Archive for the ‘Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung’ Category


A little about Berlin

July 14, 2010

As we came to the final days in German y, this was a true experience in all meaning. It was not only about learning, but actually having on experience at first hand. Standing form the first day in Berlin, tasting their good, getting to meet new people, stepping on historical grounds. First couple of days, learning about the Holocaust, the Jews, the prisoners who died in Hitler’s hands.

We then came to the German resistance, learning about those Germans who made the difference in other lives. Lastly we came to the last days in Berlin; we enjoyed a great boat tour.











We were able to see and enjoy the Alte National Galerie, at the Museum Island, an institution full of history and culture.







The United States Embassy, which was recently remodeled in May 23, 2008.

In Alexanderplatz, we were able to take a look at the Friedliche Revolution.

In 1990, the German unified, and in this museum we show three parts in history, how the successful the German revolution was. Here we have images and documents that demonstrate how this museum is structured in three parts, awakening, revolution and unity. Awakening happened during the 1980’s. During this time people were demanding their human rights. The revolution, the citizen wanted change. In October 7, 1989, the GDR was celebrating its 40th anniversary and the people went to the streets and protested. Finally unity, late in 1989, unity is a topic, and in March 18, 1990 “Alliance for Germany” was on the ballot, the Stasi files were released to the public, and we have a United Germany.


Finally the Reichstag Building, contrasted in 1884 and in 1894 by the Architect Paul Wallott, and later on modified by Norman Foster in 1994 and 1999.

One of the most important buildings in Berlin, after February 27, 1933 when it caught on fire, symbolizing Hitler’s power, and the final of a parliamentary democracy. Later on when the battle of Berlin took place, in April 21, 1945, the Reichstag was taken on the 29th of that same month by the Soviet, but it was not until may 2nd that they started to occupy it when entering the Reichstag, there are walls full of graffiti with Soviet soldiers names.

 For the Soviet the Reichstag had a military objective with a political goal.







Most popular for its ecology, the doom. In the middle of the Reichstag we have the doom.

With 360 mirrors, projecting light and evacuating light the rooms.

 Due to this technology, about 80% of this makes up their electricity. In the middle of the doom we have 300 meter holding-water storage. 

As our journey came to an end, I will miss Berlin, the culture, the food, its people. It’s a beautiful country with so much to offer.


Recognition, Remembrance, and Representation of Life

June 23, 2010

When I first approached the idea of coming to terms with the past, I wanted to use my experiences in Berlin as comparisons and critical analysis to the United States’ attempts at remembrance.   However, what I did instead was simply appreciate the memory of society in Berlin’s specific memorials and the symbolization of life in all aspects.  Recognizing historical tragedies require public discourse to come to remembrance, but representing life in these memorials is just as important.  To clarify, I feel that memorials need to connect to life, individuals, and history.  They cannot simply become erections that serve as political duties, nor should they serve as commercial or trivial attempts to acknowledge while deferring to discount and forget simultaneously.

Not only was I impressed, I feel Germany’s conscious challenges of coming to terms with the past of Nazi Germany and the GDR should be models for other societies in acknowledging their past, present, and facing the future they will build.   Attempting to analyze, digest and learning to live with the past, in particular the Holocaust, the people of Germany have erected memorials and museums dedicated to coming to terms with the past.  Specifically, the emergence of Vergangenheitsbewältigung and dealing with the atrocities committed during the Third Reich, when Adolf Hitler was in power, has permeated the life in Berlin.  The memories of the GDR and Nazi Germany are found in every corner of the city, and the German people’s attempt to analyze and come to terms with the past is commendable.

Recognizing the importance of life is imperative to remembrance.  How life is remember and represented is also essential to creating a memory that helps society come to terms with the past.  What I found to be particularly powerful in the memorials was the personalization of the history of Germany.  By simply showing numbers of people killed, where, when, how, or why, there is a sense of disconnect.  To really be effective in coming to terms, I feel there needs to be a personal connection.  The stories of families and individuals displayed in the museums and memorials were effective, in my eyes, at creating a deeper connection to the history and its recognition and remembrance.

