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Mays: "The architect's views on his clients [Germans], delivered during a speech before a packed house at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto not long ago, began with ridicule for the English accent of a German interviewer with whom he had spoken recently. 'But,' he added in these words, or words to this effect, 'they all sound like concentration camp guards anyway.'"

Toronto , July 20, 1999

"...they [Germans] all sound like concentration camp guards anyway."

- Jewish-American architect and designer of the Berlin Holocaust memorial Peter Eisenman, as quoted by the National Post art critic John Bentley May

New History, new Memories, but old Problems remain

by John Bentley Mays

FOR anyone fascinated by the ever-changing look, life and workings of great cities, Berlin is the most exciting place on Earth to be right now. You can't turn a corner without seeing the busy billions of incoming marks, dollars and yen hard at work, transfiguring the desolate, disfigured Cold War outpost of 10 years ago into the gleaming capital of Europe's heftiest super-power.

In due time, I'll be letting you in on my opinions about the new Berlin. Today's story is about another Berlin. It's the one I came to know during the summer of 1991, when I lived here, studying German at the Goethe-Institut each morning and spending the hours from noon to nightfall walking wherever my feet took me.

The Wall had been gone almost two years by that time, but the ghost of it lingered on. You could feel the vanished barrier, like a slight thickening of the air, when crossing from old West Berlin, long smugly accustomed to its role as a massively subsidized tropical paradise within a frigid police state, into the East-side zone of Communism's triumphs: a few modern-looking government and apartment blocks rising improbably from bombed-out emptiness and shabby streets.

But in those days before the current onslaught of building, there were some accidentally good things about Berlin. One was the dead, weedy expanse extending south from the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate, where I often went to catch the summer sunsets because nowhere was the sky wider or brighter.

But Berlin never let me forget where I was. A pattern of broken pavement in the dirt --only that -- marked the site of Potsdamer Platz, once the focus of hectic, vivid urban life. A few steps away was the unmarked grave of the knocked-down Reich Chancellery and the concrete bunker in which Hitler killed himself. Wherever else one turned, stories of the city's past seeped out -- from the amputated facades of railway stations wrecked by Allied bombardment to the ugly concrete air-raid shelters still dotting the city. In the days I studied verbs here, the city was still an archive of sad memories about Germany's failed democracy, the horrible postlude, and the years of sorrow following 1945.

As I write this, eight years later, the blasted earth is being covered by glistening towers and great government pavilions in which a new Berlin history can be written, new memories created to succeed the miserable ones.

But while this headlong construction was what drew me to Berlin this summer, I knew I could not leave the story at that -- especially now, when some Germans are recalling complex matters that other Germans, and many people outside this country, would just as soon forget.

Today at noon, for instance, the political leadership of the Federal Republic will assemble at the former Army General Staff Building to pay tribute to the German officers shot dead in its courtyard after their failed attempt to kill Hitler on July 20, 1944. This event, and others throughout the day, will climax almost a week of remembrance ceremonies, sponsored each year by the German Resistance Memorial, housed in the complex.

Sitting alone in the courtyard last week, I wept for these men and their families. The military men had risked everything in their attempt to do Hitler in and end the war. Even if they had succeeded, there was the further risk that nobody would rush to their side But if I was tempted to hallow their memory with sanctity (as the politicians today will doubtless do), a nagging doubt kept me from doing it.

The problem has to do with the role played before 1944 by noblemen such as Claus Schenk Count von Stauffenberg, the chief plotter, and offspring of a titled family of the sort that had historically supplied German military leadership. The complaint is that Count von Stauffenberg and ambitious men like him cheered for Hitler in 1933, stood by quietly in 1934 when Hitler destroyed the S.A. -- a competitor to the Army in the Third Reich -- decided National Socialism was a bad thing only during the war years, and decided to strike down Hitler only after Germany's fate was sealed.

But it's just not that simple. Count von Stauffenberg and his comrades may have been vain, narrow-minded men, with a conveniently flexible idea of honour and duty, and collaborators with a vicious regime. But one does not have to be a good man to be a hero; and each of these men did a hero's job -- though those who revere the conspirators should say a prayer that they will not be prevented by ambition and stupidity from doing the right thing soon enough.

If the commemoration of July 20 is doomed to be forever problematic, the official remembrance of the Holocaust by the German people will also be a vexing matter. On June 25, after years of wrangling, the Bundestag gave the go-ahead for New York architect Peter Eisenman's proposal for a Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The work will consist of some 2,700 tall concrete plinths, planted on a site that is now a sump of muddy waste water south of the Brandenburg Gate.

The immediate reaction from Jewish groups, inside and outside Germany, was positive. But perhaps just because Berliners love to quarrel about absolutely everything, the arguments about the Eisenman plan are still bubbling.

I would like to drop three objections into the cauldron.

  • The first, originally urged by author Gunther Grass, is that no monument could ever do justice to victims of the enormity.
  • My second objection is one insisted upon by parliamentary opponents of the project: that, if a Holocaust memorial must be built in Berlin, then let it explicitly commemorate all those targeted by the Nazi murder machine as deviants from Aryan perfection: Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally handicapped, as well as Jews.
  • My third objection has to do with Peter Eisenman, whose mind is vulgar. The closing Bundestag debates on the memorial, published in the official record Das Parlament, were notable for their intelligence, strength of argument and seriousness. Whatever their position, all the speakers -- some very green and young, some senatorial --acknowledged what Germany had done, and the gravity of making so public an act of responsibility for so horrible a crime. The speeches spoke volumes about the moral urgency of the Germans voting to become the clients of Peter Eisenman.

The architect's views on his clients, delivered during a speech before a packed house at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto not long ago, began with ridicule for the English accent of a German interviewer with whom he had spoken recently. "But," he added in these words, or words to this effect, "they all sound like concentration camp guards anyway."

I think those who voted for Eisenman's concrete slabs have a right to more respect from their architect, and a lot less blabbermouthing in public about the nation footing the bill.


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