Germany & the Anxiety of Remembrance

I was walking in the vast forestland of Grunewald the other day, accompanied by someone who grew up in East Germany in the days of DDR. She spoke of how she was taught Russian in school but has now forgotten most of what she learnt. After losing the ability to remember her Russian education, she vowed to retain her English vocabulary. She remembers Germany as a country that, in her childhood, was divided by the territorial interests of foreign invaders. World War II (1939 – 1945) arguably set the stage for the Cold War (1947-1991), and the construction of The Berlin Wall, set across the landscape like an ugly scar, made Germany’s dissolution a tangible reality.

It was during this conversation that I realised how events of the last century still retain so much prominence in the lives of German people today. Forgetting is unimaginable. Treading through neat rows of trees heavy with leaves, my companion pointed out that they had all been planted, tall and straight like soldiers in a row, decades ago. It hadn’t occurred to me that much of this land had been obliterated in the Second World War by the Allies who littered the land with bombs: tearing out the trees by their roots and sewing seeds of destruction in their place.

Seventy years after WWII, it is estimated that more than 2000 tons of unexploded munitions are uncovered on German soil per year. Casting my mind back to a century ago, it is easy to imagine the curves of the Havel River shrouded in mist; the barks of the trees and the foundations of buildings reduced to ash and cinder.

To me, this newfound information was remarkable. Somehow I had never contemplated the probability that of the millions of tons of bombs dropped on Germany by Allied aircraft, at least some of them would have failed to explode. It hadn’t occurred to me that while I was taking a pleasant afternoon walk in the forest, I was actually ambling across a minefield.

The discovery of bombs, and their safe detonation, is, I’m told, standard procedure in Germany. People will be digging in their gardens and will come across munition lying unsolicited in the ground. Being asked to leave your home in such an event is a daily menace – more of an inconvenience than a weighty cause for alarm.

While the East and West of Germany rose from the ashes of a ruined Reich, layers of unexploded bombs lay beneath its surface. An apt metaphor, I think, for how the legacy of the World Wars is still embedded in the soil, the foundations, of German society.

Berlin’s visual culture of remembrance is almost suffocating in its excess. Memorials to victims of National Socialism crowd the city. Each Museum inscribes guilt into the description of every artefact. Statues pertaining to power and national pride are, unlike other places in the world, notably absent. New reconstructions of buildings have in common an architecture that inspire little emotional response in their simple design. It all seems like one huge apology. This is a city who cares about the lessons of its past, and has its moral and educational mission inscribed in every last scrap of its stone.

Peter Eisenmann’s National Holocaust Memorial is emblematic of this mission. Placed strategically between the central crossing of Potsdamer Platz and Tier Garten, it is nigh impossible to ignore. One does not merely stumble upon it, but is accosted by its harrowing shapes that tower above street view. Constructed of 2711 large concrete slabs reminiscent of coffins, it demands to be interacted with. When walking through its narrow aisles, the coffins engulf you the deeper you go in. Children play hide and seek in this maze, their voices lost, like those of the dead, to the impersonality of stone.

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But how does a country truly repent for the heinous crimes of its past, and for how long? While the generation of individuals who survived Germany’s 1933-1945 Nazi era is dwindling by the day, Germany’s youth have now been passed the baton to bear the burdens of its past. And while the legacy of the Holocaust is still, as in Eisemann’s Memorial, at the forefront of everyone’s imagination, guilt is epidemic. Germany’s contrition is enshrined in law and written into the ‘federal government’s funding objectives.’ The World Wars take centre stage of every classroom history lesson. Education about more recent German history, like that of DDR, is forfeited in lieu of the remembrance of the deaths caused by the National Socialist regime.

This constant apology, this inability to forget, has seeped, I’m told, into current politics. After Hitler, the ‘you know who’ of the past century, the man who ostensibly cannot be named in conversation with anyone of German origin, all parties now choose to languish comfortably in the centre. Politics has become diluted, as neither Left or Right dare to express any views that may be considered ‘extremist.’

What does seem to be a consensus though is Germany’s willingness to talk about it. Far from labelling its past as taboo, Germany admits to its prior aggressive war politics, its responsibility for the World Wars and the crimes of National Socialism to such an extent that generations from now may still feel the weight of its legacy.

In February of this year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated the nation’s guilt after Poland imposed a law that criminalised any suggestion that Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. This is ultimately just a war of words played out on the international stage. A petulant blame game. It’s not enough that Germany must apologise visually and rhetorically again and again. In the current view of the world, no reparation can be made.

But what is the future?

Germany must remember those who fell victim to the World Wars and to the Holocaust, as all countries should. The past should not be eradicated, but understood. Guilt should not be absolved, but transferred to its actual perpetrators – the last generation of Nazi criminals who will soon be lost to history.

While the young should have no guilt, they must, at least, have a view.

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Unlike any other place I have been to, Berlin’s old coexists with its new. The city is still largely under construction, torn between its opposing agendas: commemoration of the past, and innovation for the future. The city centre, while laden in concrete, retains its beauty in a complex collage of remodelled pre-war structures and baroque architecture. Functionality collides with ornamentation. Berliner Dom and the Reichstag, recently reconstructed, maintain their pre-demolition splendour. On the East Side, creativity flourishes as artists continue to move into industrial spaces to practice their art. Older buildings lie in disrepair as vessels for rain and canvases for graffiti. Berlin’s monuments to the dead are located in the beating heart of the city, forming a part of Germany’s past and future.

To visit Berlin is to feel a part of the current of history. In language, in architecture, in memorials, this place seeks to repair the damage of the last century. While bombs may lie dormant beneath its surface, Germany’s sense of cultural responsibility, however, does not. How long must this country continue to repent? Only time will tell.