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Posted by Torben
It seems that anytime anyone anywhere writes about Berlin nowadays, mention must be made of the “looming specter” of its recent past; of a city “haunted;” of “ghosts” and “demons” not yet “exorcised.” While this recourse to metaphor can serve as a segue into honest and well-founded analysis, all-too-often it's just thin camouflage for an appeal to prurience straight out of an Anne Rice novel. Ours is the age of “dark tourism:” You can take your picture with a wax Anne Frank in Berlin's Madame Tussaud's and nobody seems to mind. You can check out a wax Hitler, too, but unlike the other featured celebrities (I use the term advisedly), you are not allowed to touch him, absurdly endowing him with a perverse mystique.
I say this knowing full well that I'm sitting in a great big glass house with thin panes: I am a tour guide who makes money showing visitors to Berlin remnants of Nazi-era architecture and the grounds of a former concentration camp. For all the talk that Berlin is “poor but sexy,” its Nazi past is, understandably, of tremendous interest to many who come here, and I, like many others, cater to and profit from that interest. I try to provide accurate information and some sense of the complexity of the history addressed, but I'm not sure that's sufficient justification.
To be clear, when it comes to Berlin's Nazi past, I am not advocating reticence and I'm not taking issue with the breadth and density of the city's memorial landscape – to the contrary. I don't believe Germany suffers from a surfeit of memory, but from a surfeit of glib talk about memory.
And that's a shame. Sure, while some memorials and museums in Germany seem to accommodate a never-ending stream of German students and young people (the age demographic at memorials is striking; older Germans are a rare sight) as well as foreign tourists, some are almost barren of visitors. Others have become what Germans cynically call Kranzabwurfstellen, wreath-disposal-sites, visited mainly by politicians and dignitaries on Holocaust Remembrance Day and the anniversary of the euphemistically named Kristallnacht. Still, the memorials and museums across Berlin and Germany are the result of a decades-long process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a coming to terms with the past. This process was long in coming, it endured periods of retardation and was corrupted by efforts at self-exculpation, but evident flaws notwithstanding, the debates surrounding the establishment and design of the country's memorials and exhibitions tend to be long, arduous, and sophisticated. That doesn't mean the results are always good (and they're certainly not going to please everyone) but more thought has gone into them than some knee-jerk journalistic appraisals, written after a five minute stroll through Berlin's Holocaust Memorial, might suggest.
Perhaps the depth and breadth of the German memorial landscape, how (some of) its citizens have wrestled with the country's crimes, can be of interest to those with a less awful past. The horrors of Germany's 20th century history (specifically the crimes perpetrated by Germans in Germany's name in the Nazi period) are unique, but maybe there is some relevance for contemporary American discussions surrounding, for instance, the flying of the Confederate flag or the naming of buildings on university campuses for the likes of Woodrow Wilson or John C. Calhoun, men with very different legacies but who were both unquestionably racists.
But that is a discussion for another day. Instead, I'd like to talk a little bit about something that has struck me in recent months as I've, by chance, explored parts of the city I hadn't previously spent much time in: the topography of Berlin's – and by extension Germany's – memorial landscape. A casual visitor to Berlin's Holocaust Memorial – it's just a stone's throw from the seat of the federal government after all – will be forgiven for missing something crucial about German memorials: their ubiquity. Totems of the country's national socialist past – in the form of information boards, exhibitions or memorials – abound and can often be found in unlikely places.
Two months ago, my son Viktor was born. From early on he has displayed a casual disregard for what we – his parents – ask him to do and a matter-of-course attitude toward doing his own thing. During the pregnancy, Viktor refused to turn in the womb and generally made it clear that he was going to stay put as long as he damn well felt like it. Quixotically, however, we decided to heed medical opinion and have doctors attempt to turn Viktor so as to ease delivery. We did this in a hospital in western Berlin – Havelhöhe – established on the site of what had been built in the 1930s as Nazi air minister Hermann Göring's Luftkriegsakademie or “Air War Academy.” Here, officers of the general staff of the Luftwaffe, the Nazi German air force, were trained. That the hospital comprised buildings from the Nazi era was clear at first glance, despite the incongruous pink facade of the gynecology department. An information board provided the explanation. Where anthroposophic medicine is practiced today, officers who would form the Legion Condor that bombed Republican strongholds for Franco's Spanish government, including the town of Guernica as immortalized by Picasso, received their training.
Viktor would be born elsewhere, in the Waldkrankenhaus (“forest hospital”) at the western-most edge of Berlin in the district of Spandau. We arrived a few days before delivery – the doctors wanted to try to induce labor – and so I had lots of time to study an exhibition on display in the hospital foyer about the the history of the place. I learned that the hospital had been founded on the site of the Arbeiterstadt “Große Halle,” a settlement projected to house 8,000 workers who were to be employed in realizing the most ambitious building project of Hitler's new capital, Germania, as Berlin was to be renamed. The Große Halle, or “great hall,” would have stood just south of where the main train station is today. The projected dimensions are obscene; at almost 300 meters, the dome would have been almost as tall as Berlin's TV tower. Critics have argued that it would have been structurally unsound, a charge the architect, Albert Speer, dismissed, although he was concerned that during the planned political rallies the condensed sweat of up to 180,000 attendees could have led to rainfall inside the building. In order for Speer's megalomaniacal plans to be realized, thousands of homes had to be abandoned and the residents resettled, often into homes left behind by Jews deported to the east, most of whom were murdered in the Holocaust. Speer's office participated in preparing lists of deportees so as to expedite his plans.
