Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Memorials in Berlin

There are so many memorials to the war and the wall in Berlin that it's difficult to know where to begin. My recent trip to Berlin was my first time there so I had no idea what to expect but it soon became clear that there are memorials of sorts all over the city, even if it's just seeing some of the bare, functional buildings from the former East. In a sense, even all the new building in what were bomb sites and the no-man's land either side of the wall act as reminders. The gleam of Potsdamer Platz and the shopping arcades are only there because the land was left empty and in rubble for so long.

The first memorial I saw was the one to the Holocaust victims or, as the sign says, 'Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe'. I saw it as the sun was setting and that made it strangely beautiful, gleaming gold as the sun shone on the clean stone.

At first I didn't really know what I was seeing - lots of almost coffin shaped stones in the ground. Then you notice that the ground undulates and the stones are different sizes, some almost up to ten feet tall creating a maze to walk though and get lost in. There was no graffiti anywhere, the stones were clean. They were also quite popular.

I wandered through the stones, touching some of them and kept walking. It's a large and spread out memorial. At the far end from the Tiergarten is an underground information centre that I didn't visit. And beyond that were the bars, cafes and restaurants and shops that you always find at tourist sites. I assume the information centre explains what the blocks of stone are meant to represent and why there are that amount of blocks on the land allocated to the memorial.

The cynic in me wondered how many times property developers have challenged the use of the land as a memorial - it's a prime site in the centre of Berlin and must be worth a pretty penny. It's use might not have been challenged but I suspect it will be one day and that's when the intent of Berlin and the German Government will come under scrutiny.

It's quite a touching place, relatively quiet once you're inside it and wondering how many stone blocks you have to walk past until you reach the other side.

Just over the road and in the Tiergarten is the memorial to homosexuals and lesbians. It immediately made me think of the Homomonument in Amsterdam, just round the corner from Anne Frank's House. This is less elegant and is simply a big block of concrete, slightly sinking into the ground on one side. There is no writing on it to explain what it is but there's a small indentation on one side with a window to look inside and see a film on loop of gay men and women kissing - men kissing men and women kissing women.

Just up from the path leading to the memorial is a plaque in German and English that explains the rationale for the memorial and the extreme discrimination homosexuals, particularly men, experienced under the nazi regime. Neither the memorial nor the plaque have any graffiti or other signs of vandalism - although the screen in the memorial is scratched - and I couldn't help but be impressed by that. No graffiti at the Jewish or gay memorials at all - I can't help but think that wouldn't be the same in this country or, indeed, in many others.

Of course, it wasn't long until I saw the wall for the first time. Walking round the side of the Tiergarten to Potsdamer Platz and there were the first slabs of wall I saw. along with text plaining what we were seeing. So, this was the wall?

After a lovely visit to the Gemaldegalerie I came face to face again with the nazis and the war. The nazis seemed to be referred to exclusively as the 'National Socialist Party' but a nazi is a nazi. This was the terribly compelling German Resistance Memorial Centre around the back of the Kulturforum.

The memorial Centre is actually based in one of the German military buildings used during the war and the location is especially powerful since some of the stories of resistance involve decisions made in that building. Including people sentenced to death for their activities against the nazis and the war.

In the courtyard is a statue to the dead and, on one side, is a wreath to the senior army officers who planned to assassinate Hitler in 1944 and who were shot in that courtyard. The exhibition inside the building includes the room where the death warrants were signed for those men and that made it particularly powerful. It was a very sobering experience to read about and witness this.

Inside, you walk up a sterile staircase with black and white photographs of mainly young people - those people who opposed the nazis at various stages. It's quite touching walking past these photographs and I couldn't help but wonder whether their children and grandchildren - and great-grandchildren by now - ever visit to see their grandparents in their youth and rebellion and principle?

I should think it's quite important for Germans to show that not everyone supported the nazis and their policies. Sadly, most did - or at least didn't actively oppose them - otherwise the horrors wouldn't have happened. I couldn't help but reflect on what's happening in post-Brexit UK and Trump's America and think that there's no point in quietly tutting, we all must stand up for what we believe in or evil will return. It's so easy.

Most of the exhibits are made up of photographs of individuals and a short narrative about who they were and what they did. There's something terribly humbling about reading what these ordinary people with a conscience did because they believed it was right, being arrested time and time again but still doing what they felt was right. Such a wide range of people as well, nuns and teachers, engineers and university lecturers, churchmen and army officers. They weren't all politically-driven, they were driven by what was right.

Something I was particularly surprised and pleased to see was the number of youth groups that opposed the Hitler youth in different ways. This was youth rebellion in true rebellion mode and particularly brave. Those who wore short-shorts and colourful scarves, those who insisted on listening to jazz music, those who dressed on overtly British and American styles - that's dangerous during a war but they did it anyway.

