Memorials of Forgetting: Art and Architecture in Berlin

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it the way it really was”. It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.

– Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940)

While this article lies outside the work of Architects for Social Housing, properly speaking, in this year of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution Ive been thinking about the role of art and architecture in memorialising the past. And as the ideological state apparatuses of Church, Crown, Government, Judiciary and Press combined this week to whitewash the Grenfell Tower fire in the spectacle of the memorial service for its victims at Saint Pauls cathedral, this role has come into sharper focus. How long will it be before an official memorial is commissioned to replace the ones spontaneously set up by the local community, a competition held, an internationally respected artist or architect selected, and further millions spent on a monument to forgetting, while the survivors of the fire continue to be shipped out of the borough or remain housed in temporary accommodation, and the estate regeneration programme that killed their families and neighbours rages unchecked across the city? While the identification and prosecution of those responsible for the Grenfell Tower fire remains a distant hope of justice, memorial services and monuments to the dead are invitations to forget the causes and perpetrators of this crime. In this context, these reflections on the role of art and architecture in memorialising the recent past of Berlin are a reminder that every official act of remembrance is an active forgetting of what is happening in the present. History is always written by the victors.

1. The Marx-Engels Forum

‘South down Spandauer Strasse on the southern side of Karl Liebknecht Strasse, is the Marx-Engels Forum, a severely well-ordered patch of city centre greenery. At its heart sits a lumpen bronze representation of the founders of the “scientific world view of the working class”, as pre-Wende guidebooks referred to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Facing the monument are eight steel pillars bearing photogravure images of uplifting scenes from Soviet and East German life and events from various revolutionary struggles. These have been partly vandalised, and someone has made a determined effort to scratch out the face of Erich Honecker on one of them. Nearby are blurred bronze reliefs of men and women doing nothing in particular, and between the Marx-Engles statue and the Palast der Republik are some similarly unclear stone reliefs showing muscular men standing around.’

The Rough Guide to Berlin (2011)

Since this terse description in the Rough Guide was written for the instruction of visitors to Berlin, the sculptures have been moved to the north-west corner of the Forum. The central statue of Marx and Engels, which once had its back to the River Spree, and was therefore framed by the Palace of the Republic on the farther shore, now faces the Spree (and the Palace has been demolished to make way for a pastiche reconstruction of the former Imperial Palace); and the other elements, which were previously spread out around the Forum, have been brought into closer proximity. Walking around the statues, we met a filmmaker from the former East Germany who was making a documentary about the history of the Forum, and he told us that this rearrangement is because the Forum – we weren’t suprise to hear – is being redeveloped, and the city council, lacking the will to remove or demolish this uncomfortable reminder of the German Democratic Republic, came up with this compromise. In another instance, he said, the huge statue of Lenin in the former Leninplatz (now renamed the United Nations Square) was pulled down two years after the unification of Germany; but again, rather than destroy it, the statue was dismantled and buried in a large sandpit – although the head has recently been excavated for an exhibition in Spandau.

I always visit the Forum every time I go to Berlin, and I’m always struck at how successful it is as a work of art. So I was just as struck by the lazy certainty with which the writers of the Rough Guide dismissed it. The terms they use to do so – ‘severe’, ‘lumpen’, ‘uplifting’, ‘various’, ‘doing nothing’, ‘standing around’ – have the sneering contempt I am used to hearing in the similar description of the socialist principles guiding the design of council estates under threat of demolition in London. And just like the estates, I find these statues, and the arrangement they make, sophisticated in both conception and realisation.

The Marx-Engels Forum is a late addition to the public art of the German Democratic Republic, having only been completed in 1986, three years before the Berlin Wall came down. The central statue, cast in bronze, is consistent with the Socialist Realism that was the official art form of the Soviet Union from 1934, when the Soviet Congress of Writers laid out its principles. These were that art be: 1) proletarian, that is, relevant to and comprehensible by the workers; 2) typical, depicting scenes of the everyday life of the people; 3) realistic, in the sense of the conventions of representation; and 4) partisan, so supportive of the aims of the State and the Communist Party. By the 1960s – following the 20th Party Congress in 1958, at which the Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced the personality cult of Stalin – the hold of Socialist Realism on official art began to weaken; and this statue situates Marx and Engels within that earlier period, and specifically – in the context of a memorial in the German Democratic Republic – of the Great Patriotic War Against Fascism in which the Soviet Union (rather than, as we are constantly told, the United States of America) defeated Nazi Germany. To call this statue ‘lumpen’, therefore – meaning misshapen and ugly, but also referring to Marx’s description of the ‘lumpenproletariat’ that is too immiserated by poverty to be capable of revolutionary action – is not only bad criticism but a piece of capitalist propaganda that uncritically equates the thought of Marx and Engels with the history of the Soviet Union, while at the same time universally dismissing the achievements of the latter.

Standing in the Forum, I was impressed by how many visitors interacted with the central statue, to which Marx’s burnished boots and hands testify. From children to parents, visitors wanted to touch the bronze statues – which unlike, say, the lofty statue of the German composer and anti-semite Richard Wagner that sits on a raised pedestal in the Tiergarten, are situated at ground level and therefore easily accessible – and have their photographs taken beside them. Chinese tourists, in particular, waited a long time for children to leave before they could have what looked like their ‘official’ picture taken beside Marx and Engels. In this sense, the ‘lumpen’ statue appears to have met at least three of the principles of Socialist Realism: if not typical of everyday life, then comprehensible, realistic and partisan.

