Rocking Remembrance

Dr. Karl Schlögel on why Berlin doesn’t need another memorial that simulates historical experience…

In 2009 the Bundestag launched a public competition to design a Memorial to Freedom and Unity, in memory of the peaceful revolution in the GDR and German reunification. The winning design by Stuttgart designer Johannes Milla and Berlin choreographer Sasha Waltz is due to be erected on Berlin’s Schlossplatz.

A rendering of Bürger in Bewegung by Stuttgart designer Johannes Milla and Berlin choreographer Sasha Waltz

Berlin is full of people who want to know more about the city. They move around on foot, buried in maps and guidebooks. They make broader investigative sweeps by bike. They inspect the city from above, through S-Bahn windows. It’s not easy to work out the path of the Wall . Each person learns at their own pace. There are quick tours and more comprehensive ones but anyone can go it alone and wander around the city at will.

There’s still a long way to go, patches of no-man’s land still abound, the city has yet to fill out the old S-Bahn ring. Not only is the sky huge in Berlin but the ground underfoot is hot. Burnt earth, every inch of it, even if the bullet holes in the houses have all but disappeared. S-Bahn stations have been restored so impeccably that they may as well never have been damaged, with their tiles glazed or imprinted with reliefs.

Tours of the city exist for all levels: sightseeing for beginners and first-timers (perhaps the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, Potsdamer Platz, Unter den Linden, Kurfürstendamm, Hackescher Markt), for second-time visitors (perhaps Savignyplatz, Museum Island, Kreuzberg, the Jewish Museum) and for those who try to see something new each time they return (perhaps the industrial architecture in Oberschöneweide, the Jewish cemetery in Weißensee, the 1920s settlements, the Stasi prison in Hohenschönhausen). The numbers of people swarming about the city, that only a decade ago looked almost empty, are rising by the day. Football supporters cross paths with fans of dark tourism, with the connoisseurs who come only to inspect the new hanging in the Gemäldegalerie, with the crowds who head for the nightlife as soon as the Ryanair plane has landed.

Now a new destination on the Berlin visitors’ tour is about to be added to the list: the national Monument to Freedom and Unity, which is intended to symbolise and keep alive forever the memory of the moment of reunification. “Bürger in Bewegung” or citizens in movement, as it is to be called, at the Schlossfreiheit, the space in front of the former City Palace, a “social sculpture” that can be walked on and set in motion by the citizens of Berlin, an installation which the critics of the competition to design it refer to with telling unanimity and great accuracy as either “the salad bowl of unity,” the “Germany rocking cradle” or the “Neumann see-saw”. A memorial which, even before the vernacular has had a chance to chew it over, has already got itself a name, is definitely going to be built and is destined to become a major event, as long as a flash of insight or an act of God doesn’t intervene.

The courtyard at Bendlerblock, where the July conspirators were killed. Image via Wikipedia. 

Berlin is not the only city that wants to capture the historical moment and render it visible in the urban landscape. All over central and eastern Europe cities have become the setting for processing the old order. This means first and foremost: felling statues, changing the names of streets and squares, new colours, symbolic recoding and rising above the old order. Mostly this cannot happen fast enough, and indeed, revolutions create nothing, build nothing; this is the preserve of the reconstruction period. The easiest thing is to clear the old stuff away.

Subsequently the capitals of the East are littered with lapidaria and sculpture parks that have been set up as permanent repositories for dismantled leaders and symbols. Some cities have museums and memorial parks with interiors that, when made well, are still filled with the smells of past epochs or reproduce the atmosphere in the rooms where interrogations took place. Often yesterday’s heroes are replaced by those of the day before. In many places, eras further back still are dug up to give a helping hand to the affronted national consciousness and to stage a past that never existed as such.

Berlin was caught up in the whirlwind of history which is what is makes it so fascinating for the visitor today and  so devastating perhaps for those whose home it is, who over the course of their everyday lives have had to watch it go so awry. The city is still changing daily. Everything is sorting itself anew, reconstructing itself into categories of greater or lesser importance; the stories which stop being interesting, because they belong to yesterday; the stories that no one has heard, because their time has yet to come. It is good that the city has grown beyond the Wall and that the ugly traces it left in the city are being erased: streets that headed nowhere, closed bridges, walled-up underground tunnels.

