Day 1: A Walk in Berlin Sparks Many Questions. That’s the Point.

By Jordyn Holman

Peering into the cavernous memorial in Berlin’s Bebelplatz that marks the Nazi book burning of 1933. (Dorian Jedrasiewicz/FASPE)

Everywhere I walk here, I am reminded of what came before.

On the first day of FASPE, historian and instructor Thorsten Wagner led the fellows from the journalism, business and law programs on a walking tour of Berlin. It was my first time here, and I realized that my high school history books did not do this city justice. I had expected the classic memorials of the World War II period and the Cold War, such as the remnants of the wall. I had not anticipated how much Berlin’s other histories would be present: synagogues, churches whose domes were influenced by the Moors, and the Prussian palaces.

I had also not anticipated a different approach to memorializing that emphasizes the scars of German society. The intentional preservation of these markers left the deepest impression on me.

These so-called “counter-memorials” are prevalent throughout Germany. “We know how to honor our kings and presidents,’’ Wagner told us. “But what do we do with a site that means horror? That’s particularly a German problem.”

We started our day at the German Resistance Memorial Center, where we learned about Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944, failed and was executed. Today, a statue of him stands in the middle of the courtyard where he was murdered.

We saw the site of the 1933 book burning, where Nazi soldiers destroyed “dangerous” writings in an effort to bring German arts and culture in line with their ideological goals. More than 20,000 books were destroyed. There is a glass opening on the ground, through which viewers see empty bookcases to remind people of what took place.

I thought about all the books that were lost 85 years ago, but also all the books that weren’t written because of the Holocaust. A plaque nearby says: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.”

Across the streets sits Humboldt University, which in the 1930s expelled its Jewish students. Outside the university gates, square plaques along the sidewalk bear the names and birthdates of students as well as where they died: many of them in death camps such as Auschwitz.

“Counter monuments have more question marks than exclamation points,” Wagner said as we headed toward the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. There are no signs at the memorial — just 2,711 slabs arranged in a grid pattern. As I walked through them, I could feel the pavement dipping; soon the pillars were well above my head and I felt lost in a kind of maze that blocked out the sun.

These counter-memorials did not come without controversy. When they were first advocated for in the 1980s, older generations were often opposed to the idea. But some Germans who were young during the war or who were born afterward felt that public reckoning was necessary.

Society is constantly trying to decide how it wants to remember its history, and in many ways, the Germans have done a better job than us. While in Berlin, it’s hard not to think of how America has not taken the time to fully reckon with the horrors of slavery. Of Jim Crow. Of lynchings. The National Museum of African American History and Culture just opened in 2016. Black Americans have been advocating for such a museum in Washington for the past century.

The day left me wondering: what makes a city, municipality or country decide that it is the right time to remember the past? What lessons should a memorial or counter-memorial leave us with? And who needs to take the initiative for it to finally get done?

My first day in Berlin helped me chip away at some of those answers, but I am still left with many more questions.

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