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.
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?
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.
Liza 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.