Construction of the “great hall” was expected to last until 1950 and so the workers (Germans) were to be housed in quarters more comfortable than the ad hoc wooden barracks usually found at building sites. Thus in 1939 construction began on the Arbeiterstadt or “workers' town.” Unlike with their representative architecture where neoclassicism prevailed (see said “great hall”), when it came to their residential buildings the Nazis preferred a style evoking a fictitious medieval German past. Sometimes called Heimatschutzstil or “homeland preservation style,” the Arbeiterstadt conformed to type. Three buildings arranged in a “U” shape formed one unit that could house up to 320 workers, each building boasting half-timber elements or arcades resting on wooden posts. The building forming the base of the “U” served as kitchen and mess hall with a stage at one end for weekend performances and film screenings. The other two buildings contained sanitary facilities and the barracks where the workers slept.
Only a fraction of the settlement was built and Speer's plans for Germania never got beyond the very early stages. Instead, the houses of the Arbeiterstadt were rented out to German businesses who in the war years were increasingly reliant on foreign labor. Millions of foreigners worked in Germany during the Second World War (civilians to whom millions more concentration camp prisoners and POWs must be added). How they were treated could vary dramatically, but a very high percentage, 80% to 90%, were forced laborers. Poles and civilian workers from the Soviet Union, so-called Ostarbeiter, were especially poorly treated, and became veritable prisoners of the companies that ostensibly employed them. Death rates could be very high due to poor nutrition, long and brutal hours, and unsafe conditions. Workers were impressed into service, could not dissolve their contracts, and were poorly remunerated if they were paid at all. After the war, German companies did not prove eager to fess up to their responsibility for the criminal treatment of these "employees," but the threat of lawsuits in the US and pressure from the German government convinced them in the year 2000 to participate in the establishment of a fund, financed jointly with the German government, to pay foreign forced laborers modest compensation. Part of the money also went to the establishment of a foundation designed to keep the memory of the victims alive and to educate the public about their plight.
During the last years of the war, two to three thousand workers were living in the Arbeiterstadt at a given time. When the Soviets took Berlin, it was largely empty, the workers having been given meager rations and sent away. Just a few months later, the Verein zur Errichtung evangelischer Krankenhäuser or “Association for the Establishment of Lutheran Hospitals” took over a number of barracks and used them to house about 100 children requiring orthopedic treatment from a region to the southeast of Berlin (Niederlausitz) . Two years later, the hospital where my son would be born was established.
We had to stay in hospital for several days after Viktor's birth, and it was there that I took him on his first walk. We checked out the church on the hospital grounds (the facility is Lutheran, after all), and saw the few remaining buildings from the Nazi period standing amid pine trees. In one of them, a larger exhibit on the history of the Arbeiterstadt can be visited upon request. It had been developed in the 1990s by the Spandau Geschichtswerkstatt or history workshop. Such workshops have been around since the 1980s. They tend to focus on researching and popularizing local history, often emphasizing marginalized groups and the difficult history of the 1930s and 1940s. It is a way for young people (among others) to get involved in the local community and to get a taste of historical research.
A little further on, a sculpture had been set up in 2004 to commemorate the forced laborers and their suffering. The local government had refused to pay for it, but a grassroots initiative managed to get enough financial support from various sources, including the Protestant Lutheran Church, unions, and political parties, to see the memorial unveiled. The German metal workers union, IG Metall, pays for its maintenance. At the base of the sandstone monument depicting workers holding a heavy bronze load is a quote from Germany's former president, Johannes Rau: “Slave and forced labor not only meant the denial of fair pay. It also meant deportation, an uprooting, a disenfranchisement, the brutal violation of human dignity. Often the system's express aim was the destruction of human beings through work.”
A quick postscript: As mentioned, the hospital is located at the very edge of town on a street appropriately named Stadtrandstraße or “city boundary street.” Many of its patients came from beyond West Berlin's borders from Communist East Germany. Then, in 1961, the Berlin Wall was built. Suddenly, the number of patients plummeted. The hospital was in danger of being forced to close. However, the West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer became interested in its plight. Although Adenauer had no love lost for Berlin – he preferred the easygoing small town atmosphere of Catholic Bonn – he did not want to give the East German government the opportunity for anti-Western propaganda a half-abandoned, underfunded, and deteriorating hospital would have provided. He helped mediate a fundraising drive led by a German industrialist in New York, though it met with only modest success. Today, however, the Waldkrankenhaus is a busy hospital boasting the somewhat stodgy chic of 1980s era West German public architecture. And the East Germans are back!