(Image: Close up of one of the blocks that make up the Jewish memorial in Berlin: © FatherCrow 2007)
Introduction: This piece addresses but one aspect of my trip to Berlin, and a dark one at that. There were many aspects which fascinated me, writing, art, culture, clubbing, architecture, drinking and other intoxicants are among them. This piece represents only one aspect, please treat it as that. There may well be more posts on some of the other perspectives,, depending on the time I get to write over the next few days, which could be limited as I’m also working on a painting as well as actually “working”, so I’m not sure how long I’ll actually have for blog posting. This should keep you going for a while whatever happens though
"And the Germans kill the Jews
And the Jews kill the Arabs
And the Arabs kill the hostages
And that is the news" - Roger Waters
They hang above us all, silhouetted black against the blacker night, splinters of electronic static spitting and screaming at us in bursts from the needle straight ribs of the four P.A. speakers that loom above our heads.
The Germans as a people bend under the unrelenting and unforgiving weight of a history that shrieks and threatens us all with an extinction, which seems immortal and ever present.
And they listen, despite the pain, all the time.
This is the price the German participants children’s children have paid, are paying, and will willingly pay it seems, for time immemorial.
I had landed in Schonefeld airport tired from too little sleep, due to the sadistically early flight departure time of six am, that my delightful low fares carrier Ryanair had decided to inflict upon me. The only thing that was keeping me upright was a continuous blast of 80’s American hardcore punk rock that battered me into consciousness. I made it to the S-Bahn station and settled down on a bench to wait for the Alexanderplatz bound train. Wild and grey skies, wind and weak sunshine. I was almost alone on the platform, only the occasional businessman, standing scattered about the expansive platform like statues, negative shapes outlined black against the light. The train came on time, as expected, this was after all Germany. On the S-Bahn, Berlin’s suburban rail I began my journey into the historical heart of the 20th century. A heart that was scarred and bled by two world wars, the holocaust of Jews, Gypsies, Socialists, Communists, homosexuals, the mentally ill and anyone else who disagreed with the sharpened bloody dagger of Nazi dualistic ideology.There was much to explore, I was going to be here a week and though I did have significant other interests in the City of Berlin, the Second world war, and beyond that, the whole evolution of the entire poisoned Nazi regime was, if I am to be honest with myself the primary reason for the journey. My interest is not that of the visceral war movie fan, when I think of explosions I do not think of our much presented Movie Star™ leaping bravely from the edge of the screen to save his comrade from the collapsing building, I think only of the family that in real life would inevitably be trapped inside that building.
To us in the comfortable West, War has now become our entertainment, woven into the fabric of our lives, it has always been that way to some extent. But it is a long time since we whispered the mythic tales of warriors to each other around a campfire, a long way indeed that we have travelled. Now Edward Bernays’ Perception management techniques have evolved beyond even his wildest dreams. We sit in simulated rehearsal for the new technological war in front of our playstations and wii’s being groomed by first and third person shooters and military simulations for exposure to the repeated military movie blockbusters that grace our screens. Then, finally, we are gradually led like unknowing cattle to service in the military itself. The movies about war and the television recruitment propaganda that emanate from the actual military seem one and the same. Above this media drone of subconsciously absorbed memes of indoctrination, stand the leaders of the United States and the United Kingdom, smiling shark grins, telling you this war without end on the amorphous beast of “Terrorism” will be over by Christmas.
We are daily being infected with a memetic serum that teaches us to love war.
In early 2003 when the United States the United Kingdom and Spain proposed what they called the “Eighteenth Resolution” which would give Iraq a deadline to comply with previous U.N. resolutions Germany along with Russia and France opposed it, and any military intervention. In the United States these countries were demonised for it in the major media. This hysteria was particularly pointed against France, bringing itself to an onanistic boil with the renaming of French fries to freedom fries. I think little thought was given in the U.K. and the U.S. as to the reasons these particular three countries were against the war.
One good way to find out that I would recommend, is a trip to Berlin.
The S-Bahn suburban rail whispered across the remaining few feet of track into Alexanderplatz station and shunted itself to a stop, I shouldered my luggage, made my way to the hostel and checked in. I have always preferred hostels to hotels. In hotels the social interaction generally involves listening to some drunk businessman whine about how his wife is cheating on him as he leans over the bar like a child trying to climb to the other side. Hostels, on the other hand, tend to have a more itinerant crowd who are more open to interaction and enthused about the novelty of it all. The Hostel was as I expected, large high roof, plenty of light, friendly staff, a clean environment and a nearby park where, it may appal you, as it did me, to know the demon weed marijuana is sold openly in the evening. So as not to keep you all in suspense the name of the Hostel is the St. Christopher, ask for Franz, he’ll take care of you. In fact he’ll even kick your ass at pool if you let him.
