In Memories of a Nation, the author Neil MacGregor argues that “German history is a composite of different, sometimes conflicting, local narratives”. He goes on to give the example of Frederick the Great of Prussia – the kingdom of which Berlin was the capital from 1701 until the unification in 1871 -, whose war and territorial gains were often won at the expenses of other German states. He goes on to say that if Frederick the Great could be considered something of a national hero in Berlin, in Dresden he would be considered a villain for having destroyed and captured the city during the Seven Years War.
In contemporary History, conflicting narratives become very local to Berlin. In the III Reich, the city became capital and headquarters of the Nazi Regime. Hitler had plans to completely demolish and rebuild the city, transforming it in the megalomaniacal capital of the Nazi Empire after the intended victory in WWII. However, much of the city ended up destroyed, not by Nazi bulldozers, but by Allied heavy bombing. By the end of the war, an estimated forty per cent of the population of Berlin had been forced by persecution or deprivation to resettle elsewhere; many thousands were forcefully deported and killed by Germany under the Nazi regime.
Today, silent reminders of the devastating consequences of war can be seen everywhere in Berlin. I am not speaking about the dozens of erected memorials, but of the buildings that were intentionally left destroyed by the war, like Kaiser Wilhelm Church or other public interventions which were made more recently like the thousands of Stumbling Stones spread across the city’s pavements.
The Stumbling Stones are brass stones engraved with the name and the fate of individual victims of Nazi Germany, placed in the pavement in front of their residence. This ongoing project by a German conceptual artist has been adopted by several cities in Germany and other countries in central Europe, albeit not without controversy: some argue that it is disrespectful to place the small memorials under our feet and doubt the stumble effect, questioning how many people stop to consider and pay respect to individual victims; others argue that it brings closure and power to the survivors and communities involved in the process and that the passer-by shoes have a polishing effect on the copper giving it shine throughout the years.
From war to division
In 1945, Berlin became spoils of war and was divided between the winning Allies. The city became permanently occupied by the Soviets in the East, and by the English, French, and American in the West. With the advent of the cold war, the division of the city became not just ideological but physical as well, with the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Neighbours, friends and families remained separated for almost 30 years by a 100 metres ‘death strip’.
The fall of the wall in 1989 became a symbol of the triumph of western freedom over eastern totalitarianism. In the nineties, parts of East Berlin were seen as uncharted territory by Western squatters and vanguard artistic movements. However, for Eastern Berliners, the fall of the wall meant mass unemployment, salary inequality and overall discrimination by the wining West.
Today, squatters are in the forefront of protest against capitalism and sky-rocketing property prices; and the founders of the Love Parade – a techno event born from the pacifist motto “peace, joy and pancakes”, which stood for disarmament, happiness and end of hunger – have dissociated themselves from it, disillusioned with the commercialization of the event.
When I visited the Berlin Story Museum, I was very unimpressed by the building: a concrete dilapidated square which was built as to be an air-raid shelter during WWII. Over the entrance to the bunker-turned-museum, there is an even less attractive graffito, translating “those who build bunkers, throw bombs”, very likely done during the eighties when the area, in the district of Kreuzberg, stood on the west margin of the Wall and was home to Turkish and Kurdish exiles, Punk and Hip-hop communities. These more politically aware and subversive communities are in the genesis of the bohemian spirit of today’s Kreuzberg.
The 1940s bunker and the 1980s graffito have thus been preserved throughout the decades as a testimony of History. I see the ensemble today as the perfect expression of the paradoxes of war and division in Berlin. Whether due to their size, location or because they seem to be displaced or dissonant from the surroundings, these kind of monuments – the Bunker as well as the Stumbling Stones – confront even the most distracted passer-by, away from the frenzy of the touristification of History.
As Neil MacGregor puts it, in Berlin as in Germany, monuments don’t have the purpose of celebrating national victories but are “uncomfortable reminders of failure and guilt [which] proclaim a moral message: that the past offers lessons which must be used to shape the future”.