memory of terror and destruction alone. What was lost needs to be remembered here as much as how it was lost.
It is true that, from any vantage point outside the Memorial what you see is a gigantic void at the heart of a great city.
After viewing the Memorial there is a place nearby where, if you wish, you can sit and reflect on its meaning. The Room of Silence (Raume der Stille) at the Brandenburg Gate.
The room is modelled on a similar room which Dag Hammarskjöld commissioned in 1954 for the United Nations building in New York an which is still in use. The Room of Silence in the Brandenburg Gate was the result of an initiative by the East Berlin peace movement in the then still-divided city in December 1988 which was supported by people of various faiths and cultural backgrounds. After German reunification in 1990 a small action group was formed with the aim of creating a Room of Silence in a suitable building in the centre of Berlin near the former frontier between opposing military forces and hostile ideologies. It opened in October 1994.
The room’s decoration is neutral and simple, avoiding any religious, political or ideological symbolism. Apart from seats and cushions, the only adornment is a woven tapestry made for this room by the Hungarian artist Ritta Hager, abstractly symbolizing light penetrating darkness.
From the Brandenburg Gate, a fifteen minute stroll along Unter den Linden brings you to the Neue Wache (New Guardhouse), designed in 1816 designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel as a memorial to those who had fallen in the Napoleonic wars. But, for a century until the end of the monarchy in 1918, it remained a symbol of Prussian military might. Subsequently it has gone through several incarnations as an anti-militarist memorial. In 1930 it became a memorial for the fallen of World War 1. Damaged during the Second World War, in the late 1950s it was reconstructed by the GDR as a memorial to the victims of Fascism and Militarism.
After the unification, in 1993, it was transformed again into the main official Federal memorial site for the ‘victims of war and tyranny’. In the centre of the memorial space there stands the large sculpture by Kathe Kollwitz, ‘Mother with her Dead Son’. Every time that I encounter this sculpture I am deeply moved.
Gallery: The Neue Wache and Kollwitz’s ‘Mother with her Dead Son’
After the calm and reflection of the last two stops on this central Berlin walk, head south – across the Bebelplatz where the books were burned on 10 May 1933 (and where Micha Ullman’s memorial consists of a glass plate set into the cobbles, giving a view of enough empty bookshelves to hold the total of 20,000 books burnt here), through the lovely and miraculously undamaged 18th century Gendarmenmarkt square, on down Friedrichstrasse past Checkpoint Charlie, before turning into Niederkirchnerstrasse.
Here you will find perhaps the city’s most unflinching documentation of Nazi persecution and terror, the Topography of Terrors. Between 1933 and 1945, the central institutions of Nazi persecution and terror – the headquarters of the Nazi SS, Gestapo and, during the Second World War, the Reich Security Main Office – were located here. Once a place of death and terror, it is now quiet and stilled, despite the crowds which constantly shuffle slowly along, reading the information panels erected alongside the basement ruins of the Nazi buildings.
Opened by volunteers as a temporary exhibit in 1987 on the occasion of Berlin’s 750th anniversary, after the Wall fell the site was turned into a memorial and museum. Initially intended to remain for a year, the exhibition was extended indefinitely, remaining in the open air but protected from the elements by a canopy. The cellars of the Gestapo headquarters at 8 Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, where many political prisoners were tortured and executed, were excavated and an exhibition detailing the history of repression under the Nazis displayed alongside.
Since I was last here in 1999, the Topography has undergone considerable development: the extent of the exhibition has grown and the quality of display panels has been upgraded. In addition a permanent Documentation Centre has been built on land opposite the Martin Gropius Building. In a sense, this remains another void at the heart of the city centre: a whole block surrounding the grey steel structure of the Documentation Centre where nothing grows from the gravelled area that extends as far as the eye can see. This is also one of the few remaining places where a significant length of the Berlin Wall still remains.
According to the official website, more than a million people visited the Topography of Terror in 2014, making it one of the most frequently visited places of remembrance in Berlin. On the day we visited it was very crowded, but I was struck by the total silence that prevailed as people studied the information panels which document every aspect of Nazi repression.
Finally, after another short walk, we arrived at the Jewish Museum. When I came here in 1999 it was an empty shell, waiting for the internal exhibition spaces to be filled. Back then I could only take in the outside of the building; entering it now my perception of its design as a brilliant architectural response to the purpose and contents of the building.
Designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, the museum opened to the
public in 2001. It attempts to catalogue two millennia of Jewish history
in Germany. Libeskind based his design for the museum on the fundamental tension of the massive absence created by the Nazi state’s attempt to eradicate that Jewish history in the Holocaust: an enormous void slices through the entire building, symbolizing the discontinuity of German Jewish history and the fate of Berlin’s Jews, most of whom perished in the Holocaust.
Libeskind explains that the design was based on three conceptions:
First, the impossibility of understanding the history of Berlin without understanding the enormous intellectual, economic and cultural contribution made by the Jewish citizens of Berlin, second, the necessity to integrate physically and spiritually the meaning of the Holocaust into the consciousness and memory of the city of Berlin. Third, that only through the acknowledgement and incorporation of this erasure and void of Jewish life in Berlin, can the history of Berlin and Europe have a human future.
