How Not To Memorialise Genocide

Marina Manoukian on Berlin’s troubling commemoration of the Armenian and Namibian genocide perpetrators…

 

Nur wer die Vergangenheit kennt hat eine Zukunft.

Only those who know the past have a future

— Willam von Humboldt

 

In a quiet corner of Neukölln lie two of Berlin’s lesser-known cemeteries. Inside both of these unassuming places of rest, one can find memorials to Germany’s participation and complicity in genocides other that that of the Second World War. Notably, the respective memorials differ quite drastically from those around the city that commemorate the Holocaust.

Both the Columbiadamm Friedhof and its neighbour, the Türkischer Friedhof were opened in 1866, and both functioned primarily as burial grounds for those lost during military campaigns. Fallen soldiers from numerous wars—beginning with the 1866 Prussian War, right through to the Second World War—line the various pathways of the Columbiadamm Friedhof, while the adjacent Türkischer Friedhof, the first Islamic burial ground in Berlin for its Muslim residents, ended up as the burial place for Ottoman soldiers during the First World War. In 1989, when the Islamic cemetery ran out of space, its neighbour was utilised as a resting place for both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Depending on which path you take in the Columbiadamm cemetery, you’ll find yourself weaving in and out of a mix of older and newer graves, some with fresh-looking gravestones, others toppled over or shrouded in ivy. In some instances, the individuality of the graves are replaced with anonymous, identical stones that punctuate the green grass.

Many of the pathways inexorably lead to larger collective memorials that commemorate entire regiments that fell during various military campaigns. It’s hard to miss these sculptural mementos since the graveyard is designed to pull you into their orbit, and although they don’t tower above you, they possess a certain gravitas; a tacit demand for acknowledgement.

The two afore-mentioned memorials, by contrast, stand on the periphery of the Columbiadamm cemetery, and can be easily missed if one doesn’t walk the entire circumference. The Herero stone, the larger of the two, was erected in 1907 during the Herero and Nama genocide committed by the Germans during their colonisation of what is now Namibia.

Herero Stone and Memorial Plaque, image by Marina Manoukian

When the Herero and Nama people staged an uprising against their German oppressors in what are today known as the Herero Wars, the rebellions were violently suppressed and anyone who survived was imprisoned in concentration camps for five years. Known as the first genocide of the twentieth century, it’s estimated that up to 80,000 Herero people and 10,000 Nama died as a result of the genocide. Many of the horrors of the Holocaust, such as medical experiments, were rehearsed in the various death camps.

The Herero stone commemorates seven fallen soldiers from the Kaiser Franz Guard Grenadier Regiment Number 2 during the Herero Wars (1904-1907). The granite stone itself bears no acknowledgement of the genocide, referring instead to the “Feldzüge in Süd-west afrika” (“Campaign in South-West Africa”) and listing the names of the seven dead men. In 1973, in the midst of the Hitler wave,” the Afrika-Kameradschaft Berlin added the emblem of Hitler’s Africa campaign to the top of the stone, although the swastika was later exchanged for an iron cross, and the stone was moved to the cemetery from its previous location at the regiments former military barracks in Urbanstraße, Kreuzberg.

Given that the stone ostensibly commemorates proponents of an African genocide, there were repeated protests by multiple groups over the years, including Berlin Postkolonial, over what has been viewed as an “inappropriate tribute”. In 2009, the German government added a memorial plaque next to the stone, which is shaped like the country of Namibia and reads “Zum Gedenken an die Opfer der Deutschen Kolonialherrschaft in Namibia 1884-1915 Insbesonders des Kolonialkrieges von 1904-1907.” (“In memory of the victims of the German colonial rule in Namibia 1884-1915 In particular the colonial war of 1904-1907”).

Namibia Plaque, image via Wikipedia

The text on the stone itself was left untouched, so that the word “genocide” does not feature on either part of the memorial; apparently the word was “strongly discouraged” by the German Foreign Office, who prefer to refer to the thousands of deaths as a casual byproduct of “colonial rule” rather than an international extermination. Berlin Postkolonial have continued to request that the Herero stone be removed altogether, or its text updated to acknowledge the genocide; during my most recent visit, the Herero Stone looked as though it had been drenched in blood, likely due to red paint, as it and its counterpart in Göttingen are often vandalised.

It wasn’t until 2016—the same year that the Bundestag recognised the Armenian genocide as a genocide—that the German government finally also referred to Herero and Nama as a genocide, though the formal recognition of the Herero and Nama genocide by Germany wouldn’t come until 2021. And although these genocides were only a decade apart, their perpetrators coincidentally ended up remarkably close in the afterlife.

