9th of May – Russian VE Day in Berlin’s Treptower Park

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Somewhat like the October Revolution actually taking place November, Russia’s Victory Day is celebrated on May 9th, not 8th, as in most of Europe. The reason is simple – Soviet commanders countersigned the Nazis’ surrender document late at night on May 8th 1945 at Berlin-Karlshorst, but by that time it was past midnight in Moscow and hence May 9th. Even Russians abroad engage very much with this national holiday, which showed when I visited Berlin’s Soviet War Memorial in Treptow Park on Sunday, May 7th. There were fresh flowers everywhere, and Russian-speaking visitors galore.

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In recent years, tensions between Russia and the West have grown over the war in Eastern Ukraine, the attack on Flight MH17, the annexation of Crimea by “little green men”, Russia’s support to Syria’s Assad, and Russian interference in Western elections. As a countermove, “Moscow” is framing the celebrations of the 9th of May ever more strongly as a show of Russian military force and anti-Western propaganda.

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This is a pity, because it tarnishes the memory of the Red Army’s heroics and the suffering of the Soviet population during the Great Patriotic War. It may be a truism, but just like you cannot compare today’s Germany to the Nazi Germany that tried to force Slav Eastern Europe into slavery, there is also no comparison between today’s Russian regime and the Soviet Union that vanquished the Nazis in Eastern Europe. I had to keep reminding myself of this as I wandered among the Russian speakers at the Soviet memorial.

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This war memorial, built in 1949, is also a military cemetery, just like the Soviet monument with the two tanks near the Brandenburg Gate that is probably more familiar to most Berlin visitors. Indeed, the Red Army had 80,000 dead to bury after the Battle of Berlin, so, sadly, they needed all the burial space they could get. But the Treptow memorial is something different.

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You enter through a simple triumphal arch, and then arrive at a grey granite sculpture (at a still normal, albeit larger than life size scale), of a woman who might be “Mother Russia”. But if you then look south, down the main axis of the monument, your jaw will drop. The monument stretches over a distance of about half a kilometer.

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Along a slowly rising avenue, framed by weeping willows, you reach two colossal, red stone triangles that symbolise Russian flags, each flanked by a statue of a Russian soldier, one old, one young, both already lavishly decorated with flowers on May 7th.

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Passing the red flags, you reach a kind of balcony from which the vista of the main monument unfolds itself, with at its end, on an artificial mound, the huge statue of a Russian soldier, holding a small child on his left arm, crushing a swastika with his boot. Statue and mound together are some 30 m, or 100 ft, high.

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Between the balcony and the statue, spread along a large expanse of stone and grass,  are four large fire dishes. On the left and right hand sides are two symmetrical rows of seven, white chalk sarcophagi, decorated with socialist realist reliefs which express the suffering of the Soviet population and the heroism of the Red Army.

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On their short sides are quotes from Joseph Stalin on the war, on the left in Russian, on the right in German translation. These inscriptions survived getting destalinised after 1956, possibly because Stalin’s words on sacrifice, suffering and heroism of the Soviet population during World War II still largely ring true.

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At the base of the monument, there is a cupola-shaped room that you can look into, but not enter, with a socialist-realist mosaic with Russian and German inscriptions.

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Visiting such a monument as a jaundiced Western European, born in freedom, never having experienced war,  it is easy to scoff at all the ideology and propaganda behind everything you see. But it’s important to try and find the key to the background of the propaganda – the unspeakable suffering of the Soviet population at the hand of the Nazis in World War Two, for example, and the fact that the Soviet authorities were able to build this memorial right in the capital of their arch enemy.

I’m still struggling, however, to find the key to today’s Russian propaganda on RT and Sputnik. Somehow I hope there’s more than just a corrupt country struggling to establish a place for itself in the post-Cold War world that allows it to pursue its variety of illiberal crony capitalism, a country that would rather destroy the successful example of western democracy than reform and adapt.

But the little green men in the pictures? Those are my sons.

All photographs: © Robin Oomkes 2017

 

“But the word of the Lord endureth for ever.” Ikegaya’s Nested Churches at Berlin’s St. Elisabeth’s.

 

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Elisabethkirche, c. 1994. Photo: wikiwand
“Des Herrn Wort bleibt in Ewigkeit”.This text, 1 Peter 1:25, was on the frieze of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Elisabethkirche in Berlin from 1834, when it was built, through its destruction in World War II, until well into the 1990s, when it sat as a ruin.

 

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The church in April 2017. Photo: Robin Oomkes
But although the church exterior has been beautifully restored since, the epigraph  signifying eternity hasn’t returned. Berlin artist Riku Ikegaya created a temporary installation based on this story of destruction and reconstruction of architecture: a model of Schinkel’s church, made out of scaffolding pipes for the frame and construction timber for the benches, inside the actual church – hence the project’s name: Nested churches. He fronted the church’s model with Saint Peter’s words, in neon.

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Ikegaya’s Nested Churches. Photo: Robin Oomkes
During opening hours, the  words are partially visible from outside, creating a compelling desire to enter. Meanwhile, the artist would like us to consider our expectations of eternity, in a digital age where change seems to be the only constant.

