Author Archive

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Dealing with the past through trial

June 23, 2010

Following the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, and subsequent reunification of Germany a year later, much attention was paid to how to deal with the past. Dealing with the past crimes of regimes, the Nazis and the GDR in particular, has been a challenge within German society. Coming to terms with the past and finding a way to reconcile the past political traumas has become an important issue within German society, and as it is with many difficult situations, there are differing opinions on how this is to be accomplished. How does a society recover from the horrors of the Nationalist Socialist Party or the dark realities of the German Democratic Republic and its secret police? West German president Richard von Weisacker once remarked that “whoever closes his eyes to the past becomes blind to the present?” Many would believe that to recover from the past you would simply need to find those who were responsible for the crimes and make certain that they are held accountable. Others would believe that to fully recover from a dark history, it would be important to find a way towards reconciliation, and then eventually to seek justice, not the other way around. If the bitter angry past can be overcome, what actions must states fulfill in order to atone for past evils?

After unification had become successful in Germany in 1990, it became an important issue to start to deal with the crimes that the East German government had committed. The method in which most governments would actively confront criminal offenses would be through legal retribution. In the case of the GDR, these matter were quite complicated. Seeking justice through the courts was the popular opinion for many, and making sure that the leader of the GDR, Erich Honecker would be convicted of his crimes was to many an important way of dealing with the past. The prevailing wisdom about retributive justice is that it demands that offenders be held accountable for their wrongdoing through prosecution and punishment (Amstutz, p. 67). The only way to repair ruptured relationships between victims and victimizers and restore their moral equality, is to make sure that offenders be diminished through public condemnation, and victims must regain their former moral status (p. 68). This is easier said then done, and within the context of the German Democratic Republic, much harder to accomplish.

This strategy for seeking justice through prosecution and public condemnation poses many challenges. Although it seems a best fit for carrying out against those at the top, the senior government and military officials, its becomes ever more complicated when dealing with those in the middle and at the bottom. The evidence for criminal culpability of government officials and senior military leaders is likely to be difficult to obtain as well. Germany found it easier to prosecute soldiers who killed citizens trying to flee East Berlin than the leaders who established the evil regime of totalitarian communism (p. 68). Furthermore, prosecuting those responsible for East German abuses was difficult from a legal standpoint. How do you accuse those responsible of committing abuses when in their own country, the laws allowed for such abuses to exist? Many legal scholars believed that if East Germans were to be held accountable for their actions, they could not be tried under the laws of pre-unification West Germany. Pre-unification West German criminal law was not designed to deal with the sorts of government sponsored crimes of the GDR era. Its application to offenses committed under communist rule was bound to displease both accusers and accused alike (McAdams, p.54).

Judging the East German past could have been made easier if the East Germans themselves had been able to put their leaders on trial, but such was not the case. The hastiness of the revolution, and the quick ability for the two Germany’s to unify prevented such internal East German trials to exist. Once again it seemed that Germans, from both East and West, were coming to terms with the legacy of totalitarianism. Honecker and his associates were not merely guilty of having committed specific criminal offenses during their time in office. As leaders of the GDR’s Socialist Unity party (SED), they were responsible for setting into motion and then maintaining what many Germans felt was a distinctively unjust political order, an Unrechtsstaat, “state without law” (McAdams, p.56). The state itself had been set up in such a way to “pacify the masses of its people and force them into submission” (p.56). But because the laws of the GDR has distorted the legal system, “no one – from Honecker down to the lowliest border guards  – should be able to excuse or justify manifestly criminal behavior by claiming that they were operating within the law of the land (p.57).”
Claiming that all those who had been involved in the GDR should be held accountable became a more debated topic during the post-unification years. During the transitional period, is it appropriate for a new government to punish those responsible for reprehensible actions that might have been lawful under the old regime?

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A great City

June 16, 2010

Berlin… How can I begin to describe you? I understand that this blog should discuss issues related to memory. That is the memory of the holocaust and the GDR. But I must first discuss what Berlin means to me now. Berlin is free. Berlin is beautiful. Berlin is different. Berlin moves to a different beat, it speaks to a different person, and speaks poetically to my soul. Yes, it is profound, but this city touched me. So let me begin my ode to Berlin.

Berlin view from top of Church Steeple

I had some interesting notions of what exactly Berlin would be like. Most likely these were the typical visions of a city where Hitler once resided. They were dark, ugly, and intimidating. Berlin to me was always about a wall. As the trip began, I was not sure entirely what to expect from this city, but i now know that when ones expectations are low, or are uncertain, one can be most surprised and pleasantly. What struck me first about Berlin was its overall urban grittiness. I imagine in my mind that this is what New York City must have felt like in a time when neo-liberal policies had not destroyed the cultural integrity of a once great city. Oh Berlin how you surprised me. Graffiti everywhere, and to many that may seem like a blight on the urban landscape, but to me it is oh so beautiful. In so many ways the art on the walls of every building is the ultimate form of artistic resistance.

