Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Bill learnt German for a semester in school[1][2]. So, once in a while, when he is done staring at the ceiling he talks about German. He claims he finds their composite words fascinating. Mostly because its so logical, and it's how one would expect words to be put together. One of the words he particularly likes is Vergangenheitsbewältigung[3]. The word's meaning from what I gather is "the process of coming in terms with the past". (Vergangenheit = past; Bewältigung = management) Yes, they have a word for it and they do not stop at that. Memorials and museums across the country, the history curriculum in their schools, and more recently, the opening of the Stasi files are examples of the institutionalization of this process. The Tin Drum (though controversial nowadays!) is an example of its importance in German literature. One could argue that Germany has a past that makes this word necessary but really, who doesn't? Why is the extermination of Native Americans any less worthy of America's attention? Or why is it that in neighbouring Austria, which by all accounts was even more anti-Semitic that Germany, they seem only interested in reinventing themselves as a Sound of Music paradise and any talk of a memorial creates a controversy?

The point I am trying to make (though I would be the first to admit I am biased here) is that I find Germany to be more open than any other country in exploring the skeletons in his closet. Even a casual visitor to the country, unless you are there just for Oktoberfest, cannot help noticing this. And this is why in Berlin, the visitor needs to make some pretty tough choices not just around museums but also about the memorials that he wants to see[4]. So here, in no particular order, are some notes on a few museums and memorials that we visited:

1. The Jewish Museum, designed by Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind and completed in 2001, is as much an architectural landmark in Berlin as it is a museum that showcases two thousand years of German Jewish history. (The original Jewish museum was closed down by the Nazis in 1938) This zig-zag, zinc-plated building follows no functional pattern, and looks like an architecture installation. The building cannot be accessed directly from the street and you have to go into the Baroque building next door and take a stairway down to a tunnel that will let you into the main museum building.

Once inside, there is a straight line hallway interesected by two other lines. These form the three axes - the Axis of Exile and the Axis of Holocaust interesecting the Axis of Continuity. Along the Axis of Exile, there are names of cities that Jews fled to during the 30s and the 40s along with displays of personal effects, letters and stories of individual families. The Axis of Exile leads into the Garden of Exile - a courtyard consisting of tilted columns that gives you a feeling of disorientation. This supposedly signifies the experience of the exiled people in their adopted countries. The Axis of Holocaust has names of all camps and display windows with individual stories and personal effects of people who perished in the camps; this axis leads to a dark, concrete tower called The Holocaust Tower. The Axis of Continuity leads to a staircase that keeps going up even after you turn off at the top floor to enter the rooms that showcases the history of Jews in Germany through the ages.

2. First they built it as a peace memorial with the Quadriga driving the peace chariot. Then that little French horse thief stole it and took it to Paris. They got it back and gave an Iron Cross to the Quadriga to make it a Victory memorial. The Russians put it on their side of the Wall in 1961, JFK used it as a background for his famous speech, and when the Wall went down, the Chancellor walked through it to shake hands with the Prime Minister. The Propylea inspired Brandenburg Gate is probably the most recognizable structure in Berlin, and it stands at the top of the tree-lined Unter der Linden and just a block from the Reichstag. This neo-classical structure, built by the Athens on the River Spree school, could easily have been one of those imposing monstrosities that adorn many an American city but perhaps because of the open square in front and the modern buildings around it, it looks quite pretty and very much in place.

3. Between Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, next to Hannah Arendt Strasse, in Berlin's prime real estate area, lies the 5 acre Holocaust Memorial. Official name is "Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe" which has been a cause of controversy for obvious reasons. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman, the memorial consists of about 2700 concrete slabs arranged in a grid pattern. It was supposedly inspired by the Jewish cemetery in Prague where the ordered system broke down when the numbers became unmanageable. The concrete slabs are of varying heights and the path through the grid is also not flat all the way through, so as you walk through the memorial, there will be times where the slabs around you are more than twice your height.

"What's all this?"

"This is so cool. I feel disoriented"

"Yeah, but you know the one in DC is cool too. This is sorta cool but how many did you really kill?"

Bloody American tourists. To be fair though, most of the American tourists we had seen up till then in Berlin were actually pretty nice with an uniquely American sense of humour and they seemed very much clued in on everything.

"Hey Bill. Did you hear about that new African-American history museum they are building in Berlin? Do you know if that's open yet?"

Three pairs of eyes on me. Bill had to drag me away. And just as we were walking away, between the Brandenburg Gate and the Holocaust Memorial, probably the most prized location in the city, well, what did you expect?