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Ikegaya’s Nested Churches. Photo: Robin Oomkes
On the altar, which is not part of St. Elisabeth’s standard equipment (it is no longer used for religious services), there is a dish containing communion wafers inviting you to explore the background of  Ikegaya’s work. If you’re lucky, you can catch the artist wandering around the church!

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Ikegaya’s Nested Churches. Photo: Robin Oomkes
WhatNested Churches by Riku Ikegaya

Where: Elisabethkirche, Invalidenstr. 3, 10115 Berlin. U/S: Rosenthaler Platz, Nordbahnhof, trams 8 and 12.

When: Daily, 20 April until 1 May, 12-7 pm.

More at: bit.ly/-ewigkeit

 

Nov. 9, German Date of Fate. Part 1: 1848 – the Execution of Robert Blum

November 9th is known in Germany as its ‘Day of Fate’. It wasn’t only the date on which in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down. So many other important historical events occurred on this day that the German government could hardly turn it into Reunification Day (that became October 3rd instead).

In 2014, Paul Sullivan, myself and some other Slow Travel Berlin writers divided the historical events of the ‘ninths’ between us and published stories on them on slowtravelberlin.com. As that website is now, sadly, partly unavailable, I am reposting my stories on this blog. (Check here for the 1918 story on the Kaiser’s abdication).

November 9th, 1848: the Execution of Robert Blum

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Carl Steffeck (1818-1890, attributed), Execution of Robert Blum, 1848/49, Deutsches Historisches Museum (wikicommons)

Germany may  not have escaped Napoleon’s seemingly unstoppable armies – but it did, for a long time, manage to avoid the liberal, bourgeois revolution that had allowed Napoleon to come to power in France in the first place. When the dust from the Napoleonic wars had settled, Germany was still as Ancien Régime as ever, a very loose federation of 38 independent states (including four “free cities”), each of which had their own form of usually monarchic and absolutist government.

The revolution of 1848 initially changed all that. Remembered both as a bourgeois, liberal uprising as well as the first expression of the socialist or communist movement (the terms were still used interchangeably at the time), the event came about via an emphatically diverse set of players: lawyers, historians, professors of German linguistics, socialist thinkers…even the German gymnastics league. Each group’s purposes and goals were equally diverse. Some wanted liberal reforms such as freedom of expression and an end to censorship, others wanted social reforms or greater political and national unity throughout the German speaking parts of Europe.

The revolution itself was triggered by events elsewhere in Europe but in Germany it began in the Grand-Duchy of Baden and rapidly spread throughout present Germany and Austria. The revolutionaries, much to their own surprise, were often initially successful in forcing their absolute monarchs into accepting new, liberal cabinets. Within a short time, they had in many places managed to abolish press censorship, liberate crofters from serfdom and initiate the first steps towards greater national cooperation by holding elections for a constituent National Assembly (which held its sessions in Frankfurt’s St. Paul’s church).

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Today’s Gorki Theater (just off Unter den Linden), Schinkel’s old Singakademie, was the home of 1848’s short-lived Prussian National Assembly. Photo: Robin Oomkes

However, by mid-1848 it started to become clear to the ruling classes that the “Liberal” (right-wing, bourgeois) and “Democrat” (left-wing, socialist) strains of the revolution were hopelessly divided on many issues. A counter-revolutionary movement began, in which monarchs and the aristocracy joined forces with the Liberals in order to defeat the Democrats.

Enter Robert Blum (1807-1848). The son of a cooper from Cologne, Blum tried his hand at many trades before starting a career as a writer. Moving to Leipzig, he started a newspaper that promoted democracy. Working as a journalist helped feed his conviction that the Kingdom of Saxony’s political oppression and heavy hand of censorship should be replaced with a republic. Despite his controversial views, the authorities allowed him to be elected as a Leipzig city councillor in 1847.

In 1848, Blum was a key player during the March revolution in Saxony, where, through his rousing speeches in Leipzig and Dresden, he managed to get the King to replace his government with a more liberal set of ministers. He was elected to the Frankfurt Parliament, and joined its Constitutional Committee. But as the rifts grew in the Frankfurt Parliament between Liberals and Democrats, Blum accused the Liberals of being too cosy with the old clique of monarchs and aristocrats.

Things came to a head in September 1848 after a number of failed parliamentary votes. The Liberals finally won the vote, the Democrats staged demonstrations in protest, and the Liberals proved Blum’s earlier point by asking the Prussian and Austrian armies to crush the Democrats’ protests.

In Vienna, developments had turned to violence too. Revolutionaries had occupied the city and ousted the Habsburg Kaiser and his army. Blum travelled to Vienna to convey the sympathy of the Frankfurt Democrats, joining the insurgents as a commander on the barricades. The Imperial Army retook Vienna after heavy fighting on 1 November, and Blum was arrested. Despite diplomatic efforts both from the Frankfurt Parliament (who claimed Blum’s immunity from prosecution as a deputy) and from the Saxon authorities, the Imperial military command, who considered Blum a most dangerous anarchist, condemned him to death in a two hour trial on the night of 8 November. He was shot at 9 in the morning of November 9th, 1848.