I was also struck by the fact that, in contrast to this central statue, the other sculptural elements of the Forum had very different codes of representation, drawn from and referencing different historical periods. Behind the Bronze statue of Marx and Engels is a line of five stone reliefs depicting massive figures, male and female, roughly carved in an archaic style – perhaps mediated through the early work of the French artist Henri Matisse, much of which resides in the Hermitage Museum in what was then Leningrad – that refers back to ancient depictions of the human figure in stone. The figures are shown frontally or from the side, but rather than ‘standing around’, as the guidebook says, they are shown in dynamic poses recalling ancient depictions of mythical giants or gods. Importantly, their main activity appears to be that of construction, although what they appear to be constructing is themselves and their world, carving primal forms from the rock from which they themselves are made.

In front of the central statue, and like it cast in bronze, are two double-sided reliefs, depicting four scenes. The reference here is to the nineteenth-century French sculptor Auguste Rodin, who took from Michelangelo the idea of the figure being contained within the marble and struggling to be released by the artist, and translated it into bronze. And the analogy is equally clear. The early communist writers understood the history of the world as the pre-history of man, who would only emerge from his slavery to attain his true essence under communism. Far from ‘doing nothing in particular’, the struggle of these figures to emerge from the bronze ground strongly suggests this historical struggle, which, as the figures indicate, encompasses both men and women, infants and adults. In this context it is significant that the faces in these reliefs bear African features. This not only makes reference to the long history of social and political struggles on the continent, but also locates the origin of this emergence with that of homo sapiens and the Out of Africa theory of human evolution. The historical struggle of man for freedom, as depicted in these reliefs, is an extension of our biological evolution.

Finally, four pairs of steel stelae or pillars are placed upright between the bronze reliefs and the central statue, recalling, to me at least, the massive trilithons at Stonehenge, but which also draw on the Minimalist sculpture of the 1970s, and particularly the metal works of the US artist Donald Judd. As pairs, they echo the pairing of Marx and Engels – an unusual and unorthodox iconography for the conventions of the capitalist portrait, which celebrates the individual. On their surfaces are printed photographic images using what was then the new technique of photo-engraving. Although they look slightly clumsy to our eyes, at the time of their making this represented one of the most technologically advanced forms of representation.

The surfaces of the stylae are only sparsely engraved with postcard-size photographic images from specific (not ‘various’) political revolutions across the world and throughout the Twentieth Century, emphasising the historical and geographical reach of communism. Although I doubt it was the intention at the time, this has left plenty of room for visitors to the Forum to add their own images. In some cases – as the Rough Guide gleefully reports – this has taken the form of attempts to erase the engraved images, many of which bear the marks of scratched words and symbols; but the pillars are also covered with a more recent form of social and political imagery in the form of printed stickers. I was slightly surprised to find that none of these were either anti-communist or right-wing, and that most were devoted to the more contemporary issues of anti-nationalism, anti-homophobia, anti-fascism, anti-racism, etc – the popular causes of rebellion, rather than revolution, under the world hegemony of capitalism.

While walking round the Forum we were joined by a guided tour of tourists, resplendent in US baseball hats, Italian sunglasses, German trainers, Chinese bumbags, American jeans, Swiss watches and Japanese cameras – the capitalist subject in person. But they didn’t stay long. If the writers of the Rough Guide to Berlin had also stopped to look – rather than dismissing the Marx-Engels Forum in unquestioning conformity with the official historical revisionism about the GDR propagated by successive German governments – they might have seen that it attempts to represent, through different modes of representation, a history of man from the time of his biological emergence, through his historical struggles for emancipation, to the catalytic moment of the Russian Revolution, and into what was – when the Forum was opened – the continuing revolutionary struggle for freedom of the workers of the world. One might have doubts about the veracity or even the desirability of this narrative, but its representation in the Marx-Engels Forum deserves more than its contemptuous dismissal by the propaganda of Western capitalism.

2. The Humboldt Forum

The Baroque palace façades are set to be reconstructed with extreme authenticity. This is made possible by the still existing, precise documentation of the historic façades. The same façade illustrates the aspiration to produce an historically accurate, handcrafted reconstruction. At the same time, it is being used to check technical designs and to make decisions on the aesthetics of different materials. These relate, for instance, to the colour scheme, the grade of natural stone, the thickness of materials and outer walls in the constructional design, etc. In terms of width and height, the sample shows only one section of the façade. It shows merely a part of the upper widow over two floors, including fascia and balustrade. Stuhlemmer Architects have planned the reconstruction of the Baroque facades on behalf of Friends of the Berlin Palace. The commissioning client for the construction is the not-for-profit Berlin Palace-Humboldtforum Foundation. Together with Friends of the Berlin Palace, the foundation is collecting donations for the historic facades.’

– Banner outside the Humboldt Forum (2013) 

Construction of the Berliner Schloss, the old Imperial Palace, began in 1443, and for nearly half a millennium was the ancestral seat of the Hohenzollern family, a dynasty of former counts, dukes, princes, electors, kings, and emperors of Hohenzollern, Brandenburg, Prussia, Romania and the German Empire. In the Sixteenth Century the Schloss was transformed from a Medieval fortress into an Italian Renaissance Palace, and in the Eighteenth Century it was refashioned in the style of the Protestant Baroque. But in November 1918 the Hohenzollern family, whose imperial ambitions had been largely responsible for the Great War and the resulting deaths of more than 38 million people, was overthrown by the German Revolution. In its place was installed the Weimar Republic, whose incompetence, weakness and collusion with the National Socialists in the murderous suppression of the German Communist Party – at the time the largest in Europe – was partly responsible for the rise of the Third Reich and the deaths of over 60 million people in the Second World War.

