How Charlottesville Looks From Berlin

Aug 16, 2017
Originally published on August 16, 2017 2:50 pm

To walk around Berlin is to constantly, inevitably, trip over history.

Almost literally, in the case of the Stolpersteine, or "stumbling stones," embedded in the sidewalks outside homes where victims of the Holocaust once lived.

Germany's culture of "remembrance" around the Nazi years and the Holocaust is a well-documented and essential part of the nation's character. Though occasionally political parties may challenge it, those elements have thus far remained thoroughly fringe.

But one striking thing an American in Germany will notice is that the more shameful parts of this nation's history are preserved and remembered very differently than our own.

On one of my first days in Berlin, I went for a run in Tiergarten, one of the city's largest public parks. It's a beautiful and shady place, impossibly green by my Washington, D.C., standards. Young Berliners, ex-pats and tourists will sit drinking beer (which is legal here) or making out (which is far less frowned upon).

Just outside the park lies the city's main Holocaust memorial, Denkmal für die Ermordeten Juden Europas — translated as "the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe." It's very central and outdoors and therefore nearly impossible to avoid. I wandered in, thinking I would check it out for a moment and come back another time.

The installation is an impressionistic maze of concrete blocks that grows taller as you walk through it. The outer layer resembles coffins — deeper in, the blocks look like tall trees in an impenetrable forest. I felt disoriented and unnerved — which, I imagine, is exactly the point.

Walk a bit farther down the tourist-packed streets and you'll find a parking lot at the former site of the Führerbunker, the underground shelter where Adolf Hitler committed suicide in the final days of World War II. There's a small sign explaining what occurred on that spot, but that's it: a sign outside a parking lot, full of German cars.

The juxtaposition with the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews, so nearby, is striking.

To equate Robert E. Lee with Hitler would be lazy, and bad history. Hitler's name is invoked too casually, and too often.

But since the white supremacists protesting the removal of Lee's statue in Charlottesville brandished swastikas, and openly made the Nazi salute, the connection to 1930s Germany was invited by the marchers themselves.

Seeing the images of young men carrying torches and chanting was perhaps surreal in Washington, but among Berliners there was an added layer of disbelief. While President Trump was being criticized for not explicitly condemning the white nationalist groups responsible for Saturday's violence, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman called the march "absolutely repulsive" and denounced the "outrageous racism, anti-Semitism and hate in its most despicable form."

One reason for not preserving Hitler's bunker was that it was feared that the site might become a place of pilgrimage for neo-Nazis; a place of violence and shameless celebration of a history that should be shameful. On Saturday, in a park in Charlottesville, a statue of General Lee became just that. The fact that marchers said their goal was to "take back America" seems especially ironic, since they were celebrating one of the very people whose explicit aim was to dismantle the nation.

Often the argument for preserving Confederate statues and allowing Confederate flags is that we should not forget our history. In Germany, Nazi buildings are extremely hard to come by — nearly all have been destroyed. Yet Germany certainly has not forgotten anything: There's just a recognition that remembering and memorializing are two different things.

Maggie Penman is a reporter/producer at NPR, currently in Berlin as an Arthur F. Burns Fellow.

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