Vergangenheitsbewältigung: How Berlin Has Faced Its Nazi Past

In spring 2019, Professor Elizabeth Drummond’s HIST 4273 Nazi Germany class traveled to Berlin, Germany for Spring Break as part of the BCLA Global Immersion Courses initiative. While there, they visited museums, memorials, and a former concentration camp to examine how Germans have dealt with the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. The following reflection is from a student in the course.

Reflection and photos by Veronica Backer-Peral, ’22, History and Film/TV Production double major

The term Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a German one, but it is a concept that applies to every nation and individual across the globe. How a collective group of people face and interact with their past has serious implications for what ideologies will be most prevalent in the present, as well as how we will approach our future. However, the way this concept has and continues to shape German society is perhaps one of the most interesting to study. Not only do Germans have to deal with a difficult history more recent than most, they were forced to quickly shift from a world in which the Hitler myth of grandeur resonated in each individual’s hearts, to one that forced them to confront not only the evil of Hitler but also the collective responsibility of the nation for the atrocities committed during World War II. While the initial years after the war were filled with a popular dissociation with politics and history, today’s Germany has effectively and thoughtfully engaged in the education about and remembrance of the Holocaust. In terms of education, museums use geographic elements and an abundance of evidence to show beyond doubt the extent to which the events that took place are relevant. On the other hand, remembrance and memorialization seem to use more symbolic and subliminal tactics to convey the horror of Nazism through emotion rather than brute facts.

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The Memory Void, with the installation “Shalekhet” (Fallen Leaves) by Menashe Kadishman, Jewish Museum Berlin

When I refer to sites that concern themselves primarily with education, the first to come to mind are the German Historical Museum, the German Resistance Memorial Center, and the Topography of Terror. What the three have most in common is the use of evidence in such large quantities as sometimes to seem practically unmanageable and even overwhelming. From photos to numbers to videos to text, these museums are packed to the brim with examples from Nazi Germany. On one hand, this was effective in hammering in the extent to which Nazism affected the lives of Germans and people across Europe. While the Topography of Terror uses this tactic to show the massive destruction of the Holocaust and the German Resistance Memorial Center uses it to convey a sense of hope in the amount of resistance to the Nazis that was also present at the time, both flood the visitor with piles of information. However, this has a negative consequence as well. Considered holistically, the quantity of evidence is successful in conveying the massive reach of the Nazis, but it also makes it difficult to get through entire exhibits. More often than not, the giant walls of text are more exhausting than engaging, and the personal stories are lost amidst the massiveness of the museum exhibitions.

Another similarity of many of these informative museums is the use of historical landmarks as grounds for the museums. The Topography of Terror is located next to both the Berlin Wall and the site of the former headquarters of the Gestapo and SS, while the German Resistance Memorial Center is in the Bendlerblock, the sites of the offices of the High Command of the German Army and the military intelligence service. In both cases, the locations provide a sense of authenticity behind the stories being told but also help visitors understand the proximity of many of these historical sites to the residential portions of Berlin. This gives a better understanding of what it might have been like to live during Nazi Germany and also brings into question the claims of innocence put forth by average German citizens during the postwar period.

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The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Berlin, Germany)

On the other hand, many of the sites we visited are far more intended to memorialize than to teach. The best example of this may be the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. With little if any text explaining its purpose or meaning, the memorial lacks the informative aspect of the museums. However, the use of unique architecture and symbolism give it an entirely different way of touching its audience. The parallels to a graveyard create a sense of solemnity. The uneven ground, a sense of unease. The growing height of the blocks as one approaches the center especially drive in the magnitude of loss of the holocaust. The most important element, however, is perhaps the lack of explanation. Rather than being told what to think, people are forced to come to their own conclusion, which can be far more effective in sparking honest reflection.

Furthermore, in the case of the Holocaust Memorial, as its often called, geographic location is important but in a very different way than the previously discussed museums. Rather than being in a historically significant site, it is in a politically significant site – walking distance from the Reichstag building, now home to the German Bundestag. The placement of a memorial to victims of Germany so close to the heart of the government serves to emphasize the extent to which Germans have confronted their past.

However, there is also a third group of sites we visited – those that both educate and memorialize at the same time. From the Jewish Museum to Sachsenhausen (a former concentration camp), I found these co-functional locations the most effective. Combining a focus on individual stories allowing the visitor to truly internalize the humanity of the victims, with large scale interactive exhibits that chill the visitor to the bone, I thought that these sites came the closest to portraying the horror that must be forever associated with the period of 1933 to 1945.