- Historic Sites
Where Berlin And America Meet
Our common history isn’t all pleasant, but seeing it firsthand is deeply moving
April/May 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 2
For most of the last 50 years the area lay in oblivion; the forgotten addresses included Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse 8, once the School of Industrial Arts and Crafts and later headquarters of the Secret State Police (Gestapo), and Wilhelmstrasse 102, formerly the Prinz Albrecht Palace and, beginning in 1933, the central offices of the Nazi Security Service (SD). After 1945 the site lay wrecked and undisturbed until the museum was designed in the 1990s. The architects designing their gallery of Nazi state terror built imaginatively on the fact that this is haunted ground. Here, they seem to be saying, is what you risk when you employ such means. The museum’s content—stark placards and photographs of the victims and apparatus of Nazi repression—illustrates the morality of what happened there; the structure itself declares that it all proved suicidal. The exhibits are chilling, but the space that contains them is oddly reassuring in an Old Testament way. Vengeance came from the skies.
Many Germans see Treptow as a celebration of the victory of one monster over another.
Another, even more horrific monument to the war was untouched by the bombing and remains perfectly preserved. The Wannsee Conference took place in a villa by a pretty lake, the Wannsee, in western Berlin. The set- ting is very handsome, with the longest stretch of inland beach in Europe and the Grunewald forest nearby. In 1941 Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring had ordered Himmler’s lieutenant Reinhard Heydrich to make “all necessary preparations with regard to organizational, practical, and material matters for a total solution of the Jewish question within the German sphere of influence in Europe.” And so in January 1942 Heydrich met at Wannsee with officials of numerous other branches of the Reich government.
A cool, bureaucratic preface to an enormity is hard to dramatize, but the Wannsee villa is both a muted site and an astonishingly effective one. After the war it housed Soviet and then American officers; when it became a memorial, its interior was recreated to make it look just as it had during the conference. The chief exhibits are simply large photographs of the participants, calm, well-dressed men about to begin their administrative labors, and blowups of documents recording what they achieved. You leave as you entered, walking down the streets of a wealthy, quiet suburban neighborhood more or less unchanged since the war. The experience provides no catharsis. Not the eye but the mind registers what the Wannsee villa has to say.
The mechanisms coordinated at Wannsee were shattered by a war in which the Red Army inflicted four out of every five casualties suffered by the Wehrmacht and the SS. The Soviets themselves suffered more than 20 million dead. There are two monuments to the Red Army in Berlin, both raised by the Soviet victors. The one most tourists see, if they see either, is a marble colonnade topped by a Red Army statue, but the other is more striking. Built between 1947 and 1949 in Treptow Park, a rather seedy working-class neighborhood in the old eastern zone, is a 54-acre graveyard dominated by a 35-foot-high bronze showing a Russian soldier breaking apart a swastika with a sword in his left hand while he holds a child in his right. Five thousand of the Red Army troops who took Berlin are buried in the cemetery, in an area flanked by a series of rectangular monuments bearing reliefs that depict first the suffering and then the triumphs of the Red Army and the Soviet people. Elsewhere two huge red-granite pylons representing lowered Soviet flags dominate a low hill, each guarded by a bronze of a larger-than-life kneeling Soviet soldier, and a nine-foot-high kneeling Mother Russia gazes down by it all.
This is an uncomfortable place. Many Germans see it as a celebration of the victory of one monster over another, one that raped and pillaged as it advanced. Yet the Mother Russia emphasizes sorrow, and many of the reliefs record atrocities inflicted by the German army. The memorial unwittingly reminds us that Stalin indeed was a monster—there are jarring quotations from him on the slabs with the reliefs —but it also reminds us of what the Red Army endured, avenged, and finally annihilated. One of the shortest and most moving of war poems was addressed to the fortifications dissolving under German bombardment during the siege of Leningrad: “O you stones / Be as firm as people.” If you are grateful for the disappearance of Soviet Communism but retain the suspicion that the world is a much better place because Berlin fell and Leningrad didn’t, you will find the Treptow memorial moving. Its stones remind us that our world survived be- cause no stones are as firm as were some peoples.
Still, much of Berlin reminds us that the city was not only Hitler’s capital and a Cold War hot spot but also the capital of Frederick the Great and Imperial Germany and the Weimar Republic. Frederick’s Prussia was abolished as a political entity by the Allies after World War II, but its physical remains are very much worth seeing. Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841), a neoclassical and neo-Gothic architect of genius, left buildings that are among the most wonderful in Berlin, including the Neue Wache, the Friedrichswerdersche Kirche, the Schauspielhaus, and the Altes Museum. The distance by which he is off our cultural map today shows how much Hitler’s shadow still obscures Berlin’s past.