Ruminations from my trip to Warsaw and Berlin, October, 2004

(With photos below)

Eugene Halton


Memory and Oblivion in Berlin

        In the fall of 1989, a month before it fell, I suggested at a conference in Germany that some of the Berlin Wall, including specifically the area of Hitler’s bunker and other prominent sections from Cold War history, be designated as a symbol of twentieth-century Germany. My reasoning was that although the Berlin Wall was a product of the Cold War which testifies to the failures of Communism, it holds a broader significance as well. The fact that Hitler’s final bunker, a mound buried within the wall, out of which his body emerged to be cremated, struck me as a fantastic reality from some sardonic Disneyland­--almost like the ancient Assyrian practice of burying enemies within the city’s wall. This site also addressed twentieth-century hubris: “Here is German defeat, resulting from unbridled arrogance,” just as other portions of the wall signify the divided post-war Germany and the continuing battle of totalitarianism versus democracy. The cold war virtually ended on top of the wall, at least in memorable images, in the celebrations.

        For these reasons the wall, even more than the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedankskirche (a church deliberately left in partial ruins), seemed to me to encompass the broadest span of twentieth-century
Germany. Fifteen years later, in October, 2004, I returned to Berlin to discover that the city has left at least one full city block of the wall intact (and individual sections elsewhere), and excavated a level down next to it. There was an outdoor photographic exhibit in the excavated section, titled “The Topography of Terror.” One walks the history of the Nazi times in Berlin, while occasionally looking up to the wall layer above, the literal topography of terror.

Berlin did something far better than I could have imagined. A couple of blocks away I found the site of Hitler’s bunker, now just a flat empty lot, unmarked, construction going on around it. As I walked from the “Topography of Terror” exhibit and wall toward it, ominous black clouds and wind suddenly materialized, a hard rain began, and I felt the strange topography of nicht and nowhere, of dead zone zombie history where that war ended and the cold war clinched its vice-grip on the Fatherland. But something more was in the process of manifesting. I realized that in two more years the last under-earth of the Führer will probably be somebody else’s office building, obliterate, as it should be. Then a couple of blocks further, as I walked in the pouring rain, I came upon a huge field of stone monoliths in construction, thousands in lines, forming a sculptural cemetery, marking the Holocaust. So much for Nazi “blut und boden,” “blood and earth.” This was a kind of inversion of the final solution, a strange reverse of Hitler’s demented vision of a thousand year Reich centered in Berlin. Steinenfeld (Field of Stones), was now bodying forth as a city of the dead, of Jews finally given that Berlin earth as memory ground, while a few blocks away Hitler’s nameless, placeless bunker, was enroute to oblivion.






















Eugene Halton