The Imperial Palace was mostly destroyed in the Battle of Berlin, and in 1950, rather than salvage the ruins, the German Democratic Republic demolished what was left and in its place built the modernist Palace of the Republic, the new seat of Parliament, which was completed in 1976. After the collapse of the GDR in 1989, and following the discovery that the interior was contaminated with 5,000 tons of asbestos, the Palace of the Republic was closed to the public, gutted and stood empty for 13 years. Under the new Federal Republic of Germany, this empty shell became the venue for avant-garde art installations, alternative music concerts and, on the 15th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the obligatory Berlin night club.

In 2003 the German Parliament, under the Christian Democrats, finally ordered the demolition of the Palace of the Republic. This was finally completed in 2008 at a cost of €12 million. Around 35,000 tonnes of steel from the building was shipped to the United Arab Emirates to be used for the construction of the Burj Khalifa, at 2,722 feet the tallest building in the world. In 2006 the Bundestag announced that the former Palace of the Republic would be replaced by a reconstruction of the former Imperial Palace. Named the Humboldt Forum’, after the brothers Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, the new building is replicating the size and dimensions of the Imperial Palace and will include authentically-reconstructed brick, sandstone and stucco facades on three of the four exterior sides of the reinforced concrete building. The interiors will be modern in design and facilities, but the façade of one of the courtyards will be in the Baroque style. Construction began in 2013, three years behind schedule, and is due to be completed in 2019, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, at a total estimated cost of nearly €600 million. It will, of course, be a museum, incorporating the already existing Ethnological Museum and Museum of Asian Art.

The driving force behind the reconstruction of the Imperial Palace is Wilhelm Dietrich Gotthard Hans Oskar von Boddien, a Hamburg aristocrat from the noble family of Mecklenburg Boddien and former managing director of his father’s agricultural machinery company until its bankrupty in 2004, whose new company, Friends of the Berlin Palace, has been the main fundraiser and lobbyist for the Humboldt Forum. To promote the reconstruction the Humboldt Box was built overlooking the site, with exhibitions by the Friends of the Berlin Palace showing what the resulting building will look like. As neither the federal government nor the Berlin Senate would pay for it, financing for the Humboldt Box was secured through hiring out the fences around the construction site as advertising space. In 2015, Neil MacGregor, the former Director of the National Gallery and British Museum, was appointed as the founding Director of the Humboldt Forum. In an interview last year MacGregor said of the reconstruction: ‘What I find so painfully admirable about the German experience is that they are determined to find the historical truth and acknowledge it, however painful it is.’

3. The Soviet War Memorial

If Berlin were to meet the fate of Rome, then the coming generations could one day admire the department stores of some Jews and the hotels of some corporations as the most imposing works of our time, the characteristic expression of the culture of our days. Thus our cities of the present lack the outstanding symbol of national community, and hence it is no wonder that the community does not see any symbol of itself in its cities. This must lead to a spiritual dullness which manifests itself in practice in a wholesale indifference of the present-day city dweller towards the lot of his city.’

Adolf Hitler, My Struggle (1925)

The Battle of Berlin lasted exactly two weeks, from the 20th of April to the 2nd of May, 1945. During the assault the Soviet Army lost approximately 80,000 dead and 280,000 wounded, the Germans up to 100,000 killed, of which 22,000 were civilians, 220,000 wounded, and nearly half a million taken prisoner. A week later, on 8 May 1945, the war in Europe was over and Berlin was in ruins. Yet within a few months the Red Army had erected the Soviet War Memorial.

Located in what was left of the Tiergarten within site of the destroyed Reichstag, it sits at the north-south east-west axis of what was to be the Avenue of Splendours, the central thoroughfare of Albert Speer’s never-realised capital of the Third Reich, Germania. To construct it, legend has it, the Soviets used the granite and marble from Hitler’s destroyed Reich Chancellery, a building Speer did finish. At the entrance to the memorial stand what are said to be the first two tanks to enter Berlin, both T-34s, the weapon which, through its innovative design and mass production (over 84,000), did more than any other to win the Second World War. On the marble pillars of the memorial, beneath laurel victory wreaths of gold, are listed the Soviet Army groups that fought in the Battle of Berlin – infantry, artillery, tanks, air-force. Beneath each group are the names and ages of the fallen generals, most of whom were in their early twenties. Standing on top of the high central pillar is the figure of a Soviet soldier, his outstretched arm and lowered hand, palm downward, the negation of the raised fascist salute. The pillars are linked by lintels in a slight curve, as if this were part of a much greater circle – the casualties of Berlin, terrible as they were, representing only a tiny fraction of the 25 million people the Soviet Union lost in the Second World War. Nowhere is there any mention of political leaders or heads of state, no references to religion or gods. Behind the memorial is a small outdoor museum displaying information about the battle as well as photographs of Berlin and the memorial in 1945. The bodies of 2,000 Soviet soldiers who died in the Battle of Berlin are buried in the graveyard beyond.

After the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, the memorial, which lies in the former British sector of West Berlin and within sight of the Brandenburg Gate, had to be protected from West Berliners by British soldiers. In 1970 a neo-Nazi shot one of the memorial’s Soviet guards, and in 2010, just before the celebrations for Victory in Europe Day, the memorial was vandalised with red paint that read ‘Thieves, Murderers, Rapists’.

When we arrived it was just before sunset, and young men born in the new unified Germany, now also in their early twenties, were riding their skateboards across the memorial steps, trying over and over again to flip their boards in the air, jump, and land back on the rotated surface. The contrast between this repetitive, playful but slightly retarded activity and the purposeful sacrifice made by the young men on whose graves they played – between the collective identity forged in the horrors of the Second World War and the listless individualism of the capitalist subject – couldn’t have been more apparent.