Graffiti in Kreuzeberg

The images have meaning, political statements, cultural influences, global understanding, and references to cultures that reside in the very distinct neighborhoods. In the neighborhood of Kreuzeberg, a neighborhood some of us adopted as a temporary home for two weeks, signs of the vast Turkish community were everywhere. Kreuzeberg in my opinion represented what is great about cities, and also represents the frontier lines of change to come. It is has a diverse group of Arabs, Turks, Germans (of course), Africans, and a mix of Europeans from Spain to Russia. The shops are political, the graffiti has meaning, and the residents stand up for each other. This could not be more evident then the random protest we came upon one day, where the residents of the neighborhood were passionately rejecting the capitalist expansion of the Spree River, which runs along Kreuzeberg. The Slogan Unsere häuser, unser fluss, unsere stadt! (Our houses, our river, our city), was being displayed by thousands as they marched the streets in defiance of the ever intimidating Polizei.

At the Protest against development on the Spree

Protests, graffiti, good food, a river, great night life, and oh such good beer, makes Berlin one of my favorite places. Such a beautiful city with and even more gorgeous soul. Oh and of course the Kebabs.

Waiting for my Donör Kebab!

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The Holocaust and the Othering of People

June 16, 2010

I struggle with understanding the Holocaust. How is it possible that such a mass atrocity could occur? How can human kind allow for such devastating events to occur? So many killed for such irrational reasons. During our trip in Berlin, I was awash in Holocaust history which explained how it was possible that the Nazis could create such an environment of hate towards the “other” groups they deemed sub-human. By successfully creating an image of Jews and other non-aryans as subhumans, the Nazis were able to round up massive amounts of people and displace them.

Jews being harrassed by Nazi Police officers

Propaganda was spread to create an image of Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, as the enemy of the Aryan race. They were physically and mentally inferior, and dangerous in the minds of the Germans. As a result, the populations, not all but many, were complacent when so many of the “others” were thrown into mass ghettoes, concentration camps, and extermination camps. The images that stuck out for me were the walls, so many large walls which served to displace people, control them like animals, and eventually lead them to be slaughtered. Walls…. Thats all I keep thinking about when I think about Germany’s past.

Nazi soldiers destroying the Ghetto in Warsaw

I found it quite incredible that Germans today are very open with the past. Unlike many other countries that have committed crimes, the Germans have recollected the past memory and have put it on display. Dealing with the past cannot be easy, but the Germans have made sure its in the collective memory of everyone. It serves to provoke people, to make people think and wonder how and why such acts were possible. I believe it serves as a message to future generations to make sure such things will never happen again.

All of this makes me wonder how the Israelis have taught the Holocaust, how they have memorialized the events in the collective memory of their population? Do they continue to seek justice for the crimes of the past, or revenge? I wonder because as I relate the images of the holocaust to images and events that I have seen in my life, I feel history has a way of repeating its self, not in the way of genocide, but perhaps in the othering and dehumanizing way.  It disturbs me that so many images of walled ghettos and concentration camps just remind me of Palestine today.

Images that invoke another time

Last night I was watching the movie The Pianist, a movie about the Warsaw ghetto, and what struck me most were the lines of people waiting  and the amount of time it took for jewish citizens to cross from one side of the ghetto to the other. Waiting in long lines all day, and at the same time being humiliated by border guards. The inhabitants of such ghettoes were living in horrible conditions, much worse then those on the outside, and they were walled in. Another reminder of the occupied territories.

I guess I cannot help but think that a group of people who had experienced the worst acts of human kind, would not be more compassionate with other people. How did this happen? Is too much memory a bad thing? Does being the victim allow a group to justify vengeance, even if it is misdirected? Is vengeance ever a good thing? I remember reading a book by Marth Minow entitled Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, and specifically one quote caught my attention, “Pain can sear the human memory in two ways: with forgetfulness of the past or imprisonment in it.” This may seem pessimistic, but i believe it resonates true.

Images of occupied Poland during WWII and images of occupied Palestine today

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My Berlin video

June 16, 2010

http://www.facebook.com/#!/video/video.php?v=864182105073

So I tried to add my video, but for some reason this blog does not allow for that. Lame… So I have the link to my video that I made. It is on my Facebook page too. Actually I think that is where the link will take you. Anyways, its just a bunch of clips and images that I had taken from Berlin. Berlin was a very inspiring place and the wall really stood out to me. Also, I saw a great protest on my last day and had to put some of the footage in this video. Hope you all enjoy.