Ich Bin Ein Berliner...
as the old Kennedy joke goes.
Seriously, though, I wonder if there is any better place in the world in which to ponder the dangers and consequences of militarism and self-righteousness than Berlin (other than, say, Iraq). Although there are, of course, strong tendencies in Germany to want to bury and deny the past, the city displays a strong commitment to remembering what happened here and to trying to understand how and why it did.
The newly opened Holocaust Memorial, appropriately situated just down from the Brandenburg Gate, is a profound disappointment. I´m sure plenty of images are available online, but suffice it to say that it´s a non-representational installation piece consisting of dozens upon dozens of coffin-sized granite slabs of various heights. Walking between them, one soon is swallowed up, as the ground slopes down and the slabs tower overhead.
In concept, I like it. In practice, what happens is that families stop on the fringes and find the shorter slabs there fine places to stop and picnic. Doesn´t seem terribly effective or appropriate to me. In fact, if one does come away with any serious desire to meditate on the horrors of the genocide, one must have already done the heavy lifting already. The monument doesn´t help.
In the final analysis, I cannot think of a much less appropriate memorial to the victims of the Holocaust than a great place for kids to run around and play hide and seek.
On the other hand, there is the Topography of Terror. This exhibit/museum (I´ll explain momentarily) shows the true power of responsible commemoration. As a matter of fact, its commitment to responsibility, to being a living and active agent in the fight against terror and militarism, is the very reason why it stands incomplete, defunded by a city that is not entirely ready to face its demons.
Even without a building to house it, this museum asserts its right to exist. Built along a still-standing section of the Berlin Wall, which also is a stretch of Wilhemstrasse, where the foundations of the old SS and SD buildings have recently been excavated, this memorial involves a great many outdoor placards, very text-heavy, detailing precisely how the Nazis worked.
The "People´s Courts" were instrumental in this, handing down obscene verdicts, which reached a 50% capital punishment rate by the end of things, driven by Party operatives who swore to issue verdicts completely in line with the will of der Führer. (Dare I bring up the travesty of justice presently embodied in our own arbitrary "detainments" and "extraordinary renditions," which answer to no law?)
The Topography of Terror leaves you exhausted, forcing you to face the imprisonment and torture of pro-Communists, gays, Jews, Roma, Sinti, and on and on. It presents the faces of the students who were executed for distributing all of six leaflets opposing the Nazis, and of the cartoonist who was shot for mocking their Leader. It reminds you of all the little baby steps that are necessary and sufficient to the production of hundreds of thousands of goose-stepping murderers.
We need to keep all this in mind, in the US these days.
And today, we visited the Memorial of the Soviet Soldiers, in what was East Berlin. It remains as it was, thanks to the insistence of the USSR that it be kept so as a condition of reunification. Truly impressive, and not just because its architecture is a prime example of Soviet gigantism. The sculptures representing the sacrifices of the Soviet people--all of them--during World War II drive home just how different the war was for them than for the US, and just how much we owe them in the defeat of the Nazis. Remember: Twenty times as many Soviets died in the war as did American and British combined.
That´s the latest from Berlin.
And don´t fret. For all the seriousness of this post, I am still finding time to sample the local brews...