Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Berlin is a city that will never forget what's happened there. Some of Berlin has attempted to generate new symbols of freedom and community over landmarks that were once symbols of oppression and hate, as you saw in my last post. However, for as many symbols that needed to be redefined and reclaimed, there were many that needed to be brought to fruition. WWII nearly eradicated the physical city, but Berlin would not let it eradicate the memories associated with it. These things needed to be remembered, even if they had to be rebuilt to do so.
The Reichstag was one of the first symbols of Germany to be destroyed by the Nazis. The "mysterious" fire in 1933 gave Hitler a convenient excuse to disband the 1919 Weimar Constitution. The building was never used during the Third Reich, but still considered to be a major symbol and was further destroyed during the Red Army's air raids in 1945. Due to the confusion of the Cold War city limits, the head of West Germany was actually moved to Bonn and therefore the Reichstag was just another bombed out building. It was not until the Reunification that the Reichstag's significance was realized once again. After essentially gutting the entire building but its facade, the Reichstag is now home to the Bundestad or the German parliament. It has gone full circle as a symbol, evoking history with its exterior, but very much a part of contemporary Germany with its interior.
However, the Reichstag is not just a place for government, it also gives the public one of the best views of the city from its dome. Reminiscent of a beehive, it really is at the center of the city.
While the Reichstag is both a resurrection and reinvention of Germany and a very concrete symbol, not everything is so straight forward. There is no easy or obvious way to define the Holocaust and although I can never comprehend how Germans attempt to reconcile with it, the Holocaust Memorial is a very intriguing interpretation. It has weaved its way into the fabric of the city, particularly its subconscious. You will find no direct invocation of the Holocaust, the whole memorial is very abstract.
It starts out as a rather ominous maze, visually arresting, equal parts foreboding and inviting.
However, once you enter you quickly feel claustrophobic. The pillars keep rising and containing you in the darkness. If it is sunny out, the shadows loom and cannot help but cover you, I can only imagine how overbearing it would be if it were as gray as the columns are outside. You are aware others are around you, but cannot quite see them. The stone surrounds you, leaving you with just your thoughts. It becomes a stifling and tense environment. If you really lose your senses and fail to pay attention to where you walk, you can stumble as the ground is gradient. These are just the immediate physical and mental responses to wandering your way through the memorial, it doesn't even begin to explain the emotional and psychological toll. However, I'm sure you will be able to read into that. It's something that must be experienced for yourself. Anneke and Caroline both had very different, but haunting interpretations of how the Holocaust Memorial makes you feel. One thing is for certain, it's very powerful.
Other memorials are equally as impacting just by showing what is not there anymore. The Bebelplatz (in the Mitte district, the heart of Berlin) is home to the Nazi Book Burning Memorial. At first glance, you could walk right over it. It is only when you stand right on top of it that you can really appreciate the depth of it. The window looks into a room of blank bookshelves, painted a pristine white, but are utterly claustrophobic and clinical. It has the effect of a morgue. Once again, I will let you read into the symbolism of this. Yet at the same time, it has the look of a museum display case, which makes me hopeful that something as horrible as book burning has been left in the past.
Having once lived in DC, a city of memorials, I can say that Berlin's are especially affecting. Their abstract, yet potently symbolic nature, immediately includes the visitor. The visitor is not just looking at the something they could've better seen on a postcard, no rather, the visitor is experiencing something. Even better, each visitor will have their own experience and leave with an individualized understanding of what they saw. Berlin's memorials are about attempting to comprehend and reconcile what the city has taken part of or at least witnessed and that should be the purpose of all memorials.