On the edge of a small park in central Berlin stands a slightly oversized kitchen table and two matching chairs centered on a parquet floor, all cast in bronze. One of the chairs has toppled over backwards—the only sign of something amiss. Along the edge of this domestic scene is the text of a poem, which begins “…Oh the houses of death, invitingly appointed” and ends with “the body of Israel going up in smoke.” Known as Der Verlassene Raum, or The Deserted Room, it’s a quiet and moving tribute to the thousands of Jews who were forced from their homes, beaten, and murdered during the Pogromnacht, or Night of Broken Glass, in 1938.
“To think about 6 million victims is abstract, but to think about a murdered family is concrete.”
Located between a stretch of hip cafes and a children’s playground, in the heart of Berlin’s former Jewish neighborhood, the Pogromnacht memorial is one of hundreds in Berlin devoted to various tragedies that occurred here over the last century. “It makes me weep every time,” says art historian and memorial scholar Dr. Gabi Dolff-Bonekämper. “I don’t go there because I want to weep, but I take visitors because it’s so powerful. People who have never seen it before always have this impulse to pick up the fallen chair, because it looks disorderly, and they discover the chair is fixed to the ground. Then they read the poem, and somehow I can’t even finish it.”
Our understanding of history is mostly determined by public narratives—those stories told and retold in textbooks, museums, and monuments—which often focus on humanity’s crowning achievements and heroic leaders. But in Berlin, thanks to the grassroots efforts of its progressive residents, the built environment serves as a constant reminder of the country’s missteps, offering a frank view of history that other cities should learn from. “It is a city whose buildings, ruins, and voids groan under the burden of painful memories,” Brian Ladd wrote in his book, The Ghosts of Berlin. “The concentration of troubling memories, physical destruction, and renewal has made Berliners, however reluctantly, international leaders in exploring the links between urban form, historical preservation, and national identity.”
Even if you skip major tourist destinations like the Berlin Wall Memorial or the Holocaust monuments near the Brandenburg Gate, it’s nearly impossible to visit Berlin without feeling the city’s pain. You might hop a train at Nollendorf Platz, encountering the lone column erected for German transit workers killed during World War I, or the triangle-shaped plaque dedicated to LGBTQ people executed by the Nazi regime. Perhaps you’re shopping along Kurfürstendamm, passing by the ruined steeple of Kaiser Wilhelm Church, whose bombed-out shell has been preserved as a memorial after it was destroyed in 1943. Maybe you head to an art exhibition at Martin Gropius Bau, a few steps from the Topography of Terror, where the excavated basement of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters serves as the backing for a timeline of Nazi persecution. Or you opt for a walk along the city’s quieter residential streets, and come upon small markers placed into the sidewalk denoting the names and dates of those deported and murdered by the Third Reich.
Many Americans might see Berlin’s abundant memorials as proof of Germany’s exceptionally violent past—conveniently forgetting our own country’s history of racial terrorism, human enslavement, and systematic genocide. Yes, these crimes were also openly perpetrated by elected U.S. officials and American citizens against minority groups. And the impact of that persecution is still reverberating, with minority communities facing continued discrimination, diminished access to education and healthcare, and heightened levels of poverty and incarceration.
Perhaps part of why we tolerate such injustices today is that we’ve refused to collectively reckon with the blatant evils that occurred on our soil. As Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests, reparations for historical injustices within the United States are long overdue, though they might also take a variety of forms other than financial compensation, such as new public monuments and memorials. Imagine if a network of chains were embedded into the streets surrounding the White House and U.S. Capitol as a monument to the slaves that worked on these buildings, or if every major American city maintained one block of open space as tribute to the native people whose land we forcibly took from them. Could Americans finally come to terms with our forebears’ tragic mistakes by following Berlin’s lead?
During the 20th century, throughout decades of war and political strife, of secret police and restricted liberties, Germans were both victims and perpetrators of all manner of horrors. At the beginning of the 20th century, Germany’s economy was roughly equal to that of Great Britain, partially due to their powerful militaries and imperialist policies. But World War I devastated Germany, leaving its industry and infrastructure in shambles. Despite several years of political turmoil, Berlin became a cultural and industrial mecca during the late 1920s, just before its economy collapsed along with the international stock market in 1929. During this crisis, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nazi Party, rose to power under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. In the mid-1930s, the Nazis began systematically exterminating all those deemed undesirable—including Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma and Sinti (also called Gypsies), people of color, people with disabilities, political opponents, and homosexuals—resulting in the murder of more than 11 million people, 6 million of them Jews.
Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 led to the start of World War II, but the Nazis were defeated by the Allies in 1945. Following the war, Nazi ideology was outlawed in Germany and the country was divided into four occupied zones—one for Britain, France, America, and the Soviet Union—and each of these countries also controlled a sector of Berlin. In 1949, Germany was formally split into two states: the Allied-backed Federal Republic of Germany in the West and the Soviet-backed German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the East. Because the Allies refused to give up their presence in Berlin, which fell within the new borders of the GDR, the city was also divided into two territories known as East and West Berlin. In 1961, the GDR began constructing a wall that would surround West Berlin to prevent mass emigration from the troubled socialist state into its more successful capitalist neighbor. Finally, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was reunified into a single democratic state.
The reluctance to face such painful truths is exactly what artist Gunter Demnig hoped to combat when he began his Stolpersteine, or Stumbling Stones, project in the mid-1990s. Inspired by a neighbor who was convinced that no Roma or Sinti people had ever lived on her street, Demnig launched an effort to memorialize victims of the Nazis at their last known residence by embedding small brass markers into ordinary sidewalks. In January of 1995, Demnig laid the first 250 Stolpersteine in the city of Cologne, each engraved with a victim’s name and date of deportation or execution. The following year, as part of an exhibition titled “Künstler forschen nach Auschwitz,” or “Artists Search for Auschwitz,” Demnig installed 50 Stolpersteine in Berlin without the city’s approval. “I designed the stumble stones to bring back the names of Holocaust victims to where they had lived; in my opinion, existing memorials have failed to do that,” Demnig explained in an Associated Press article in 2010. “Once a year, some official lays a wreath, but the average citizen can avoid the site very easily.”
Most of plaques begin with the text “Hier wohnte,” or “Here lived,” followed by an individual’s name; most end with “Ermordet,” or “Murdered,” plus a date and location, if known. The language is concise and powerful, leaving out the details of these deaths but facing their violence head-on. “The victims get back a piece of their identity, and at the same time, every personal stone is also meant as a symbol for the entirety of all victims,” said Demnig. “To think about 6 million victims is abstract, but to think about a murdered family is concrete.”
Berlin’s most-visited Holocaust monument is opposite in spirit to Demnig’s project—a giant, abstract, impersonal work called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, located near the famous Brandenburg Gate. Designed by Peter Eisenman, an American architect, this memorial is more akin to large monuments in the U.S. (think of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., or the September 11 Memorial in New York). Like its American counterparts, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is overwhelming and somber, albeit disconnected from the specifics of history and the horror it represents. In fact, information tying the monument to the Holocaust is only available in the information center, which has inspired criticism that its vagueness seems to evade responsibility.
In contrast to Eisenman’s Holocaust monument, Demnig’s work is decentralized and makes remembering a part of daily life, even in the city’s far-flung suburban neighborhoods. Since its inception, the project has garnered overwhelming public support, and Demnig has installed more than 38,000 plaques (upwards of 5,000 in Berlin), making it the largest memorial in the world. Today, anyone can request and sponsor a stone via Demnig’s website, and the artist has installed them as far away as France, Norway, and Russia. But before projects like the Stolpersteine could gain a foothold in Berlin, the city’s relationship with its own history had to shift dramatically—from a single, state-sponsored viewpoint to an environment that celebrated and fostered individual histories.
“An important part of the site’s history—and German history—is the generation that tried to ignore and forget what had happened here.”
The push to re-examine local history began gaining momentum in West Berlin during the early 1980s. A generation after the end of World War II, activist groups like the Berliner Geschichtswerkstatt, or the Berlin History Workshop, formed specifically to “find traces of historical meaning in the contemporary landscape,” explained Jenny Wüstenberg in a 2009 article for the German Studies Review. “The activists wanted to shake up established views of history,” said Wüstenberg, especially by investigating crimes committed by the Third Reich and its supporters, which had mostly been ignored following the Nuremburg trials in the 1940s.
The Berlin History Workshop was part of a larger progressive movement to re-evaluate history, whose motto was “Grabe wo du stehst,” meaning “Dig where you stand,” implying that anyone could uncover forgotten remnants of history, regardless of their education or background. One of the movement’s central goals was to include perspectives from groups traditionally left out of the official narratives, including women, immigrants, radicals, squatters, and poor people. Not only did they want to hear the voices of these people (which they did literally by recording oral histories), but also to find novel formats for public representations that would reach these groups in ways passive, state-run museums and historic sites did not.