This is the kind of monument that Western critics and architects like to dismiss on aesthetic grounds. The words typically used to describe it are ‘bombastic’, ‘grandiose’, ‘heroic’, ‘triumphant’, and – perhaps worst of all for the ideologues of modernism – ‘figurative’. But in a city that for 70 years has drawn architects and artists to build more museums and memorials here than in any other place on earth in the ongoing attempt to give meaning to the Second World War, the Shoah and the Cold War, this was easily the best thing I saw in Berlin.

4. Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

‘In August 1945, a good three months after the end of the war and the liberation of Europe from National Socialist rule, the Soviet secret police relocated the Special Camp No. 7 to the core area of the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Up to its dissolution in March 1950, the occupying Soviet forces held around 60,000 people imprisoned in the barracks: men and women, young and old, guilty and innocent, National Socialists and democrats, political and non-political opponents. Between 1945 and 1950, at least 12,000 people died from starvation, disease and epidemics in this camp, the scene of renewed suffering and injustices which, even if considered in relation to the crimes against humanity and war crimes of National Socialism, cannot be justified. In Sachsenhausen, where the Soviet Special Camp followed on from the National Socialist concentration camp, neither the one nor the other can be trivialised, or made light of in comparison.’

– Wall plaque in Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum (2013)

We had decided to visit Sachsenhausen concentration camp on the Thursday, when we had already been in Berlin for a week. We anticipated that it would be the dark peak of our trip, a plateau from which we could only descend, or rather, a pit out of which we would have to climb. When I had first proposed visiting the camp back in London, we had both expected it to have a fast-food restaurant and accompanying tourist shop with ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ printed on striped tea towels and tea mugs, but we accepted that this would be part of what the memorialising process would entail. After visiting Berlin’s numerous museums and memorials, however, we were now sure the camp would be presented with a commitment to pedagogy that precluded the selling of memorabilia. In fact, by then we were beginning to understand what it was these sites of Germany’s past were being placed in the service of.

We took the S-Bahn to Oranienburg, a town 35km to the north of Berlin. This was where the first camp in the area had been set up in 1933, in a disused brewery in the centre of town on the main road to Berlin. We decided not to take the shuttle bus from the station, and instead walked the 20 minute journey through the centre of town to the outskirts where the district of Sachsenhausen is located. On our route to the camp we passed a stone monument commemorating the Death Marches on which the SS guards took the remaining prisoners in April 1945, as they retreated before the advancing Red Army. As we approached the camp on Sandhausener Weg we saw, to our left, a kindergarten in which children were playing in the grounds. Opposite were pretty detached houses with swimming pools in the back gardens and German cars parked on their front lawns.

The day was warm and the sun out, and we passed through the visitor information centre and along the external wall into the headquarters of the SS command staff who ran the camp. Apart from the commandant’s house the other buildings are gone now, replaced by tall shady trees and, just outside the camp entrance proper, a new museum with an exhibition titled ‘From Memory to Monument, 1950-1990’. It was made very clear from the start that today’s Sachsenhausen was a memorial to the camp’s use not only between 1936 and 1945, when over 200,000 people were were imprisoned here by the Nazis, but also between 1945 and 1950, when the Soviet secret service took the camp over for the imprisonment of what our museum leaflet described as ‘minor Nazi functionaries, but also people who were politically undesirable, had been arbitrarily arrested, or been sentenced by Soviet military tribunals.’

Taking a deep breath we went under the arch in the central watchtower and through the famous gates with the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ worked into their iron bars. It all looked very familiar from the dozens of TV programs on the camps without which barely a week passes in the U.K. – and with good reason. Sachsenhausen was a model camp, built by SS architects as a testing ground for the concentration camp system, and SS officers who were to administer the camps across Germany and Poland received their training here. Although small, therefore, compared to the vast network of camps called Auschwitz, and opened three years later than Dachau, Sachsenhausen was the centre of the entire concentration camp system, whose administrative headquarters between 1938 and 1945 was a building only a few hundred metres to the south.

Inside the gates an elderly man insisted on posing two reluctant young girls under the famous motto and instructed a third to take their photograph – a curious memento; but in general a quiet solemnity presided among the visitors, and photography was kept to a discrete minimum. My immediate impression was of the size of the camp, which stretches north-west from the base of an equilateral triangle to enclose a thousand acres. Within this the prisoners’ barracks were laid out like the ribs of a fan converging on the central watchtower, before which is a semicircular area in which tens of thousands of prisoners would line up every morning for roll call. In principal this drew on the eighteenth-century English Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the Panopticon, according to which prisons were built around a central watchtower; but in practice it was necessary to build additional watchtowers around the camp perimeter, and in later concentration camps Sachsenhausen’s fan formation was dropped for a more conventional grid layout.

The barracks, which were made of wood, no longer stand, but the space they occupied is marked out by long rectangles of broken stone. The brick watchtower has been rebuilt, and the stone outer walls are still there, within which runs, in succession, a high electric fence, a line of barbed wire, and the so-called ‘Death Strip’, a border of gravel onto which any prisoner straying would be shot on sight. The museum guide made much of this strip, although without drawing the implied parallels with the no-man’s land that lay between the inner and outer boundaries of the Berlin Wall.

