culture, history

Berlin, Vergangenheitsbewältigung and finding freedom in the past

After Prague we travelled by train to Berlin. There were no preeminent icons of literature – at least fiction and poetry – who I intended to discover or rediscover on this trip to the German capital. It is not because figures from German literature have not been participants in my infinite conversation over the years. I think of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain, for example, or a more displaced figure like W.G. Sebald. I have sampled but not really gone into the depths of figures like Holderlin, Goethe, and Brecht. But many of the most influential cultural figures from Berlin or more broadly German culture for me have been in the broader field of history, philosophy and social science: Walter Benjamin, Max Weber, and the great German historical tradition, especially associated with verstehen.

So, it was fitting that my time in Berlin was less standing in the crypts of great writers and more experiencing today’s Germany’s treatment of its history, or at least, to qualify, Berlin’s presentation to its visitors of how it is working through the traumatic past of National Socialism, the Holocaust, the separation of Berlin and the communist authoritarianism of East Germany. Throughout the city, there are markers and monuments, often poetic and powerful, of these times of troubles. In Bebelplatz, in front of Humboldt University, there is an empty underground stained white library representing the site of the burning of books by the Nazis. There are the great voids of the Holocaust Museum, and the deeply affecting shadow city of grey stylae in the Holocaust monument. There is the Topography of Terror museum, which places a strip of explanatory boards over the site of the Gestapo headquarters and remnant of the Berlin wall. There are monuments to victims of the mass killings of the Nazis: homosexuals, Roma and Cini, and, most important to me of this group, the victims of euthanasia – disabled and mentally ill. Wherever you go in the city, you can find markers, stones, boards, statues and buildings that reflect upon German crimes of twentieth century history.

The central idea through these monuments, markers and public interpretations is Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which is translated as “struggle to overcome the [negatives of the] past” or “working through the past.” Germany is rightly commended for the sophistication and openness of its approach to dealing with the moral legacy of its dark twentieth century. It is contrasted to the approach to history in China, or Russia or China, or heavens forbid – America. It has influenced approaches to truth and reconciliation commissions throughout the world.

But it is not without its controversies and weaknesses. Theodore Adorno criticised the idea as a mask for false contrition and inattention to fundamental inequalities in social conditions, in his blinkered Frankfurt School view, the true cause of fascism. There have been major controversies over whether there is a unique German war guilt, and debates over the inclusion of various groups in the monuments of victims. I am not too expert in these debates, but did leave Berlin with the impression that at least the tourist experience of German history is trapped within narrow lanes of working through the past – the Nazis and the Berlin Wall.

Please don’t misunderstand me. No-one should forget or minimise these experiences. But I wondered if a trite tourist trope has trapped the greater depth and complexity of German culture and history. I stood on Bebelplatz and heard the stories from the our guide about culture-hating book burning Nazis, but I heard no-one comment that here we were standing in front of an university named after Alexander Humboldt , no reference to George Steiner’s observation that the intellectuals and universities were part of the crimes of the Nazis (Heidegger burnt no books), and no reference to the book-burning of our times, the de-platforming and social media flaming of the identity radicals.

“We come after. We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant. In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanizing force, that the energies of spirit are transferable to those of conduct?” George Steiner, Language and Silence

In another way, Checkpoint Charlie and Eastside Gallery struck me as trite renditions of history. It surprised me that more was not made of how Berlin has moved on culturally since 1989, and created its own culture and its own kind of freedom. Overall, there is so much to German history, literature and culture beyond the events of 1932-89, I wondered why we cannot view this city and this country through a different lens.

It is not the literal past that rules us, save, possibly, in a biological sense. It is images of the past. These are often as highly structured and selective as myths. Images and symbolic constructs of the past are imprinted, almost in the manner of genetic information, on our sensibility. Each new historical era mirrors itself in the picture and active mythology of its past.

George Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle

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