The movement’s leaders recognized that history and memory were politicized and had a major impact on the values of society at large. By encouraging people to think critically about the past, they hoped to provide insight into current social struggles and shape future actions. Initiatives spearheaded by organizations like the Berlin History Workshop were also in direct opposition to the country’s more established view of history, which downplayed Germany’s failures in favor of a proud national narrative.
In 1983, on the 50th anniversary of the Nazi rise to power, the history movement took a major step towards mainstream legitimacy. Outraged with the official program planned by the West German state, small progressive organizations accepted funds from the Berliner Kulturrat, an association of left-wing cultural workers, to create events that offered a more subversive reflection on the past. The Berlin History Workshop contributed a project entitled “Securing the Evidence of Resistance and Everyday Life Under Fascism: Selected Examples of Individual Neighborhoods and Districts in Berlin,” which explored how Nazis took power in the progressive city of Berlin.
“The wall’s absence, a scar left on the urban landscape, speaks for itself.”
The following year, Germany’s first national history festival was held in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, marking the movement’s transition from grassroots activism to mainstream politics. By the early 1990s, there were more than 100 history workshop groups operating in Germany, some focusing on specific eras or events, but all committed to history from the ground up. “The common denominator was a commitment to grassroots historical research and an autonomous activism within a framework of broadly left-wing values,” Wüstenberg writes.
The Berlin History Workshop continued its unconventional methods, creating a mobile museum in a converted double-decker bus and pushing to rename streets, plazas, and bridges that retained Nazi-era names. But increasingly, the group was part of the larger conversation about collective memory in Berlin, and its goals began shifting from experimenting with new modes of research and presentation to influencing collective memory around certain historical moments.
Today, once-controversial reminders of World War II and the division of Germany are a part of most tourist itineraries, suggesting how completely they’ve been embraced by Berlin’s government. In the middle of Kurfürstendamm, one of Berlin’s most profitable shopping districts, the bombed-out bell tower of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church looms over head. At the shiny new Sony Center in Potsdamer Platz, one of Berlin’s busiest business districts, ornate remnants of the former Hotel Esplanade are enclosed behind glass like objects in a museum. A few blocks away, the ruined facade of the Anhalter train station marks the entrance to a sports park, where its grand depot once stood. But even as these tragic monuments have become commonplace, Germany still struggles with anti-Semitic and racially motivated violence, particularly in less-progressive regions of the country. For many involved with Berlin’s remembrance culture, this only further motivates their efforts to memorialize and spark conversation around traumatic events.
“In the last 30 years, pressure to ignore the Nazi period and its implications for Berlin has completely given way to a blanket eagerness to turn Berlin into a memory landscape,” says Sophie Perl, a curatorial assistant at the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum, which began preserving the stories of its diverse residents in 1978. “At some point, the city realized that its memorial sites and institutions are immensely profitable, since tourists come to Berlin specifically to visit them. Of course, there are certain things that Berlin’s major museums tend to discuss much less, such as the protest, squatting, and leftist political movements in the West, and immigration on both sides of the Wall.”
Arguably the most prominent memorial instigated by the progressive-history movement is the Topography of Terror. Built on the former headquarters of the SS and Gestapo, the Nazi secret police agencies, the museum offers Berlin’s most informative overview of the Third Reich’s devastating legacy. For decades after the end of World War II, the location remained a mostly vacant lot adjacent to the city’s East-West border strip. The city had toyed with various ideas for the space ever since its damaged buildings had been demolished following the war, but none had made it past the drawing board. In May of 1985, an activist group held a symbolic dig at the site, which eventually inspired the city to undertake a more thorough excavation.
“They were never authorized, but they did it anyway,” says Dolff-Bonekämper. “I think this was typical for West Berlin in the ’80s—impossible at any other place in Germany, but possible in West Berlin because of the vacuum of power. It was a citizens’ movement, and no senator would resist it because it would kill their political career. So this is how they were able to find these cellar walls, and even the basement floor where the Gestapo tortured people.”
To the surprise of many, the city’s archaeological team uncovered foundational elements of the demolished structures, including the basement walls of Gestapo jail cells. The first Topography of Terror exhibition opened in 1987, utilizing the remains of these buildings to tell the story of Nazi violence and persecution in Berlin and beyond. Though intended to be a temporary outdoor installation, the city indefinitely extended the exhibit’s duration due to its overwhelming popularity. Eventually, when a new museum building and documentation center were added to the site, the city maintained this outdoor exhibit as a central feature, as activists felt it important to emphasize the decades of neglect. “For them, an important part of the site’s history—and German history—is the generation that tried to ignore and forget what had happened here,” Brian Ladd explained in Ghosts of Berlin.