Despite this architectural vision of order and surveillance, by 1938 the camp was already overcrowded, and an additional set of barracks, the so-called ‘Small Camp’, were added to the eastern end of the fan, outside the main triangle. This is where most of the Jewish prisoners were kept until 1942, when they were sent to Auschwitz, and two of the barracks have been reconstructed. One contains a reconstruction of conditions at the time – as always for the Jews, according to the strict Nazi hierarchy, the worst in the camps, with three men to a bunk four foot wide; the other a museum. Among its many exhibits were a group of photographs recording the visit of an Italian representative of Mussolini’s government who had shown particular interest in the Nazi theory of eugenics. They show lines of prisoners in striped uniforms lined up outside the central watchtower, shaven headed, shivering in the cold, their faces haggard and drawn in the bright sun, men in their thirties who look sixty, while the fascist inspects them under the approving eye of the SS officers. The Italian appears in six of the eleven photographs. Wrapped in a thick cloak and woollen hat against the cold, his head is bent forward, but he hangs back from the humans shambles before him, one of whom, with a head like a skull, beaten and bloody, he looks at with an expression of mingled disgust and fascination.

The other barrack traced the camp histories of a number of representative prisoners, among whom was Richard Pristawik, prisoner no. 961, born 22nd June, 1906, in Hannover, and whose Punishment Form, dated 28th February, 1944, I photographed and later partially translated. The first page of his charge sheet contains the typed testimony of his offense. The print is irregular and faded, but refers to the ‘regular gambling of some prisoners in the camp’, and mentions a ‘large brick plant, where large amounts of money were involved. Furthermore, gold, foreign currency and food stuffs were exchanged in large proportions. In an unexpected raid, several gold coins and dollar bills were found in his possession.’ The second page is headed ‘Corporal Punishment’, below which is a table of the ‘Number of strokes’, in which someone has written ‘15.’ There follow the ‘Regulations’, printed in Gothic type. ‘Prior to examination by the doctor!’ it admonishes. ‘Beat briefly with a single short leather whip in quick succession, thereby indicating payment; undressing and exposing certain body parts is strictly prohibited. The prisoner punished must not be strapped down, but has to lie on the bench. The prisoner may only be beaten on the thighs.’ The authorisation for this punishment is co-signed by the Officer in Charge, the Camp Doctor, and the Camp Commandant.

In 1992 these barracks were set on fire by neo-Nazis. The effects of this arson attack on one of the barracks – whose paint has peeled back under the heat, the wood blackened and charred – have been retained under glass to protect but also to preserve it. The following year two young men were arrested for cutting a swastika into one of the stone monuments in the camp.

By the time we left the Jewish barracks several hours later we were both hungry, but eating in a concentration camp felt impossible, so we went back out through the main gate and sat under the trees where the SS officers had had their headquarters and ate our packed lunch. Inevitably, we discussed what it was that allowed Sachsenhausen to happen. I argued that while the extent of the crime is without parallel, the psychology of the perpetrators is not. Certainly, years of embittered resentment after the military loss of the Great War and the economic collapse and humiliation of Germany that followed, allied to a history of anti-Semitism and militarism in Germany’s struggle to unify itself into a nation and then an empire, all added up to a firm foundation for Nazi propaganda. But there was something additional and far more common in the shift in consciousness that allows a man to humiliate, beat and ultimately kill another human being, then go home to his family for his evening meal, pull his children up on his knee, kiss his wife, and feel he has done a good day’s work. The most familiar parallel for me is the scenes, witnessed first hand or seen on footage over the past few years, of strongly built and armoured policemen in our own country attacking unarmed men and women with metal-reinforced truncheons, dogs, shields, CS gas sprays and tasers, men who consider themselves the upholders of law and order, and yet who see nothing wrong with cracking open a protester’s skull or allowing his dog to take a bite out of their leg, who seem to take professional pride, satisfaction and even joy in doing so. Given the U.K.’s rapid move towards an increasingly totalitarian form of government, surveillance of its citizens and policing of dissent, not to mention the permanent state of war in which we are kept pursuing U.S. foreign policy, it seems to me that comparisons with the use of police brutality and the changes in law to support it employed by the Nazi Party after coming to power in Germany are not exaggerated in their method, if not in their extent.

We returned to the correction block, the prison within the prison, where punishments were inflicted on those who infringed camp discipline, the most common of which was to tie the prisoner’s hands behind his back and then suspend him from wooden posts until his shoulders dislocated. Three such posts stood outside in the yard where the prisoners were eventually shot. It was also the place where prominent figures arrested by the Gestapo were held. Among these was Yakov Dzhugashvili, Stalin’s eldest son, who was captured at the Battle of Smolensk during the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. It is still unclear exactly how he died. Some reports say that he refused a guard’s order to return to barracks and was shot in the head; others that he was quietly murdered by the SS. The official German account is that he committed suicide by running into an electric fence, a version which was embellished by the Czech writer Milan Kundera in his 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

‘Not until 1980 were we able to read in The Sunday Times how Stalin’s son, Yakov, died. Captured by the Germans during the Second World War, he was placed in a camp together with a group of British officers. They shared a latrine. Stalin’s son habitually left a foul mess. The British officers resented having their latrine smeared with shit, even if it was the shit of the son of the most powerful man in the world. They brought the matter to his attention. He took offense. They brought it to his attention again and again, and tried to make him clean the latrine. He raged, argued, and fought. Finally, he demanded a hearing with the camp commander. He wanted the commander to act as arbiter. But the arrogant German refused to talk about shit. Stalin’s son could not stand the humiliation. Crying out to heaven in the most terrifying of Russian curses, he took a running jump into the electrified barbed-wire fence that surrounded the camp. He hit the target. His body, which would never again make a mess of the Britishers’ latrine, was pinned to the wire.’