So my bags being stowed and my bed assured, I had time to take a breath and start to get my bearings in this great city of Berlin. My first move was to head out to the famed Potsdamer Platz, which was easy to find, once you concentrated on the expansive map of the city’s transport system that, though carefully thought out, was of such a size that unless you had yourself some good light to read it by, you may well be looking for one of the smaller stations for up to a half an hour. But you know, once you found the station you were looking for on the map it was really easy to get there. Such is the German reputation for organisation deserved. Everything seems to work in Germany and work well.
I was headed to Potsdamer Platz and so crossed the street markers of the Berlin Wall that scar so many of the streets of the city and down into Rosa Luxembourg Strasse U-Bahn (underground station), Rosa herself, a revolutionary, was one of the founders of the German Communist party who was captured by the German Freicorps during an uprising in Berlin in 1919, clubbed unconscious, shot in the head and thrown into a nearby river. Rosa, another martyr to another dualistic ideology. You’re wrong, I’m right, I live, you die. It always seems to be the same simple mathematics.
Rosa’s station eventually delivered me to Potsdamer Platz, the place is the architectural centre for the new Berlin it is also near the historical centre of Unter Den Linden (under the lime trees) in East Berlin which is where the 20th century began to grow it’s arteries and pump the substance of itself outward, spreading across all the worlds terrain and filling the fibres of time, like ink would fill a sponge. I step out at Potsdamer and head to my left, as I walk around this city I find on so many street corners these little bronze cobbles small and lonely in a sea of concrete. They drop below your awareness, unless you actually lower your eyes to the pavement and begin to actively look for them. All over Berlin these cold little cobbles lie, just below your feet, whispering the eternal mute protest of ordinary people. Ordinary people who were taken from their homes and beaten, broken, tortured, shot, gassed, drowned killed by exposure and taken down many, many other brutal paths to extinction. A mother taken from this house by the Gestapo, fate unknown. Children taken to the concentration camps, never returned, Men executed. All over the city, every time you feel an uneven bump on the street, you could be standing in front of one of the homes of these victims of the Third Reich.
You are always near their cries, you have but to listen.
Look up however and you are surrounded by the geometry of success, these sharp edges that reach to the skies, so much more inventive, whimsical and creative than those plain soaring monoliths of New York and Chicago, here in Potsdammer Platz and beyond that, I later find, to the whole of central Berlin these buildings rise at odd angles, here a skyscraper designed to look like the top of the building is falling off, and there, a façade of an apartment block leaning to one side of the main structure, painted brilliant red and giving a diamond shape to the windows, and a star shape to the dimension of the whole building. It’s almost as if they have re-built the whole city so many times, and have gotten so good at it, that the Berliner’s are just doing it for shits and giggles. If you kept your eyes on the LCD Screen buildings that advertise Vanity Fair, you could almost become anesthetised enough to forget that history is filling your pores. Jumbotron in New York, eat your heart out, buildings as LCD’s.
Moving on from Potsdamer Platz, away from the Sony Centre and through the Tiergarten, Berlin’s green lung, soon the Soviet memorial to their war dead emerges, this monstrous thing squats, huge and heavy, guarded by two artillery pieces and two t-34 tanks. The huge arches are inscribed “Eternal glory to heroes who fell in the struggle against the German fascist invaders for the freedom and independence of the Soviet Union”. This memorial, with its armoury pointing out over the city of Berlin, whose arches are made out of the marble that once composed the walls of Hitler’s Reich Chancellery is a constant reminder to Berliners, at least four lanes of whom commute to and from work just in front of it, that, if the Germans ever behave in such a way again, another Ragnarok of the city will be upon them.