The Frankfurt Parliament protested at the death of one of their most prominent deputies, and decreed that those guilty of Blum’s death should be punished – but no action was ever taken. The shocked reaction among the German people upon learning of Blum’s death initially strengthened the revolutionary movement, but the reactionary forces had by then already regained the upper hand and the revolution of 1848 lost its momentum.

Blum became something of a martyr for democracy throughout the nineteenth century, and interest in him was renewed in the centenary of his death in 1948 – when both Germanies needed new national examples. However, although the German revolution of 1848 fit the socialist narrative of being a crucial stepping stone in Marx and Engels’ dialectics (not entirely coincidentally, it was also the year that Marx and Engels published their ‘Communist Manifesto’) – Blum’s emphasis on democracy and freedom of speech meant he could not initially be positioned as a hero by the incoming Communist regime of East Germany. However, there are many monuments to the revolution of 1848 in East Berlin, such as the one on Sredzkistrasse near Kollwitzplatz.

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GDR-era monument to the ‘Heroes of 1848’, Sredszkistrasse, Berlin. Photo: Robin Oomkes

There’s also the Cemetery for the Fallen of the March Revolution hidden away in Volkspark Friedrichshain (the monument there also remembers the fallen of the November revolution of 1918 – more on which we’ll cover in another story in this series). The Friedrichshain monument has an excellent, bilingual indoor and outdoor exhibition on the significance of 1848’s revolt – admission is free.

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Cemetery for the March Fallen, Volkspark Friedrichshain, Berlin. Photo: Robin Oomkes

Looking back at importance today of the first fateful ninth of November in German history, the murder of Robert Blum on that date is a symbol of all that the Revolution of 1848 failed to achieve – had the initial promise of progress on liberalization, democracy, unification and a representative national parliament been fulfilled, then there possibly might have been no war with France in 1870, no Kaisers, no World War I, no Versailles, no Nazis and World War II, and probably no GDR either.

Words: Robin Oomkes

Editing: Paul Sullivan

 

 

The House of the Wannsee Conference – a memorial finally

img_2625The House of the Wannsee Conference, a lakeside villa located roughly halfway between Central Berlin and Potsdam, is a place that is important and interesting for several reasons. First of all because it is the location where a group of senior Nazis and government officials on 20 January 1942 cemented the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’ – the euphemism they used for the mass deportations of all European Jews to death camps in Eastern Europe.

Secondly, the House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Educational Site, to give it its full name in English, can also be seen as a piece of “meta-history” – a symbol of the way our society deals with history and remembrance. And finally, the villa’s lovely lakeside setting on the Wannsee just makes it a very pleasant place to spend some time – possibly combined with the Max Liebermann Villa just up the road – although that also has a bleak part to its history.

But back to the House, and the Wannsee Conference itself. The SS had purchased the turn-of-the-century Villa Marlier, as it was originally known, as a conference centre and a guest house in 1940. On the occasion of the infamous Conference, Reinhard Heydrich, Head of the Security Police and SD, had booked it for a 90 minute meeting that was to confirm the primacy of the SS in orchestrating the mass-murder of European Jews. By getting representatives of all other involved government agencies to attend, Heydrich achieved the dual goal of asserting his leadership in the ghastly project, as well as making the representatives of the other agencies complicit to the fact.

I must say I was disappointed with the exhibition at the House. It’s very text-based, which makes it look old-fashioned – a problem, as one of the purposes of the memorial is to reach out to young people and educate them on the Holocaust. I don’t think it connects anymore with the visual and interactive culture that today’s school-going generation is used to. Content-wise however, it does a good job of explaining of how Nazi anti-semitism and racism finally led to the plan to murder all European Jews (up until 1941, the Nazi leadership still toyed with the idea of deporting all captured Jews to a remote place like Madagascar, but not necessarily kill them).

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Dr. Fischer with a group of high school students

We spoke to Stefanie Fischer PhD, postgrad researcher on antisemitism at Berlin’s Humboldt University, and a freelance tour guide at the House. “Visitor reactions to tours of the House can vary a lot – depending on the background of the group”, she says. “There often is genuine anger in the group at the callousness of the Nazi’s plans.”

The story of the tour also needs to be adapted to where the group comes from, and how much the participants already know about the Holocaust. Dr Fischer: “I recently showed round a group of school children from Norway. Even though Norway did suffer from the Nazi occupation, there wasn’t a Jewish population of significant size, and this may be why schools there don’t pay much attention to the Holocaust in their teaching”. Another interesting demographic for tours are groups from the Middle East: “Groups from countries like Egypt can be totally unaware of what happened to Jews in the Nazi era”.

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Another school class in the room where the conference took place – see the period photograph at top right

Dr. Fischer keeps her tours limited to a few a month – she says “the less of them I do, the better they are”. I observed her doing a tour with a group of Bundeswehr officers, where she was very direct on the execution methods used during the Holocaust.

