People often make fun of the ridiculously long compound words found in the German language, but sometimes one of them will make me pause.
DENKMAL is the German word for monument, but broken into its components the two words “denk mal” are simply the imperative (command) to “think”. How very interesting to consider “thinking” about monuments instead of just walking past and snapping a photo.
In North America, especially, we’re in the midst of a campaign to remove monuments depicting people who we now recognize were not 100% heroic or “good”. I’ve always been in favour of adding to our historic narrative, rather than taking away from it. For instance, instead of removing a statue of Canada’s first prime minister, wouldn’t it be better to add to the plaque on or beside the statue both the reasons we recognize his importance to the country AND the things we now recognize that he did wrong? Isn’t it important for future generations to know the full story and that people can be both good and bad, historically important yet flawed? Or do we choose to make the negative parts of our history disappear? Is there really such a concept as the “politics of memory”? Politics of Memory Article
The reason this is on my mind right now is that tomorrow morning we leave Berlin for Vienna.
In Germany, especially here in Berlin, no one is allowed to forget the dark periods in German history. Monuments to positive influences stand alongside monuments commemorating the country’s worst moments. Granted, there are no monuments depicting Hitler, but students are taught “real” history that includes the reasons why he became popular, how he was able to subvert a democracy and create a dictatorship, and the horrors he and his followers – and those who stood by and watched without acting – perpetrated.
We’ve toured palaces and cemeteries; museums of art and museums of history; seen statues commemorating kings and emperors, soldiers and poets, scientists and architects, and those memorializing persecuted and murdered children. We’ve seen inscriptions reminding us that “we must never forget” (I highlighted some of those in the post looking back at our previous visit here Episode 84 – Berlin 2016). We’ve marvelled at religious buildings lovingly restored as places of worship and history, and those intentionally left in ruins as reminders of the ravages of war and intolerance.
We’ve often walked by the New Synagogue (below), built in 1866, one of Berlin’s most significant Jewish landmarks. When it was completed, it could seat 3200 people, making it the largest Jewish place of worship in Germany. Until the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938 when the Synagogue was attacked by Nazi thugs and heavily damaged, Jewish citizens had enjoyed full equality and civic rights, enshrined in the 1850 Prussian constitution. In 1940 the building was confiscated by the Nazis and then later almost completely destroyed by Allied bombings in 1943. The subsequent GDR governments only kept the main façade as a memorial – since that was the only structurally intact part of the building – but the main Hall had to be demolished in 1958. The front of the building was rebuilt in 1988-91 with German federal Government financial support, and the Dome was reconstructed in 1991. The synagogue is now open to visitors, and houses the Centrum Judaicum.
We walked around and into the remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in the centre of Berlin, which was built between 1891 and 1895 in the Neo-Romantic style, in honour of Wilhelm I, the first German Kaiser. It originally boasted 5 spires and the second biggest church bells in Germany after Cologne. During the Second World War, the chimes stopped and the five bells were melted down for munitions. The church, like the New Synagogue, was severely damaged in bombing raids in 1943. When it was to be completely demolished and rebuilt in the postwar years, the people of Berlin protested. Instead of being rebuilt, the 71-meter-high (233 ft) tower ruin was preserved as a memorial against war and destruction, for peace and reconciliation, visible from afar.
We’ve been guided through a parliament building with a glass dome, where a transparent democracy still has to fight elements of right-wing extremism, and watched a multimedia presentation on the wall of one of the buildings of that very parliament that shows what can (and did) happen when democracy is subverted. It gives a real sense of perspective, and definitely makes you think.
Just yesterday, we “discovered” another memorial, Die Neue Wache (the New Guardhouse). Nestled under trees among all the gorgeous architecture along Unter den Linden, this one is in the style of a perfect little Roman temple in the neo-classical style. It was always a memorial, way back to its design by Karl Friedrich Schinkel as a place to commemorate those who had fallen in the Napoleonic Wars. Despite being a memorial, it was concurrently used as a guardhouse, right from the completion of its construction in 1818, until 1918 when there were no longer Imperial guards. Beginning in 1931 it also housed a Memorial to the Victims of the Great War. After being severely damaged in WWII, the Soviets/GDR restored it and, beginning in 1960, repurposed it as a Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism, with an eternal flame at its centre.
In 1969, the remains of an unknown soldier and a nameless concentration camp victim were interred in the building, surrounded by soil taken from WWII battlefields and concentration camps. Reading that on the plaque at the entrance brought tears to my eyes; I don’t remember ever hearing about earth being brought with remains before. In 1993, after German reunification, the Neue Wache was rededicated as the “Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Victims of War and Dictatorship”. The interred remains lie undisturbed under a newly placed plaque on the floor.
In the centre of the otherwise empty interior space, lit by natural light from above, is sculptor Käthe Kollwitz’s Pietà (Mother with her Dead Son). While there has been much discussion as to whether that statue is a suitable memorial to the victims of the Nazis, I found it incredibly moving. Every victim was, after all, someone’s child.
Today, we walked the 1.3 km long Berlin Wall East Side Gallery, where the wall has been painted on one side with murals by artists from all over Germany and the world, and on the other side tagged with graffiti. It stands as a reminder of how war divides not only lands, but people. There were at least 50 murals, but these were some of the ones that spoke to me, plus a couple that are known world-wide.
We’ve learned new things, and gained new perspective, every day that we’ve spent here.
All of that – plus family – is what draws us to Germany and to Europe.
Think about it.
This post may be my favorite so far! As a retired Texas, American, and European history teacher, I often said to my students, “Y’all. It happened. Now what do we, as human beings, learn from it?” Memory includes so much more than repeating the past. Thank you for your keen insights!
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Excellent observation of statues and history. People needs to understand complexity of history that can reveal good and bad. Tearing down statues and changing names of university, streets and town because the person made some bad decisions. Understanding the bad alongside the good I prefer your solution of putting a sign beside the statue explaining the bad decisions.
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Well done, my friend. As always, profound and thought-inducing for us, the readers, who also learn new things every day – with the help of your eyes and heart. Thank you …
And… fröhlichen sonntagmorgenkaffee – morgen!
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Love love love having you with me as we travel. On the train to Vienna early tomorrow…
Excellent and moving article. As a German I do appreciate your observations – I left in 1968 btw
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