Ladd points out that one of the exhibition’s primary goals was “to document the perpetrator’s deeds and promote understanding of how these crimes came to be committed by the leaders of Germany.” Unlike most memorials devoted to World War II and the Holocaust, the Topography of Terror focuses on those abusing their power, rather than the victims. Part of what makes this exhibit so unnerving is its frank look at how the majority of German citizens came to support such blatant violations of human rights.
Though heavily promoted by Berlin’s tourism bureau, memorials like the Topography of Terror wouldn’t exist without the work of progressive citizens and amateur historians who felt the city needed to scrutinize its troubled past. “I find it upsetting that politicians today portray German remembrance culture as something completely obvious, as if it were their own idea,” says Perl. “People fought so hard against mainstream politics to create the memorial sites we see today, but once these institutions were taken over by the state, as was often the goal of the initiators, the history of that struggle was completely erased. It is easy to forget that the remembrance culture was not always self-evident.”
Following German reunification in 1990, Berlin lost many residents as they left for jobs in western cities like Frankfurt and Munich, while its eastern neighborhoods were steadily flooded with young creatives who wanted to live where rent was cheap and nightlife unparalleled. By the time many of its new residents descended upon the city in the mid-1990s, Berlin’s landscape was already being filled with new monuments to tragedy—from small plaques organized by individual citizens to the massive Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, still in its design phase. Many of today’s Berliners never witnessed the fight to establish these monuments against the will of city leaders.
Regardless, Berlin’s memorials are effective not only due to their omnipresence but also their physical locations, situated exactly where terrible things once happened. “You can commemorate history in a book or in a museum, but if it’s preserved in the authentic location, you can really get a physical experience of history,” says Dr. Matthias Pabsch, an artist and professor who’s written two books on Berlin’s architectural heritage. In contrast to the abstract solemnity of memorial projects dedicated to events that happened far away, being in a place where a specific tragedy took place often evokes a different, more moving response. “Even if the environment has changed, you still have the visible proportions and dimensions, and you can still see its specific context, so you’re closer to the experience of what happened in a certain location,” says Pabsch. “This is why on-site memorials are the most precious memorials.”
Pabsch and I met in Invalidenfriedhof, one of the city’s oldest cemeteries that was eventually divided by the Berlin Wall, remaining off limits to the public after 1961. “I like this cemetery because you can see the history here, the traces of the Wall and its destruction inside the 18th-century cemetery, like open wounds and scars,” says Pabsch. “They’ve preserved the different layers without over-influencing it artistically, and without overemphasizing one historical period. If you have monuments where a specific aesthetic or idea dominates, the next generation doesn’t have access to all the changes that took place there.”
Yet even in this cemetery there are layers of history that can’t be seen, like the gravestones of Nazi generals that were removed as part of the Allied effort to destroy fascist monuments after World War II. Pabsch points out that longstanding memorials are often altered or reworked to present a viewpoint matching the contemporary political climate, as with Berlin’s Neue Wache, or New Guardhouse, a monument originally dedicated to those who died in the Napoleonic Wars. “After World War I, the Neue Wache was converted into a memorial for the German soldiers killed in action,” explains Pabsch. “Then, following World War II, the GDR converted it into a memorial for the victims of fascism, and after the Wall fell, under the guidance of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, it was converted into a memorial for the victims of war and dictatorship.”
“I think the more simply this is done, the better,” says Pabsch, “because sometimes I have the impression that people who are commemorating certain events want to commemorate themselves as well. I think the memorial sites are stronger if people who are dealing with the transformation are stepping back, reducing their own impact, and allowing the authentic parts to speak for themselves.”
Monuments devoted to the terror wreaked by East Germany’s Ministry for State Security, also known as the Stasi, provide exactly this type of insight. The prison cells at the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial and the mundane offices at the Stasi Museum tell volumes about the insidious nature of East Germany’s secret police and their ability to penetrate the lives of ordinary citizens. “I think they didn’t have the money to renovate it, but the floor, wallpaper, furniture, everything is still the way it was,” says Pabsch. “Even the smell is the same. When I moved to East Berlin, I first encountered this smell, and my apartment smelled exactly the same.” Details like a certain scent, that would never be cataloged or re-created, are integral to memorials at authentic sites, giving visitors an experience impossible anywhere else.
