The reluctant memorialization of a city, and being haunted by the past.
Berlin hits me as a city resonating with all the parts of life that sting the most: regret, loneliness, artistic recklessness, dark histories, love, hope, and indecisiveness. As I continue to explore, paying more attention as it gets warmer to the more memorialized pieces the city provides, I realize that this whole city is a reluctant museum. Here, a bomb went off in World War II and still nothing stands, there, a tower for holding Jewish families before shipment, and right below my feet the two rows of bricks that mark the path of the Berlin wall after, in a fury to forget and banish, the residents and city workers tore it down. The more I learn about the city through my classes, especially my historical walking tour course, my adventures, and now Brian Ladd's Ghosts of Berlin, the more I recognize that each parcel of land and building, as well as most native people's, are asserting themselves within Berlin's history-making.
This may sound fluffy and generalized, but something many outlanders may not recognize, and what took me a couple weeks and some dreary-eyed pages of Ladd's book to figure out, is that almost every historical building, every memorial, and every remnant of the past that has stood or still remains has had it continued existence here contested. Who does it appeal to? Offend? Should Berlin, and Germans, project an image of sorrow and remorse or brave hope and national pride? Monuments like the Neue Wache continue to change with each shift of power, of which there have been many in the last century, and with it the people- or at least their representatives- choose a new representation for themselves (223). It is really fascinating to me how Berliners are constantly updating, destroying, or rebuilding their history. One trite analogy (please, fellow lovers of literacy, don't shoot me for this) is that Berlin is much like a German Facebook: remove some of those silly photos, add some from your childhood, and you know that everyone knows you killed like 30 million Russians so you can't really delete that post without some hate mail.
Two of my favorite examples from this Berlin phenomenon is the Berlin wall and the Nikolai Quarter. In 1979 the Soviet rulers of East Berlin decided it would be a real morale-boost to be able to showcase a bit of Germany's destroyed history, so they reconstructed, with some tourist-y leniency, a historical center for Berlin (45). So just to be clear, the historical landmarks of Berlin are around 30 years old. On a similar vein, and I won't make fun of them this time, when the East and West unified in 1989, people were so elated that they quickly sought to destroy and remove the ultimate symbol of this new past- the wall. Fascinatingly, the wall was both a symbol of division but also of German solidarity. The wall was their plight, their post-war burden, and somewhat of a convenient border for Eastern and Western (read: capitalist) traits. In their fervent rush to destroy the wall, many ignored the ideas for memorialization, commemoration, and remembrance that preservation of some of it would provide. It is because of this that the bricks/stones were placed where the wall stood, and that some remnants have been moved to convenient locations for viewing, or even rebuilt in the '90s (15-39).
I get really excited about all of this, and the layers of meaning in a virtually uncountable number of things and places in this city overwhelm me when I sit and think about it. The history from Ladd's book and my walking tours are giving me another reason to think this city is beautiful despite its aesthetic shortcomings. I feel a mixture of confusion, sadness, excitement and solidarity with Berliners when I look at the state of their history and development. We all regret, feel hope, want to remember and at the same time long to forget! While my shared feelings are not due to the nation's involvement in almost a century of bloodshed, it's a liminal mind-space I can at least somewhat empathize with.
Ladd, Brian. Ghosts of Berlin. The University of Chicago Press. London. 1997.
The image, although obtained on google, is of a place we visited where original pieces of the wall have been put up near the original site, and the site of a recreated Soviet watch-tower, so that people may visit them. By the time I visited, there was more graffiti on them.