The representation of life throughout Berlin was especially powerful to me.  It not only signified a seemingly successful shot at recognition and remembrance of the past, but signifies solidarity at showing a greater respect for life through the people of Germany.  From the trees growing from concrete structures in the Garden of Exile, to the flowers flourishing next to the killing grounds of Sauchenhausen, life is powerfully recognized and represented.

And life does not exist simply in the memorials erected.  It exists in the art saturating Berlin’s city streets and the lives and education of the people of Germany.  Life is an important concept in remembering the past, but it is important in our society today, as well as the future we are moving towards.  It is true, genocide still exists in our world and fear can result in the cooperation and obedience of terroristic regimes.  Women, children, and families are killed by state operations, and torture eerily similar to the chamber found in the basement halls of Hohenschönhausen is used by our very country.

By recognizing, remembering, and representing life, memorials of past atrocities allow people to develop their own understanding, and just might open their eyes to events chillingly comparable to life as it is today, and the conditions of life that are being created by similar event.  These are the important aspects to take from a memorial of historical atrocities, and not the model-posed pictures of you in front of a chimney where people’s bodies were spread as ashes through the air.


Rememberance and Coming to Terms

June 23, 2010

Like an individual who reflects upon the events in their life, every society must make decisions about how they will remember and come to term with events in its history. All societies experience trauma, be it national socialism in Germany, or the extermination of natives who occupied the North American continent prior to the arrival of Eurpoean colonists as a result of the westward expansion of American settlers. These types histories are traumatic for any society, and like trauma in an individuals life understanding is a never ending process, it is not easy, and a final outcome can never be decided.

This continual process to understand collective history is a process that is complicated by the realities of the human existence. Questions that any society must look to include, but are certainly not limited to the fact that people experience and remember events differently, people have differing emotions about experiences related to those events, and as a result of those realities, defining what individuals shall be viewed victims and perpetrator is a process, that despite the common rhetoric of easily definable good and evil, is never cut and dry.
The difficulty of defining perpetrator and victim can be illustrated by looking at Germany and the holocaust the took place under National Socialism. An important question that must be asked is where the German people themselves victims of Hitler; did they live in so much fear that they where unable to speak out even if they would have wanted to. About the holocaust there can be little doubt that Hitler and his Nazi government directly formulated and executed the genocidal policies of the holocaust. However, are these levels of guilt really sufficient to explain the holocaust? It could surely not have happened if only Hitler and the Government wanted wished it. The sheer magnitude of the holocaust required more than just the state apparatus and the individuals within it–at a minimum it required the racism already present within German culture before Hitler came to power, and finally the passive acquiescence of the German people. Admittedly, not everyone in Germany was anti-Semitic, but as a German citizen after WWII, such does not release them from their countries collective history. Accepting this means that responsibility for the holocaust cannot lay with just single individuals or the state, in the case of the holocaust, responsibility must lie with the collective whole of society, to look at it any other way only divests responsibility from the people who are responsible for placing such individuals in a position where they would form such a horrendous government.

Beyond this difficulty in defining who will be viewed as the victims and who will be viewed as the perpetrator, coming to terms with societal trauma is difficult because different individuals experienced events differently. For instance, a Jew who experienced increasing levels of persecution in the years following Hitler’s election to chancellor, and a political prisoner who was victimized in the same concentration or extermination camp, though experiencing some of the same atrocities, may view them and their proper remembrance very differently. A question that arises here is does the political prisoner who initially supported Hitler but alter fell into disfavor deserve the same memorialization in Germany as the Jew who in no way supported Hitler and was a member of his largest victim group? Another controversy along these lines was explained and discussed with our class at The Memorial for The Murdered Jews of Europe. Though it was decided in the end that this memorial would commemorate only the Jews murdered throughout Europe, initially questions centered around if doing such a thing put certain victims on a level above other victims. In fact, though I cannot know remember who, one individual in our class inquired of our tour guide if only memorializing Jews at one of Germany’s main holocaust memorial was no different than separating and identifying the victims with individual labels just like Hitler did with the multi colored triangles prisoners whore on their clothing in the camps.
As was apparent from each of the memorial sites we visited in Germany, memory and coming to terms with societal trauma is not easy. However, though society can never reach an end point to this process, keeping the discussion alive is a benefit. Though much controversy accompanied many of the sites we visited in Germany, each controversy kept alive the discussion that the atrocities committed under national socialism must be kept alive.


