June 23, 2012
The graves that aren’t there
"The SS man learned the attitude of a warrior for war's sake; unquestioning obedience; hardness as hardening himself against any human empathy; contempt for the ‘inferior'; and arrogance towards all who did not belong in the Order..."|
Hans Buchheim, 1967
Berlin: We've seen a lot of monuments on this trip, pre-WW2 and post. Pre-war monuments tend toward the grandiose: fighting men on horseback; heroic-sexy women; seated men of empire and scholarship, confident in their authority and much larger than life. Post war monuments are, as our guide Thorsten says, about absence. No positive image could represent a void.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in the heart of Berlin's government district, covers a large city block. This anti-shrine, designed by Peter Eisenman, is constructed of irregular concrete blocks, laid out in rows. At the edges, they are 8 inches tall, less than knee high to an adult. They increase in height toward the center, the tallest stelae reaching heights of over 15 feet. As I walked inward, an imagined graveyard became an imagined prison. Between the blocks tilting toward one another over my head, I leaned back until the slabs framed a rectangle of sky, a circling hawk. (I'm afraid the hawk might be a cliché, but there it was with its welter of associations.)
This is a controversial site. As one of our number observed, children play on the blocks, oblivious to what they represent. The educational part of the monument is below ground, not obvious to the casual visitor. I appreciate the problem, but, as our guide Thorsten Wagner asked, what positive image could represent the multitudes who were rendered absent?
Humboldt University is a citadel of Western civilization that produced three centuries worth of great philosophers and scientists. Nothing in the education they received prevented cadres of Humboldt students, during the Nazi era, from eagerly burning books by Jews and by liberals like Thomas Mann, along with the research library of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, a scholarly institute founded to study sexual orientation and gender in the 1930's! (Yes, that was part of Germany too, along with a vigorous labor movement and wild experiments in arts and media. There was nothing inevitable about the Shoah.) Cultivation did not innoculate against the imperial will. Many Nazi leaders held PhD's. Built into the ground of the Bebelplatz, a plaza in front of the university is a memorial. Again, a risky choice. It would be easy to walk over this site without seeing it. Artist Micha Ullman has created a glass plate through which one looks down onto empty shelves. A plaque quotes the poet Heinrich Heine, a Humboldt graduate, who wrote, "That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they ultimately burn people."
Track 17 at the Berlin-Grunewald railway station was a deportation site. A growth of trees over the tracks makes it clear that they are no longer in use. Steel plates running the length of track on both sides list deportations by date and destination: 386 Jews, 1000 Jews, 18 Jews going to Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Treblinka. On a concrete wall on the way to the track, artist Karol Broniatowski has hollowed out rough images of people, three-dimensional shadows.
To get to the track from Berlin, we rode a bus through peaceful neighborhoods, graced with verdant parks, wide slow rivers and outdoor cafes. In the 1930s, our guide tells us, one might be lucky enough to encounter the German Impressionist painter Max Liebermann there, or the brilliant thinker Walter Benjamin. The former died, shunned and broken. Liebermann's wife and Benjamin each committed suicide before they could be taken away. (Yes, Benjamin's case is complicated, but that's a story for another day.) I tried to imagine, standing at Track 17, how it would feel to be taken from that glittering city, that life of blossoming possibilities, to those railroad tracks, trying to wrap one's mind around the inevitable destination.
The Topography of Terror, a museum and research center, is built on the site of the former SS/Gestapo Headquarters (which, by sheerest coincidence, is adjacent to what remains of the Berlin Wall.) The Nazi building was destroyed during the war. In the new clean Modernist complex, we studied and debated the role of the German churches under Nazi rule. Once, people were dragged to that place on legs liquid with terror. People had screamed themselves to death there. Today, we have the opportunity to enter freely in order to study the men who administered that agony: the confident handsome commanders, the nondescript organization men, the harried strivers and the careless sons of wealth. The exhibit's narrative reminds us that the Nazis sought to bury class conflict with a mythology of race, to convince German workers that they had more in common with their rulers than with the Jews next door. In some cases, the messaging worked. In others, the fear of what happened in that building produced compliance if not respect.
We've learned that it wasn't until the 1980s that the memorial movement in German really took hold. This was a grass roots effort of citizens who wished to reject denial and build reminders of their past into their public space. This impulse toward transparency coincided, in time at least, with the movement for democracy that led to this world city becoming, once again, one.
Berlin is not the only city with a Romantic past, not the only place with statues of confident men on horseback who assumed their right to lead, not the only culture with a mythos of blood and soil. The Nazis were fond of massive, credulous, masculinist, monumentalist super-kitsch, but they're not the only ones. What can we learn from the relationship of art to politics? In rejecting the aggressively present in favor of evocations of the irretrievably lost, have the people of Berlin achieved a critical engagement with their fascist past? What can we learn from them?