The Challenges of Memorialization

As I holiday in Berlin this week, my mind is still pre-occupied with the topic of memorialization. Berlin is like that–on virtually every corner (and this is only a slight exaggeration) there is some aspect of memorialization going on, from the thousands of “stumbling stones” marking the homes of Jews victimized by the Hitler regime to signs at U-Bahn stations, plaques in parks, statues on shopping streets, and preserved ruins thrown in for good measure. Memorialization is everywhere in Berlin.

But yesterday, as we rode around the city on bicycles, enjoying the cool, dark beauty of the Tiergarten and the serene  majesty of the Gendarmemarkt, I encountered two cases of memorialization which disturbed me greatly. Neither is new to me–indeed, this is the problem. For nine years now, I have seen the gradual transformation of both the Berlin Holocaust Memorial (the Mahnmal near the Brandenburg Gate) and the East Side Gallery (the preserved section of Berlin Wall near the Ostbahnhof).

Holocaust MemorialI remember my first encounter with the Holocaust Memorial, not long after it opened in 2005. It seemed almost holy then, and its newness meant that everyone encountering it knew what it was about, and (so it seemed to me) respected it. True, there were little children playing about the stelae, but that didn’t seem too problematic–if anything, they constituted a celebration of life. But now all manner of people use the site simply as a rest stop, a place to sit on the many low stelae along the outside of the memorial. Worse, numerous young adults jumped around on top of the taller stelae further into the memorial. The man in black pants and white shirt to the left of the photo is a security person, charged with keeping order at what is becoming an unruly site. He spends his day telling children and young adults to get off the stelae, choosing German or English depending on where he thinks the people are from.

I introduced myself to him and asked if this was his job. When he said yes, I lamented that he had a very hard job. He agreed, and explained that the site was altogether too large–virtually impossible to control. He blamed the American architect, Peter Eisenmann, whose 2711-stelae field won the memorial design competition. I asked whether anyone had thought about some kind of wall or fence around the site, but he quickly and rightly pointed out that that would make it feel like a prison, which was hardly the idea of the memorial. Indeed, its openness is one of its strengths.

Still, as my dear wife Colleen (who has to endure my dark historical interests) and I talked about it, it was clear to us that the memorial was not really working. Sure, some people came to it with the proper reverence, but the unruly crowds and the snapping security person made reflection all but impossible. This site needs more signage–some kind of documentation spaced appropriately around the site, and not only in the hard-to-find interpretive centre in the far corner.

East Side Gallery TrabiFrom the Holocaust Memorial, we biked over to the Gendarmemarkt, and then on to the East Side Gallery. Here, among the crowds of young people, I noticed two phenomena which seemed unhealthy, from the perspective of memorialization. The dead zone between the portion of the Berlin Wall left standing and the Spree River has been turned into a park, which in and of itself is fine, but the inside of the Wall has long been a graffiti free-for-all zone, and the result is that the graffiti on the east side of the Wall, which so poignantly captured the rush to freedom of November 1989, no longer stands out. Indeed, the graffiti on the inside of the Wall, by the park, is much easier to view than that of the East Side Gallery itself, which can only be viewed from up close on the sidewalk running along the outside of the Wall.

What is worse, however, is the way that the images which made the site so famous have become tarnished over time, as more and more graffiti covers them. This is a space that  has always been situated somewhere between official and unofficial status, but by now its value as a memorialization of the fall of the Berlin Wall is greatly compromised. Yes, the Wall itself is still there, and it constitutes a powerful reminder of the oppression of an East German regime which had to imprison its own population. But the proliferation of subsequent layers of graffiti has all but ruined the site’s aesthetic value. If one wants to reflect on the meaning of the Wall, the Topography of Terror is a much better site, even though it is a site dedicated to remembering the crimes of National Socialism. There, at least, the Wall is preserved free of subsequent alteration.

I don’t envy the Berlin authorities who have to oversee the city’s monuments. Many are in fine shape, and are fitting memorials to the good and bad events in the city’s past. But the Holocaust Memorial and East Side Gallery have both seen far better days, and this is a sad state of affairs for anyone who cares about the memory of the events to which they are supposed to point.

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