Memory and memorials in Berlin

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Sunday 27th January is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, an event with obvious resonance here in the German capital. It has been cold over the past few weeks, with temperatures falling below zero and snow on the ground, snow which covered the slabs of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe when Katrin went by on Thursday to take some photographs. The Memorial was subject to a lot of debate at its time of building, and has since been joined by nearby memorials to Homosexual victims of the Holocaust, as well as the more recent memorial to the Roma and Sinti who perished at the hands of the Nazi regime. All cities have memorials to their past, sometimes glorious and glorifying, other times reflective and sorrowful. Berlin has so many you fear that you will start to look through them, to no longer reflect on what they mean and what they stand for as they  become simply part of the fabric of the city.

On Thursday Katrin’s walk took her from the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe through the Tiergarten to the Soviet War Memorial, erected using the stone of Hitler’s Chancellery after the fall of the Nazi regime to the troops of the Red Army who flew the red flag complete with hammer and sickle from the ruined cupola of the Reichstag further along the street. And then through the Brandenburg Gate, itself commissioned in the late 18th Century to represent peace to the re-built Pariser Platz, that once stood in the no-man’s land of the Berlin Wall, and on to Unter den Linden, with its own collection of memorials including that to remember the Nazi burning of the books on Bebelplatz.  At the Neue Wache a light dusting of snow had landed on the enlarged version of Käthe Kollwitz’s Pieta, created by the artist after her son died during World War I. During GDR times this building housed the “Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism” and was the location of a changing of the guard ceremony popular with the camera-wielding tourists that made it to capital of East Germany. In 1993 with the enlargement of Kollwitz’s statue in place, it was re-dedicated by Chancellor Kohl as the “Central Memorial to the Victims of War and Tyranny.”

In the wonderful book “Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape”, author Brian Ladd quotes from the director of Berlin’s city planning authority in 1991, after the wall had come down and the city and country had been reunified, but before Berlin was once more established as the capital of Germany; “Berlin is the place where we will see whether the Germans succeed in finding the way from the tragedy of division to a new identity.” You could add to that – for the “New Berlin” in the “New Germany” had to complete a journey from the Nazis via that division to the new identity, and left the city planners and politicians with tasks distinct and unique in their field of work. Those ghosts of Berlin are on every street corner in the city, and the memorials are an important part of reminding us that they are there. So it is good, every so often, to not look through these structures that have become so familiar to us, and to reflect – as we do on International Holocaust Remembrance Day – on the lessons of the past that have helped shape the new identity of our city, our community and our society, whether in Germany or beyond.

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Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig

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