Wednesday, 3 June 2009

History around every corner

If you want to avoid history, then you’d probably be best advised to avoid Berlin, because you really can’t keep away from it there.

It’s not just the obvious, the large scale. Here a street named after a student leader in 1968, there a tiny brass plaque in the cobbled pavement to a woman who was deported to a concentration camp from that spot.

I wanted to do history – well, some history. A trip out to Potsdam and Sanssoucci had been identified as a must, giving me a lovely big dose of old Prussia as we strolled around the gardens, formal and less formal, that surrounded Frederick the Great’s getaway palace.

There too was the grave where he was finally interred, in accordance with his wishes, at night and without ceremony, next to the graves of his beloved dogs.

It was a Monday and the palaces themselves were closed. Whilst that meant not being able to wander in the halls where the king had entertained guests with his flute playing and conversed with Voltaire, it had the advantage of meaning a greatly reduced tourist presence that day, thus enabling many moments of solitude, where the only sounds were bird song, a gentle breeze in the trees and the occasional buzz of insects. It was beautifully soothing.

Not quite everything was shut – the shop remained open, so I didn’t have to miss out on the appropriate fridge magnets, postcards and a lighter. The Other Half has long been tolerant of what he describes as my being a "romantic Prussian" – his reward was being photographed next to a T34 tank at the Soviet War Memorial in Tiergarten later in the week (his kind of history).

But even as one approaches Potsdam on the train – a lovely journey through wooded countryside much of the way – more recent history imposes itself. When the train stops at Wannsee, for instance, and you see the name on the platform sign, it is impossible not to make the historic connection. And then, of course, Potsdam itself hosted the allies’ post-war conference to decide the fate of Germany.

A short walk down the road from our hotel in one direction was the Jüdisches Museum, with architect Daniel Libeskind’s shattered Star of David providing a disorienting and claustrophobic experience next to the old Kollegienhaus, where the main part of the museum is housed.

In the other direction had stood Checkpoint Charlie, where people could pass through substantial checks from the US to the Soviet sector. Now, with the original checkpoint in a museum, a copy has been built and bus loads of tourists queue to have their pictures taken in front of it, with models dressed in the uniforms of the four occupying powers.

With spectacular irony, on street corners in all the major tourist areas, trestle tables are loaded with reproduction Soviet and DDR military memorabilia – hats in particular: communist iconography made for profit.

And on Marx-Engels-Forum, the knees on the seated statue of Marx are polished to a shine by the endless bottoms seated there for holiday snaps.

Later in the week, as we walked from the hotel to the Philharmonie to see the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, we found ourselves on the street where the last remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall stands. If every souvenir shop that sells what they purport to be real fragments of the real wall is telling the truth, then that wall must have stretched to the moon and back – never mind across a city.

There are holes in the remaining stretch, with bared wire visible like prison bars, and gouges where the surface of the concrete has been stripped away, as though by clawing hands. It is ugly and obscene, and something keeps you mute as you hurry past.

The next day, I discovered from my Time Out guide to the city that the building site on the other side of that stretch of wall is where the Gestapo headquarters were. A temporary exhibition of photographs from the first half of the 20th century stands on the site while an exhibition and memorial centre is built. The pictures displayed are the only place where it is apparently legal to show the swastika, an otherwise banned symbol.

I’m never comfortable amid such history – but then again, it should disturb. In Amsterdam, next to the Westerkerk, stands a small statue of Anne Frank. On many occasions, I’ve seen people having their photographs taken, smiling, next to it. Which disquiets me.

In the UK, we’re comfortably removed by distance from most of our historic dodgy deeds. There are some memorials to the victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but none that I know of to the victims of the British concentration camps in South Africa in the first years of the 20th century or in Kenya in the 1950s, for instance.

And Churchill and Bomber Harris even have statues to celebrate them – conveniently ignoring, amongst other things, their roles in the 1919 gassing and carpet bombing of the Kurds in northern Messopotamia (as it was then) or in the firebombing of Dresden in 1945 (which incident itself still divides opinion as to whether it was proportionate: even Churchill tried to distance himself from it).

The immediacy of such history prompts one to query one’s own relationship to it – and one’s own response. And in some cases in particular, there is a sense that one has to have a socially-approved ‘correct’ response. If you don’t, have you ‘failed’?

Not all Berlin’s recent history is so disquieting, thankfully. It was with great delight that I found a collection of 21 original pen and ink erotic sketches from 1925. Together with a bowler hat purchased from the same market, I could quite happily create a Cabaret mood.


