Thursday, June 21, 2007

A second day in Berlin, Germany

Case explores Potsdammerplatz, the booming center of reunified Berlin.

We were looking for the site of Hitler's bunker. We walked around the area where we expected to find it but saw now signs -- nothing. The numerous construction projects in this area that was, not so many years ago, the "death zone" just east of the Wall, made it hard to figure out what might be an old bunker site and what was just work-in-progress.
After much hunting around, we did find a sign stating that this was the place, describing the bunker that once stood under it, and telling of Hitler's final hours here.
The grassy patch behind the sign is probably about as close as one can come nowadays to the place where Hitler met his self-inflicted end, and where his assistants cremated his and Eva Braun's bodies. A bicycle tour was on the spot when we arrived, and the tour leader noted that -- quite fittingly in her opinion -- the patch of grass behind the sign is where the apartment residents potty their dogs every day.
The Holocaust Memorial, the Brandenberg Gate, the Reichstag building (center of government), Checkpoint Charlie, Potsdammerplatz -- all are within 2-6 blocks from this site.

One cannot visit these sites without learning something about the continuing controversy over them. Some would memorialize every site, fearing that to do otherwise would dishonor the past, or perhaps even lead to its repetition. On the other hand, many of these sites were obliterated, destroyed, and left unmarked after the war, in fear that they might otherwise become a shrine to the fallen regime and a nucleus for its resurgence. Should that change now?

Politics inevitably enters into the decisions. Berlin is a thriving metropolis, and the real estate under some memorials -- or proposed memorials -- ranks among the most expensive in the world. Can there be too many memorials? And where shall the money come from to build them all?

Some places rate only a sign -- should Hitler's "gravesite" deserve more?

Some memorials cover an entire city block -- should the Holocaust memorial be any less?

Some places (seen in Munich) remain entirely unmarked -- and should a pleasant beer hall be forever required to carry depressing reminders of the tyrants who once frequented it?

Some sites seem unsure, waffling between simple and stark displays and full-fledged museum-memorials (also consuming not a little money in the waffling process) -- and how should one remember the offices and torture chambers of the Gestapo buildings? With simple excavations and displays, or with exhaustive exhibits, artifacts, and stories?

Whatever the answer, there is plenty to learn in seeing what is there, in remembering why it is there (both why the events happened and why we choose to mark them), and in extracting the lessons for life (individual and in the body politic) today.

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