Hagakure 葉隠れ (in the shadow of falling leaves)

June 19, 2010

I was perusing the Hagakure when I came upon something that I think is highly pertinent to what we have looked at in Berlin:
According to Lord Naoshige’s words:

There is something to which every young samurai should pay attention. During times of peace when listening to stories of battle, one should never say, “In facing such a situation, what would a person do?” Such words are out of the question. How will a man who has doubts even in his own room achieve anything on the battlefield? …

In our class the question was asked many times what one would do in the face of tyranny under the Nazis or under the GDR. I think that Naoshige’s point speaks directly to this: it is pointless to speculate. He further explains that if one is not determined from the start, uncertain even in the comfort of his own home, then when war does happen that person will be useless on the field of battle. Granted the Hagakure was written in the 18th century for a dying class of warrior nobility, but I think the abstract of Naoshige’s point is useful here: that it is pointless to try and speculate what any one of us might have done under the circumstances in Nazi Germany or under the GDR. The real point is that we should be prepared to do something in the event that it happens again.
And in fact, it has happened again, in 1994 in Rwanda around 800,000 people were killed in the course of around 8 weeks, in the Darfur region of Sudan it happened again and we did nothing: we don’t even know how many people were killed. For that matter we have constructed a global economic system that not only allows, but incentivizes human trafficking, the destruction of ecological systems, the exploitation of child labor, and could likely lead us to another war on a massive scale over scarcer and scarcer natural resources (think water in the Middle East and Africa.) A few statistics are in order: about one billion people worldwide do not have access to safe drinking water, and 2.6 billion people do not have access to any kind of improved sanititation.1 10 million children under the age of five die each year from perfectly treatable malnutrition, or about one every three minutes, if we include all the people that die from complications due to malnutrition, the number jumps up to between 35 and 55 million people a year, or about one every 15 seconds.2 It is ok though, in the US we grow enough food to feed all of these people, instead though we feed it to animals and eat them. The best part is that we have an obesity epidemic! A third of the people in the world can’t get enough to eat and we have an obesity epidemic! Even better, we have started to use ethanol from corn to fuel our cars, so now starving people get to compete with our vehicles to get a meal. And we all know how upset Americans get if someone tries to raise our fuel prices.
All that being said, my personal bias is that the ‘war on terror’ that GW constructed is extremely terrifying for a couple different reasons. The primary issue is that we now have a system that allows us to other people by labeling them terrorists and lock them up indefinitely without trial. For me the broader issue is what happens when we start seeing people who object to the global economic system that we have set up and they decide that their only recourse is terrorism? If someone has a perfectly legitimate political point to make I do not in any way endorse an act of violence as a means of communication, but what happens when they have no other way to communicate? To some extent this touches upon the notion of homo sacer that Lucy articulated for us: that is when someone’s life is given no value to the point that they can neither be sacrificed nor murdered, because both murder and sacrifice denote that the person’s life had value.
I think to a large degree when someone commits a suicide bombing they are communicating that their life does have value and that they are willing to sacrifice it in order to prove it. The harm that is done is also a part of the communication that their life has value, but I’m having a little more difficulty with how that works. It seems like the violence they do to themselves might be a form of communication but the act of violently taking the lives of others seems to nullify the moral message that they are trying to communicate. On the other hand it is telling that we place no value on the life of a suicide bomber: no one even gives a thought to the fact that this was a person too and that their life had value also. Really give some thought to the notion that a person had been driven by whatever forces to think that their only option in life was to die in order to harm another human being. What combination of hopelessness, hatred, remorse, isolation, and terror could drive a human being to kill themselves in order to harm another?
I think the most frightening thing of all though is that we don’t ask these kinds of questions in American society. We are happy to keep cramming McBurgers down our throats, drive our oversized military grade vehicles, and watch American Idol (a golden calf?) and when someone objects to our way of life—a way of life that does impact people worldwide—we decide that they are either crazy, or we lock them up indefinitely, torture optional of course. So to return to the original point; it is pointless to speculate about what we might have done in a given situation in the past, the real question is: What are we doing about the present?

