Over my 8 months or so of tour guiding in Berlin, I've become increasingly aware of why it is that people are so fascinated with Berlin: Berlin has seen it all. It is perhaps a perfect illustration of the heights of Western Civilisation (at least post enlightenment) juxtaposed to the very depths of horror that human beings can create. For this reason, many historians have pointed out that Berlin is a city built on perhaps the most contradictory history of any city in the world.
By far the most intriguing aspect of the history though, for the 11 million or so visitors that come every year, is undoubtedly the period between 1933 and 1945. The rise of the Nazis to power, their attempt to create the Third Reich of Germany that was meant to last 1,000 years, and the subsequent annihilation of the pre-war German nation, and the attempted annihilation of an entire people, I am of course talking of European Jews during the holocaust.
Why then are people so fascinated with Nazism? Is it because it represents the worst of humanity? Is it because we are still rather dazed and confused in its wake, trying to understand how it was all possible? Or is it because it represents a warning in history - something we need to remember so that it can never happen again? The easiest way for me to understand the reason why people are so fascinated by this period, and also why we choose to remember it in such minute detail, is to look at the memorials scattered around Berlin that tell this grim story.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a huge memorial that takes up a whole city block in the centre of Berlin's government and commercial district. It is just a few hundred yards from the Reichstag in one direction, and Potsdamer Platz in the other - unmissable in length and breadth. It was built in 2005 to remember the estimated 6 million European Jews that were murdered by the Nazis. In total, though estimates vary massively, it is thought that the Nazis murdered around 11 million people due to their race, physical or mental state of health, sexuality, ethnicity (Sinti & Roma made up a large majority of these people), political beliefs or simply because they were deemed (mostly summarily) to be a danger to the advancing German armies on the Ostfront. As the title of the memorial indicates though, we are being asked there to think specifically about the Jews who were persecuted the most ferociously by the Nazis from 1933 onwards.
The memorial is comprised of 2,711 concrete blocks or stelai, each at a unique height, arranged in straight lines on an uneven surface. The blocks start off quite often sunken into the pavement in the outer sections and steadily climb to dizzying heights until a climactic level that towers over the humans scurrying below. The horizontal and vertical straight lines force visitors to move forward at all times, and their spacing also prevents walking in groups, thus isolating people soon after entering the memorial. The overwhelming feeling one has when entering is how on earth to get out.
|Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe|
The meaning of this memorial is unclear - it is undefined and abstract. This was a purposeful decision taken by the architect Peter Eisenmann, so that each one of the visitors would find their own meaning within it, reflected on the dark, dull, flat concrete shafts. The only thing that he did tell us is that he wanted to create a "seeminly ordered human system that has descended into chaos and lunacy". The architect is attempting to tell us to not try to use reason and logic to explain the insane and illogical - instead, we must use our emotions to guide our response to this most heinous of crimes. We are being asked to walk in the shoes of those who, because of a hate-filled ideology, were forced to walk paths that led them to gas chambers.
|Long lines created by the horizontal and vertical order of the concrete blocks.|
I've visited this site many times and brought countless groups here, yet I am still getting different answers to the question of what it represents:
- For some it is a graveyard - the cement blocks being the blank and anonymous tomb stones.
- For others each cement block represents a unique individual caught up in the crimes of war.
- Some say that the cold concrete reminds them of the cold, calculated and systematic killing done by the Nazis.
- Others point out that the uneven floor signifies the chaos of the lives of Jews attempting to live under Nazi dictatorship.
- Many have also said that the gradual growth of the blocks represents the movement towards totalitarianism and oppression.
All of these are right. All of them are valid. There are many many other interpretations I have heard over the months; personally, my first reaction was that it was a maze but rather disturbing as there was nowhere to hide. What seems to be universal though, is that it makes people think, it makes people engage and in a small way, it makes them walk in the shoes of the Jews who were murdered so grotesquely because of an ideology of hate. The memorial, standing concretely in the centre of this city seems to be screaming at the top of its lungs: come, walk, see, this is what hate brings, we can't let it happen again. Its immobility indicative of the permanence of its message: a desperate plea from a tragic past.
Neue Wache - Memorial for victims of War and Tyranny
In a neoclassical styled guard house on the Unter den Linden, right in the centre of Berlin, there is a memorial dedicated to Den Opfern von Krieg und Gewaltherrschaft (victims of war and tyranny). In the middle of an empty, expansive, square room there is a smallish figure of a hunched woman cradling her dead son. His head lolls back into her body, without the strength of life to keep it upright; his left foot is mangled at an awkward angle towards his mothers legs; he is naked, weak, feeble, helpless, the body of a broken young man. She sits head bowed towards him with one hand up to her face as if covering a deep sob, her other hand attempts to hold that of her limp son's fingers, the two hands caught by the viewer touching their last touch.
The sculpture by Kathé Kollwitz perfectly sums up the devastation of war, sitting all alone in this large room underneath an open circular hole in the roof. She is alone, unprotected and inconsolable in her intense grief. Kathé Kollwitz sculpted this masterpiece in 1932, 18 years after the death of her youngest son Peter at the Western Front during the 1st World War. He had died 10 days after reaching the front. She was never able to get over the intense grief of losing him, and having failed to protect him from the brutalities of war. It has been described as a woman's response to a man's war and has become a symbol of the futility and pitiless of war. In a recent publication the director of the British Museum described the sculpture as representing our duty towards each other:
"Our duty to nurture and defend each other is analogous to a mother's protective love for her child and in each case failure means death."
Neil MacGregor, Director of British Museum
|Denkmal den Opfern von Krieg und Gewaltherrschaft|
In the early 1990s after the unification of Germany, it was time to come to a unified decision on how the second world war would be viewed. This is the product of that discussion. There is no honour in this sculpture, there is no glory, we see instead the broken body of a soldier cradled by his distraught mother. It was one of the most moving memorials I have ever seen and one that I immediately connected with. No other memorial has ever proclaimed the futility and tragedy of war for me in such a way. The mother becomes a symbol of the state, her son its citizen. The contemporary chancellor, Helmut Kohl said as much at the time by commenting that:
"The principles that underline this creative work of this great artist are indissolubly linked with our concept of the state...which is founded on the same principles."
Helmut Kohl, 1993
Coming from a very different historical background in Britain, it is difficult for me to imagine a national monument embracing such an unheroic symbolism related to war. We are not comfortable seeing weak and feeble soldiers portrayed as lambs to the slaughter, and instead prefer to postulate on the heroism and glory of their noble sacrifice. I guess it's because we can, or at least because we want to. There is no memorial, for instance, to the many millions murdered under colonialism. We don't even teach British colonialism in schools. We chose to be ignorant on this stain on our national pride. We chose not to remember the darkness, because we can. Britain and its colonial armies helped Russia defeat the most evil government in history, and thus our evil governments of times gone by can pale into insignificance and our soldiers can be hailed as glory ridden sons of the nation.
But here in Germany, that is simply not possible. When you've had a history as dark as the 20th Century in Germany, there is no glory to project. Instead, there is only reflection, deep deep reflection and a crying, screaming wish that it should never happen again. So I implore you all, the next time you come to Berlin and look at its many memorials, to ask yourselves: why do we remember these terrible events? Here the answer is clear, it is to ensure that ignorance and hatred will never again lead to the slaughter of millions. We would all do well to remember our own history in such a way.