Since Kundera had been persecuted by the Soviet Union following its invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to suppress the Prague Spring, fired from his post, his books banned from public libraries and his citizenship eventually revoked by the puppet Czech government, we should perhaps take this account with a pinch of salt. But I had read his book shortly after its publication, and this episode, which had stuck in my mind, came back to me now. I had always been horrified at the thought of what the SS would have done to the son of Stalin, their greatest enemy. I never dreamed that, nearly thirty years later, I would be standing in the cell in which they had imprisoned him.

The accumulation of horrors was beginning to weigh down on me, and I left this site wondering what I was doing here, and what the point of seeing this was. I had largely kept our camera in its case, and I was surprised that so did most of the other visitors. There was a restraint here that hadn’t been apparent in the other memorials from the Nazi era we had seen during the week. We walked through the area of the prisoners’ barracks towards the kitchen and laundry, both of which were made of brick and therefore still standing. On the way we saw, to the south, the site of the gallows on which prisoners were executed at roll call, but our will, or perhaps our tolerance, was flagging, and we walked on.

From the kitchen we headed north-east to the tip of the camp’s triangle where a National Memorial was erected by the GDR in 1961 to commemorate the victory of communism over fascism. An obelisk with a triangular cross-section is marked on each face with rows of red triangles, not in commemoration of the camp’s layout, but of the red triangles that identified the communist prisoners. As one of the earliest camps, Sachsenhausen’s population was largely made up of communists, who presented the greatest threat to the Nazis after they came to power in 1933. Only later, in 1938, were Jews sent to the camp, and in much smaller numbers. It was a little incongruous, therefore, to see, at the foot of this monument, a group of Israeli teenagers being lectured to by their group leaders. They were dressed all in white, carried white and blue Israeli flags, with the males wearing yamakas on their thick curly hair. The kids, perhaps from a school, perhaps from an orthodox study group, were around 15 or 16 years old, and I was struck by the degree of attention they paid to the speakers. They were probably on a tour through Germany and Poland, and this might have been the fifteenth camp they had visited, but they listened like their lives depended on it.

Since we had entered the camp, every map, leaflet and wall plaque had made it clear that Sachsenhausen was a memorial to the victims of totalitarianism, which the present administration of the camp identified as Soviet as well as National Socialist in origin. The fact they had chosen to reconstruct the Jewish barracks, rather than the far more numerous barracks that had held political prisoners, was one of many examples of the political agenda to which the camp, like every other monument and memorial in Berlin, was placed. By identifying Germany as the victim of post-war Soviet occupation and aggression, the claim that the German people were also the victims, and not merely the perpetrators, of pre-war Nazism, could be promoted and accepted. To this end, the liberation of the camp by the Red Army, the communist identity of the bulk of its inmates, and the Nazi identity of the mass of prisoners who were imprisoned here by the Soviets after the war, was constantly played down in favour of a more generalised victimhood which embraced both Jew and Gentile, and with which modern-day Germans could thereby identify. The self-exonerating and often self-pitying monuments, memorials and museums that are the defining characteristic of post-unification Berlin are ample testimony to this sentiment. This, however, wasn’t the only political agenda in play that day.

We walked towards what was to be the strange conclusion to our tour, the site of the so-called ‘Station Z’, located in an extension to the camp beyond its west wall. Here were the remains of the gas chambers and crematoria. As we reached the wall, however, and began to read the plaques, we were overtaken by a large and noisy group of visitors from the U.S.A. They were led by an English-speaking German guide who was laughing with several women at the head of the group. As they passed, a woman coming up the rear declared loudly to no-one in particular: ‘I hope this is it, because I am not walking any further!’ We stood and let them go by, then followed at a distance. At the entrance, which overlooked the execution pit, we saw a crowd of people with cameras jostling to take photographs. The Americans had been joined by the Israelis, who stood back with looks of disdain on their faces. It was a strange and – it seemed to me then – highly symbolic meeting of the representatives of these two nations who have such a symbiotic existence, and yet whose sensibilities at that moment couldn’t have been further apart.

We walked on along the wall to the north-west tip of the triangle where a watchtower held a small exhibition about the relationship between the camp and the town of Oranienburg. To the west, separated from the camp by a grassy field about a hundred yards wide, we could see a village of around a hundred houses surrounded by trees. This is where the SS officers stationed at Sachsenhausen lived. While other camps were run by as little as a dozen SS, Sachsenhausen’s role as a training camp meant that at any time it had between 100 and 250 officers, and they housed them here, before sending them out to administer concentration and death camps across Germany, Poland and the rest of Europe.

The road plan of the SS village is still the same, the houses laid out irregularly between gently curving roads that enclose and subdivide a roughly rhomboid shape into seven blocks; but the names of the streets have all been been changed:

– Friedrich Ebert Straße, which forms the southern boundary of the village, is named after the Social Democrat president of Germany’s Weimar Republic between 1919 and 1925 who allied himself with right-wing groups to suppress the rise of the German Communist Party.

– Walther Rathenau Straße, which forms the northern boundary of the village, is named after the German-Jewish industrialist who served as Germany’s foreign minister during the Weimar Republic before being assassinated in 1922.

– Sophie Scholl Straße, which crosses the western end of the village, is named after the revolutionary and member of the White Rose non-violent resistance group who was executed by the Nazis in 1943.

– Rudolf Breitscheid Straße, which runs from north to south, is named after the Social Democrat who was arrested in 1941 and imprisoned in Buchenwald concentration camp, dying there in 1944.

– Olof Palme Straße, also running north-south, is named after the leader of the Social Democrat Party who was Swedish prime minister from 1969 until his assassination in 1986.

– Wilhelm Liebknecht Straße, which runs from east to west, is named after the founder of the German Social Democrat Party.

