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The Future of the City: Berlin’s Memories

Above: Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Editor's note: The theme of the Winter 2010-2011 issue of World Policy Journal is "Megalopolis: The City of the 21st Century."  We asked experts, policymakers, and writers from around the world to answer this question:  "In the future, what will our cities look like?" There are some cities, though, where it's impossible to talk about the future without talking about the past — or ideas about the past.  Berlin is one of those places.  Joshua Ellison reflects on the city's past, present, and future in the essay that follows, which is adapted from the introduction to the latest issue of Habitus, a journal of global Jewish culture.    

By Joshua Ellison

Memory is everywhere in Berlin, but history is curiously absent. There isn't much to see that's especially old. A few churches, a few grand buildings and statues, a few ominous relics, but otherwise the post-war and post-wall city is gray and mute. There are lots of places where significant things used to be: a cheerless park where Hitler's bunker used to be; tidy streets that used to be bisected by the wall; endless holes in the ground and scaffolding and cranes.

A hundred years ago, the journalist Karl Scheffler famously wrote that Berlin was a "city condemned to becoming and never to being." Even now, nothing looks quite finished. Berlin is always becoming something else, but it's condemned precisely by what it had been before.

Even where the past has been all but erased, Berliners are constantly recording and remembering. Monuments, large and small, are everywhere. Berlin is perpetually retelling its own story. It's how the city brands itself, in both senses of the word.

Engrossed with self-accusation—sometimes touching and sometimes a little smug—the city also seems to be aching for redemption. Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum is easily the most iconic public memory project in the city. It's not a Holocaust memorial, technically, but rather a requiem for and tribute to German Jewry. Still, it is so full of tragic portent, even melodrama, that it reads more like a passion play (the wing devoted to contemporary life is called the "Axis of Continuity") but feels like a resurrection myth. Libeskind leaves little to the imagination; you feel the architect over your shoulder at all times, tapping and pointing. On the other hand, the institution has created a vibrant public presence. On my visits, the museum was packed.

In 2005, a major new memorial was inaugurated in the heart of Berlin, just a block from the Brandenburg Gate. Designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman after a contentious competition, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe covers almost five acres. Twenty-seven hundred concrete slabs of varying heights cover the expanse. At the edges, it feels like walking into a graveyard. By the time you reach the center, as the slabs grow taller, you are in a labyrinth.

The process of selecting and creating the memorial exposed deep rifts in German society about the role of memory. The novelist Martin Walser railed at the time against the "ceaseless presentation of our shame." Even the Jewish community did not support the project unanimously—some called it unnecessary. It was then discovered that one of the companies working on the project had been indirectly involved in manufacturing Zyklon B during the War. Henryk Broder, a ubiquitous Jewish provocateur, wrote that the Jews were "not prepared to declare a pigsty kosher." Still, some 3.5 million visited the site in the first year.

Shortly before my arrival in Berlin, headlines around the world reported a bracing statement from German Chancellor Angela Merkel: German multiculturalism had been an "utter failure," she announced. It was dead. To be sure, this was another episode in a continent-wide saga about immigration, national culture, citizenship, and cosmopolitan anxiety. In Germany, of course, all of those fears resonate with the tortured status of unsettled history.

The debate had already reached a fever pitch over the summer with the publication of a book by the banker and politician Thilo Sarrazin, who warned that Germany was being lost to an onslaught of foreigners who were debasing and dumbing down the nation's civic life. Sarrazin is perfectly explicit about the problem's source: Muslims with low IQs, backward cultures, and poor German. Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Does Away With Itself) has sold well over a million copies, and has been called the best-selling political book in post-war Europe. Much of the political elite has shunned him, but as Merkel's postmortem for multiculturalism suggests, his views have more mainstream appeal than many here would like to admit.

During my stay, I was based in Neukölln, a sometimes shabby but tranquil district that is home to much of the city's large Turkish community. Young Germans and expats have settled here too, drawn by cheap rents and a taste of the rough-edged atmosphere that pervaded the city after the wall fell. Neukölln has all the usual hallmarks of a Western European immigrant enclave: busy shops teeming with low-quality goods, small-stakes betting parlors, pungent food smells, a brisk trade in international calling cards and disposable cell phones. Women's heads are often covered. Men stand smoking in circles on the corners outside coffee shops.

There is a small banner that shows up regularly in shop windows—with variations in German, English, Turkish, and Arabic—that reads, "No Room for Nazis!" Just around the corner, you might see graffiti that warns of "Islamo-fascism," or curses Mohammed, or even an occasional swastika. From here, German multiculturalism looks like an incomplete project—but very much a going concern.

Many observers have noted the strong and uncomfortable parallels with nineteenth-century debates over the assimilation of Jews. The terms are often strikingly similar: good outsiders and bad; those who want to adapt and those who remain stubbornly apart; a deep fear for the national culture—in German terms, the unity of the Volk—that seems to be under threat from inconvenient interlopers. That history hangs heavily. As Germans engage in today's discussions about immigration, they are also pushing against the taboos that have prevailed here since the end of the war.

It's hard to sketch an accurate picture of Berlin's Jewish community today; it is too fragmentary and diffuse, with too many disconnected parts. Since reunification, large numbers of Jews from the former Soviet Union have emigrated here, and they now overwhelm the rest of the German-Jewish population demographically, presenting an assimilation problem of their own. Maxim Biller, a Jewish writer born in Prague to Russian parents, has written, "Someone like me wasn't foreseen in Germany." It's easy to imagine what makes the situation of these new immigrants so bewildering: they find themselves in the most fraught place on the planet where one could possibly be a Jew, but they are largely disconnected from the story—and especially the tragedy—that unfolded here.

Speaking to Jews with deeper roots in Germany, you have the ironic feeling that they see these new Jews as compromising the "Germanness" of their community. One rabbi put it to me like this: we used to speak the language of Goethe and now we speak the language of Pushkin. Then again, German Jews have long been preoccupied with this. In his majestic history of German Jewry, The Pity of It All, Amos Elon writes, "Other Europeans often feared, admired, envied, and ridiculed the Germans; only the Jews seemed actually to have loved them."

The German-born Jews you meet today often have one Jewish and one non-Jewish German parent; these families, for one reason or another, stayed after the war. Irreconcilably situated between the perpetrators and the victims, their position might be the most complicated of all.

Ultimately, though, it is the absence of Jews in Berlin that exerts the most powerful force on the culture. Over time, many Germans have started to appreciate the profundity of the loss their society has suffered by the eradication of their Jewish compatriots. But this, of course, is not the real tragedy—the real loss was not the impoverishment of German culture. That does not approach either the calamitous loss of life the Germans inflicted, or even the destruction they brought on themselves. But it's nevertheless a grave catastrophe.

Around Berlin, plaques mark the former homes of Jews. This may be the most affecting of all the city's memorial designs. Here, finally, is disaster expressed on an individual scale. Each building is implicated, along with all the people who pass by it, in the fate of its old inhabitants. It's a brutal reminder of the ghostly decay that still eats away at the city.

Joshua Ellison is the editor of Habitus: A Diaspora Journal, a Jewish magazine of international literature and culture.

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