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The woes of Berlin's memorials

by Götz Aly

On May 10 the Monument for the Murdered Jews of Europe will be inaugurated in Berlin. Three other monuments to the victims of the Nazi era exist in the German capital: the German Resistance Memorial, Topography of Terror and the House of the Wannsee Conference, where the "Final Solution" was reached in 1942. Until now, these three monuments have been financed and maintained by the Berlin municipality. Christina Weiss, Federal Commissioner for Cultural and Media Affairs, now plans to group them together in federal foundation. Historian Götz Aly agrees because he argues, the current state of the memorials is catastrophic.

The former capital of the Third Reich has three special National Socialist museums, all of which date back to before the Wall came down. First – how could it be otherwise – the German Resistance Memorial was established on Stauffenbergstrasse in 1969. Two decades later, in 1987, Topography of Terror followed on the grounds of the former SS and Gestapo headquarters. Then came the educational memorial in the House of the Wannsee Conference, where the "Final Solution" was decided on. Planning started in 1987, and it opened in 1992.

The displays in these memorials give an impression of mustiness and hostility to innovation. They have become museums to themselves. Anyone who occasionally takes foreign guests through them cannot fail to be embarrassed by their present state. The displays give a disproportioned, overly complex impression, their statements are ambiguous. In extreme contrast to the carefully selected material of the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Berlin curators make do with photos most of which have been shown countless times. In the German Resistance Memorial, there are no explanatory texts in English at all.

The functionaries and advisers of the memorial industry have remained the same for ages, and are very much bound up with one another. They talk about the calamity in ever new euphemisms. There are two reasons for changing this. Firstly, a new National Socialist memorial will be opened in May under the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Secondly, a few weeks ago the federal government made a point of announcing it would take on a bigger role in the organisation of the National Socialist memorials. At least in theory, the conditions for a new start are at hand. But in practice the chances for such a new start are slim, and stand to conflict with the self-contented phlegm of existing structures.

The situation of the Topography of Terror is complex. Plans for a new building have miscarried terribly. (In 1993 architect Peter Zumthor won the competition to build the documentation centre. In the ensuing 12 years only three large stairway towers were constructed. Costs skyrocketed and it was decided in 2004 to tear down the 3 finished towers. ed.) The memorial staff is certainly not to blame for these problems. But they are to be credited for the fact that for over 17 years almost nothing has changed in the exhibit. And yet compared with the concentration camp memorial in Dachau, for example, Berlin's National Socialist museums are unusually well supplied with materials and personnel.

The Topography of Terror catalogue is typical of the well-paid neglect seen in the memorial as a whole. Its unpretentious layout is reminiscent of Soviet youth publications, and has remained unchanged since 1987. This did not stop organisers from stating in the current 14th edition of 2002 that it has been "reworked and expanded". Instead of referring at least briefly to the immense growth of knowledge in recent years, a few pages about the then 14-year history of the memorial are annexed to the old edition, stating: "In February 1989, the Berlin Senate appointed a commission chaired by Professor Reinhard Rürup, scientific director of the 'Topography of Terror' memorial, to compile an extensive report on further use of the 'Prince Albrecht grounds'." Bravo! The report took two years to write, and is now in the rubbish bin.

A flip through the bibliographic references in the catalogue gives an insight into the stunning mindlessness of the actually existing Berlin memorial scene. The most recent titles were published – unbelievably – in the year of the first edition, 1987. Hardly one of the books cited is still available in book stores. The world-famous work by Raul Hilberg on the extermination of the European Jews is cited in an obsolete edition put out by a publishing house that no longer exists. No one bothered to refer to the significantly expanded, easily accessible pocket book edition. Why the memorial staff did not replace a now fully irrelevant book on the history of the SS published in 1967 with newer works by Michael Wildt or Ulrich Herbert remains a mystery. The "further reading" section makes no mention of the wonderfully thorough, now classic studies by Saul Friedländer and Dieter Pohl on the persecution of the Jews, nor of Michael Zimmermann's tremendous work on the persecution of the Sinti and Roma, or Wolfgang Sofsky's study "The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp".