  1. "in some cases in particular, there is a sense that one has to have a socially-approved 'correct' response"

    we all know what you mean, why don't you just say it? Dodging around the prejudice isn't helping anyone. I heard there was some merry rock throwing at Roma in Berlin this week. Did you have fun?

  2. Nice one Shig. Now go away and sober up.

  3. No there was. You want me to dig up the news text? They were also thrown out of a Catholic church, of all places, when the pastor broke his promise of granting asylum. Sober? What blasphemy!

  4. ~~LOL~~ I don't doubt the veracity of your report of an attack on Roma, Shig. No more than I doubt the veracity of the comment in the 2009 edition of the Time Out guide to Berlin that gays are generally safe in the city, but that there have been attacks on them in recent years by skinhead neo-Nazis in the old east and by Turks in the west of the country.

    Part of the problem, as I see it, is that if we're not careful, it becomes very difficult to discuss certain issues – for instance, why some Turks might be committing homophobic crimes. Because perhaps to address why that's happening we need to ask questions about cultural attitudes and integration and even multiculturalism – including (but not limited to) religious attitudes. But to do so – as in that particular case, for instance – can risk accusations (or risk a fear of accusations) of simply being Islamophobic or racist.

    In the case of the Roma, we have a lot of anti-Roma feeling in the UK – to the extent that some people seem to consider it an acceptable form of prejudice. But simply dismissing it as racist – even reminding people that the Roma were amongst the Nazis' victims – does not tackle the issues, and does alienate people. It doesn't begin to address real questions – and probably creates more tensions and more problems.

    Hence my comments.

  5. racism is inacceptable, there is no middle ground, no reason to look for a way to not to throw racists their antiziganist attitudes in the face. That was one of many mistakes of the weimar republic. if we condemn racism, we must always condemn it. Racism actively hurts people. And it is a 'real' question, antiziganist racism alienates Roma, drives them further into criminality, and then appears to affirm common antiziganist attitudes. It's circular. And a very real problem.

    homophobia and turks is a different issue. i think it is bordering on racist to frame the problem as "we know it's true, but can we say it?". This only makes real racism acceptable and merges it with legitimate criticism. What's more, violence against gays in Germany divides not along race but along poverty lines. It is racist to frame the situation otherwise. No, it's not racist. Racism is the reason why one frames the problem like that. Facts show us that almost no problem in Germany can be shown to be due to race lines.

    It is also idiotic to call for full integration. The most important thing should be to establish independent financial means. If the turks turn into a community of people who barely speak German, don't talk to Germans but are financially solid, not a single problem of those that racist thinking attributes to them would exist.

  6. First, I didn't say that homophobia in Germany (or anywhere else) divides along race lines. Quite the contrary. I pointed out that, apparently, homophobic attacks in the west of the country are by Turks. That could be cultural, including influenced by religion/interpretation of religion. Reasons behind homophobic attacks by neo-Nazis in the east of the country are almost certainly different.

    Second, if one ignores the criminality of, say, Roma, then one is actually going to help the development of racism. Saying it's 'cultural' just won't do and doesn't work. And igoring such things as Roma women being sent out to aggressively beg becuase one's scared of being labelled 'racist' does absolutely nothing to deal with the central issues.

    Third, I didn't use any such phrase as "full integration". However, integration is essential – unless we want ghettos, where people, as you suggest, hardly speak a word of the language of the country they're in and therefore can't move out. It's irrelevant how "financially solid" they are – as it's naive at best to think that they can live in a specific area (a ghetto) without needing, say, medical services or education services, or needing to interact with assorted aspects of the state.

    We have situations in the UK where, because of the fear of being accused of being racist, and because of relativist attitudes, authorities have turned a blind eye to such things as female genital mutilation – not just in terms of parents taking their children to another country to be butchered, but even where some people in this country are butchering the children concerned. They're afraid to speak out or do anything because they're afraid of being classed as racist.

    We have similar problems with 'honour' killings and with certain communities enforcing codes that are at direct odds with the general practices and traditions of this country – arranged and forced marriages for instance.

    We have Beth Din and Sharia courts allowed to operate – of course, they're always wonderfully progressive in terms of, say, women's rights.

    Such things are not acceptable. Simple as.

  7. So, to clarify – racism is unacceptable. But so too is using the fear of being labeled racist as a way of avoiding awkward issues. And so too is cultural relativism that excuses, for instance, such things as female genital mutilation.