Walking south along Brunnenstrasse in the Wedding neighborhood, formerly in the West, I’m reminded of how most Europeans see Berlin—as a rather ugly city filled with unremarkable postwar architecture. Brunnenstrasse is a sleepy commercial strip tucked beneath generic apartment complexes of the 1970s and ‘80s painted in bland beiges and blues. But when you reach the crossing at Bernauer Strasse, there’s a sudden change, a division as obvious to the wandering tourist as to the multigenerational Berliner, who remembers when this line was first marked by the Berlin Wall in 1961.
The wall’s absence, a scar left on the urban landscape, speaks for itself. A gap of open green space extends alongside Bernauer Strasse as far as the eye can see: To the left, empty lots filled with construction rubble and scrubby trees, and to the right, a manicured, grassy expanse dotted with signage and rows of rusted iron posts, rising from the ground. Behind this strip of open space stands the historic district of Mitte, once part of East Berlin, which is filled with older, more stately buildings redone in fresh paint. Whether or not you read the markers describing those who were shot while attempting to scale the Wall or those who narrowly escaped to the West, you can feel the border’s divisive presence at this intersection—the differences in architecture and street life remain a lasting testament to the separation of these two neighborhoods.
Today, the stretch of open land on Bernauer Strasse is being transformed into a memorial nearly a mile long, extending from the Nordbahnhof train station, where a segment of the Wall and its guard towers still stands, to the sports arena at Mauerpark. Across the entire city, the wall’s former route is traced by a double row of cobblestones, interspersed with brass plaques reading “Berliner Mauer 1961-1989.” Outside of Berlin, the path continues as a walking and biking trail marked with information on the border’s troubled history.
The Wall itself is mostly gone, primarily because its destruction proved to be so cathartic for many Germans when the border was finally opened in 1989. “At least in the inner-city areas, for very good reasons, people wanted to get rid of the Wall entirely,” Pabsch says. “Destroying it was a very personal, physical act. Everybody went out with their hammers and collectively knocked the Wall down; it was a way of healing the wounds of the separation. I think this is always the challenge: Once you realize something is worth being commemorated, it’s already gone.”
Luckily, a few segments like the one along Bernauer Strasse were preserved, offering a vivid reminder of the years spent within its confines. “I was the person responsible for the protection of parts of the Berlin Wall, of listing these landmarks,” says Dolff-Bonekämper, “and it was extremely difficult in the early 1990s to convince Berliners that they would miss these remains in the near future. But this is exactly what happened. When I was working on the preservation of the Wall on Bernauer Strasse, I had to fight against everybody, but especially West Berliners who didn’t want to see the Wall anymore. The Easterners wanted to keep it because that they were so proud that they had overcome it.”
By the time the Wall fell and Berlin resumed its status as the capital of Germany, the progressive push to remember the city’s most difficult moments had seeped into the political mainstream. Preservationists like Dolff-Bonekämper were well aware that pieces of the Wall must be saved, even if it would take decades before a proper memorial could be developed.
In recent years, Berlin’s most contentious debate surrounding memorial culture focused on the fate of Berlin’s City Palace, located on its famed central boulevard, Unter den Linden. The original royal palace, constructed around 1700, was bulldozed by the GDR government following World War II, largely to erase this visible symbol of the country’s Prussian legacy. In the 1970s, it was replaced by a Modernist structure dubbed the Palace of the Republic, which housed the GDR’s parliament as well as several art galleries, theaters, restaurants, and even a discotheque. Following German reunification in 1990, the city began dismantling the structure (ostensibly to remove asbestos), but in 2002, the German parliament voted to demolish it entirely and reconstruct an imitation of the original Baroque palace. Despite widespread protests that the GDR structure was crucial to the remembrance of Berlin’s divided past, demolition went ahead as planned, and today, the new palace is under construction.
“For 17 years of my life I fought for the preservation of the Palace of the Republic, and then it was gone,” says Dolff-Bonekämper. “I photographed it during demolition and also afterwards because it was a very articulate gap. It was a place of three simultaneous absences: The old castle, the Palace of the Republic, and the new castle.” Like Berlin itself, Dolff-Bonekämper explains, “it was vibrant with absence, but not at all empty.”
(For further reading on Berlin’s memorial culture, see Brian Ladd’s “Ghosts of Berlin,” James Young’s “At Memory’s Edge,” and Jenny Wüstenberg’s “A Case Study in Activist Memory Politics.” Special thanks to Gabi Dolff-Bonekämper, Lars Hopstock, Matthias Pabsch, Sophie Perl, and Emma Woelk for their assistance with this article.)