Although the Türkischer Friedhof on Columbiadamm was opened in the middle of the nineteenth century, its first resident Ali Aziz Efendi, permanent Ottoman envoy at the Berlin court, received his Islamic burial in Berlin in 1789. His grave, along with that of Mehmet Esad Efendi, another envoy who died in 1804, were relocated to the Columbiadamm Türkischer Friedhof when it opened in December 1866. Between 1999 and 2004, the Şehitlik Mosque was also built on the site. Its pale blue dome, which rests warmly on the horizon when seen from inside the Columbiadamm Friedhof, grows lofty and sublime as you walk closer and feel incomparably small in its presence.

Sehitlik-Moschee in Berlin, via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

The Türkischer Friedhof only has space for little over 200 graves, and by the end of the Second World War much of this space was taken up, which is what led to the eventual expansion into the Columbiadamm Friedhof. Many of the graves are clustered around the front of the cemetery, all of them perpendicular to the direction of Mecca as the newly green spring grass runs between them. Along the right-side path of the Türkischer Friedhof, the archway into Columbiadamm Friedhof offers passage back and forth.

Which brings us to the second genocide. When Mehmed Talaat Pasha was assassinated in 1921 in Berlin during Operation Nemesis, a campaign by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation targeting perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide, his body was laid to rest in the Türkischer Friedhof. And even though Talaat Pasha’s body is no longer there, having been returned to Turkey in 1943 by Adolf Hitler in the hopes of making “the neutral Turkish Republic a German ally”, there remain two honorary graves in the cemetery for Ismail Enver Pasha and Ahmed Cemal Pasha, the other Pashas responsible for the Armenian genocide.

Memorial for Ottoman soldiers during the First World War, image by Marina Maroukian

The Armenian genocide is inextricably linked with the German Kaiserreich: not only did Germany supply the Ottoman Empire with many of the weapons used during the genocide, but German officers witnessed and even participated in the deportations, fully aware that they ended in slaughter. Bronsart von Schellendorf, a German officer who worked with Enver Pasha, claimed in 1919 that “Like the Jew, the Armenian outside his homeland is like a parasite, absorbing the wellbeing of the country in which he is established.”

At the time of his assassination, Mehmed Talaat Pasha had already been convicted in absentia and sentenced to death by an Ottoman court-martial, but was living in Berlin with permission from the German government under the code name Ali Saly Bey. Interestingly, Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin was influenced by the assassination of Talaat Pasha and the trial of Tehlirian during his creation of the crime of genocide in international law.

As of May 2021, Turkey still doesn’t recognise the Armenian Genocide. On May 28th, 2021, Germany agreed to pay €1.1 billion to Namibia as a “gesture of reconciliation but not legally binding reparations.” Although this is a step up from the €10 million offered in 2020, none of this money goes directly to the descendants of the genocide, and many of them have refused to endorse the final wording of the declaration: “They are not chasing reparations. They are chasing it for their developmental projects” said Ovaherero chief Vekuii Rukoro.”

There are numerous discussions taking place around the world as to whether or not certain monuments and memorials have a right to remain. But the fascinating thing about this specific pair of memorials is how their proximity forces them to interact with one another. Whether or not one believes the officers who fell during the Herero and Nama genocide should be commemorated, the issue of their victims being commemorated literally by their side is a very different discussion.

It’s also worth noting that in the years since the Second World War, the commemoration of Nazis was outlawed and their monuments in Germany were razed. If it’s already been decided that mass murderers shouldn’t be idolised, then why does the Herero stone remain? What does it say when the victims of genocide aren’t even referred to as such? What would it look like if, next to the honorary graves of the Armenian genocide perpetrators, a plaque on the ground casually commented on the loss of Armenian life during Ottoman rule?

One of the many war graves overgrown with ivy at Columbiadamm Friedhof. Image by Marina Manoukian

The architecture of a memorial also matters, and that of the Namibia plaque nonchalantly shrugs off everything that it professes to commemorate. Seven soldiers get a boulder that can be read at eye level, while up to 80,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama get a plaque on the ground that has to be read while facing downwards. To add insult to injury, their memorial is placed in a graveyard dedicated to their tormentors.

This isn’t to claim that memorials don’t belong on the ground. The Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) dedicated to victims of the Nazis across Europe are an example that demonstrates how individual lives can be commemorated, and with their golden hue they are created to be deliberately noticed. Meanwhile, when one visits the Holocaust memorial, the concrete stelae create a feeling of being engulfed. Comparatively, the Namibia plaque presents itself as an afterthought, a literal footnote.

The Namibia memorial plaque also bears the words of Wilhelm von Humboldt: Nur wer die Vergangenheit kennt hat eine Zukunft”—“Only those who know the past have a future”. What sort of future does one glean from these two memorials? Maybe there’s an argument in refusing to separate the victims from the perpetrators because the two are inextricably linked, no matter how much the perpetrators seek to distance themselves.

But then the manner in which the victims are recognised takes on a critical importance, for otherwise we are suggesting that upholding the illusion of supremacy is more important than acknowledging the history of injustice, and every injustice deserves recognition. Otherwise, by whitewashing the past, we are inevitably tainting our own future.