Hitler Slept Here
The too-secret history of the Third Reich's most famous place.
Posted Friday, April 13, 2001, at 8:30 PM
Berlin's boosterism is sufficiently widespread that municipal and national officials find they can usually just ignore preservation pleas like Jurk's. Indeed, the city's archeological office never answered the phoned and faxed questions posed to it in connection with this piece. But when events force officials to justify the course of obliviation, they cite the fear that marking a Nazi site would produce a flash point, even a pilgrimage point for neo-Nazis. Yet although Berlin has quite a graffiti problem, the street plaques mentioned above dealing with Hitler's Chancellery and Goebbels' and Eichmann's HQs are not defaced. And both the house on the Wannsee where the "Final Solution" conference was held as well as the torture chambers and cells in the basement of the Gestapo headquarters have been quite successfully turned into public exhibitions, with neither becoming a neo-Nazi magnet. Hugh Trevor-Roper, writing 55 years ago in his The Last Days of Hitler about Russia's fears that truthful disclosure of Hitler's suicide in the Bunker would stimulate his followers, asked the right question: "When has uncertainty about a true shrine prevented pilgrimages to a false one? … When has the suppression of the truth prevented the rise of a myth, if a myth is wanted?"
Another force surely acting on the obliviators is the deep-seated fear among Germans of doing anything that could even remotely be taken to stir up international fears of German recidivism. Thus it is that it's far, far rarer to hear any comment whatsoever about Jews from a German than from a Frenchman or an American. And thus it is that the Holocaust Memorial is going up even though many Berliners will, if you get to know them well enough, carefully confess that they think it's too big and too expensive.
If anybody thinks Germans haven't tried hard to face up to their past, let them come to Berlin. Even without the Holocaust Memorial, Berlin includes some bracing reminders of the Reich's victims—such as the Grunewald train station commemorating the wartime deportation from there of many of the city's Jews, the former Reich execution chamber at Plötzensee, and the wall in Steglitz listing the names and addresses of deported Jews. And also some inspiring reminders of its resistors—such as the exhibit in the Bendlerblock building where the leaders of the July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler were cornered and shot, and the monument on Rosenstrasse where in 1943, through an open street protest, non-Jewish women won the release of their Jewish and partially Jewish husbands from SS custody. However, there is much less in Berlin pointing unequivocally to the perpetrators. Despite important exceptions like the aforementioned Wannsee conference house (which is, in any case, far from the city center) and Gestapo headquarters, it still must be said that overall, Berlin's World War II memorial landscape tends to suggest a tragedy that befell a resisting nation. Doing something with Hitler's bunker, a place of pure perpetration, indeed the location people often conjure to help them wrap their minds around the concept of evil, could correct that.
But doing what? How do you publicly embody wickedness without appearing to salute it? This is a severe test of the concept of public memorialization that, for instance, the United States has never passed—or even taken. Where for instance, are the American monuments forcing us to contemplate the evils of slave-holding or the Indian wars? But the Germans are ahead of us here because unlike us, they don't focus primarily on from-scratch monuments—they have been quite creative at making historical places into causes of reflection. The Wannsee conference house, the Gestapo HQ basement, and the Grunewald train station (which has the specifics of each death-camp shipment from Berlin imprinted in temporal order around the actual deportation platform) are successful examples. But perhaps the most important paradigm in Germany and in the world is the headquarters on Normannenstrasse of the former GDR state security service, the Stasi. When the Wall came down, many called for the hated building to be demolished. But instead, it was preserved and opened to the public. (And its intelligence files were made available to those who figure in them.) A tour of the Stasi building strikes a far more powerful blow for freedom than anything else that could have been done there. Why miss the opportunity to do at least as much with a far more evil place? Or minimally, why not put a detailed marker on the exact spot? (In 1999 someone put up a homemade sign, but it disappeared after a couple of days.) Some memory devices, like stamps or statues, do seem inherently adulatory, but the Stasi building leads the way in showing that not all are. In the attempt to wring truth from concrete, "Worship or Destroy" is a false choice.
Scott Shuger was a Slatesenior writer and the original author of "Today's Papers." He died June 15, 2002.
Donald Berger, a poet, is the author of Quality Hill and works in the English department and creative writing program at the University of Maryland. He can be reached at email@example.com
Photographs of: open space over Bunker by Scott Shuger; above-ground complex from Bettman/Corbis; layout of underground Bunker by John V. Morris from The Bunker © 1978 James P. O'Donnell; outer wall of the Plötzensee death chamber by Scott Shuger; interior of Plötzensee by Scott Shuger; Grunewald train station memorial by Scott Shuger.