“The popular image may be that these killings were industrialised, clinical, even humane, through the use of poison gas. But there was nothing humane, clinical, or industrialised, about it. Of the 5.2 or 5.3 million Jewish Holocaust victims that modern research agrees to, around 2 million may have been killed by poison gas, but 2.5 to 3 million were shot dead. This means that the murderers were in direct contact with their victims. It is important to realise this. The clinical image of gas chambers is absolutely fatal to our proper understanding of how this happened.”

Dr. Fischer admits that going to this level of detail sometimes can lead to emotional reactions in some visitor groups – for example, in case of Bundeswehr groups, if they have seen military action in Afghanistan, and she has to walk a fine line of gauging how much a group can take.

History of remembrance

The House of the Wannsee Conference is also a symbol of the history of remembrance or memorialisation. When in Berlin today (or in other places in modern Germany), I am always impressed by the Germans’ talent for it. There are monuments, memorial plaques, and museums everywhere that try to do justice to the horrors of the past – the Nazi period or more recently, the East-German communist dictatorship. In fact, modern Germany is so good at showing contrition for the darker periods of its history, and does this with so much respect for all parties involved, that it is widely seen as a role model by other countries dealing with the aftermath of conflict.

However, the sensitivity displayed towards difficult periods from the past is a relatively recent phenomenon. The GDR, for example, didn’t consider itself at all responsible for its Nazi inheritance. It consistently labeled West Germany as the ‘fascist state’ and, in its monuments for the Nazi period, only focused on the persecution of communists and socialists – certainly not on the suffering of Jews, homosexuals or Roma and Sinti.

But also in West Germany, as well as in West Berlin, there were examples of a “let bygones be bygones” attitude that today seems incomprehensible, and the House of the Wannsee Conference is one of them.

Joseph Wulf

The history of the House as a memorial is closely linked to Joseph Wulf, a Jewish historian of German-Polish origin. A survivor of Auschwitz, Wulf moved to Berlin in 1952 and was the first writer to publish on the Holocaust in German. He was very outspoken, and his message was not a welcome one in post-War West Germany, where a considerable part of the population bore some kind of responsibility, even if only passive, for the crimes committed during the Nazi period. Wulf did, however, obtain respect, if not applause, for the thoroughness of this work.

From 1965 onwards, Wulf worked on his initiative to turn the House of the Wannsee Conference, a villa which by that time had become a children’s holiday hostel for Neukölln, one of West-Berlin’s municipalities, into a documentation centre on the Holocaust. His initiative was well received in Jewish and international circles, and his committee soon included famous names such as writers Ralph Giordano and Golo Mann, clerics Cardinal Döpfner and Heinz Galinski (leader of the Jewish community in Berlin), and even Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia.

However, the committee’s attempts to get the Berlin Senate to release the building as a Holocaust documentation centre all fell on deaf ears. “Why should Neukölln children pay for the sins of a past generation?” was one of the excuses. Even when the World Jewish Congress offered to pay for a new children’s home in the grounds of the villa, the plans were turned down.

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Joseph Wulf’s apartment building in Giesebrechtstrasse 12, Charlottenburg, where he committed suicide in 1974

In 1973, the committee gave up all hope of success of convincing the city council and disbanded. One year later, Joseph Wulf committed suicide by throwing himself from the window of his Charlottenburg apartment, soon after his wife’s death. Whether his act was a result of his disappointment with the House of the Wannsee Conference, or a sign of his inability to accept his wife’s death, has never become really clear, but shortly before his death, he wrote the following in a letter to his son David:

“I have published 18 books here on the Third Reich and all without effect. You can document yourself to death with the Germans, they may have the most democratic government in Bonn – but the mass murderers walk around free, have their little houses and grow flowers (the small SS people, who only followed orders, do get convicted but are released later on because of vague health complaints)” (my translation, letter on display at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, copy at the House of the Wannsee Conference)

Only by the 1980s, attitudes began to change sufficiently for the children’s hostel to move out and the current memorial and educational site to open (in 1992, at the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference).

Changing attitudes to Holocaust memorials

But why did it take so long for authorities’ attitudes to change sufficiently to allow the creation of a memorial?

Dr. Fischer: “The main reason for that was purely generational. As long as the generation that had been active during the Nazi period were still in positions of power, they were reluctant to create memorials to what were either their own crimes, or the crimes of their peers. But don’t forget either about the simple lack of space in West Berlin. It was important to give children the opportunity to experience the countryside, and there wasn’t much of that around within the confines of the Wall.”

Another reason why it took so long for the villa to become a memorial may be that the citizens’ initiatives (Bürgerinitiative) that finally led to the creation of memorials at concentration camps like Bergen-Belsen and Dachau from the 1960s onwards, originally focused on the sites where the actual horrors took place, not where they were planned. Dr. Fischer: “In this sense there is a parallel with post-war prosecutions: these originally also focused on the actual henchmen in the camps, not the Schreibtischtäter (“desk criminals”) that planned everything from Berlin.”

A terrible story in a lovely setting

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Lakeside view of the House of the Wannsee Conference

However beautiful the settings of the villa on the lake, a visit to the House of the Wannsee Conference is, like many journeys into Germany’s history, “not a pleasure trip” – by the time you leave you will be deeply impressed by the sheer callousness and the meticulous planning that led to the massacre of five to six million European Jews in as little as 24 months.To take your mind off these horrible facts, an antidote could be to combine your visit with the Liebermann Villa a few hundred meters up the road.

