Day 4 - A Conversation About Space

Trip Start May 21, 2012
Trip End Jun 08, 2012

Flag of Germany  , Berlin,
Friday, May 25, 2012

Today was an "off" day for running, so I was presented with the option to sleep in for an extra hour before the day, which is exciting to say the least. However, when my eyes popped open at 4:30 this morning, I decided that I was going to take a walk instead. So, I threw on my “warm” clothing, slung my camera over my shoulder and headed out into the dusk-lit morning.

Led by a desire to see the Reichstag (now referred to as the Bundestag, to avoid association with the Nazi Third Reich regime), I headed north towards the Brandenburg Gate. These monuments are amazing by themselves, but when silhouetted against a sunrise, they hold a whole different type of power. And the Reichstag, with it's beautiful, powerful, towering fašade opening up to an extensive, empty field, is the definition of awe-inspiring. It’s amazing to stand on the exact spot where a post-war picture of the building was taken and envisioning the devastation and ruin that was post-war central Berlin. Anyways, after a couple of hours I decided to catch the U-Bahn back toward the hotel, which resulted in me stumbling across an abandoned Bundestag station. I took advantage of this opportunity to take some cool photos for a while before heading back. I got back in time to shower, eat and then head back out with the group for the day.

The first thing on the schedule for today was a group visit to “The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” which consists of a vast area in central Berlin, just south of the Brandenburg Gate, that has been populated with at field of towering cement blocks. As you wander into the memorial, the ground falls out from beneath you and the blocks grow until you are lost in a maze of walls and voids. The further you go in the more that sunlight is excluded and the only light comes from reflections off the dark gray rock. When you are in the depths of the memorial, you’ll see flashes of familiar faces appear in the voids as other people wander between the columns, but that sense of connection disappears as quickly as it came. Eventually, you emerge on the other side of the memorial with no recollection of where you have been and wondering where the rest of your people went.

All in all, I think the memorial is very moving, but can be easily misinterpreted if not approached with the correct attitude and information. For example, while we gathering together at the edge of the memorial there were two girls laying in suggestive poses on two of the columns for a picture. Also, there have been reports of people thinking that the memorial was commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall. So, the supplemental, small museum that was built underground at the site of the memorial (although it was not part of the original plans) is absolutely necessary for clarifying the message that the memorial is trying to convey.

After we all emerged from the columns, our group gathered up again and met with our tour guide for the day, Joseph. Joseph is a native Canadian who moved to Berlin to teach history with a particular with the idea of the history of spaces; basically how the history of a particular area has affected the way in which that space is viewed and utilized.

The first point of the day was the fact that the Berlin government and historical society is very good at building memorials that commemorated the victims of German crimes, but not as good at prosecuting the perpetrators. This is supported by the fact that that there are many memorials around the city for the different groups of people that were victimized during the Nazi regime including Jews, homosexuals, and the Roma (gypsy) people, but the people that were responsible is far more avoided. For example, the site of Hitler’s bunker and of his death, is currently the parking lot for a bunch of apartment buildings. The bunker was entirely filled in with sand and only a minor attempt was made to excavate it during the post-war period. Also, a little further down the road a perfectly preserved bunker for SS officers was discovered after the war and everything was removed and inventoried and the bunker was filled with sand a covered with a road.

Now, the decision to cover over these historic sites could have been done for a number of reasons. Including the fact that the Russians wanted to eliminate all symbols of power from any previous regimes in East Berlin (hence why they disassembled many of the executive ministry offices in central Berlin) and felt that memorializing the place where Hitler died would be too much of a reminder to the Germans living in occupied to Berlin of a time of extreme nationalism and militarism. Also, in Berlin after unification, the government was concerned that providing a physical site of Hitler’s death would provide people from neo-Nazi regimes with a physical location to come and pay respects to Hitler’s memory, which would be disastrous. However, probably the most important reason is that the names of officers in the Nazi regime associated with these sites still have connections to people that live in Berlin, including people in government. By covering over history, the German government avoids bringing up painful history that is very much still alive and present in their society. Whether or not this is the right decision is a debate that has been going on since the end of the war and is nowhere near to being finished.

The second important idea from our walking tour with Joseph was the consideration of the conjunction of memorials to two different periods in time in the same space and the affect it has on people’s perception of those two events. When done correctly, this can create a correlation between events that increases the effectiveness of both memorials. For example, on the 17th of June 1953 in Soviet occupied Berlin, there was a non-violent protest rally started by a bunch of East Berliners. The Russian response to the protest was to storm the square with tanks and soldiers and start killing people, while the people in West Berlin watched, unable to do anything. As it so happened, in the main square where the protest was, in 1952 there was a large mural put up on the side of the old Reich Ministry of Aviation building (then a Soviet office building) that propagandized the happy work force that existed within all parts of Berlin society show images of collaboration and efficiency. The irony of the location of this mural being to main place where workers protested the Communist government led to a memorial being placed on the site commemorating the people that died on that day using the mural as an effective backdrop to show the contrast between the propagandized versus actual society that existed in East Berlin. In this example, the conjoining of this object and event helped make the memorial more effective

If the conjunction between two historical events is done poorly, however, the correlation created can attempt to draw similarities between two very different situations that, although can have similar themes, require independent considerations. In this way, the conjunction of these two events can detract from the importance of one of both of the events. For example, at the Topography of Terror, which I will explain more in a moment, the excavated site of the SS and Gestapo basements are located directly beneath one of the only and longest remaining sections of the Berlin Wall. Now, the things that happened on this site during the Nazi regime as well those that happened in East Berlin after the war were both terrible and deserve to be memorialized. The joining of these statuesque figures within the same physical and mental frame, however, can easily lead to misconceptions about a relationship between them, of which there is no more than a temporal one. It would be easy to assume either that the wall was put up by the Nazis during World War II as some defensive counter measure or perhaps that a ghetto-esque structure existed in Berlin, or that the basements were actually constructed and used by the Soviets (even though the SS and Gestapo headquarter fell in West Berlin). These assumptions are just close enough to reality (since the Jews were obviously persecuted during the war and there were ghettos built in other cities and the Soviets definitely treated their citizens similarly to the Gestapo) that the actual facts could easily be distorts to fit the misconceptions. In this case, in my opinion, the fact that the remnants of the Berlin Wall act as a backdrop for the excavated and memorialized Topography of Terror is a strange conjunction that detracts from the actual memorial.

After a quick lunch and Joseph’s departure, our group gathered for a tour of the museum located at the Topography of Terror. The exhibit focused on describing both the perpetrators and victims that were associated with the SS and Gestapo along with the complex web of interactions between the two organizations. I think that the exhibit was informative and was good at associating names with the terrible things that happened on the site. It was strange, however, that specific acts that occurred in the prisons of these organizations, primarily the torture and murder of innocents, are not at all mentioned in either the eternal exhibit (that covered a general history of the Third Reich between 1933 – 1945 and the time when the Soviet controlled East Berlin) or in the internal exhibit; at least not that I read. But that is a minor point. 

That evening, I wandered around the city for a while and then many of the people in our group got together and went to go see Wagner’s opera, “The Flight of the Valkyries.” The music was beautiful, but the opera was stiflingly hot, the singing and the subtitles were in German, and many of us were tired (I slept for much of the first act), so we decided to leave and get some dinner before heading to bed. Also, there was a very rude German woman in front of us who put a damper on the whole evening. Ashley, John and I left and got some dinner and then happily laid down to sleep. Well, that’s it for today, more tomorrow!
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