Day #1: Remembering Isn’t Inevitable.

By Laura Howells

The central institutions of Nazi persecution — the leadership of the SS, the Gestapo, and eventually the Reich Security Main Office — were located on these grounds in central Berlin between 1933 and 1945.

For four decades, there was a gaping wound in the middle of Berlin.The site of former SS and Gestapo headquarters was, and still is, a largely empty stretch of rocky land.

Nobody built there, but there was also no acknowledgement of the area’s significance. Construction companies would dump their rubble where 2,000 people once went to work and facilitated a genocide.

It wasn’t until 1987 that Germany erected a commemorative museum on the site — and even then it was supposed to be temporary. It took grass root activists demanding the country “dig where we stand” and deal with its destructive history.

The central institutions of Nazi persecution — the leadership of the SS, the Gestapo, and eventually the Reich Security Main Office — were located on these grounds in central Berlin between 1933 and 1945.

It took a long time before Germany was ready to publicly acknowledge its past. There was a strong sense of victimization among the German people after the war, Thorsten Wagner, academic director of FASPE, told us. Plus, post-war occupation and the division of Berlin meant Germans were focused on a whole new chapter of political turmoil. And as one FASPE fellow remarked, processing trauma can take a long time — perhaps longer when it’s housed in a fragmented national consciousness

But I was still shocked by how long it took Germany to confront the Holocaust, and how quickly the country appeared to move on in the years immediately afterwards. Having only been alive in the past two decades, commemorating the Holocaust has always seemed like an obvious necessity to me. But visiting the Topography of Terror, the exhibit located on the site of those former headquarters, I realized the naivety of my thinking. Admitting fault is not a historical inevitability, and Germany is hardly alone in its delayed acknowledgement of atrocity. In fact, I see parallels right now in how my country of Canada is grappling with its legacy of residential schools.

For more than 150 years, the Canadian government stripped 150,000 Indigenous children from their families and placed them in church-run boarding schools. It was an assimilation program that aimed to “kill the Indian in the child.” In reality, it killed children.

Children couldn’t see their parents or speak their native language. Many were physically, emotionally and sexually abused. Some were the subject of nutritional experiments. Disease was rampant and thousands died.

In hindsight, these schools were an obvious atrocity. A federal commission called it “cultural genocide.” But two decades after the last school closed, Canada is still struggling with how to acknowledge its past and reconcile with Indigenous people .

There has been a lot of progress. A federal commission issued an extensive report on the residential school system and recommended several calls to action. Survivors have been awarded compensation The government says it’s committed to repairing relations Indigenous people.

But it takes time.

It was more than a decade after the last school closed that the federal government formally apologized. Until recently, residential schools weren’t mentioned in several high school history classrooms. There’s there’s no national monument in the nation’s capital, and just a few months ago, a senator lamented that the “good deeds” of these schools have been “overshadowed by negative reports.”

Perhaps most importantly, Canada’s Indigenous peoples still face systemic racism and injustice that the country is a long way from resolving.

At the same time, Canada is celebrating its 150th birthday this year in a blaze of patriotic fanfare that some argue ignores the Indigenous people who were here long before colonization.

It’s so easy to look at history from a distance and see its commemoration as obvious. But to do so, especially as a journalist, is dangerous. Recognition and commemoration are not inevitabilities — to think as much might be to overestimate human nature. And confronting hard truths is a particularly difficult act if nobody’s clamouring for a conversation. In Canada, there are still thousands of residential school survivors who can talk about their experiences and continued suffering. In post-war Germany, there were no more Jews. The victims were voiceless, thus easier to ignore or forget.

The Topography of Terror now stands as a historical exhibit documenting Nazi atrocities.

The Topography of Terror now stands as a historical exhibit documenting Nazi atrocities.

As journalists write about still-unfolding histories, perhaps it’s important we keep looking for other gaping wounds like that former Nazi headquarters. It’s not our job to change history, but by writing about the present we do help shape the national conversation. And as I learned Monday, even a massive rocky expanse in the middle of a city can still be surprisingly easy to ignore if we decide not to talk about it.

 

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