With the same stubbornness, the Berlin memorial staff list long-out-of-print, almost exclusively German publications in the French and English versions of the catalogue. Mention is made in the English version (13th edition, 2003) of an outdated American edition of Hilberg's work. But no reference is made to the relevant English-language research or the numerous English translations of German publications. Readers of the 12th edition of the French catalogue (2002) will find no indication that Hilberg's standard work has been available in French since 1988. The pertinent French works by Leon Poliakov, Lucien Steinberg and Serge Klarsfeld, all of which have been available in France for decades, also go unmentioned.

In past decades, none of the Berlin memorials has set up a bookshop to provide interested visitors with further information. Nowhere can you buy "The Diary of Anne Frank" or the Auschwitz Calendarium, nowhere can you leaf through the newer titles in National Socialist research. In their place, the memorials offer small selection of their own excruciatingly boring writings. Apart from the catalogue, the Topography of Terror also offers a stale 14-year old anthology about the war of conquest and extermination waged against the Soviet Union. Even hard-boiled sceptics will be stupefied at what is on sale there in place of the current literature: Neatly arranged and priced, as if they were the major works on the Nazi era, are the administrative reports of the memorial. In contrast to the catalogue, loving attention has gone into their making.

This is no marginal note. The same institutional self-infatuation also makes the exhibit problematic. Plans to erect a new building have remained unsuccessful, although they have not been abandoned. The display panels that make up the exhibit hang in the open air, lined along a long strip of exposed cellar wall from the former terror headquarters and topped by a makeshift canopy. The location has a certain flair, and is well-visited.

But the panels contain a series of small mistakes. For example, Edmund Veesenmayer, who pushed through the decision to deport the Hungarian Jews in 1944, is called "Sonderbeauftragter" (special envoy) in the catalogue, and "Generalbevollmächtigter" (plenipotenitary) on the display panel. In reality he bore the snappy title "Bevollmächtigter des Großdeutschen Reiches in Ungarn" (plenipotentiary of the German Reich in Hungary, or "Reichsbevollmächtigter" – Reich plenipotentiary for short), and was employed – some could find this interesting – in the Foreign Ministry of the Federal Republic.

But these are minor details. What is unacceptable is the obsessive attention the organisers pay to the history of the location itself, and the development of the neighbourhood, the buildings and the gardens in the last 200 years. The result is that while 18 sections – roughly one third of the entire exhibit – are dedicated to historical blueprints, images from bygone days and the "handling" of the rubble, the fate of the German Jews is dealt with in two sections, and the fate of the European Jews in five. Significantly less space is given to the deportation and extensive killing of more than 500,000 Hungarian Jews than to plans for the palace gardens in the years before and after 1830.

The catalogue index has one entry each for the "Treblinka" and "Belzec" extermination camps and the concentration camp "Majdanek". By contrast, "Europe House" appears 15 times, "Anthropological Museum" 10 times, and "Anhalter Station/Anhalter Street" 18 times. All of the latter entries are for trivial descriptions of locations neighbouring the police and SS. The large extermination camps Sobibor and Maly Trostinez are ignored entirely, whereas architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel receives nine exuberant entries. Leo Baeck, who was more or less officially damned to be the leader of the German Jews, who was unremittingly called in and humiliated by all manner of SS men, has been banned in this exhibit to the realm of the nameless, just as Adolf Eichmann would have wanted.

One other thing hits the eye, in addition to this maddening asymmetry. The exhibition lays excessive emphasis on the non-Jewish Nazi victims. It was here, of all places, that the catalogue was extended, although this is exactly where there is the most overlap with the German Resistance Memorial. Enormous stretches are reserved for portraits of persecuted social democrats and communists, Christians and conservatives. The many heroes and heroines shown there deserve all of our appreciation – regardless of how we judge today some aspects of what they thought and did. But it can only be seen as hard-hearted and tactless in an exhibition on the police and the SS, which as we know extended over large parts of Europe, that there are more than 50 large portraits of the members of the German resistance, but not a single picture of a persecuted French, Norwegian, Soviet, Polish or Jewish individual, as a living and singular human being.

