Ceremonies in the Haunted City

By Brysac, Shareen Blair | The Nation, March 27, 1995 | Go to article overview

Ceremonies in the Haunted City


Brysac, Shareen Blair, The Nation


In the midst of the fiftieth-anniversary observances of World War II, Berlin appears more in need of exorcists than architects and city planners. Political ghosts are everywhere.

At our bus stop in bucolic Grunewald, we're reminded by the memorial stone, a Gedenkstein, that at this very spot, Weimar Germany's Jewish Foreign Minister, Walter Rathenau, was gunned down by proto-Nazi bullies in 1922. At our S-Bahn station there is a Mahnmahl, a memorial erected as "a warning" for future generations, consisting of a concrete abstraction with a plaque stating that between 1941 and 1945, 50,000 of Berlin's Jews were transported east from this train station--in cattle cars. Many Jews were marched down western Berlin's main street, the Ku'damm, at night, when the shutters of the villas would be closed, allowing their occupants to claim to have heard nothing, to have seen nobody.

When one goes shopping at the KaDeWe--the emporium that is half Bloomingdale's but twice Zabar's--the signs on the Wittenbergplatz, which at first look like street signs, seem innocuous enough until you realize that Auschwitz, Stutthof, Maidanek, Treblinka, Theresienstadt, Buchenwald, Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Ravensbruck, Bergen-Belsen are the names of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps.

No city in history has more sinister buildings. Ironically, in a capital where one out of four buildings was destroyed by war, many of those with evil histories survived. In western Berlin there is Plotzensee, the favored execution spot for German resisters, and the Bendler Block, the headquarters of the Wehrmacht, where some of the members of participants in the July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler were shot and Lieut. Gen. Ludwig Beck committed suicide. The former Sportpalast, where Goebbels declared "total war" in February 1943, was torn down in 1974. Blutrichter, literally blood judges, sat in the Court Martial and People's Courts of the Third Reich, which are still standing. Berlin's worst address was Prinz Albrecht Strasse 8, the headquarters of the fearsome Gestapo, in whose prison victims were tortured. It was thought best in 1956 to blow up Berlin's grimmest reminder of its unsavory past. Yet in the eighties it was exhumed by youthful activists acting as archeologists. Gestapo Central now houses a "memory museum" devoted to the victims of the SS terror between 1933 and 1945. In eastern Berlin, Goebbels's propaganda ministry survived to be used for much the same purpose by the Communists. Goering's Luftwaffe Ministry, built in 1935-36 as one of the symbols of Hitler's "new Berlin," remains, suitably plaqued, of course, with the names of Luftwaffe members who joined the resistance to Hitler. Standing alone and forlorn in Berlin's center is the still domeless Reichstag, where the Bulgarian-born artist Christo will perform the final purification rite this summer--wrapping the entire building in white cloth.

The Free University's prestigious political science faculty is housed in the same building where, as administrators discovered to their horror a few years ago, Joseph Mengele and SS doctors planned their gruesome medical experiments. Here again the exorcism by plaques has been attempted. A bronze tablet notes that scientists "have to answer for the content and conclusions of their scholarly work."

Even cloistered museums are shadowed by the war. Despite reunification, their collections still have glaring holes. Schliemann's Trojan hoard remains hidden in a storeroom of Moscow's Pushkin Museum; and the Russians just revealed that they are holding hundreds of items belonging to Potsdam's palaces. The Russians show no signs of returning these objects, and German curators with whom I spoke referred to their missing holdings as "the last prisoners of war."

It is difficult to say when the war was lost for the Germans. …

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