Good on ya youth cults, I'm proud of you!

And let's not forget Claus von Stauffenberg who tried to assassinate Hitler and who was shot in the courtyard I'd walked through to get into the building.

It didn't take long to get back to the wall in Potsdamer Platz and some colour. I assume the paintings were made after the fall of the wall but it's still nice to see.

It's that oddity that you're never sure when you're going to come across parts of the wall. In the centre there seems to be bits of the wall all over the place. It's here that I noticed for the first time that the path of the wall is indicated in public spaces by a double row of cobble-stones, across roads and across grass. There's a gap for the tram rails, but the cobbles continue at the other side.

I couldn't help but wonder what Berliners think of these reminders of pain, of the war and the wall, every time you turn a corner and bother to open your eyes. Do older people wonder what their parents did and do younger people even care? I don't know.

The oddity is that you don't know where or when these odd reminders of the past will occur. Even wandering through the Mall of Berlin, built in the rubble left around the wall, who knows that you'll see a bronze plaque enshrining a quote from Ronald Reagan saying 'Tear down this wall!'. Do people under 30 even know who he was?

One of the most touching memorials was to the nazi book-burning in Bebelplatz. This was just a few minutes walk away from our hotel in the former East Germany and it's really quite stunning. 

I saw it after sunset so it was at its most stunning, a shining light coming out of the cobble-stoned ground. It's a square of light in the ground above an empty room of empty white book-shelves. No books. Ever again. It's very noticeable that it's in front of a university building and in sight of the Cathedral of St Hedwig - academia and the Church condoning or at least not opposing - the burning of knowledge. That is shameful. But to the credit of modern Germans that they have created this memorial.

We went back the following morning to see what the memorial would look like in daylight and it's largely the same - a white light in an empty room - but it's surrounded by tour groups. Can't have it all I suppose!

On the pure tourist side of things, there's always Checkpoint Charlie.

Halfway down Friedrichstrasse is the junction with Liepzigerstrasse and that's where we normally turn right to head to Potsdamer Platz. But we decided to head another 100m down Friedrichstrasse to visit Checkpoint Charlie - or at least where Checkpoint Charlie used to be. These days it's a tourist trap where you can have your photo taken with men (German? American?) in period American uniform.

Ignoring the charade I wanted to see what was inside the shop. What is actually sold at a shop about Checkpoint Charlie? The usual tourist tat, of course, plus chunks of concrete that claim to be from the wall.

I found this all really quite disturbing. People died here, the dreams of people died here, and yet here we are, invited to buy everything from a coffee cup about the wall to a tee shirt, a chunk of the (supposed) wall in a glass case, a baseball cap.  What is going on here? People died for this tat.

There was a really weird morbid fascination walking round the shop, looking at the tat and the stuff that claimed to be about the wall. Looking at the staff I'd say that, when I was there, no-one was over the age of 30 so wouldn't have remembered the wall or what it meant. This was all about making money from stupid tourists. I couldn't bear to buy anything there. I'd love to know who owned this shop - an American? A German? Maybe a Russian? Someone is obviously making a killing from history.

Turn right from here and along a side road you come to a long stretch of wall and, beside it, a history of the nazis in Germany. The wall is pretty obvious, and in what was, presumably, the basement of the previous building, a series of panels that explain the rise of the nazis, their policies before the war, the war and the results after the war leading to the wall being erected. The thing that makes it most poignant is that this was, I think, the site of the former gestapo headquarters that has been levelled and left bare as a memorial, with just this covered walkway and a small museum at the other end.

It was a history too far for me. I didn't expect to find this memorial when I walked along a side street and it was too much. Learning about 'Jew-catchers' and entrapping homosexuals, propaganda initiatives, nazi-led protests to get the 'people' on their sides.... there's too much.

I stopped about a third of the way round the displays and just thought 'I can't'. This isn't what I was expecting, I don't want this to cloud my memories of Berlin. But it has. What do Berliners think of all this? Of seeing their grandparents and great grandparents photos all over the place, illustrating lessons from the war or the wall? Do they even notice any more? I don't know how I'd feel about it all.

My parents were alive during the war but too young to participate so, if they'd been German, could so easily have been featured in one of these illustrations. Thankfully they're not.

There's a lot more to Berlin than these memorials and it's that that I'll remember. I'll remember the glory of the Gemaldegalerie as my Berlin, and seeing Nefertiti and the 19th Century paintings in the Alte Nationalgalerie.

Now, of course, I wonder how German and French people see London. Is it a bastion of previous wars and monuments to our past colonialism? I'll probably never see that, at least not the way others might do. 

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