From my apartment in Gesundbrunnen, to the north of Berlin’s city centre, it is about a six-kilometer walk to the Brandenburg Gate. The route I take leads me through housing estates built in the gaps where World War II rubble was cleared, and past 19th-century tenement blocks that are now some of the most expensive real estate in the city. It takes me past neighborhoods where I once lived, where memories are triggered with each turn of the street corner. And it takes me to places where a different type of memory is maintained, the memories of this city, of what happened here in Berlin and what took place far from these leafy streets.
The walk takes me a little over an hour, and on the way I pass many such sites of memory: memorials to lives lost at the Berlin Wall; a sculpture dedicated to the pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, killed by the Nazis; and brass cobblestones in the pavement, naming the Jewish individuals removed from their houses and later murdered at Auschwitz, Theresienstadt or Treblinka. On Unter den Linden there are statues to the Humboldt brothers outside the university. There is the Brandenburg Gate, that holds in its famous columns everything it has borne witness to. And on the other side, on the edge of the Tiergarten park, are the memorials to the Sinti and Roma victims of the Nazis, to the homosexuals who were persecuted and perished in the camps, and to the murdered Jews of Europe, their memorial a field of concrete stelae that stand as a permanent reminder of the crimes of the past within site of the Reichstag, right in the heart of the German capital.
Six kilometers. About seventy minutes. The memories of a nation.
Over the past month, as statues have fallen in the United Kingdom and the United States, and discussion continues about the men we honor and their culpability in the crimes of Empire and slavery, it is a conversation that is also about what we know and what we don’t know, about what we are taught in schools and how we are taught it, and about how we can best tell the stories of our past. As the debate rages, the conversation often turns to Germany and what lessons it can offer in dealing with history and the legacy of the past, what can be borrowed and taken from the many museums and memorials, information boards and exhibitions, walking tours and those small, polished cobblestones laid into the pavement.
If there is no one left to tell the stories, to give their testimony, then the truth of what happened can all too easily be replaced by myths.
I have lived in Berlin for almost 20 years, but the city’s almost constant conversation with itself and its visitors about the past is something that soon becomes apparent even for those exploring it for the first time. At times the whole city can feel like a memorial site, with scars of war still visible in the pockmarked facades of certain buildings and the jagged roof of a memorial church, the gaps created by bombs or division and only sometimes filled in, as if the city is still putting itself together again after the cataclysms of the 20th century. And in some ways it still is. From the legacy of National Socialism, the Holocaust and the Second World War. From occupation and division, the surveillance state of the German Democratic Republic and gunshots at the Berlin Wall. It’s an ongoing process. And from beyond the city and Germany’s borders, others look for lessons they can apply when dealing with traumas of their own.
A few years ago I worked with a film crew who came to Berlin from Belfast to create a short documentary as part of a series contrasting different models of truth and reconciliation from around the world, and how lessons from Germany and in particular the German Democratic Republic could be used as the basis for future efforts in the north of Ireland.
We moved through the city, talking to victims of the Ministry for State Security—the Stasi—about how the opening of the secret police files and their access to this information was important to them. We spoke to those working at the Stasi Records Agency, about how one of the first steps in dealing with the past was acknowledgement, of society recognizing the truth of what happened. We visited sites of memory, including the Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation Center on Bernauer Straße, and discussed the role public monuments, memorials and exhibition spaces had in the continuing conversation about the past.
Over the few days the film crew were in Berlin it became clear that while there were certain ideas, projects and processes that could offer a starting point or a direction of travel, any lessons for Ireland in Germany could only ever be general ones. The GDR was not Northern Ireland. The Stasi prison in Hohenschönhausen was not the Maze/Long Kesh. The Ministry of State Security no longer existed and the people in control of the files no longer had an interest in keeping certain parts of the story secret. In among the musty shelves of the Stasi archive in Berlin-Lichtenberg, it was clear we were a long way from the streets of Belfast, let alone the corridors of Whitehall.
