Historical ignorance and the politics of rebuilding Berlin's iconic structures.
In Berlin, they’re reconstructing the palace.
In any other European city, this statement would seem benign. The reaction would be something like “Oh, of course they’re rebuilding the palace! What’s a major continental city without its palace?”. But here in Berlin every stone, every inch of scaffolding, every square foot of a floor plan is up for debate. In a city where nearly every building is new, restored, or completely rebuilt, it may seem surprising that such a heated discussion would arise regarding reconstructing another building. But, really, this debate, and the resulting decision to rebuild the palace, can say a lot about Berlin. Every brick is political.
Brian Ladd, author of “The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape”, recounts this debate in one of the beginning chapters of his book which deals with “old” Berlin, that is Berlin before the Weimar Era and the madness of the 20th Century. This chapter deals with the early history of Berlin, yes, but it also discusses how this history is dealt with, how this handling of early history actually has more to do with the more recent “ghosts” in the city. I remember, on our second week of class, one of my professors took us on a walking tour (he runs historical/sociological/critical tours in Berlin) and we stopped, shivering in the cold, in front of the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral). He pointed in the direction of the Stadtschloss (City Palace) building site and said “To me, all this reconstruction says something about the history the government is trying to remember, the ‘good old years’ of Berlin. It’s not necessarily forgetting, but rather a redirection of attention. But not really for the better, and it’s not even a successful redirection.” These ghosts and how people handle them are why I am fascinated by this chapter, why I didn’t choose a later one about the Nazi Era or the GDR to focus on.
Ladd notes that, in the course of the debate over the Stadtschloss (which was bombed in WWII, demolished by the GDR, and replaced with the “Palace of the Repubilc”, home of the GDR’s largely powerless parliament, a huge party meeting hall, and a bowling alley), the charge that one side or the other was guilty of “historical ignorance” was often made (69). That is, one side would claim that the proponents of rebuilding the Palace were trying to gloss over history, that of both the Nazi Era and of the GDR, and were thus falling back into fascist, nationalist patterns. The other, in turn, would claim that those opposed to rebuilding the Palace lacked no real knowledge of the history of the building, since Hitler shunned it, never using it in his plans for the Third Reich, and the GDR destroyed it to build a structure viewed (by the West) as anti-democratic. To them, the Palace was a symbol of some sort of True German Identity, one that had been victimized by a series of bad regimes and leaders.
This issue of “historical ignorance”, an issue Ladd brings up throughout the book, says a lot about Germany, and especially Berlin, which has been a symbol for the conflicts of German-ness since the nation was founded in 1871. In fact, it seems like the worst claim to be made about someone here is that they are ignorant of Germany’s history, especially of the Holocaust and of the time of the Wall. Berlin is, thus, a paradox to me. It is the capitol of modernity, emblematic of movements forward, of art, of alternative lifestyles, of everything younger generations move to the big city for. But, at the same time, it is unswayingly focused on its past, always chasing its ghosts around, wrestling with them, trying to grasp apparitions of the past and be forgiven. And, the more I walk around the city, the more I read, the more I check the news and talk in class, the more the extremes of this paradox become apparent to me.
We feed off of Berlin’s ghosts. I do, the city does, Ladd does, every one of you reading this does. But, sometimes, this focus on the past, this strange symbiotic struggle, can be used to ignore the painful realities present. I do not mean that the past, especially reconciling with the actions of the entire citizenry of Germany during WWII, has been entirely dealt with. It never will be. Even after the last former Nazi soldier, Holocaust survivor, childhood member of the Hitler Youth, dissident tortured by the Gestapo or the Stasi, or Cold War spy has died, the past will not be dead. That’s the nature of trauma, of historical wounds. However, when the city only focuses on the past or its image of modernity, it ignores real and honest problems that are not related to the neatly laid-out “German problems” of the 20th Century. That is, the persecution and blatant racism against Turks and related groups.
Many Germans, it seems, think racism is just anti-Semitism, and that Germany has thus “ended” racism. Meanwhile, neo-Nazis, taking their focus away from controversial Jewish targets, have murdered and terrorized Turks at an alarming rate. In battling over historical ignorance, over whether or not reconstructing old buildings like the Palace bends to anti-Semitic or fascist inclinations, an ignorance of the present has been created, one that has allowed the worst of the past to creep back in under a new form. In reading Ladd’s book, it has occurred to me that the ghosts of Berlin exist right alongside the city’s non-ghosts, its living, breathing monsters that lurk amongst this wonderful metropolis (I do not, I must note, mean to say that Berlin is terrible. I love this city. And, in loving it, I am the most critical of it). Ignorance and charges of ignorance, then, makes the hierarchy of problems created by Germans (what people think is most worthy to address or easiest to deal with) visible and, hopefully, easier to dismantle. What matters isn't the rebuilding of the Palace, but the discussion around it.
The photo above was taken by me. It's the Berliner Dom, a rebuilt building itself, which is not far from the site where the Palace will be rebuilt.