I walk onwards and through the Brandenburg gate, down through the thin February crowd and around to the left where I come across a field of grey stone cuboid teeth that tear through the ground of this prime real estate that lies in the centre of the cities financial district. As I walke into this field, it starts to rain, the beginning of what was to be several synchronous changes of weather that happened whenever I visited Second World war sites of particular emotional resonance, this was the first, the last was several days later in Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. The Grey blocks begin around waist level and as you progress through the uneven ground that lies beneath these plinths, they gradually begin to grow and rise, first above your hips, then shoulders and then finally head. At any point you can see the way out, which is a reassurance that the Jews of Europe, to whom this memorial is dedicated, never had. The rain begins to pool into odd drops on the surfaces of these cold grey columns, a result of the graffiti proof paint which is necessary due to Berlin’s thriving tagging and street art life. The anti graffiti paint was manufactured by the people who brought you zyklon B, the gas that was used to murder concentration camp inmates. There was some consternation about this, but it was eventually decided that the majority of employees of the company now were not even alive when the holocaust happened and should be allowed to contribute to this act of remembrance. Below the memorial is a museum to all the Jews that lost their lives during the Reign of the Third Reich. Again, there were discussions as to whether the memorial should commemorate all the victims of the Holocaust, or just the Jews. It was eventually decided that part of the funds would be allocated to remember the others that fell victim to this terror, but no additional memorials have yet been build. It is said that they are on their way, but as I heard more than one person remark upon, no one is holding their breath.
Later when I was absorbing all this in the bar of the Hostel over a game of pool, I began to realize what continued to be reinforced over the remainder of my trip. Daily I explored all the aspects of Berlin I could, but this is about memory, loss and war. Daily I would encounter some aspect of either the Third Reich or the cold war. The day after my trip to the Jewish memorial I embarked on a street walking tour of Berlin, which encompassed many of the cities different historical era’s from Fredrick the Great through Bismark, the First World War, the Third Reich and the Cold War.
Sylvia Roberge of Brewers Berlin Tours was our Guide on that day, and I would recommend that if you ever find yourself in the city of Berlin, that you make a special effort to get on one of her tours, as not only is she educated and erudite, she also has a wonderfully humane empathy that brings all of these historical periods to life, and gives them a context and relevance to the situation that we find ourselves in today. So remember, tip big.
On that tour Sylvia (I hope if she happens to come across this entry, she will forgive me for using the familiar first name, but Ms. Roberge just sounds too much like a schoolteacher.) allowed us to experience, among other things, Goring’s Air Ministry, designed by architect Ernst Sagebiel, which is the single surviving piece of Nazi architecture within the boundaries of the city of Berlin. I would say fascist architecture, but the Italian version is far more, how should I put it, Romanesque. The Nazi version however, like all things Nazi, seems to be stained a wet grey, heavy, imposing with its sheer scale, and sunken into the Berlin soil. Concrete reinforced to last a thousand years. The Air Ministry was untouched by Allied Air Raids which levelled all around it, and left this, the then largest building in Berlin standing, fate as they say, is not without a sense of irony. When you stand before it, grey space yawns all around you. The building is now the German Finance Ministry.
Next to the Air Ministry building beside another seemingly vacant space stands the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall, beside that, an absence, for here was where the headquarters of the SS (ShutzStaffel or Protective Squad) and the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, or secret state police) stood. The building was bombed during the final years of the war, and now only remains as an excavated basement and a long textual, audio and visual history of both the SS and the Gestapo which adorns the remaining walls of the excavated basement. It is appropriately named the “Topography of Terror” and is free entry. All the Nazi related memorials and museums that I visited were free, though some understandably asked for donations.
Travel across town as far as Zoo station, and you emerge to the sight of The Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church, a picture of which appears in the preceding post. This mournful towering gutted ruin has stood in a permanent vigil over the people of Berlin. Kaiser Wilhelm’s Church has been a constant memorial to the stupidity and brutality of war since it was bombed out in 1943. The spire is sheared off about half way up its length, as if pierced by the teeth of some giant winged predator, which in a way I suppose it was, all is metaphor. The Berliner’s with their customary dry humour have nicknamed the building the “Hollow Tooth”. Inside the Tooth, there is a recreated mosaic that has been painstakingly reassembled over visitors heads, partially to save a work of art, partially to keep the rain off of those who venture inside. Also inside is a wonderful golden almost art-deco cross that remembers Stalingrad and even more appropriately a cross made from the nails from the old Coventry Cathedral which was destroyed by Nazi bomb attacks during the war.
Move back into the center of Berlin and you come across the memorial to the Victims of Tyranny, an almost Freidrich the Great period style of architecture from the outside. A cube of a building fronted by six simple Doric columns, and two German Flags. This is the closest the Germans come to having a memorial to their own war dead. Which is understandable since they bear responsibility for the war, and so many in their armed forces were Nazi’s. The memorial to the victims of tyranny makes sense because it in essence covers all those within Germany and it’s fighting forces who as a result of the horror’s the Nazi’s brought upon Germany, were as much a victim of Tyranny as some of those in the occupied nations.
