Hitler slept here.

Hitler slept here.

Hitler slept here.

June 1996 - June 2006.
June 21 2006 7:09 AM

Hitler Slept Here

The too-secret history of the Third Reich's most famous place.

Slate turns 10 this week, and to celebrate the anniversary, we've dug into the archives and resurrected a few favorite pieces. Some of the pieces come from The Best of Slate: A 10th Anniversary Anthology, which was published this month. Others, including this piece, we chose because they highlight what Slate can do as an online magazine that print magazines, newspapers, television, and radio can't. These pieces mix media, promote interactivity, show off the conversational immediacy of the Web, or otherwise take advantage of the medium. You can see a list of all the republished pieces, as well as everything else related to the anniversary, here.

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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.

Grunewald train station memorial: the inscription says: March 27, 1945/18 Jews/Berlin-Theresienstadt

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 Slate senior 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 db188@umail.umd.edu