The museum consists of two buildings – the visitor enters via an adjacent Baroque building, built in 1736, that originally housed the Prussian chamber court and later the City Museum, before descending to an underground passage that links two buildings which have no visible connection above ground.
Once in the Libeskind building, the visitor encounters three intersecting, slanting corridors, called ‘Axes’, which symbolize three aspects of Jewish life in Germany – a continuous presence in German history, emigration from Germany, and extermination in the Holocaust.
Seen from the air, Libeskind’s building is shaped like a deconstructed Star of David. Inside, the visitor constantly encounters strange angles, dead ends and voids – deep, empty spaces that slice through the entire building. The exhibition galleries are spacious but so irregular in shape and cut through
by enclosed voids and concrete trusses, that you can never be sure where you are, or how to reach the exit. Libeskind’s intention in creating these spaces was to represent ‘that which can never be exhibited when it comes to Jewish Berlin history: humanity reduced to ashes’.
Most disturbing of all is the Holocaust Tower, entered by heaving on a heavy metallic door which clangs loudly each time a visitor passes through. Inside, you find yourself enclosed in a claustrophobic, strangely-angled concrete shaft. You stand in a darkness that is complete, relieved only by a thin slit at the very top of the shaft that lets in a small amount of light that shimmers with the movement of leaves on trees outside. Life flickers, distant and unreachable. It’s an intense and unsettling experience.
The museum’s permanent exhibition documents two millenia of Jewish presence in the German lands. The exhibition begins with displays on medieval settlements along the Rhine, in particular in Speyer, Worms and Mayence – three cities where Jewish life flourished in a world of thought and
scholarship. The three communities formed a unit called the Shum, their name derived from their Hebrew initials. The Shum cities led the development of Jewish life among the Ashkenazi, rivalling southern Spain,
the older great centre of Jewish culture in Europe.
For many centuries, Germany treated its Jewish population with more tolerance than most Western European countries. However, the exhibition documents the repeated waves of anti-Semitism that swept the German lands, and the discrimination experienced by Jews.
One display documents the intellectual impact of the Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn who made a considerable contribution to breaking down barriers between Jewish and European cultures. Unusually, he wrote in German and was read by Christians. Mendelssohn argued for the tolerance of different religions, for a Judaism based on human reason, and for its engagement with wider non-Jewish society. (On Grosse Hamburger Strasse, on the site of Berlin’s old Jewish cemetery destroyed by the Gestapo in 1943, is a peaceful garden containing just one grave – that of Moses Mendelssohn.)
When Hitler came to power in 1933 there were over 160,000 Jews living in Berlin. After documenting the anti-Semitic policies of the Nazis and the systematic elimination of the social and economic rights of Germany’s Jews, the exhibition continues by examining the impact of emigration and extermination on the Jews of Germany. By 1941 much of the city was closed off to Jews and they had to wear the yellow star. Between 1941 and 1943 virtually all Berlin’s Jews were deported to camps throughout Europe, and the city was declared ‘judenrein’.
By 1945 only about 8,000 Jews remained in Berlin – those who had been in hiding, or married to non-Jews. Though many emigrated, some stayed, and the community was bolstered by an influx of refugees from eastern Europe. The exhibition concludes on a positive note with the reflections of Jews who grew up in Germany describing their childhood and youth after 1945. A new chapter of Jewish life in Germany had begun. Today, there are over 30,000 Jews living in Berlin. As Neil MacGregor observed in Germany: Memories of a Nation:
Seventy years after the application of the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Problem’, hundreds of thousands of Jews have chosen to leave their liberated Eastern European homes and settle in the country that once tried to exterminate them.
Leaving the museum, we wandered between the stelae of the adjacent Garden of Exile and Emigration. 49 columns filled with earth are arranged in rows traversed by uneven pathways. The stelae are built on sloping land and rise at an angle, leading to a sense of disorientation similar to that felt inside the museum building. Out of each column grows an Oleaster, an Olive Willow, perhaps symbolizing rebirth. The experience of walking in this structure is comparable to that of being in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, but though the Garden of Exile and Emigration is more modest, I think I found it more effective.
Gallery: The Garden of Exile and Emigration
In his book comprising snapshots from Berlin’s rich and varied history, Berlin: Imagine a City, Rory Maclean writes:
In a courageous, humane and moving manner, modern Germany is subjecting itself to national psychoanalysis. This painful process is evident in Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial [and] in the Jewish Museum. […] At the heart of this process is a Freudian idea that the repressed (or at least unspoken) will fester like a canker unless it is brought to light. The insistence on memory is anciently Jewish, and now Western: the conviction that for the psychic health of a society – as well as an individual – past atrocities must be unearthed and confessed, as a condition of healing.
- Germany’s Memorial To The Murdered Jews Of Europe: excellent collection of reviews, analysis and writings on the Memorial (PBS)
- An Examination of the Intentions and Effects of Germany’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe: essay arguing the pros and cons of the Memorial (Humanity in Action)
- Germany: monuments and memories: this blog
- Topography of Terror: Wikipedia
- Topography of Terrors: official website
- Topography of Terror: Slow Travel Berlin blog
- The Jewish Museum Berlin: home page
- Visiting Berlin on the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Wall