– Hannah-Arendt Straße, which also runs east-west, is named after the German-Jewish political theorist and writer on totalitarianism.

– Dimitroffstraße, also running from east to west, and the shortest street in the village, is named after Georgi Dimitrov, the Bulgarian communist who was among those accused by the Nazis of setting fire to the Reichstag in 1933, who the following year was appointed by Stalin as the head of the Comintern, and who after the war became the Prime Minister of Bulgaria.

– Finally, the eastern boundary of the village, facing the camp, is formed by Reichenbergstraße, and leads away south beyond the SS village.

Unlike the wooden barracks of the prisoners, these buildings were made of brick, and so are still there, painted in bright colours, with the high-pitched roofs typical of German rural architecture. Today they are occupied by the people of the town of Oranienburg, whose children go to the kindergarten a mile to the south, beyond the gas chambers, and only a couple of hundred yards from the camp gates. You’d be hard put to find a denser centre of evil in all the world than this pretty village. Its rural cottages and the prisoner’s barracks are two sides of the same coin. The name of that coin is modernism, and its ultimate realisation is in the camps.

Beyond the tower was the Sonderlager, or Special Camp, but it has been turned now into a museum to the Soviet form of the camp, called Special Camp No. 7 (from 1948: No. 1). Inside was a large wall plaque which described its 60,000 prisoners as ‘men and women, young and old, guilty and innocent, National Socialists and democrats, political and non-political opponents.’ Reading this, it struck me that the terms in which this universal image of victimhood was being phrased was indicative of the ends to which the camp had been directed in post-unification Germany. On the various Soviet and GDR memorials, here and in Berlin, what we in Britain always refer to with the acronym ‘Nazis’ (for Nationalsozialismus) are always called ‘fascists’: for the Soviet Union, there was never any socialism in the doctrines of the Third Reich. But for Germany, it is precisely the doctrine of socialism in both the Third Reich and the Soviet Union that it wishes to identify as the origin of the successive and comparable forms of totalitarianism of which the German people were the victims, rather than the perpetrators. Here, therefore, as elsewhere in the museums and monuments of Berlin, the Soviet Union was implicitly compared with what is explicitly identified as National Socialism.

We turned back toward Station Z. The Americans had gone, but I had no taste for more horrors and wanted this over with as soon as possible. Just inside, the execution pit is a sloping trench banked by sandbags from which the spent bullets could be extracted for re-use. To the west was a burial ground in which the ashes of the cremated bodies were tipped. And then, straight ahead, were the remains of Station Z itself. They have been covered over by a large white structure made of translucent material, resembling a pathologist’s tent over the remains of a corpse. Inside were more words, brass letters in a high concrete wall, before which, on a raised platform, is an Expressionist statue of two figures lowering a third into the ground. But I saw this only later, because on the platform, standing in a circle, was the group of Israelis. They had wrapped their flags around their necks like capes, and they stood in a pool of light from the opening in the roof above them. It was clear that they were waiting to have the place to themselves. It was late, and they only had about half an hour before the entire place closed. I say place, because at this point Sachsenhausen shifted from being a museum, with its pedagogical role, to a memorial. I don’t know if this is how this part of the camp is typically used, but it felt to me at the time very much like the kind of interventionist events performed in galleries or museums, when some group assumes the right to use a public space for their own ends, except that here the right being assumed was not that of a self-elected artist or activist, but of the Jewish people.

Instinctively, we both turned along the sides of the ruins, whose borders we followed. Looking at the broken remains, it became clear that this was the procession of rooms through which the prisoners moved on their route to the crematoria. And then finally we were looking at them, the small, broken remains of the ovens, several in a row, with iron girders sticking out, dirty, badly-made, cement squeezing out between the bricks. Beyond them, the Israeli group had finished assembling and were waiting to read from books they held before them in their hands. And now something strange and very unpleasant happened.

Around the edge of the ruins were several signs in German and English that read ‘Do Not Walk on the Foundations’. Without conferring, it seemed clear to us what this meant, which was not to walk on what was left of the walls of the ruined structures. But at this point we both wandered onto the floors of the rooms, me to get a closer look at the crematoria, my partner into the ‘shower’ rooms opposite. There was an English family whose path we had crossed at several points in the tour, and they too were walking across the floors. Up till now the museum had encouraged us at every point to explore every aspect of the site, but when the young son, who was still a teenager, walked down the steps beside the ovens and into the room below, I felt he had intruded into a space that should not be entered. I knelt down and took a photograph of the ovens with the Israeli group in the background. I can look at that photo now, but for a long time afterwards I couldn’t, and more than once I thought of deleting it. At that moment I felt the disgust that humans had done this to each other deeper than I have ever felt it before. I wasn’t fascinated any more – I wasn’t even horrified, it was far more primal than that. I felt like I was in the presence of a corpse whose rotting flesh I was inhaling, and the attempt to turn this place of humanity’s shame into a museum or, as the Israeli group was doing, into a site of religious observance, felt deeply wrong. My partner told me afterwards that she was going through a similar moment, not of repulsion, but of empathy, triggered, she said, when she saw the drain holes in the floor of the ‘shower’ rooms in which the prisoners were gassed.