None of Berlin's Nazi museums provide an insight into the wide-scale robbing of property from the German and European Jews. Anyone seeking to understand the weakness of the German resistance should also be able to learn why Nazi politics were so attractive to large numbers of Germans. Nowhere in Berlin does the question even arise as to why National Socialism was so successful in Germany. Nowhere can one find out how this period insinuated itself into German history. The official memorials provide no information on the average satisfied Arian. The faithful party member, who stood back and let all the crimes take place and even profited by them, who occasionally helped out the victims of persecution but all too often smugly denounced them, remains discreetly in the realms of the invisible.

Berlin's so-called memorial landscape leaves all the central questions unanswered. Museums of terror, resistance and the persecution of the Jews stand utterly disconnected, as if they had descended upon us from a distant planet. When contradictions appear in individual biographies, they are carefully masked out or hidden away in files. It goes without saying that a tank commander like Erich Hoeppner should be shown amongst the martyrs of the July 20 Plot against Hitler in Stauffenbergstraße. But it should be clearly said that he was also a merciless anti-Semite, who spared no opportunity during the occupation of the Soviet Union to hand out the most despicable orders for the murder of "Jewish Bolsheviks". It seems like a bad joke that the persecution of the Sinti and Roma is documented most rigorously - in its own special section - in the memorial to German resistance, where it is classified as resistance in the history of German heroes. And if that was not enough, the curators of the Stauffenbergstraße exhibition propagate the idea that 500,000 Sinti and Roma died during the persecution. This is pure opportunism on the part of Peter Steinbach (the director of the museum) towards Romani Rose, Chairman of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, who has circulated this fictitious figure for years. Any serious researcher knows that the number was closer to 200,000, which is quite appalling enough. Why the exaggeration?

The Berlin memorials gloss over large historical connections in a cowardly way. In avoiding everything that is messy and the ambiguous, they serve to "de-contextualise" history. In their current set up, the memorials establish a precedent of how to neatly seal off from questions of historical correlation other historical events of the 20th century, such as bombing wars and deportation, whether it be in the interests of self-pity or far right ideology. This is deliberate obscurantism. It contributes to a fragmentation of historico-political culture, encouraging everyone to select snippets of information at their convenience and churn them into a politico-ideological mish-mash.

May will see the opening of the Holocaust Memorial exhibition and bookshop with an appropriate selection of books. One can only hope this 'museumification' will outshine the existing museums and attract the hordes of visitors. This would provide a well-needed opportunity for the older memorials to refresh their exhibits and maybe some of their staff as well. The memorial in Stauffenbergstraße could do with trimming down to its core business, the German resistance. The Topography of Terror exhibition, after thorough modernisation, could continue in its open-air site. The House of the Wannsee Conference has made a name for itself as a educational establishment with its seminar programme.

According to this concept, the new building on the "Topography" site could be established as a museum for the Nazi era. The directorial position would have to be linked with an appropriate chair at the Humboldt University and all the individual libraries currently going to seed could be brought together there under one roof. If all this was established, an interested public, both local and international, would finally have access, in the former capital of the Third Reich, to comprehensive information on National Socialism (including its premises and consequences), on the Second World War, on the Germans of the time and on the unprecedented radicality of the politics of mass murder.


Götz Aly teaches at the Fritz Bauer Institute of the University of Frankfurt. His book "Hitler's Volksstaat" was published recently by S. Fischer Verlag.

The article was originally published in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 1 March, 2005, where you now have to pay to read it. It is freely available here on the Perlentaucher site.

Translationi: jab and lp.

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