War and memory

NOMI MORRIS October 13 1997

War and memory

NOMI MORRIS October 13 1997

War and memory


Dealing with the past causes unending debate


After screen legend Marlene Dietrich died in 1992, hundreds of fans made a pilgrimage to her grave site at the back corner of a leafy Berlin cemetery. There on the freshly laid dirt, the words of one handwritten note stood out among the wilting flowers. “Marlene, Germany didn’t deserve you,” it said, in the self-critical tone of a postwar generation ashamed of the country’s past. Five years later, Germans are again agonizing over Dietrich’s controversial role in their past—amid heated debate over naming a street or square for her. The sultry icon of film and song, who rose to fame as naughty Lola in director Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 classic The Blue Angel, took out American citizenship in 1937 to protest against Nazism. She never returned to live in Germany and once called the more than 500 performances she gave to Allied troops “the only important thing” she ever did. For many fans, that

record is part of her greatness. But to those Berliners who oppose immortalizing her with the city’s paving stones, she remains— despite her renown and the nation’s contrition over the war—a traitor.

“In 1945, she was a liaison officer in an American uniform who marched into Germany with the victors,” said one elderly resident of the Berlin district of Schöneberg, which proposes to rename a square for Dietrich near her birthplace. “Must we honor her?” In August, the neighboring Tiergarten district trumped Schöneberg’s offer by approving its own Marlene square as part of the massive Potsdamer Platz commercial and residential redevelopment going up in the heart of the city. That spot borders a new film museum that is to house more than 100,000 of Dietrich’s personal effects.

The fight over Dietrich’s legacy is just one of many controversies over memorials and remembrance that continually tear at Germany’s conscience—and have become more complex since the country’s unifica-

tion, seven years ago last week, on Oct. 3, 1990. This month, 26 entries will be registered for a new competition to build a central memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, a monumental $11.7million project that has been under discussion for nearly a decade. Smaller historical conundrums surface almost weekly. A recent initiative to restore a Jewish cemetery in eastern Berlin and mark the grave of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn ran into opposition from descendants of Nazi SS men buried in a mass grave on the same site. There is even a movement to remove cobblestones laid by the Nazis in 1935 in front of Berlin’s Altes Museum with a replica of the gardens put there in 1832 by Prussian architect Friedrich Schinkel.

The scope for such exercises in memory reprogram^ « ming is infinite, says Daniel “WI Libeskind, architect of a celebrated new building for the Berlin municipal museum that contains the city’s Jewish Museum. “Germany has experienced such quick changes of history,” says Libeskind. “There is suddenly a huge transformation overnight.” This century alone, he notes, saw rule by the Prussian monarchy, the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich, the division of the country into Communist East and capitalist West, and ultimately the emergence of a united democratic Germany after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. ‘There is really no escape,” says Libeskind. “Every brick, every tree was witness to something. It is a question of what traces of the past are incorporated into the present and the future.”

That struggle has become a central part of the 1990s search for a new German identity. Now, as the 1999 deadline nears for the Bonn government to relocate the capital to Berlin, that city has become the drawing board for attempts to reconstruct the image of a strong, united Germany. The result: citizens are constantly on the lookout for significance in symbols as mundane as street signs. Berlin’s Charlottenburg district has just renamed the avenue leading up to Hitler’s grandiose 1936 Olympic stadium— literally Reich Stadium Street—to honor Adolf and Gustav-Felix Flatow, two Jewish brothers who won gold for Germany in the 1896 Athens Olympics and later perished in Nazi death camps.

The historical flash point is usually the Second World War. But the arguments often reveal a nostalgia for the glory days of German history as well as a disdain for the physical remnants of communism. Many tourists are surprised to find that few pieces of the Berlin Wall have been left standing—although its slabs can be found in museums around the world. In 1994, a private group commissioned Paris artist Catherine Feff to erect a life-sized vinyl facade of the 17th-century Prussian Palace to hide the defunct copper-colored parliament of the former East Germany. The group hopes to rebuild the baroque palace. In recent years, more than 100 east Berlin streets have been renamed to remove Communist heroes from their signs.