See also
See also
“Nearly one in four people, 1.3 billion – a majority of humanity – live on less than $1 per day, while the world’s 358 billionaires have assets exceeding the combined annual incomes of countries with 45 percent of the world’s people. UNICEF”
“For the price of one missile, a school full of hungry children could eat lunch every day for 5 years”

P.S. if you see a funny set of boxes in the title, that is the Japanese character for Hagakure, most people don’t have Japanese fonts turned on ^.^


Faulkner und Vergangenheitsbewältigung

June 17, 2010

Faulkner is channeled repeatedly in the discussion of political memory and in particular the Nazi past.  We hear the same phrase repeated by a Brandenburg politician a German professor of North American studies, Hannah Arendt, and others… A Google search for “Faulkner and Vergangenheitsbewältigung” turns up dozens of results in both German and English: newspaper articles, literature and film reviews, ethnic nationalism studies, and of course a Myspace page for a 23 year old female in Rapid City.

The past is never dead, it’s not even past

Faulkner’s words bear the weight of truth. There is no doubt that the past continuously shapes the present.  The death knell of the Final Solution is heard still today. That the German national psyche has not overcome the detrimental impacts of the Nazi quest for world empire is apparent in the uproar and resulting resignation of Khöler over the place of German troops in international missions. 

Dealing with the past – memorializing it, chronicling it, erecting giant museums to it – has taken an inordinate amount of time, money and planning in Germany… Contrast the numbers and prominence of memorials, plaques, monuments and museums for the Holocaust to those for slavery or Native American genocide in the United States, for instance.  This evidences a great desire to come to terms with this past.


 Still, the greater the trauma of the past, the greater the difficulty in exorcising its ghosts.  Hence the impossibility of adequately dealing with the Holocaust.  The sheer incomprehensibility of the anguish caused by the immiseration and ultimate destruction of millions defies attempts at reckoning with it.  And so the past will not die.

But why has it occurred that Faulkner’s phrase has come to speak on its own for the difficulties of dealing with past trauma?

Surely Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Elie Wiesel, or Dante have equally profound insights into the unrivaled capacity of man to inflict suffering upon fellow man; upon the horror of war and the remembrance of terrible things.

Why Faulkner? 

Although Faulkner was first translated into German in the 30’s and somehow escaped blacklisting to become apparently highly popular during the Nazi period, during more recent decades many of Faulkner’s works in German have fallen out of print. Requiem for a Nun, from which the quote is drawn, has never had a large readership even in its English translation.

Nevertheless, Faulkner’s literary reputation and winning of the Nobel Peace Prize make him a man to be quoted… (Even if we haven’t read his works.)

But in addition, and more importantly I think, are the connections to Faulkner’s subject and his attitude toward remembrance.  The parallel between a common Faulkner theme of the detrimental impacts to American society of slavery and the lack of attempt to deal with it resonates in a sense with Germans’ own attempts to deal with the sins of their fathers.  

In terms of remembrance, Faulkner’s pessimism over the capability of man to adequately ever realize a fulfillment of responsibility and attrition for the obscenity of the crimes of slavery and genocide is well-documented.  And deservedly so.  Yet perhaps more important than our failure to cope with the hugeness of history, is that we attempt to do so.

