Berlin Was Ground Zero: A Letter From USA

(Originally published, in German translation, in the volume Sehnsucht Berlin, edited by Petra Korg and Henning Brüns)

Dear Petra,

You ask me to give you my impressions of Berlin. I do not know how well I can do this, since I have only visited the city once, as a tourist, for less than two weeks. But I will try.

I was not in Berlin long enough for the living actuality of the city to entirely displace the mental images I formed of it in advance. My impressions of Berlin, therefore, are a strange amalgam of the actual sights and sounds of the city, and the things I came looking for, even if I did not find them. As an American Jew who grew up during the Cold War, Berlin signified two things for me above all: Nazism on the one hand, and the Wall on the other. Berlin is a city permeated by history; and especially by the history of the twentieth century. What stood out for me most clearly during my visit were all the traces of this recent past. Berlin, for me, is a city of monuments and reminders. Which is not to say that I found everything there I expected to find. But Berlin, for me, is a city in which even the absences, the erasures, are still present.

The Jewish Museum was the one site in Berlin that spoke most eloquently to me of absence and loss. We are told we must "never forget" the Holocaust. But the Holocaust is one of those events, performed and executed by human beings, that nevertheless exceeds our human capacity to comprehend. To commemorate it, or to memorialize it, is in a sense to diminish its unspeakable horror. The Holocaust is like a black hole in history. The oblivion that it caused, or that it was, is the only thing we really can remember about it. The architecture of the Jewish Museum speaks to this fundamental oblivion. The brokenness of the structure, the turnings and dead ends, the inner voids, the narrow, underground entrance, the lack of correspondence between outside and inside: all this addresses an oblivion that is deeper than any memory, a past of loss that cannot be recovered. I was glad that I got to see the Museum as pure architecture, when it was still empty. I do not think that any exhibit placed within this space will be able to live up to the measure of the building itself. I know that the intent of the Museum is also to celebrate thousands of years of Jewish history, and hundreds of years of Jewish presence in Berlin and in Germany; but the evidence of annihilation overshadows everything.

I know of no equivalent to the Jewish Museum anywhere else in the world. There is certainly nothing like it in the United States. The memorial wall for the Vietnam War, in Washington, D. C., to some extent addresses the actuality of loss and oblivion. But it is a monument of much more limited scope than the Jewish Museum, and in any case it only refers to the Americans who died in Vietnam, and not the Vietnamese who died in far greater numbers. And there is nothing in America that similarly addresses the horrors on which the country was founded: the extermination of the continent's native peoples, and the hundreds of years of enslavement of black people. And the United States government has never apologized for these terrible actions. That is one major difference between my country and yours.

The other present absence I sought out in Berlin was, of course, the remnants of the Wall. I saw the two places where several hundred meters of the Wall have been preserved. I visited the museum at Checkpoint Charlie. But in other places, I saw the still-existing scars that the vanished Wall has left behind. These include not just the passages of wasteland that still, in some areas, snake through the city, but also the continuing impoverishment that is visible all through the former East Berlin. Even after eleven years since the Wall went down, Berlin still seemed to be two separate cities. This is reflected in the people, but also in the architecture of the city. On one hand, there are all the old socialist-style buildings: both the rundown housing, and the pompous, empty official monuments. On the other hand, there are all the new buildings, built by large corporations in Potsdamer Platz and other areas of the former East that have been reclaimed. This latter (multinational capitalist) architecture is just as characterless, anonymous, and ultimately inhuman and alienating, as was the socialist architecture that preceded it. It is also the sort of building that could exist, interchangeably, anywhere: in any large city, anywhere in the world today.

The Wall was built when I was seven years old; it was torn down when I was thirty-five. For all that time, it was an oppressive symbol of stupidity and futility: the stupidity of Stalinist totalitarianism, to be sure, but also the stupidity and futility of the Cold War itself. Everywhere in the Western world, we grew up with the rigid division between Us and Them; between capitalist Good and communist Evil. The price of this radical division was immense. We lived under the continual threat of nuclear annihilation. We went on destructive crusades, all over the globe. We supported some of the world's most vicious dictators, because at least they were our dictators. We paid the price of intolerance and persecution in our own societies, because we were told this was necessary, in order to stand firm against the persecution and intolerance of the other side. These are costs from which no society in the world has yet recovered.

I realize that, in all of this, I haven't really said anything about Berlin as it is today. I haven't written about the wonderful artists I met there, nor about the spectacular night life. I haven't talked about the thriving multiculturalism of Berlin, nor about the signs of racism and intolerance that continue to shadow that flourishing. For that matter, I haven't said anything about the opportunities for shopping in Berlin, the way it has become a bourgeois consumerist paradise. But all that, I suspect, would require a much longer stay. Next time, since I hope there will be a next time.

Berlin was ground zero, the zone of maximum impact, for the twentieth century that has now passed. What will it be for the twenty-first?



Return to Steven Shaviro's homepage