Day 4: “Dig Where You Stand”

By Rhaina Cohen

For years I’ve had a distinct impression of post-war Germany: it’s a nation that’s done the painful, shame-inducing work of confronting their past. The German state has paid reparations to victims of Nazi crimes. In the center of Berlin, you can hardly walk a few blocks without stumbling on a monument or a memorial to Holocaust victims (literally: small commemorative plaques called stumbling stones dot the sidewalk). Descendants of Germans who were deported to camps or fled the Holocaust are entitled to German citizenship, and there is a word to capture that process: Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Germany’s actions seem even more honorable when contrasted with its neighbor, France, a country that responded to its dark history by excising the concept of “race” from the law. It practically occupies a separate universe from the United States, whose government hasn’t done much to amend for or, at times, even acknowledge, the ramifications of slavery and Jim Crow.

But, as I’ve learned this week, Germany’s record of atonement isn’t quite so pristine. For decades, there was continuity between Nazi- and postwar-Germany. Former Nazis carried on their roles in the police and intelligence agencies and in the courts. Business owners who purchased their stores from Jews under coercive conditions continued to sell their wares. To the extent that Germans dealt with their Nazi past, as FASPE academic director Thorsten Wagner puts it, they spoke for several decades in terms of “isms”: fascism, Nazism—abstract ideas supposedly pushed forward by a few sadistic people. They did not speak of a widespread movement that implicated parents and neighbors, or of the fact that many had themselves benefitted from the plunder of Jews.  

Wagner explained that, in the 1980s, younger people—many of whom were grandchildren of the Germans who had been adults during the Holocaust—demanded that Germany interrogate its past. They took to the idea of “dig where you stand”: look at the people close to you, at the ground beneath your feet, as evidence of the past. They pushed for museums, monuments, and memorial centers.

The Topography of Terror. (Rhaina Cohen)

On Thursday, when we visited the Topography of Terror, we witnessed the tangible result of this effort to “dig where you stand.” German citizens used their spades to turn up soil in a part of Berlin rife with Nazi history: the site of a cluster of former Nazi institutions, including the headquarters of the SS and the Reich Security Main Office. Among other things, these Germans unearthed the cellar of the Gestapo. This excavation site is now on display as a raw testimony, a scar in the land. While visitors can learn about perpetrators of the Holocaust at the Topography of Terror’s documentation center, the more striking part of the memorial is the expansive topographic wound: stones—an item that Jewish people traditionally place on graves as a form of commemoration—that screech as they scrape against your shoes; the long, metallic staircase that slices through the landscape of stones and leads you to the exposed and crumbling brick wall in the cellar. I’m certain that I’m not the only visitor who found it haunting to walk on the ground on which political prisoners were tortured and executed, and where Nazis finalized the plan to exterminate European Jews.

Seeing these and other provocative monuments around Berlin left me feeling ambivalent. It took decades, and a new generation, to launch memorials—and the reckonings that accompanied them—into being. My initial reaction was disappointment: Germans were silent for decades after the horror. But I also see a more optimistic way to interpret and extrapolate this history: that a country is not necessarily doomed to a future of willful ignorance if it does not immediately reckon with its past.

That same day, I faced another challenge to my prior understanding of Germany’s contrition. Over beers, a German friend explained to me that the far-right party AfD had plans to demonstrate in Berlin that weekend. The AfD includes politicians who’ve criticized these very monuments. Hearing about the growing political influence of the AfD made me wonder if the progress of the 80s, 90s, and aughts was less widespread than I believed. It’s made me uncertain about what sites of memory like the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Topography of Terror can actually tell us about a society’s understanding of the past. Whose views do these monuments represent? Do these monuments merely establish a national myth about remorse without actually changing minds? What exactly is the purpose of monuments—are they supposed to reflect or shape public views?

These questions are still ping-ponging in my mind with no resolution in sight, but I recently encountered an idea about another form of documentation that seems as though it might apply here. In On Photography, Susan Sontag writes, “Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one—and can help build a nascent one.” Perhaps, as with photography, it is too much to expect that a few memorials will move a society’s views. They constitute just one fragment of a nation’s narrative, formed through history books and family tales, of news stories and fictional depictions. Even so, it’s worth trying to get right that contribution to the narrative.

Leave a Reply