The difficulties regarding memory, memorial, and place in Berlin.
Berlin is a troubled city. It has been witness to and complicit in the Shoah (Holocaust), Gestapo crimes, Stasi torture, Nazism, neo-Nazism, and so on. At the same time, it is a living, breathing city, still caught up in a post-unification fervor of renewal and restoration. It is from within these muddled convergences of past(s), present(s), and (as will discussed) future(s) that Karen E. Till writes The New Berlin: Memory, Politics, Place
, regarding memorialization and city planning in Berlin in the 1980s, 1990s, and into the 21st century.
As an outsider (which, in many ways, I certainly still am to Berlin), one has a tendency to look at historic and memorial structures in this city, be they the Brandenburg Gate or the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, as if they are totally organic and, furthermore, entirely authentic. They are seen as a site of consensus and as insights to some monolithic “past”, some instance of truth regarding what happened before our time. Till, however, notes that “people become obsessed with material remnants because the past is a fiction”, and that “place-making”, as she puts it, is an attempt to reconstruct a history, to reconcile, to define identity in terms of what has been and what should be felt afterwards (14). Furthermore, she refers throughout the book to “remembering the future”, meaning placing the future in the past, using memory (which is always reconstructed, always selective) to “narrate a history of national hopes for the future – desires that continue to haunt the spaces of the New Berlin today” (39).
In Berlin especially, this process is done through the channels of architecture, city planning, and memorials. And this is precisely what you have to remember when you’re here. Everything is the product of a decision, and not even an easy one, at that. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, presented by tour guides as a unanimous statement by the city to the world, but it was highly contested. Members of the Jewish community, other citizens’ groups, politicians – you name them, and they were arguing about the memorial. Does it do the right thing? Is its position in the city the best place for it to be? Should there even be such an “open wound” in the city? The memorial was
constructed, right in the middle of the city, but the contention around it still haunts where it stands.
Even historic sites from before the Nazizeit, before either World War, are a part of Berlin’s remembering of the future. One of my professors took us on a tour last month of sites in Berlin, and noted an old 19th century landmark covered in scaffolding. The city government had chosen to restore this building, partially destroyed in the war, to project an image of Berlin, to remember the days before the “ghost of shame” colored the city (a problematic pursuit indeed), and to thus garner more tourist visits to the relics of Berlin’s booming glory days. In reading The New Berlin
, these places have become suspect to me. What is it that people are trying to say through places? What future are they remembering?
Even further, Till also notes the influence outsiders have had upon post-Wall Berlin. While Berlin may have a tendency to over-memorialize, to over-restore, we post-Shoah generations (especially Americans) feed upon the historic places and memorials. Of course, there is America’s sickly Holocaust fetishism, our replaying and replaying of documentary reels, our creation of an industry out of such atrocity, our own hero complex and love of pointing fingers away from ourselves. But, even beyond that, there is an earnestness with which we approach places of memory. There is a desire to understand and know what cannot fully be understood and known, paired with a desire to feel emotions, from empathy to guilt, and see these put on display. We expect the city to be sorry, and in doing so we expect to feel some of it ourselves.
But even though so much is constructed, I always have to go back to the realization that there isn’t a hard line between a “real” place and a “fake” one. Most of the places of memory in Berlin are both and neither. They represent the “unknowable” mentioned above. People may chastise Berlin for its memorials (they might not be “enough”, they might be “too much”), for its restorations of places of significance from the 19th century, or the Weimar period, or the Nazi time, or the time of the split city, for any and all representations of its past. However, it should always be in mind that this is a complicated city. People live here, work here, travel here. But it also has a multiplicity of pasts, all of which are being confronted or ignored constantly in the very structure of the city. And, at the same time, the city as a whole keeps on moving through time. We go to historic places and want to see something away from time, away from the biases and judgments of eras, but that’s not possible. Just by being here, I take part in Berlin's remembering of the future.
The above photo, taken by me, displays part of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. "New Berlin", as its called, is in the background.