A Holocaust survivor wrote an ode to his murdered family:

That mortal enemy… wanted / To wipe out children’s laughter among my people / To burn it so that only ash remained. // But the thread will not be severed. Oh no, / I am leaving a deep imprint on this earth. / / … My children will have grandchildren / … And my grandchildren will become grandmothers and grandfathers / … So that the horror is never repeated – / I sing this my song of resurrection

One can never bury the past.  As we live and breathe, so too our history.  Our responsibility to the past is not to allow it to die, but to keep it as a remembrance owed so that we might ensure a more decent future.  Faulkner also said:

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail


Overwhelming Presence of Collective Memory

June 5, 2010

Over the course of this trip, an ever present theme is coming to terms with the past alongside the concept of collective memory.  As we’ve gone through the stages of deconstructing the history of Germany, I have developed an ever deeper sense of empathy for the people here.  As we have focused on two of the darker periods of the more recent German past, which include Hitler’s rise to power and World War II as well as the aftermath of World War II during the Cold War, a wide range of mixed emotions overwhelms me; at times anger – anger that the German people stood by as some of these great horrors transpired and that other nations of the world almost heartlessly tore this country in two; sadness – that such a great and and intelligent nation was brought to its knees by such a troubled and tumultuous past; compassion – for the scars of the past weigh so heavily on the hearts and minds of these people; respect  – to witness the great sense of responsibility and resolve that Germans now pursue in their quest to honor victims, prevent any semblance of recurrence of the crimes of the past.  More than once I have found myself brought to tears – as we have toured museums, camps, prisons, monuments, and piecemeal remnants of the past – to collect these memories within my own emotional, logical, and analytical consciousness, it becomes increasingly more difficult to put all the pieces together and come to a conclusive frame of reference.

Coming from a German-Polish background myself, I have gained a much deeper understanding of why it was that my grandmother would never discuss or reflect upon her German heritage – where would one begin?  How does one even begin to explain or justify the multitude of horrors which transpired?  After the loss of two World Wars, one of the greatest historical atrocities of modern history, and a nation divided for almost 50 years by the Cold War, to reflect on the role that she and other family members may have played as history unfolded is possibly more than one could bear with such little resolution available in her lifetime (she passed away in 1988, a little over a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall).  As questions and confusion swirl around within me, I find myself reaching for more understanding through conversation with German people (thankfully, most Germans speak English, though almost all insist their English isn’t very good – if they only knew that they practically all speak better english than most Americans!) and have found that most people are happy to sit and openly and honestly banter about these things with me.

A few nights ago, I had a long discussion with a young German man who was also staying at our hostel, in which we discussed some of the psychological difficulties that come with being a German.  Bits and pieces of the conversation gave great insight into the mixed emotions that people here, even young people generations removed from World War II and with basically no direct memory of a divided Germany.  He recalled being harassed and made fun when he was younger for his Jewish looking nose (though he has no Jewish heritage and even the Third Reich was not able to definitively identify strictly Jewish physical features); he spoke with pride of his grandfather who was per his recollection a warm and good man but who served Hitler’s Germany in WWII as a member of the military (though through his words of pride and reverence he openly began to cry tears of an assumed an un-erasable shame);  and he had an almost formidable anger when he reflected upon a lifetime of schooling in which he was taught incessantly of the horrors of German history an his responsibility to deal with them as a German citizen.  There was a deep sadness which emanated from him as he disclosed his lack of place in the Germany of now – the disassociation which exists for him within his own historical identity is palpable and I can’t help but wonder if this is, for all intents and purposes, a society dealing with post traumatic stress disorder on a day-to-day basis.