It was at this moment, as I was standing before the ovens, and my partner was staring at the drains, that a young German woman, a guide who had been leading the Israeli group around the camp, came over and started screaming at us that we were not to walk on the foundations. I blinked at her, and without thinking walked past her to the edge of the platform, but my partner, who had been startled out of her thoughts like a rudely awakened sleeper, but who is an architect, began to explain to the woman that she was not walking on the foundations and tried to point out exactly what foundations are and where they were located. I could sense that she had dug her heels in, but the German woman continued to scream at her. We discussed later how extraordinarily rude this was. For all she knew, my partner might have been visiting the site of her mother’s or grandmother’s murder, and to be spoken to in such a manner in this place was completely unacceptable. Whatever interdiction she felt we were breaking by walking across the floor of these rooms was nothing to the one she was violating with her shouting. Later on, I looked at the photograph I had taken of the Israelis, and the German woman appears in it looking extremely uncomfortable. Dressed in a black T-shirt and tight red-check trousers, she stands with her legs crossed on the edge of their group, her hands held awkwardly by her side. Her aggression and rudeness towards us makes me think she was compensating in some way for what appeared to be her own feelings of guilt in the presence of the Jews. Now, however, was no time for a fight. To be caught between the ovens, a group of praying Israelis, and a screaming German woman was the final straw, and I’d had enough. I said to my partner: ‘Come on, let’s get out of here.’

We walked past the Israelis and out of Station Z. I think I even lowered my head as I passed them. Outside, I wanted to get out of the camp as soon as possible. We passed quickly through the rest of the camp, past the site of the first camp crematoria locked behind iron gates, past the infirmary where medical experiments were conducted on prisoners, back through the gates promising freedom for labour, past the swaying trees around the SS headquarters, back along the camp wall, out onto the streets of Oranienburg, back to the station, and caught the train to Berlin, which we reached that evening. But all the way we talked about what had happened on the site of Station Z.

I was angry and upset, but wasn’t sure exactly why. I felt we had been expelled from the site by a group with the greater claim to be there, and who knew exactly why they were there, as I did not. One part of me, the more rational part, felt that the particularity of a camp that had been filled mostly with prisoners defined by their political opposition to National Socialism, among whom the communists were pre-eminent, was being subsumed within the wider Jewish experience of the holocaust. Of course, the holocaust, or more accurately the Shoah, was overwhelmingly a catastrophe for the Jewish people, and they have a greater claim than any other community to the sites of its perpetration. But I also felt that in a Germany eager to expiate its guilt by equating the years of Nazi rule with the subsequent Soviet occupation, the communist resistance, both during the rise to power of the Nazi Party during the 1930s and in the unequalled military struggle that eventually defeated Nazi Germany in the 1940s, was being written out of history. Sachsenhausen was set up for the imprisonment of communists because they were the only political group that presented a threat to the Nazis – and would, in the form of the Red Army and the Soviet Union, eventually defeat them. In the U.K. we are constantly given the impression by endless documentaries, films and television series that the Second World War was won by the U.S (with a little help from us), whereas in reality the war in Europe was overwhelmingly a struggle between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, compared to which the Western Front was a distraction.

The less rational part of me, however, recognised in this group of teenagers the seriousness, the intensity, the collective actualisation of the Israeli people, which stands in such stark contrast to the stupidity, listlessness and individual selfishness of Western identity, exemplified by the group of U.S. tourists who’d passed us. It reminded me, again, of the difference between the Soviet youth who had fought their way into Berlin and the gum-chewing, skateboard-riding, baseball cap-wearing Germans who played on their memorials. In short, I admired them. But I felt deeply ambivalent about their use  –  or rather their teachers’ employment – of such a site to create a national identity in a bunch of kids. It seemed to me – instinctively at first but also on reflection – that what the Israeli group was doing was very similar to what the Nazi’s had done with their own blue-eyed youth. I have long been interested in the relation between ritual and death, but to place that, as the Nazis did, and as the Israeli people are in the process of doing, in the service of forming a national identity seems to me to be an extremely dangerous thing to do, like an apprentice sorcerer playing with forces beyond his control. The militaristic, almost Spartan identity of modern Israeli citizenship – whatever the forces that have compelled its formation, the first of which, of course, is Sachsenhausen and places like it – seems to me to be dangerously close to the ruthless, brilliant, messianic, chosen people of the Third Reich. Certainly what was going on in Station Z when we were there had some of the religious potency and power of indoctrination of the torchlight marches of the SA Brownshirts and the Nuremberg rallies, and I think everyone in that tent felt it.

We returned to Berlin, and that evening, to take our minds off the burdens of the day, we went up the futuristic architecture of the Fernsehturm television tower. This was built during the 1960s, almost purely, it seems, so that the GDR could taunt West Berlin, located as it is at the conclusion of the triumphal way that runs from Alexanderplatz over the River Spree, past the site of the Imperial Palace, across the Palace Bridge, along the boulevard of Unter der Linden, through the Brandenburg Gate, out into the trees of the Tiergarten, past the Soviet War Memorial, along Strasse des 17 Juin, past the triumphal column of the Siegessäule, out along Charlottenburg and former West Berlin, along the Bismarckstrasse and finally to the former Adolf Hitler Platz. After the war they renamed this square Reichskanzlerplatz, then renamed it again in 1963 after the recently deceased Theodor Heuss, the first President of the Federal Republic of Germany. They say that every time you visit Berlin the streets have changed names and a new building has taken the place of an old one; but that night, as I drifted off to sleep, the image of Station Z came back to me like a scene from a horror movie: the cast-iron doors of the crematoria, the Jews praying in a pool of white light, and between them a German screaming at me: ‘Schneller! Schneller!’

‘If one asks with whom the adherents of historicism actually empathise, the answer is inevitable: with the victor. And all rulers are the heirs of those who conquered them. Hence, empathy with the victor invariably benefits the rulers. Historical materialists know what that means. Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal process in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin that he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents that have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain’

– Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940)

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

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