In reckoning with the past, especially the most horrific crimes in a nation’s history, whether the Holocaust in Germany, the British Empire or slavery in the United States, there will always be a difficultly in replicating models. Thomas Laqueur, in addressing the current discussions for his essay “While Statues Sleep” in the London Review of Books, noted that “…the crimes Germany remembers and atones for represent a small part of its national history. The Nazi period is brief and circumscribed. The outlines of Germany’s redemption slowly become clear: acknowledge and mourn the sin; make amends as far as possible; and swear never again.”
But what does it mean when the period in question lasts for hundreds of years and a society is still living through the trauma in the present day? For Laqueur, there is not much help in looking across to Germany as an example to follow. “It seems far-fetched,” he writes, “to imagine that comparing slavery to the Holocaust can help us to come to terms with the granular ubiquity of American racism.”
Still, as I watched the statue of Edward Colston be dumped into the harbor in Bristol and the discussions that followed, it felt like it could be the start of a process that is important for any community or society attempting to deal with the past, which is to tell the story properly. The complaint, that removing the statues of Colston and other slave merchants in the UK or Confederate generals and slave owners in the United States was tantamount to erasing history, was wilfully missing the point. Whether a statue or a street name, these were not memorials dedicated to telling a difficult story of history but monuments erected to celebrate domination.
“These statues do not provide a neutral narration of this country’s history,” Charlotte Lydia Riley wrote in The Guardian, “they are political monuments to anxieties about Britain’s status at the times they were erected.” Unhappy is the land in need of heroes, Brecht wrote, and unhappy too is the land built on the blood and bones of others. We should not shy away from it. We need to face it. We need to recognise and we need to remember.
Here in Germany, as the last of the generation who can tell us what it was like under the Nazis slowly leaves us, those who survived war, exile or the camps and can offer us eyewitness testimony of what they experienced, the memorials and other sites of memory become all the more important. If there is no one left to tell the stories, to give their testimony, then the truth of what happened can all too easily be replaced by myths.
And it is no surprise that in this time there is a rise in Germany of those who would like to minimise or relativize the events of the 20th century. As the number of those who remember the horrors of the camps sadly diminishes, right-wing populists encourage us to “move on,” telling us that Germany has been shamed long enough. Political parties like Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) gain traction by offering a vision of a Germany that should no longer have to spend its time apologizing for the past. After all, in the words of AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland, “Hitler and the Nazis are just bird shit in more than a thousand years of successful history.”
Whether a statue or a street name, these were not memorials dedicated to telling a difficult story of history but monuments erected to celebrate domination.
On May 8, at a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Berlin and a commemoration event for the victims of National Socialism, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier took aim at those who might argue enough time has now passed. “Remembrance never ends. There can be no deliverance from our past,” he said. To demand a line be drawn under the past was a form of denial. “It is not remembrance that is a burden—it is non-remembrance that becomes a burden. It is not professing responsibility that is shameful—it is denial that is shameful!”
It was important to recognize the cracks. The light and the shadow. The joy and the sorrow. The gratitude and shame.
From the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe it is a short distance to Wilhelmstraße 92, the final stop on my walk, and on the way I think about Steinmeier’s words. Perhaps that is the only lesson Germany can offer other societies when it comes to dealing with the traumas of history. And yet, even in this country that prides itself on its Erinnerungskultur, its Culture of Remembrance, there are parts of history where Germany could do well to learn from itself.
At Wilhelmstraße 92, between the street and a car park shaded with trees in front of a set of GDR-era apartment blocks built to replaced the destroyed Chancellery complex established by Bismarck and extended by Hitler, is a small information board with a map of Africa and a text in three languages. It tells the story of 1884 and the Berlin Conference, a meeting during which the “scramble for Africa” was formalized and almost the entire continent was divided between the European colonial powers.