This lovely place, Berliner Sezession protagonist Max Liebermann’s summer retreat, also serves tea and cakes (no food or drinks are available at the House of the Wannsee Conference). The Liebermann Villa might restore your spirits with its beautiful paintings, drawings and garden – even though Liebermann himself, who died in 1935 in his house on Pariser Platz, had professionally already fallen victim to the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies.

House of the Wannsee Conference

www.ghwk.de

Am Grossen Wannsee 56-58

14109 Berlin

Open: 10-18 daily except some public holidays – check website

Admission: free

Liebermann-Villa am Wannsee

www.liebermann-villa.de

Colomierstrasse 3

14109 Berlin

Open 10-18 daily except Tuesdays (11-17 Oct-Mar), closed on 24 and 31 Dec

Admission: 7/4 EUR

S/DB Berlin-Wannsee, then bus 114

This story originally appeared in 2014 on slowtravelberlin.com. Editing by Paul Sullivan.

Esterwegen Concentration Camp – a memorial to the Peat Bog Soldiers

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From Esterwegen Memorial, a short walk takes you onto the moors themselves
On a recent drive from Berlin to the Netherlands I found myself on an 80 km arrow-straight stretch of two lane highway next to a shipping canal. There was nothing much to see for the whole distance. A few farmhouses, a junction with traffic lights and a bridge across the canal every 10 km or so, and one town, Esterwegen, where there’s another traffic light.

But at Esterwegen, there were two road signs,  Esterwegen Memorial and Esterwegen Cemetery, printed in the font Germany reserves for Official Places of Significance. I’d never heard of either, and the signs also didn’t say what the memorials were for, but with a sense of foreboding and curious as to what might be so important in the middle of nowhere,  I followed the signs.

Walking from the impeccably maintained (and empty) parking lot to the memorial itself, I soon found out from the displays that Esterwegen was the Nazi concentration camp most famously associated with the song of the Peat Bog Soldiers – or Die Moorsoldaten in German, a tune I’ve known for years. Here is the short version of the lyrics, in German and English.

Die Moorsoldaten

Wohin auch das Auge blicket.
Moor und Heide nur ringsum.
Vogelsang uns nicht erquicket.
Eichen stehen kahl und krumm.

Wir sind die Moorsoldaten
und ziehen mit dem Spaten ins Moor.
Wir sind die Moorsoldaten
und ziehen mit dem Spaten ins Moor.

Auf und nieder geh´n die Posten,
keiner, keiner kann hindurch.
Flucht wird nur das Leben kosten,
vierfach ist umzäunt die Burg.

Wir sind die Moorsoldaten
und ziehen mit dem Spaten ins Moor.
Wir sind die Moorsoldaten
und ziehen mit dem Spaten ins Moor.

Doch für uns gibt es kein Klagen,
ewig kann nicht Winter sein,
einmal werden froh wir sagen:
Heimat du bist wieder mein.

Dann zieh´n die Moorsoldaten
nicht mehr mit dem Spaten ins Moor.
Dann zieh´n die Moorsoldaten
nicht mehr mit dem Spaten ins Moor.
Peat Bog Soldiers

Far and wide as the eye can wander,
Heath and bog are everywhere.
Not a bird sings out to cheer us.
Oaks are standing gaunt and bare.

We are the peat bog soldiers,
Marching with our spades to the moor.
We are the peat bog soldiers,
Marching with our spades to the moor.

Up and down the guards are marching,
No one, no one can get through.
Flight would mean a sure death facing,
Guns and barbed wire block our view.

We are the peat bog soldiers,
Marching with our spades to the moor.
We are the peat bog soldiers,
Marching with our spades to the moor.

But for us there is no complaining,
Winter will in time be past.
One day we shall rise rejoicing.
Homeland, dear, you’re mine at last.

No more the peat bog soldiers
Will march with our spades to the moor.
No more the peat bog soldiers
Will march with our spades to the moor.

Here’s a version sung by American folk music hero Pete Seeger, performed in 1967 at the East Berlin Oktoberklub folk club (that’s another interesting story!), in German as well as in English.

The buildings of the memorial look like what you’d find on any  industrial estate, but once inside I found myself in a stark museum-like space. I later found out that the memorial for Esterwegen Concentration Camp has only been created as recently as 2011 – when the Bundeswehr (German army) vacated the site. Hence the industrial look – the buildings originally were military barracks.

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Main hall of Esterwegen Concentration Camp memorial
Inside, there’s an exhibition that again drives home the chilling message of the horrors of nazism. This part of the current state of Lower Saxony has always been dirt poor, with very bad soil and no industry to speak of. During the depression of the 1930s, the Weimar government had already started New Deal-like employment projects in the area, using the unemployed’s cheap labour to dig peat and reclaim farm land from the marshy soil.

