Day 4: Where is America’s Topography of Terror?

By Anne Branigin

Like other memorials and museums dedicated to Nazi Germany, the Topography of Terror is not without dissonance. The block that once housed the Gestapo and SS—names that have become synonymous with state terror and mass murder—is now overrun with lines of tourists and their guides. Along the ruins of a brick wall, crowds contemplate the foundations upon which they stand. In different languages, the same story, the same warning, the same directive: remember what happened here.

For decades, this block was an empty, overgrown park and sometimes dump. A tour guide we met earlier in the trip told us that, as a teenager, he learned to drive on its grounds. Government and community officials long discussed what to do with the space that had once served as a nerve center for organized genocide. Thorsten Wagner, academic director for FASPE, said a helipad had been considered, as had a highway.

In 1987, a movement grew to acknowledge the dark history of that block: to excavate the grounds for evidence of the buildings that once stood there. To make the evidence visible, to acknowledge a deep national wound, a scar. Completed in 2010, the Topography of Terror is at once a map of state violence and a testament to the malleability of cultural memory and narratives.

The Topography of Terror: 1938 exhibit. (Dorian Jedrasiewicz/FASPE)

The word “Holocaust” exists as a kind of shorthand in contemporary discourse, a way to rhetorically raise the stakes of any argument or warning. Some activists and thinkers point out that there have been many holocausts in world history: sprawling and deliberate acts of genocide targeting the native tribes of Hispaniola, for instance, or the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its bloody, centuries-long aftermath. But the Topography of Terror, rightfully, concerns itself with specificity, singularly focused on Nazi Germany and its details. One exhibit, for example, documents the “People’s Court” that sentenced hundreds of “criminals” to death for acts of high treason. The terror here becomes clear when you focus on the details: the detentions, the court working in goose-step with the state’s immaculately manufactured protocols.

“Justice has no coordinates, no teleology,” wrote critic and author Maggie Nelson. That this is also true of injustice is the whole subtext of the museum. In observing the specific horrors of the Third Reich, visitors can spot in the details the same familiar devils.

A few hours before we visited the Topography of Terror, I had taken an edit test for a sports news website. I wrote about body-camera footage recently released by the Milwaukee Police Department capturing the arrest of Sterling Brown, a rookie on the city’s professional basketball team. The 30-minute video shows officers being antagonistic to Brown from the outset of their interaction; within a span of 8 minutes, eight officers arrived at a Walgreen’s parking lot at 2 a.m. over a routine parking violation. After telling Brown to get his hands out of pockets, officers rushed Brown, pushed him to the ground, and repeatedly tased him.

When Brown was booked, he was charged with resisting arrest. That is, until an internal review of the incident, which included the body-cam footage, prompted the Milwaukee Police Department, which has a history of racist policing practices, to drop the charges.

Save for Brown’s status as an NBA player, this is a pedestrian story. But as I considered the Topography of Terror and thought about what causes domestic terrorism to feel normal and routine, even mundane, I thought about Brown laying on the ground, under the weight of at least six officers, groaning in response to the electric shocks pulsing through his body. It was a form of state violence, albeit one so familiar it was difficult to imagine any sort of commemorative plaque or exhibit. But if America’s wounds were illuminated—the crimes committed by the state—they would resemble train tracks traversing the country, blood-rusty in some areas, fresh and gleaming in others. I long for such visible scarring. Because for it to exist, the wounds would have to be acknowledged. Would have to be dressed and addressed. Would finally have a chance to close.


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