Compared to other European countries, Germany’s colonial history was not long, lasting from the Berlin Conference in 1884 until the end of World War I. It was brief, but it was bloody. It includes the genocide of the Hereo and Nama in German South-West Africa—today Namibia—regarded by the United Nations as the first genocide of the 20th century. Taking place between 1904 and 1908, brutal methods including deliberate starvation, the use of concentration camps and murder of men, women and children by German soldiers cost the lives of an estimated 65,000 to 100,000 people. Medical experiments were carried out on prisoners, while skeletons and bodies were taken to Europe for research. Elsewhere, between 1905 and 1907, 100,000 people were killed during the Maji-Maji Rebellion against German colonial rule in East Africa.
The conversation often turns to Germany and what lessons it can offer in dealing with history and the legacy of the past.
For the most part, Germany’s colonial history is almost invisible in Berlin, a city where naming of roads, squares, schools and stations has long been a sensitive topic and yet there are still streets named for Hermann von Wissmann, the Reich Commissar for German East Africa, and the coloniser Carl Peters, whose crimes in Africa were so brutal he was even fired by the Kaiser and was later honoured with a statue by Hitler. Visit the “African Quarter” in the district of Wedding and there’s a good chance you’ll see the Petersallee street sign obscured with paint. Technically, the street no longer remembers Carl Peters, for it was decided in 1986 that Petersallee could keep its name but would instead honor the politician Hans Peters. It was a neat solution, but one that campaigners consider to have missed the point.
In January 2020 a five-year project was launched in Berlin on the theme of Postcolonial Remembrance in the City, which includes the renaming of three streets in the “African Quarter.” As if in acknowledgement that the 1986 “re-naming” was anything but, the authorities announced Petersallee was to be split, becoming Anna-Mugunda-Allee, after a Namibian independence campaigner, and Maji-Maji-Allee after the East African rebellion of 1905. The plans have met with resistance from some residents and right-wing politicians, and at the time of writing the Petersallee sign still stands, splattered in red paint.
On Wilhelmstraße in the sunshine, I cannot help but feel the form of memory and recognition at the site of the 1884 conference is somewhat paltry, given the historical importance of the event it is remembering. After all, the Berlin Conference was a pivotal event in the recent history of Africa. In an interview for Deutsche Welle in 2015, the historian Olyaemi Ainwumi from Nasarawa State University in Nigeria argued that, “the foundation for present day crises in Africa was actually laid by the 1884/85 Berlin Conference,” and that, “…the Conference did irreparable damage to the continent. Some countries are still suffering from it to this day.”
History is not, and should not, be about comparisons. But in a country as highly memorialized as Germany, in a city as highly aware of its history as Berlin, the fact that such an important story for both Africa and Europe has such a modest memorial speaks, I think, to the priorities and choices we make when it comes to what we remember and how we remember it.
To acknowledge history can be painful, for an individual and for a society. On Wilhelmstraße I stand on the street corner and try to feel it. The meaning of a place is what we bring to it. It’s based on our knowledge, on what we’ve read and what we’ve heard. What we’ve experienced. And for those of us who have not experienced it, or lived with the consequences of historical events that resonate through the generations, it is our duty to listen and to learn. It’s important, because it helps define where we’ve come from and how we want to move forward. Identity, Stuart Hall wrote, “is an endless ever-unfinished conversation.” This is true, I think, of societies and communities as well as individuals. The conversation cannot end.
It is our responsibility to learn the truth, however painful, of our past, of what happened, of what it means, and how it echoes through the years, whether we stand at a place where a meeting was held, consider the future of a slave-owner’s statue, or approach the gates of a concentration camp. It is not easy, but it is real and it is important, because the danger of forgetting, or not knowing, is already written in our history books. And these are places we should have no wish to return to.
In his poem “Black Gravity,” Musa Okwonga writes about how Berlin has “different weather” for those of African heritage, and especially at places like Wilhelmstraße:
That wherever a right arm is extended and raised aloft,
The surrounding atmosphere cannot remain soft;
That trauma daily drifts up from the streets,
And exists in the mists and clouds around us.
In this way, history is forever among us,
And maybe, if we heed its weight,
But only if we’re willing to listen.