It is good that the pulse of the city is no longer set by an East-West boundary, but by the imperatives of a greater urban organism; it is good that the bits of wasteland and clearings which cut through Berlin’s long postwar period are being built on, and that the fabric of the city is being reconstructed. It is childish to think that we should preserve these bits of no-man’s land for all eternity to honour the memory of “open wounds”; awareness is not kept alive by bits of land but by the citizens’ memories and knowledge. Images, plaques, memorials signify that it happened here, this is how it was. Berlin has its very distinctive places that visualise division and reunification: the fragment of the Wall at the Topography of Terror, the East Side Gallery, Bernauer Straße and of course Check Point Charlie, that most popular of all places of remembrance (the leap of the German border guard over the coil of barbed wired). But nowhere do place and historical event coincide more than at the Brandenburg Gate.

The Gleis 17 memorial at S-Bahnhof Grunewald. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. 

The traces of the division and their erasure can be seen everywhere throughout Berlin, and there is really no need to dramatise or simulate them—particularly in a spot like the former Schlossfreiheit that, let’s face it, had very little to do with the processes of division and reunification. The “citizen on the move” has no need of a “Germany see-saw” to draw attention to problems and progress.

The citizen is already moving back and forth between Savignyplatz and Alexanderplatz, between Wilmersdorf and Prenzlauer Berg, between Tegel and Schönefeld and making his own sense of things. The S-Bahn is the (frequently disrupted) shuttle through the city and everything in it is pretty normal and unspectacular. Citizens on the move don’t want to play or try things out, they don’t want to swing up and down or simulate something, they want to be taken seriously. The theatre of the city is more fascinating than any form of staging could be, no matter how fantastic. Berlin has no need to dramatise itself.

It is strange how thoughtlessly and flippantly the city deals with the privilege of place, perhaps also with the obligations that arise out of historical location. It invests much of its imagination in inventing spaces and places which have precious little to do with the history they are supposed to bring to mind. New generations are constructing places and spaces to suit their own tastes, ignoring or marginalising the actual places where history happened. We build an impressive field of stelae as a Holocaust Memorial but we don’t want to ask visitors to seek out the setting of the Wannsee Conference, the villa with the address Am Grossen Wannsee 56-58, where the decision was made to exterminate Europe’s Jews. This is just underestimating people—locals and tourists alike, who know very well that authentic places are different to simulations.

They sense this when they step into the courtyard of the Bendler Block, where the men involved in the 20 July Plot were shot. They sense this when they walk along the platform at the S-Bahnhof Grunewald, from where the Jews of Berlin were transported to the gas chambers. And they take it all in when they read the brass cobble-stones in the pavement in front of residential houses listing where their former Jewish inhabitants were deported in the ghettos of Riga, Theresienstadt, Minsk. This is a much more subtle form of embedding monstrous deeds into our everyday lives, securing them, just like at Wittenbergplatz where, in the middle of the of hustle and bustle of shoppers pouring in and out of the Kadewe, a sign lists the “places of horror which we must never forget.”

The Jewish Cemetery at Weissensee. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. 

Berlin should take itself a little more seriously, it has no need for simulation, stimulation, suggestion. We don’t need games, citizens are not children. Instead of fabricated memorials and constructions we must label the real places that don’t need thinking up, that only need to be made visible. Places cannot be dealt with arbitrarily or at discretion. It is important to pay attention to what a place has to say. This is something that used to be referred to as genius loci. We need less self-aggrandising event managers and choreographers and more of what Franz Hessel called the “servants of the genius loci”.

Postscript: There is still plenty of work to be done to create functioning civic spaces and symbolic places. Creative types can develop their ideas in a place which is unique in its own way, on the Europaplatz in front of the new Hauptbahnof. This could be a genuine place of reunification: in the centre of the city, close to the old border, within sight of the government quarter, at the intersection of the connections between Amsterdam and Warsaw, Copenhagen and Budapest, Moscow and Zurich. There is still nothing there except for a place where a car parks meets a main road on the north side of the Hauptbahnhof, an non-place right in the centre of the city. So you see there are plenty of places for people to demonstrate their love for the city and let their imagination run riot. There is no need to invent them.

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