Paradox of memory and history

July 6, 2010

Berlin is a city teeming with a unique sense of history, one that represents the whole continuum of the human experience. One of the most intriguing elements of the essence of the representation of Berlin’s history lies in the subtle paradoxes that are an underlying aspect to many of the memorials and historical sites throughout the city. These contradictory sentiments are found in the nature of the objective history of Berlin as well as in the memorials themselves, entrenched in everything from the methodology employed by the Nazi regime to particular details gathered at the concentration camp Sachsenhausen, the Stasi prison Hohenschönhausen and at historical sites such as Zionskirche. The first place this paradox presented itself was seen while visiting Potsdamer Platz. There is a section of the Berlin Wall that stands in the center that is surrounded by present-day evidence of a vastly different society than that of which the Wall itself divided. This small piece of a monumental part of Berlin’s history stands enveloped by billboards and advertisments that scream capitalism and private financial enterprise, which was a reality that only citizens residing in West Berlin experienced during the time when the Wall stood.

Another example of paradoxical sentiments experienced occurred while visiting  Sachsenhausen, the Nazi concentration camp used primarily for political prisoners. While walking around, listening to the guide and reading about the tragic lives prisoners there led, an overwhelming feeling of haunting serenity flooded my consciousness. From the image of the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” (itself a sickly ironic contradiction meaning “Work Will Set You Free”) to the small yet ethereal white flowers that have sprouted all along the lethal electric fence that stood as the internal security perimeter, these small images somehow reminded me of the horrors that individuals experienced on the very ground on which I was standing.

Apart from these physical signs of disparity between the role of the site and the present-day memorial, there were ideas communicated in regards to the behavior of the imprisoned as well as the imprisoners that pulled me in several directions all at once. The first of which was something I read while in one of the museum sites at Sachensenhousen. The little placard resting next to a crude handmade broom stated that the broom had been made by prisoners so that they could maintain a level of cleanliness in their meager accomodations. The revelation that these individuals had the willpower and tenacity to, even in the most dire of living situations, create a shred of higher quality of life and personal comfort and satisfaction for themselves was utterly beyond my imaginative capacity. Along these lines as well was how the humiliation, shame and torture that the incarcerators bestowed upon the prisoners in order to instill fear and cooperation also seems to have led to a higher sense of camaraderie and solidarity among the prisoners; when the guards would kill a fellow prisoner and would force the others to walk past the body of their compatriot to make an example of them, those who remained saw this as a way to say goodbye. Upon leaving Sachensenhousen I felt the weight of tragedy and sadness upon my consciousness yet was also astonished at how much more there was to the human story of this haunted place.

Berlin has a particular sense of forlorn aesthetic surrounding much of its historical architecture. This decrepit beauty was another example of the contradictory nature I experienced while spending time there. From the old churches, some even surviving World War II, to the remnants of the architectural creations of the GDR, there was an enigmatic charisma that existed in each place we visited. The best example of this was undoubtedly Zionskirche, a church that has survived for one of the most tumultuous centuries in German history in the heart of East Berlin. Remaining statuesque through multiple wars, horrendous burglary and theft, Zionskirche has emerged as a center for peace and environmental justice in the city of Berlin. It was a place we went to where I felt a unique sense of calm strength while standing in awe of the beautiful austerity of the architectural design.

 One of the fundamental paradoxes of this entire experience I found in learning about the manner in which the Nazi regime and the Stasi attempted to implement and maintain their respective ideologies. The most primordial of which for me was the notion of humane inhumanity; an example of this was told to us by the guide at Sachsenhousen in regards to the execution of prisoners. Bringing them into a room and staging an examination, through a hole in the wall soldiers would shoot and execute individuals, one after another. The effort that perpetrators of murder and espionage went through was simply shocking, particularly when considering what the end goal eventually was. Under this broad notion of humane inhumanity, an additional beahvioral paradox committed by those in power was that of systematic terror and the irrational rationality that those in power demonstrated. Terror is an emotion with no boundaries, limits or control and the systematic implementation of this sensation is something I cannot imagine witnessing, experiencing or perpetrating. Finally, the irrational rationality of the way that the Nazis and the Stasi administered their ideologies involves a deeply rooted ability to manipulate and dehumanize that goes far beyond my cognitive understanding of all of us who exist in the world today that it left me dumbfounded; I am still questioning how it is that humans could commit these acts of torture and murder and espionage against other humans.

While Berlin was full of perplexing contradictions, I did come out of the experience understanding that these paradoxes were and are how individuals survive through difficult times. In the small beauties, new life and unquestionable awareness, citizens of Berlin and the world are learning how to resist oppression and come to terms with the past.


One comment

  1. Paradox of memory and history…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

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