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A display of the names of the other Peat Bog concentration camps at Esterwegen. Bergermoor is where the famous song was written.
As soon as the Nazis came to power in 1933, they started using the existing workers’ camps as prisons for their political enemies. These were mainly socialists and communists, but also liberals and centrals – anyone who would speak up against the regime.

One of the very earliest concentration camps, the inmates were not treated quite as inhumanely as at the destruction camps the Nazis later built further east, but deaths among prisoners were frequent and the treatment of the inmates was completely at the mercy of the fascist prison guards. Many took personal revenge on political prisoners from their old home towns.

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Postcard sold at the memorial – one of the song’s earliest versions.
But the prisoners were granted one favour – on Saturday nights, they were allowed to organise entertainment, ghoulishly calling themselves the Zirkus Konzentrazani (a play on the many travelling circuses of those days with Italian sounding names). This is where the famous Peat Bog Soldier song was first performed – as early as August 1933, when the Nazis had been in power for just over six months! It soon became known outside the camp and even became a battle hymn of sorts for the Republicans fighting Franco’s forces in Spain from 1936 onwards.

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None of the original buildings at Esterwegen remain – so gates and roadways have been reconstructed using steel sculptural elements
Ironically, even the prison guards liked the song – they possibly also viewed themselves as Peat Bog Soldiers, being stuck in the middle of nowhere with their charges.

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Some elements of the original prisoners’ barracks have been preserved inside the memorial
What keeps surprising me when looking at the exemplary German culture of remembrance as it exists today (with memorials for the murdered Jews, homosexuals, and Sinti and Roma all within a stone’s throw from Brandenburg Gate, the country’s most cherished symbol, and television programmes about the horrors of World War II almost every night), is that much of it is relatively recent. The memorial at Esterwegen was only created in 2006, when the Bundeswehr saw fit to leave the site. The House of the Wannsee Conference was only turned into a memorial in the 1990s, when the building was released by the city of Berlin from its former use as a children’s home. And many of these memorials would not even exist if it hadn’t been for ‘citizens initiatives’ that collected the necessary signatures. It just goes to show how much time is needed for any nation to truly come to terms with the negatives in its past – usually until all active participants in the era concerned have either died or at least are old enough to have lost their political influence.

Speaking of political influence: at 2016’s annual holocaust memorial ceremony on 27 January in the Bundestag, the German parliament, this beautiful version of the Peat Bog Soldiers was sung (in German of course) by RIAS Kammerchor, one of my favourite classical choirs.

Which version do you prefer? Pete Seeger’s emotional song accompanied on the banjo performed at a GDR state sponsored concert, or the mathematical precision of the arrangement by RIAS Kammerchor in the heart of modern German democracy, the Bundestag? Let me know in the comments!

Esterwegen Memorial
Hinterm Busch 1
D-26897 Esterwegen, Germany
Tel.: 00 49 (59 55) 98 89 50
http://www.gedenkstaette-esterwegen.de
info@gedenkstaette-esterwegen.de

Opening hours:
From April to October Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
From November to March Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
On Easter Monday and on Whit Monday open

Closed from 15 December to 15 January

Google please note: Potsdam’s Mercure hotel is *not* getting torn down!

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Potsdam’s Mercure hotel. In the background there’s the City Palace, the polytechnic and the Nikolaikirche

In newspaper articles, Michael Bauer, the manager of Potsdam city centre’s Mercure hotel, has complained that Google and the city council are killing his business. By continuously floating plans to have the hotel torn down  (for which the council neither has the money, nor the necessary majority), the first thing that travellers find when they google the hotel, apart from the usual booking engines, is lots of links about its imminent demolition. Which isn’t good for business.

So where does the political controversy come from? Of course, any planning initiative in Germany can count on a, let’s say, lively public debate. Especially where ex-GDR architecture is concerned. Let’s take a look at the Mercure’s surroundings.

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“Ceci n’est pas un château” – this is not a castle (but, indeed, a modern reconstruction housing the State Parliament). Polytechnic (and church dome) behind.

The city centre of Potsdam, Berlin’s smaller neighbour but the capital of the Land of Brandenburg nonetheless, is a curious mix of spectacular original classicist, fake baroque, and authentic brutalist GDR architecture.

The Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas’ Church)

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Potsdam’s Nikolaikirche, by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, seen from the Stadtschloss.

First, and the most original, is Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Nikolaikirche (1837) – which looks new but isn’t (at least not completely). Heavily damaged, like most of central Potsdam, in April 1945, it was first restored in the GDR era, and then again in 2010. Hence the bright sandstone colour, which combined with the giant copper-green dome mean that the church is visible from miles away.

The Stadtschloss (City Palace)

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Potsdam’s City Palace in a 1773 painting by Johann Friedrich Meyer (image: wikipedia)

Second is the Landtag – or State Parliament. It’s a reconstruction (completed in 2014) of Potsdam’s former City Palace – the Potsdam winter residence of the Hohenzollern kings. Exactly like its counterpart Stadtschloss in Berlin, it was heavily damaged in the last stages of the Second World War, and then torn down by the communist regime. Also like Berlin’s city palace, it was reconstructed to the outside looks of the old palace, but with a modern interior. On weekdays, you can walk in to see the businesslike insides – and even have lunch in the parliamentary canteen.