It is clear that the German people have made every effort, as time has passed, to emotionally and logically deal with and understand what has transpired.  They are committed to creating a presence of recognition, knowledge, memory, and healing in an attempt to transcend a past which tarnishes their history, heart, and soul.  Within this opening, I have borne witness to a people which grapple with the set-in-stone confines of their past, in a way that we as Americans never have.  Through the course of this experience, I have wondered if part of the reason the Germans deal with their history in such a different way, with much more humility and responsibility, has to do with losing World War II.  A few key historical factors which come into play concerning areas of American history which we do not seem to deal with appropriately include the annihilation of the Native Americans, the crime of slavery imposed upon African Americans, as well as the use of atomic weapons on Japan.  Even if one could somehow write off the decimation of the American Indian population as just one example in a long line of imperialist tendencies present on a global scale throughout history and slavery as the carry-over of a societal and cultural norm of the time, the American use of atomic weapons on Japan is too historically recent and seemingly much too unnecessary to dismiss  with such little ownership.  Please be clear that I do believe all three of these instances to be horrible crimes against humanity that need to be dealt with but it seems more relevant to me to compare crimes within the confines of war with other crimes having a similar point of reference which is why I believe that it makes more sense to compare american actions in WWII with those of Germany.

I recently watched the movie The Fog of War, which is a historical documentary of the wars of his times as remembered by Robert MacNamara.

Movie - Fog of War

Often disturbing and emotive, a piece of the film which really stuck with me was a more honest moment in which he concludes that had the America not won WWII, he would have (and in his own opinion – should have) been found guilty of war crimes concerning his involvement in the atrocities doled out to Japan during those times.  Yet, as a nation, we remember WWII as a great victory and a culminating point in our rise to power as a world leader.  It is almost as if by winning and having the advantage of choosing our own recollective perspective of history, we have been able to wash away sins that we would have otherwise been held accountable.  In a way, it is almost as if we lack a reflective soul in our pursuit of progress, power, and economic dominance at seemingly any cost.

When posed with the question “Do you feel a sense of accountability for what happened?”, the response which is heard most often from the lips of Germans is “I do not feel a sense of accountability, for it was not me, but I do feel a sense of responsibility in making sure the crimes of the past, the lessons we have learned from our history, will never be repeated”.

Omanu at the Jewish Memorial

But even in the realization of responsibility, as Omanu so succinctly pointed out, genocide still happens right now in parts of this world; prison camps still utilize torture and murder as a means to an end; and weapons, bombs, and war still tear apart lives, families, and peoples all over the globe.  While Germans spend an impressive amount of time and money honoring and remembering the past through memorials, museums, and the like, the atrocities that humans beget upon other humans still persists – and these are things that we must all deal with, all take responsibility for, and all do what we can to stop.  How will history continue to unfold, how will we be remembered – in both our actions and inactions, and how will we respond if ever called upon to account for our own crimes against humanity of  both past and present?


What is a memorial?

May 31, 2010

As I walked past the square I noticed a seemingly random arrangement of stones of some sort. While clearly laid out in an orderly fashion each possessed its own individuality, some taller than others, some tilted to the left or right. I asked what the place was and the answer was, “The Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe.”

The next morning this same memorial was the first stop on our agenda. As we approached the square I noticed that each stone looked very much like a sarcophagus, but unadorned, with neither decoration nor inscription. It struck me that this seemed like a graveyard. An entire square filled with unmarked graves representing the Jews that had been murdered across Europe.
As I pondered the meaning of the stones having different heights I began to realize that each stone did not represent a single Jew, but many, and that the taller stones represented a greater number of individuals. However, little did I know how many. As I walked through the square I felt the stones grow larger, their shadow looming upon me. The stones which seemed at first only slightly taller now felt immense. I realized that as I walked the ground was sloping down, and the stone which seemed but a foot or two taller from outside the square was really 5 or 10. At the center of the square I felt an immense sense of isolation. Looking around I saw only gray stones. I could hear people wandering in other parts of the square, but I could not see them. I wanted to reach out and talk to someone, to share in this moment, but no one was there.

At this moment, from around the corner of a stone, burst several children playing hide-and-seek. My initial reaction was to be upset, to tell these young Germans that this is a place of death and that they should respect this sacred ground. But I stopped myself, I thought, “Is this really a place of death, or is this a place of life?” is this ground dedicated to the dead, or is it dedicated to the living that WE might remember those who have died? By playing in this square do these children dishonor the dead, or do they honor the value of life? I do not know the answer to these questions.