Memorialization: The Past in the Present and Why it is Important Today

 

By Liza Bering

As our time in Berlin nears an end, I am noticing more and more the relationship between capitalism and sites, memorials, tours, and museums—especially how the importance of these places sometimes gets lost in a whirlwind of ignorance. This ignorance is one that allows for little discussion or critical remembrance and instead creates space for an insensitivity that masks the problems that “remembered” people face today. Before snapping a selfie or indulging in the appropriated souvenirs, a visitor should think about or ask themselves: What is the significance of this site? Who is it for? Why is this important? The truth is that most don’t bother to ask these questions. Instead, they settle for a cool key chain, an Instagram post, or even just to say they’ve been there. With this, I wonder how these places, museums, sites, may function as memorials for the people they “remember” or as a Band-Aid for historical traumas and the erasure of groups or if they are simply there to eagerly take money from seemingly clueless tourists, because the reality is that monuments and memorials prescribe history.

This past weekend, I traveled to Teufelsberg. Located just outside of the city of Berlin, near West Berlin’s Grunewald Forest, lies a large hill made up of 12 million cubic meters of war rubble pushed together and created what is now Teufelsberg, which literally translates to “Devil’s Mountain.” I arrived, payed the entrance fee, and set off on my way to explore. I had fallen into the vicious cycle that allows tourists to visit a place they know absolutely nothing about, take some pictures, and then leave—still knowing nothing. After leaving the site, I asked myself, “What is this place?” I still knew absolutely nothing about Teufelsberg, except that it had beautiful street art covering the walls of the abandoned spy tower. I later searched Google, and found what I was looking for: tangible information that would allow me to appreciate the site and understand its importance and how it functions today as a place of artistic expression. The tower was built on a former Nazi training school that was utterly invincible as it had survived multiple demolition attempts. Instead, truckloads of war rubble from World War II were dumped on the center, and the U.S. built a spy tower to use with Great Britain to spy on communist East Germany during the era of the Berlin Wall. After the fall of the Wall, the site became a place that was going house an air traffic control center, apartments, or a school, but it ultimately became a site open to the paying public and a haven for graffiti artists.

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Photo Credit: Liza Bering

Spending a relaxing Sunday strolling around the spy towers had me thinking about a prevalent theme that we have been discussing in class: the memorialization of sites and how they function as institutions of remembrance, knowledge, and recognition while sometimes simultaneously catering to capitalism, especially pertaining to collective guilt. Along these lines, in “Sites of Remembrance? Jewish Museums in Contemporary,” Sabine Offe writes, “It is a time gap between both institutional functions [collecting/sheltering cultural heritage and obscuring of past and history of guilt] that turns museums in general and Jewish museums specifically into highly ambivalent places, established to transform collective guilt and banish it from memory and thereby enhancing its commemoration” (78). During our class, the lens through which we view and discuss various sites of “remembrance” allows us to critically examine the ways certain acts of memorialization are sometimes fueled by personal, political, and/or capitalist interests rather than changing the way the memorialized subject is seen and treated today.

Berlin is city filled with historically deep wounds that are not forgotten and sometimes not even fully discussed. A common mentality I have picked up from some sites in Berlin is one that seems to scream, “Okay, Berlin has given you and your people a sign, memorial, or museum…isn’t that enough?” We saw this during the Africa in Wedding Tour when we discussed street signs that give recognition to the African countries that Germany colonized, like Ghanastraße, yet the city still fails to do much justice to the people or bring the invisibility of Germany’s colonial past to the present. We saw this at the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under the National Socialist Regime, where clueless tourists throw pennies into the memorial’s basin of “tears” or continue to use derogatory language when referring to Sinti and Roma people. We saw this at Checkpoint Charlie, where tourists from all over waited patiently in line to dress up in old army uniforms and pose with a replicated U.S. checkpoint hut, while still not fully understanding the lasting effects that the Berlin Wall had on Berlin even after its fall in 1989. The common theme here is that the memorials do not necessarily change the stigma that surrounds these historically marginalized groups today. Just because you dedicate a statue, fountain, or street to something doesn’t mean the pain and suffering is over. Still, these sites are powerful, because they give recognition to groups, events, or people that otherwise might still be unrecognized. My question is, how can we memorialize people in a way that does not suppress their past and present experiences?

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Photo Credit: Liza Bering

Memorials have become institutions that collect and shelter cultural heritage while sometimes obscuring the past, which contributes to an obscured sense of collective guilt and collective memory. Along these lines, in “Coming In From the Cold: The Black German Experience, Past and Present,” Marion Kraft comments on the recognition and memorialization of Afro-Germans, writing, “Despite the presence and achievement of Black Germans, racist notions and conceptualizations of nation and ‘race’ have not vanished from the mainstream German collective consciousness” (10). So where do we go from here? The beginning of this issue lies within the people—we must slough off shallow, surface-level approaches to sites of remembrance and enter with an open mind and the understanding that the issues surrounding such memorials are issues that are still deeply rooted in society today. The public attraction and capitalization that inevitably attracts tourists isn’t always bad, because after all some kind of remembrance or recognition is better than none. However, we must be careful and compassionate and critical of how and what information tourists and outsiders are seeking and being fed.


BeringLiza Bering is a sophomore at Colorado College hailing from Des Moines, Iowa. She is planning on majoring in Geology and minoring in Middle Eastern Studies and Feminist and Gender Studies. She plans on combining the three different disciplines in way that with impact others on more than just a shallow surface level. When she isn’t studying (or touring Berlin with her fellow FemGenuises) you may find her checking out street art, walking around Berlin’s beautiful city parks, or getting lost on the subway.