Walk through it’s Doric columns, after taking off your hat, you are confronted with a yawning, cold space. The building inside is one vast room, a massive eye like hole in the roof opens the room to the elements and you can hear and feel the wind that howls and batters itself off both your face and that of the building. The day I visited was a grey overcast afternoon in January and a light rain was falling. In the centre of the room a black bronze statue of a woman clutches, with a painful grief, her dead son to her breast. Her arms are locked tight, never prepared to let go, never going to let go. The woman is silhouetted under a column of rain, mist and light, which imprisons her forever in this ethereal frozen grief.
The list goes on and on, it is almost impossible to walk down the streets of this city without being constantly reminded of what they and their ancestors did. Even beyond the reminders that I have mentioned there are the ones that I have not, the concentration camps (one of which I visited), the Volkspark in Friedrichshain dedicated to the Polish soldiers that lost their lives during the war.
There is the memorial to the Aryan wives who were married to Jewish men, these women who the Nazi’s said were “race defilers”. These women who, just after Stalingrad were told that their husbands were going to be sent to the concentration camps, (men who up until that point had been “protected jews” and who were able to work and were prohibited from being deported). Many of these men were deported, but before all of them had been taken, the Aryan wives of these men, staged a protest outside the Reich's Chancellery from where Hitler ruled. It seems hard to believe but up until this point there had been no protest from the German people themselves, either about the war, or about the concentration camps, or other deportations, or the slave labour, there had been nothing. The Nazi government was at that point acutely aware of the public mood after the disaster of Stalingrad and were initially paralysed by inaction. They literally did not know how to react to a protest such as this by people who were considered “Aryan” and therefore people whose views mattered within the National Socialist Weltanschauung. Then the most impossible thing happened, the Nazis stopped all deportation of these privileged Jews, and even went as far as returning individuals even from as far afield as camps on the Ostfront. The lesson was not learnt then, despite the protests success, there were no others. No more people were saved. The memorial has a man sitting on a bench away to the side of the main sculpture, looking away, refusing to watch, or learn.
There are memorials to specific camps, and memorials at points that were used to deport individuals to the camps.
There are memorials to bombing victims on the walls of neighboring, still standing buildings to the ones in which the dead met their end.
The list goes on as the ghosts watch in mute agony.
Schools, Colleges, University level history education about the period, field trips to concentration camps, the Germans never let themselves forget.
And this may well be the the reason, I suspect, that the Germans, after having allowed themselves to almost be the harbinger of humanities extinction, will never, ever allow themselves to be reduced to that level of bestiality again. This is not just a German problem, as we have learnt many times since the Second World War, the Germans just seemed to have been the first to manifest the possibility for geonocidal mechanised extinction. Berlin now, seems to me, apart from the historical burden it bears on its back, one of the most liberal, artistic, tolerant and even humorous metropolises that I have ever been in. This seems to have happened as a result of the history, and an effort to remember it, rather than despite it.
Sadly the same lesson can not have been said to have been learnt by other perpetrators of genocide and horror upon the earth. I hear no apologies by the Hutu’s or Serbians for their respective Genocides. I see no tears on the faces of Russian Politicians to apologise for the massacre of many foreign peoples, then supposed “citizens” during the time of the Purges in the Soviet Union. No keening from the Americans over the men, women and children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the firebombing of Tokyo and other cities. Millions of civilians killed and maimed. No pleas for forgiveness from the United Kingdom for it’s gassing of Iraq, or Firebombing in Dresden. No cessation of the butchering of, so far, over 50,000 Falun Gong practitioners, harvested for organs with no anaesthetic at camps specifically tailored to that purpose by the Chinese government.
My point being, is there a point to this? Well yes there is actually, the point being that the Germans and specifically the Berliners, remember. The fact that they remember, and do so constantly has allowed them to build up a liberal democracy, and prevent that liberal democracy from falling from grace. Precisely because of their memory they have learned that most rare of lessons. A lesson that is often spoken of by people and nations who have patently not learned the nature of the very lesson they speak of, that: “Those who do not learn from history, are condemned to repeat it”.
And perhaps we should thank the Germans for it. For they set an example many other nations could learn from.
Peace and Hope,