4. Are memorials supposed to serve any purpose? Are they supposed to make one feel like one has learnt something from history? The super-creative and very dignified Jewish Museum was informative and interesting. The Brandenburg Gate a study in imperialism and probably symbolism. The Holocaust Memorial, I got the idea and all but I felt it was a little too opulent and showy to have any impact. Where am I going with this? To Bebelplatz in front of the Humboldt university where the Nazis, in their early years, burnt books. Hemingway, Mann, Marx, Remarque everyone you can think of. As you walk acorss this large square today, you come across a glass plate in the middle. You peer down the glass plate and you see a room underground with white bookshelves on all four sides. All of these shelves are empty. A little distance away, a plaque on the ground with a Heinrich Heine quote from 1820:

That was merely a prelude. Wherever they burn books, eventually they will burn people too.

If there's another memorial anywhere in the world that is so simple and yet so impactful, I have not seen it yet.

(To be continued)

[1] Yes, now we know why it takes so long to do a PhD!

[2] The reasons for choosing German aren't exactly clear. I mean, everyone you know learns Spanish or Mandarin. Why German? BM thinks this had something to do with the fact that whenever Bill happened to be in Germany, men hit on him. I have no idea how this relates to anything, but this is one of BM's all-time favorite theories so I just thought I would mention it.

[3] No, I wasn't going to take his word for it until I saw that Alok, he of Zembla also thinks this is a real word (thought I cannot find the link right now).

[4] The guidebooks all claimed that unlike other European cities, Berlin isn't built around a central downtown type area, so you have to choose and be efficient about getting from one to another. Not entirely true. First of all, Berlin hasn't been built and done with but we already knew that and we will come back to that later. Second of all, this is Germany we are talking about and by definition, there is no dearth of efficiency in transportation or anything else for that matter. Third, while there is no central area, one can easily walk to most of Berlin's attractions - if you cannot walk from the Jewish museum to Unter der Linden, seriously, you should never leave America in the first place. Having said that, there are definitely choices that you need to make in Berlin in terms of what you want to see unless your time is unlimited. With just about three days, our choices were reasonably easy to make - a couple of historicals streets, a few memorials, and obviously, architecture.


mathew said...

wow nice to see a similar post..

I love Berlin..and I had recently blogged about the place after a similar visit...


Alok said...

came here via desipundit, nice to see the link to my blog. thanks!

of course it is a word! it is in fact the centre of many endless debates in german intellectual culture.

sometime back i had a similar discussion on the blog about it. people who had been to Germany and had talked to people there didn't agree with my enthusiasm and praise for german response to holocaust and its legacy. (of course I have never been there and for me it is just another shelf in the library and so my views are based entirely on second-hand information.) you live there or are you just on a Europe trip?

link to the blog here.

Cheshire Cat said...

"Moliere, the hugger-mugger repertory of your first adventure, is your own affair."

Veena said...

Mathew: Thanks for the link. Yes, lovely city, no?

Alok: Thanks for the link - it was on the comment thread! I knew I saw it somewhere. That Timothy Garton Ash piece was pretty cool too, wasn't it?

I live in London and just went to Berlin for a weekend. Yes, people who have spent enough time in Germany do not seem to agree with us on the German response. They have seen things first-hand so they probably know better. But I appreciate the German response because 1) On a relative scale, no one else comes close and 2) They have done a great job in instituionalizing the process

Cat: I have no idea what you are talking about. The only reason I even know Moliere is because of the connection to Andre Louis. Whatever happened to plain English?

But yes, very much hugging-mugging I do. Very proud of it too.

Cheshire Cat said...

OK, I'll say it in plain and simple English: Part 2! Suspense is all to the good, but around the seventeenth day or so, it might lose an iota of its appeal.

Ah well, patience is a virtue and so forth, I'll just linger here, a silent reproach...

Veena said...

Cat: Of what? If its the city, there is so many parts to the damn city what is one supposed to do? If its any consolation, I am off to India in a few days and have to get all the Berlin posts and photos out before then.

Tell you what? You identify building in the post coming up in a few minutes and I will do buildings. If not, I will go back to memorials.

Cheshire Cat said...

Berlin!! Neither/Nor: Neither buildings, nor memorials.

"Kirrin Island" - is it forgotten then?

Veena said...

Oh that. I didn't post that then? Oh shoot. There's some half-done draft lying somewhere. I will dig that up.

Mummy! He doesn't like Berlin!

Veena said...

Ok, found the draft. There's a reason why that didn't get posted. Nothing funny happened and I ran out of steam and didn't feel like making stuff up. But now that you have been waiting patiently and all, I will go make up stuff.

Cheshire Cat said...

Yeah, I don't care if it's fiction, so long as it's funny.

As for Berlin, I certainly do admire you, trying to find comic material in a German city. No laughing matter, that...

Alok said...

there is another essay by Garton Ash in the latest NYRB. link

日月神教-任我行 said...