Pasts captured, pasts uncovered

By Alasdair Wilkins

A single block of Zimmerstrasse—a less than five-minute walk along 1,000 feet of what was once the Berlin Wall—separates two very different reminders of Berlin’s past. On one end is the Topography of Terror, a stark gray museum that overlooks one of the longest extant sections of the Berlin Wall and sits upon the former headquarters of the Gestapo and SS. On the other end is Checkpoint Charlie, or at least a reconstruction of the guardhouse and sign that once marked the official crossing point between the American and Soviet sectors of Berlin.

The Topography of Terror once housed the SS, SD and Gestapo headquarters -- and is where the Nazis planned the extermination of millions. (Katelyn Verstraten/FASPE)

The Topography of Terror once housed the SS, SD and Gestapo headquarters—and is where the Nazis planned the extermination of millions. (Katelyn Verstraten/FASPE)

Both these sites provide opportunities to confront Berlin’s roles in the Holocaust and the Cold War, albeit in very different ways. The Topography of Terror, the home base for FASPE’s second day of workshops and discussions, reflects in its layout not just how the Nazis occupied this site but also how Berliners used—and avoided using—this space after the war. The Gestapo and SS headquarters were largely destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945, and in the 1950s West Germany demolished the ruins and turned the site into a dump. As FASPE European director Thorsten Wagner observed while leading a tour of the site, businesses weren’t exactly desperate to move onto what had just a decade previously been the administrative center for the Final Solution and the Nazi police state.

Yet that attempt to ignore the past—to quite literally bury it beneath a pile of rubble—was only a delaying tactic; the history was still there, waiting to be uncovered. Excavations in 1987 revealed the cellars of the Gestapo headquarters, and the Topography of Terror today has the appearance of an archaeological site, with visitors invited to descend the steps and walk along this now unearthed reminder of the Nazi regime. The remnants of Gestapo headquarters are located only a few feet below the remains of the Wall, creating a spatial link between the Nazi and the Cold War stories. Surrounding both these outdoor displays and the indoor museum are large swathes of rocks and pebbles, a marked departure from Berlin’s omnipresent parks and green spaces. This is one section of the city not yet marked for rebirth.

Long before a visitor reads any of the displays or inspects any of the artifacts at the Topography of Terror, perhaps even before the geographical significance of this site becomes clear, its visual departure from the rest of the city marks it as something else, something other. The question of how to contextualize—and perhaps inevitably, how to recontextualize—the sites of the Holocaust and other horrors has no answer, and it’s one we will surely continue to grapple with as we make our way toward Auschwitz.

In the case of the Topography of Terror, the attempted burial and rejection of the past forms part of the story of the present-day site, with the simultaneous presence of Gestapo ruins and Berlin Wall segments positioning history as something that unfolds on a continuum—one that we are on as well, uneasy as that fact might be—instead of just a series of discrete events.

Our walk down Zimmerstrasse toward lunch brought us face-to-face with a very different kind of reminder of things past. The reconstructed Checkpoint Charlie is primarily a photo opportunity for visitors, with a pair of actors dressed in ’60s-era American army uniforms and flanked by American flags. While the crowd never gets huge at Checkpoint Charlie, an ever-changing group of a dozen or so people stands in front of the guardhouse, waiting to have their photos taken with the actors. Most are saluting in their photographs, though at least a couple of tourists joined the soldiers in flashing the thumbs-up.

There are a few adjectives one might employ to describe this. “Kitschy” is one. “Tacky” is another. Yet it’s difficult to plausibly reduce Checkpoint Charlie to just a spot of local color. The crossing point never saw carnage remotely on the scale as that which was conceived, directed and perpetrated within the walls of the Gestapo and SS headquarters, but Checkpoint Charlie—and now its tourist-friendly simulacrum—is mere feet from where, in 1962, East German forces shot and killed Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old bricklayer, as he fled for the West. He died close to American border guards who would not risk an international incident by venturing into East Berlin to help him.

Millions of people visited the Topography of Terror in 2014. (Katelyn Verstraten/FASPE)

Millions of people visited the Topography of Terror in 2014. (Katelyn Verstraten/FASPE)

It’s certainly not that Fechter’s story goes untold in modern Berlin—a memorial on Zimmerstrasse marks where he died 53 years ago and remains a focal point for Berliners’ annual commemoration of the victims of the wall. And while the Checkpoint Charlie photo op may dominate tourist traffic, it also sits next to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, founded mere months after Fechter’s death by West German peace activist Rainer Hildebrandt, and across the street from displays that guide passersby through the history of the Berlin Wall.

Yet Checkpoint Charlie and the Topography of Terror present two wildly divergent approaches to commemoration. The former is a serious, gray place, its displays and exhibitions inviting reflection and consideration of the layering of history. The latter is a frivolity, a history without context, a quick photo tourists can grab as they walk to the museum or, just as easily, the McDonald’s on the other side of the street.

While it likely comes as no surprise that I found the Topography of Terror the considerably more profound experience, I still cannot entirely dismiss the value of the other site. History can be something that is buried and unburied, but there’s also room for it to be something living and breathing. Perhaps animating it through costumed actors holding up flags and saluting with tourists is not the ideal way to bring Berlin’s Cold War history to life, but it’s far from the worst.

(5/27/2015)

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