The Fachhochschule (Polytechnic)

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Potsdam’s brutalist Fachhochschule

Third, authentic GDR architecture. A prime example in the centre is the Fachhochschule, which rubs shoulders with both parliament and church.

The Fachhochschule was a teachers’ training college in the GDR years and now teaches sociology, architecture and city planning (sic). Three storeys high, it was completed in the early 1970s, and has a rectangular shape with three courtyards. (Bizarrely, the polytechnic’s other Potsdam site is the former “Adolf Hitler” military barracks.)

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Fachhochschule, Stadtschloss and Nikolaikirche. Between the buildings you can make out the 18th century obelisk and behind that, the Old City Hall.

The ramshackle building is one more obstacle to the plans of the city council (and the Land government) to recreate the classical look of Potsdam’s city centre. Last news is that it will be torn down in 2017. Not because the building itself is considered to be ugly (probably a sop to the “Ewiggestrigen”, GDR nostalgists) but simply “because it is in the wrong place”.

Mercure Hotel

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View from the Mercure Hotel towards Potsdam’s old city centre.

The Mercure, a 17-story Plattenbau prefab building, was built as an Interhotel on direct orders of then GDR president Walter Ulbricht, to represent the ‘socialist crown of the city’. It opened in 1969 and also has its Berlin counterpart – the current Park Inn at Alexanderplatz (which was completed in 1970, also as an Interhotel). The hotel was completely refurbished after the fall of the Wall in 1989 and today is pleasant enough – certainly on the inside, where some corridors have a wonderful view of the new Landtag and the Nikolaikirche. If you ask nicely at reception, you can take a lift up to one of the hotel floors and take some pictures.

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The Interhotel when it opened in 1969. In the foreground, the classical colonnades, still there today, that linked the Stadtschloss with the Royal Stables. Pic: Bundesarchiv

Meanwhile, the discussion about the hotel’s future continues. Prominent Potsdam residents, such as fashionista Wolfgang Joop and talkshow host Günter Jauch, have been running a campaign for its demise. Plans to replace it range from an art gallery (since withdrawn) to a recreation of the former Lustgarten (palace park) that used to occupy the site.

But, as stated above, objections are fierce. There’s the large representation of ex-communists on the city council, who view the hotel’s demolition as another affront to the GDR’s cultural heritage (to which one prominent Potsdamer answered: “It’s nothing to do with the GDR. Anyone can see it’s just ugly”). But there are also financial reasons why an attempt for the city to acquire and destroy the hotel could end in tears. Buying and demolishing it could cost some 15 million Euros, and the city would lose its only large central hotel  – leading to a loss of tourist income.

And, finally, there’s the hotel manager, who has just signed another ten year franchise deal with the Mercure chain, and assures anyone who wants to hear that he intends to fully complete the course.

German National Monuments – Weird Wonders of the Wilhelmine World

Kaiser Wilhelm Monument (1896) at Porta Westfalica. The Kaiser is shown as a triumphant Caesar, bearing a laurel wreath.
Kaiser Wilhelm Monument (1896) at Porta Westfalica. The Kaiser is shown as a triumphant Caesar, bearing a laurel wreath.

Dotting Germany’s northern half, there is a collection of 19th century monuments that are astonishing both in size and theme. These huge memorials have various motifs: many are dedicated to Kaiser Wilhelm I and were built after his death in 1888. Others, like Berlin’s Victory Column, glorify battles as recent as the victory over the French in 1871, or as ancient as the Roman legions’ defeat by the Germanic tribes under Hermann the Cherusker in 9 CE, at the Hermannsdenkmal near Detmold. The central theme of all these monuments is that they celebrate the German nation’s unity, symbolized by the royal and imperial family.

National monuments – German statues of liberty?

Today, these monuments seem absurdly pompous and conservative, and we usually see them as symbols of the militarism and nationalism that led to World War I. But at the time they were built they were also symbols of hope, progress and modernity. The German middle classes of the 1860-90 era took the initiative for many of these monuments and funded them too. Not out of the kind of patriotism that seems narrow-minded today, but as symbols of a newfound national identity that marked a clear cut with the ancient-regime past.

Monument for Hermann the Cherisher, who defeated the Roman legions in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. Hermann is shown facing southeast, towards Germany's
Monument for Hermann the Cherusker, who defeated the Roman legions in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. Hermann faces southwest, towards Germany’s “arch enemy” France.

Ever since the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars which followed, middle-class Germany had tried to rid itself of its archaic, divided system of government. In 1815, at the Congress of Vienna, and also in the failed revolutions of 1830 and 1848. But each time the various local princes, backed by the aristocracy, had been able to more or less restore the scattered status quo.

Therefore, to many ordinary Germans, the proclamation of the Reich and the coronation of the Kaiser at Versailles marked their hope of an end to a period of division, religious intolerance, censorship, and lack of consistent rule of law that had lasted centuries. They were hoping for liberty and democracy. Many people working in Germany’s fast-rising trade and industrial sectors felt that their country had finally caught up with other modern nations such as France and Britain.