Misrepresenting a Colonial Past: The Africa in Wedding Tour with Josephine Apraku

By Samantha Gilbert

Photo 3We began our morning by meeting our tour guide Josephine Apraku—a Wedding local who has been giving the Africa in Wedding Tour for eight years—at the cross streets of Ghanastraße and Swakopmunder Straße. At first, I was confused about how we were supposed to learn about the most diverse part of Berlin by standing at what seemed like a normal street corner. However, Josie explained that the African Quarter of Wedding is not where one would necessarily find the largest amount of people from throughout the African Diaspora, but that so much of we needed to know about Germany’s colonial history was in these street names. Many of these streets were named when Germany (then Prussia) was gaining colonies.

Photo 1Germany’s first colonial conquest was Namibia, Africa’s “town by the sea,” which resulted in the first genocide of the 20th century. According to Apraku, the German Military entered Namibia wanting to kill as many people as they could with “as much blood and brutality as possible.” First, Namibians were stripped of their land and given reservations instead. Angered by their lack of freedom, Namibians showed resistance against the colonial military. Subsequently, the German military pushed as many Namibians as they could into the desert so they would die of starvation. The Namibians that survived were sent to concentration camps, where they were expected to work long, hard hours day after day, and by the end of this war, Germans had eradicated 70% of the Namibian population. Swakopmund was the name of the first concentration camp built in Namibia, resulting in the street name Swakopmundstraße.

Photo 2During the same time, Germany was heavily involved in slave trading in Ghana, hence the street name Ghanastraße. These streets are Germany’s way of commemorating the colonization of the African continent. In “A Fanfare For The Colonized,” Philipp Khabo Koepsell explains the brutality and selfishness of colonization when he writes, “It’s a story of explorers / of the glory of these soldiers / who drove thousands into deserts…./ for the white men’s dream of glory…” Koepsell then goes on to write from the white man’s perspective, “You’re just over-sensitive! / Why should we apologize, / we colonized not much…” This poem sheds light on the insensitivity of the Germans towards the people they colonized.

IMG_5560While naming streets after concentration camps and locations of slave trades seems wildly offensive, the questionable street names don’t stop there. Mohrenstraße, known simply as M-straße to many Black Germans because of its offensiveness, was the first street named in Wedding nearly 300 years ago. This word is derived from the Latin language meaning a dark person who is childish and stupid, and is related to the English word “moron.” This word was exclusively used for Black people during the time of slavery, which leads me to question how Germany can support such racist ideology. This reminded me of the “Introduction” to The Little Book of Big Visions in which Sharon Dodua Otoo and Sandrine Micossé-Aikins explain how the suppressed colonial legacy in Germany affects Black people today. They write, “Although the mainstream appears not to remember why, Black people are repeatedly reminded of, confronted with, and challenged by fantasies of white supremacy right up until the present day.” Even though Black people regularly request for these street names to be changed, many white Germans don’t see this as a problem worth addressing. Hence, because of white supremacy, these offensive street names are not changed.

Photo 5The last street name Apraku discussed, Petersallee, entailed her telling the story that angered me most. Named in 1939 by the Nazi Party, Petersallee was meant to honor an incredibly racist man named Carl Peters, who hung and burned several Africans during his explorations of East Africa. Despite being criticized for brutality to Africans and then removed from his position in office, he was later considered a German hero by Nazis for his radical racism. A movie was even made in this man’s honor. When many people in Germany protested this street name in hopes of having it removed, Germany simply decided to “repurpose the street name.” Now, hanging above Petersalle is a small sign that reads “Prof. Dr. Hans Peters.” Hans Peters was a man who was a politician that helped hide and free Jews during the Nazi era. Regardless of this repurposing, the street sign still stands, and the history of its significance cannot be forgotten.

Photo 4After we learned how many of Berlin’s street names are monuments of racism, the next part of the tour took place in a small, quaint park, where Josie introduced me to the words “human zoo.” To my disbelief, from the late 1800s up until the mid-1940s, this land was used as a zoo for African people and other minorities living in Germany. Germans paid them to work inside these fenced off enclosures and perform African “acts,” which entailed them wearing stereotypical African clothing and waking up in small huts—anything to feed Germans their idea of African life. As Maisha Eggers explains in “Knowledges of (Un-) Belonging,” the problem with racism is that it often goes without being discussed, which makes it nearly impossible to eradicate it. To clarify, many people living in Germany think of human zoos as something that existed long ago and that should be forgotten. But they didn’t even end until the Nazi party had been overthrown, which was only 70 years ago. Most Germans don’t realize how prevalent racism still is. This may be history, but it is not very far in the past.


SamanthaSamantha Gilbert is a sophomore who hails from Northern California and loves to be outside. From hiking to snowboarding to just breathing fresh air, nature really has her heart. She also really loves being active, as she runs track and field at CC as the team’s main female sprinter. She also writes for the sports section of The Catalyst, and is extremely passionate about journalism. She hopes to create her own major in Sports Psychology and double minor in Film & New Media Studies and Feminist & Gender Studies. Other hobbies of hers include watching The Food Network (specifically Chopped), going exploring with friends, and developing strong one on one connections with unique souls. Samantha loves traveling and learning, so this course has her super excited!