Much of the revision deals with a simple desire to move on—from communism as well as Nazism. Architect Libeskind says the emerging corporate city at Potsdamer Platz makes few visual references to its prewar incarnation as the commercial hub of the city—let alone its years as a vacant lot beyond the former Cold War death strip next to the Wall. “Probably what is being built now will come to haunt it later,” he says. “People will come back in 50 years and say, ‘Where is the Potsdamer Platz of the 20th century?’ and they will end up building a memorial to it.”

Yet delving into the past has become something of a national obsession in Germany. Almost nightly, television stations run documentaries on the Nazi era, the loss of European Jewry and current anti-Semitism. The country’s first comprehensive Holocaust museum has been set up at the Wannsee Villa, site of the 1942 dinner meeting when Hitler’s top aides mapped out the Final Solution, a detailed plan to exterminate Europe’s Jews. And there are plans to build a museum about the Third Reich over the underground labyrinth known as Hitler’s bunker. Endorsing such efforts has turned into the German version of political correctness.

Last spring, neo-Nazis in Munich gained international attention when they protested an exhibition on the wartime crimes of the Wehrmacht, the regular German army. But far more people showed up to defend the exhibition, which had already run successfully in 15 German and Austrian cities. “The real story is that Germans, more than the people of any other country, deal with the inglorious and horrific parts of their past,” says Harvard historian Daniel Goldhagen, whose 1996 book Hitler’s Willing Execution-

ers argued that Germans at all levels of society co-operated with the Nazis because they shared a virulent anti-Semitism.

Goldhagen has been pilloried in academic and media circles for his scholarship, but was embraced by the German public when he toured the country. He was later awarded Germany’s prestigious Democracy Prize for stimulating national debate, no small feat for someone who accuses an entire population of sanctioning genocide. Goldhagen be-

For some, Marlene Dietrich was a traitor

lieves the passage of time has been critical in allowing Germans to confront the past. “Fifty years afterwards, Germans want to know what happened,” he says. “Even the older ones are able to look back more directly, openly and honestly.”

Few Germans question the need for memorials. The real debate is over how and where to remember. It was in 1988 that journalist Lea Rosh began her drive for a central memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and in 1989 that German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, strolling through the former no man’s land at the heart of a reunited Berlin, raised his arm and said it should be there. A 1995 competition brought in proposals ranging from the profound to the impractical. But the two final choices, which each called for massive grave-like structures, were deemed too grandiose by Kohl. Meanwhile, the youth branch of his party opposed erecting the memorial in the core of the new government quarter, while Gypsy

and homosexual leaders questioned why Holocaust victims from their groups were not included.

Caroline Wiedmer, a Holocaust scholar from Seattle’s University of Washington currently in Berlin, says abstract monuments like the one Rosh favors leave today’s German youth largely unmoved. “The first generation after the Holocaust is building memorials for the next generation without taking into account their memory needs,” says Wiedmer, who is writing a book on the subject. Like Goldhagen, she

believes young Germans do care about the ugly parts of their past, but they are not burdened by it in the same way as their elders. “The youth are not against remembering,” she says. “The question is how to do it in a meaningful way.”

It is not only Germans who are grappling with that question. Fifty years later, Swiss banks, American art museums and even the Roman Catholic Church are re-examining their wartime actions. Last week, France’s bishops issued a public apology for remaining silent when 76,000 Jews were deported during the Vichy regime. At the urging of Pope John Paul II, Polish and German bishops have made similar statements since 1994. In Germany, Marlene Dietrich has become the latest focus for the still painful wounds of the past. To some critics, monuments and renamed streets are just BandAids on those deep wounds. Clearly, though, even Band-Aids are an important part of the healing process. □