North-south divide

Bavaria's Walhalla monument on the Danube near Ratisbon. Pic: Lisa de Jong/helderontwerpwerk.nl
Bavaria’s Walhalla monument on the Danube near Ratisbon. Pic: Lisa de Jong/helderontwerpwerk.nl

It’s worth noting however that none of these grand monuments, shown in red, are in the southern regions of Swabia and Bavaria, possibly indicating a lack of fervour for the idea of a united Germany with Prussia at the helm. The 1842 Walhalla in Bavaria, grand as it may be,  doesn’t celebrate German unity, but rather the greatness of the German speaking area (including, for convenience’s sake and not to the liking of many Dutchmen, the Netherlands). And another early Bavarian monument, the Befreiungshalle at Kelheim from 1863, celebrates the liberation of German lands from Napoleonic oppression in 1813, but expressly aims to maintain Germany’s federalist status quo (it depicts all 35 members of the German Bund at that time).

Memorial building during the reign of Wilhelm II

Bismarck statue (and Victory Column) in Berlin. Both were moved from in front of the Reichstag to their current location in 1939.
Bismarck statue (and Victory Column) in Berlin. Both were moved from in front of the Reichstag to their current location in 1939.

After the death of Wilhelm I, and once the initial wave of monuments in his honour had been built, the monument-building frenzy cooled. His successor, Wilhelm II, was never as popular as the first Kaiser, and in his thirty year reign never inspired the population to keep up the momentum. In fact, monument builders turned to Bismarck as a subject, the original chancellor of united Germany dismissed by Wilhelm in 1890. The 1913 Völkerschlachtdenkmal (Memorial to the Battle of the Nations) was built, like the Befreiungshalle above, to remember the 1813 battle between Napoleon’s troops and the Allies on the outskirts of Leipzig. It was the last of the great patriotic monuments built in Germany’s version of the long nineteenth century.

Public perception and the monuments’ survival

From Berlin’s Siegessäule (Victory Column) to Leipzig’s Völkerschlachtdenkmal, these memorials have physically stood the test of time well. Considering all the political and ideological changes since they were built, the remarkable thing is that they have survived at all!

Germania is handed the crown. Detail of the mosaic at the foot of Berlin's Victory Column. Mythical Germania was shown instead of Kaiser Wilhelm I to avoid offending King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who had second thoughts about Wilhelm's nomination.
Germania is handed the crown. Detail of the mosaic at the foot of Berlin’s Victory Column. Mythical Germania was shown instead of Kaiser Wilhelm I to avoid offending King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who had second thoughts about Wilhelm’s nomination.
Nazi demonstration at Leipzig's Monument for the Battle of the Nations
Nazi demonstration at Leipzig’s Monument for the Battle of the Nations

When World War I ended and the Kaiser abdicated, the public’s perception of the memorials, and the political system that produced them, changed considerably. For many Germans, they were embarrassing reminders of the era of the last Hohenzollern Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who, by the end of the Great War, had lost all credibility with the population. But only a few years later, the Nazis were able to seamlessly fit the monuments into their myth of German history. Their often spectacular locations and huge scale made them great venues for Nazi mass meetings.

At the end of World War II, the end appeared to have come for many monuments. The Allies, whether capitalist or communist, were united in their abhorrence of these gigantic symbols of Prussian nationalism and militarism. The monument at Porta Westfalica almost succumbed when the British occupation force blew up the tunnels in the mountain below that had been used as a forced-labour camp by the Nazis, but survived (part of the viewing platform surrounding it fell down the mountain, though). And the local Soviet military commander could only just prevent East German communists from destroying the Kyffhäuser Kaiser Wilhelm memorial – he is famously supposed to have said: “It is time you Germans finally learn to live with your history and your monuments!”

Day-tripping the monuments

Although many are in more or less remote locations, monument builders took care to make them accessible on day trips for workers from Germany’s emerging industrial cities, sometimes creating a railway station especially for the memorial. For the monuments to carry their nation-building message successfully, it was essential that as many ordinary people as possible would be able to visit them. Souvenirs and miniature monuments were sold at affordable prices, to make sure people would take the message home with them (for a collection of these, see the exhibition at the foot of Berlin’s Victory Column).

The Kaiser memorial at Porta Westfalica gives a great view of the surrounding hills and forests. At the bank of the river Weser, bottom, you can see the railway station built for the monument.
The Kaiser memorial at Porta Westfalica gives a great view of the surrounding hills and forests. At the bank of the river Weser, centre, you can see the railway station built to afford access to the monument.

But also after the end of World War II, the monuments remained popular regional day trip destinations for ordinary Germans – just as they were in the era when they were built. Despite the ideological contrasts of both East and West Germany with the monuments’  nationalist and militarist messages, people kept coming to visit, if only to enjoy the view from the scenic vantage points on which they were built. In fact, that is how many of the local Tourist Boards refer to them today. Rather than entangling themselves in the monuments’ murky political history, they simply promote them as viewing platforms.

For more information on the historical background of many of the larger monuments and practical information on visiting them, consult the website of Strasse der Monumente –  a network of monument owners run by Berlin’s Victory Column.