Fleeing the Past to Nowhere: My Observations on Berlin
Americans often look back on the past with a sense of nostalgia, a feeling that for several centuries now we’ve had something very good going on here in this country. Although we are a very forward-looking people, we love to remember, to preserve, and to honor the heroes of the past.
Germans could not be more different. Berlin is a city whose troubled history overwhelms visitors and residents alike. The city has suffered more calamity in one hundred years than most cities endure in a thousand. The most famous sites – the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag building, the Berliner Dom – are all reconstructed or significantly repaired in the wake of damage from fire, bombs, and battle. The Germans have surrounded these monuments with exhibitions and displays reminding passers-by of just what horrors took place on these grounds in past years. A few images show Nazi soldiers marching these very streets and doing their damage. Many more feature the numerous heroes who resisted the Nazi scourge – usually paying the ultimate price. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s photo, with an explanation of his story in various languages, is there, a few hundred yards from the reconstructed Reichstag building.
The buildings and monuments point back to better times as well, of course. The Reichstag was the meeting point for the German parliament in the brief years of democracy between World War I and Hitler’s rise to power. The Brandenburg Gate, like France’s Arc de Triomphe, hails to a spirit of patriotism and an age of military success with which any people can identity in some sense. And the Berliner Dom reminds its visitors of Germany’s solidly Protestant, Christian past. In the sanctuary prominent statues of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other reformers are symbols of an evangelical tradition in which the Calvinist Prussian Hohenzollern dynasty united together Reformed and Lutheran branches of the Reformation in one united Prussian church.
But at the heart of Berlin, only a few blocks from the city’s massive postmodern Jewish memorial, the legacy of the Nazi past again confronts the careful observer. Walk the Wilhemstrasse, once the nerve center of Hitler’s government, and you will see a number of prominent Nazi buildings that fully or in part survived the Allied bombing of the city – the propaganda ministry building, the air ministry building, and more. A sign (Germans are careful to insist that it is not a plaque) tells you that where communist-era apartment buildings now appear Hitler’s Chancellery once stood. Pass down a side street, duck through an opening in the row of buildings, and you find yourself in a grass and gravel covered parking lot. Oddly enough, this ugly parking lot is full of interested, chattering tourists. As another sign informs you (again, not a plaque), this was the site of Hitler’s bunker. Germany refused to indicate the site until only a few years ago, not wanting it to become a shrine for neo-Nazis, but the myths and falsehoods swirling around about the site finally convinced the authorities that acknowledging the sordid truth is the best way to come to grips with the past in such a way that it will not be repeated.
The gift shops in Berlin are all about the era of communism and the Berlin Wall, which of course, ended just under 25 years ago. You can search far and wide but for the most part you won’t find postcards or tourist trinkets about World War II. Various segments of the Berlin Wall have been preserved, as well as a very touristy Checkpoint Charlie, and these sites get much more attention than do the World War II era bomb shelters, bunkers, or anti-aircraft towers that can still be found around the city.
Still, the key points for the Holocaust and Nazi terror are there. A few blocks east of the Berliner Dome, tucked away on the Rosenstrasse, there is a quiet monument to a group of German women who successfully protested and prevented the deportation of their Jewish husbands to extermination camps during 1943. The courageous protest saved some 1,800 lives. It was the only significant successful protest against the extermination of Jews in Germany during the war. You have to know about it to find it, but take the train to the Berlin-Grunewald station at the southwest edge of Berlin, pass under the rail lines, and there is a sign marked ‘Gleis 17’ pointing off to the left. Walk up the steps and you come to a stretch of old track, no longer used and now partly overgrown with weeds. Two stretches of old platform have been covered with a series of dozens of metal grates. On the top of each grate is a date, a number, and a place. Each one records the date of a deportation of Jews – usually in the hundreds – and the camp to which they were deported, usually Theresienstadt or Auschwitz. This was the train station from which Germany deported the Jews rounded up in the area of Berlin.
Another ten minutes on the train brings you to the beautiful resort town of Wannsee. It takes a short bus ride, but within twenty minutes you can reach the Wannsee Conference House, a beautiful mansion on the edge of the lake, surrounded by gardens and shaded by large trees. Here, unlike at the Gleis 17 memorial, there are a fair number of visitors. Wannsee was used for numerous purposes by the SS, the mansion serving as a place to host prominent officials as well as important meetings and conferences. The most important of these was the conference of January, 1942, at which SS officer Reinhard Heydrich gathered representatives of the various German bureaucracies and ministries for a brief but high level ‘discussion.’ As the perfectly preserved minutes of the meeting tell us, it was here that the SS made clear its ownership of the Final Solution of the Jewish problem, and just what it expected in cooperation from the various parts of the German government (you may have seen the stirring film Conspiracy, which dramatizes the conference). Here, as much as anywhere, the Holocaust was conceived. For me, it was the stark contrast between the evil that was conceived here and the mundane feel of the house and the pacific beauty of its idyllic neighborhood that made this the most depressing stop of all. How could the Germans have done this?
And the past does very much live on with the Germans, even the younger generation. Few Jews have returned to the country, and those who have often still feel like outsiders. Antisemitism remains strong among a fringe of the population. Jewish graves are still occasionally desecrated, and even in my short time in Berlin I was on the receiving end of remarks about “Jews” that it would be hard to imagine an American making. Also, the controversies remain. A few years ago, when the Holocaust memorial was being built, it emerged that one of the companies responsible for the construction was the same company that once produced Zyklon B, the gas used to murder millions of Jews at Auschwitz and other locations. Now, a middle-aged German grumbled to me, some of the solid stones of the monument are breaking apart. “We Germans can’t seem to get anything right.”
Yet as one young German noted, this history is pounded into them day after day in school. “We get it,” he said. “We’re not going to start a war again.” That’s quite obvious. If there is anywhere in the world where a country has come to grips with its own evil and its own crimes, it is Germany. Nothing has been shoved under the carpet here, as has been done, for instance, in China or Russia. Germans (unlike some Americans) fully appreciate that nationalism, conservatism, and religious or ethnic solidarity are forces that can easily degenerate into the worst forms of evil. There are no “good ole’ days” in the memories of Berliners.
Yet it is not hard to detect a wary skepticism among Germans even about the future. Although the country is dramatically outperforming many of its southern European neighbors, its economy and society are riddled with problems that raise questions about the sustainability of the country’s welfare state. The folks driving the BMWs, a German business owner told me, are often the unemployed. They don’t bother working because they get a higher income if they remain inactive. People are abandoning the churches and social institutions like marriage in droves. The young, in particular, seem to think that partying and fun are what makes life most worth living. If Berlin is known for anything now, in addition to its endless construction and reconstruction, it is the city’s nightlife. The trains run at all hours of the night, the partiers not leaving the clubs until light appears in the wee hours of the morning. There is little worth conserving in Berlin’s storied past, it seems; but many Germans wonder just what it is that is worth living for in the future.
Posted on May 28, 2013, in Holocaust and tagged Adolf Hitler, Berlin, Berlin Wall, Berliner Dom, Brandenburg Gate, Germany, Gleis 17, Holocaust, Wannsee, World War II. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Fleeing the Past to Nowhere: My Observations on Berlin.