Reflection: “Dig Where You Stand”

By Amanda McGowan

At the “Topography of Terror” museum in Berlin, the foundations of the former Gestapo headquarters are excavated and open to visitors. (Photo: Don Barrett/Flickr Creative Commons.)

In Berlin, reminders of the past are everywhere. Pedestrians trip over “stumbling blocks” embedded in the sidewalks, etched with the names of Nazism’s victims. Visitors to the opera find themselves standing above a glass plate through which ghostly, empty bookcases are revealed, marking the spot of a 1933 book burning. Atop one of the city’s most desirable pieces of real estate, beside the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate, is the haunting Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Then there is the Topography of Terror. In the years following the war, the site was a dumping ground for construction debris and other garbage. But in the 1980s — as the city was preparing a grand celebration of its “750th anniversary” — a group of students, historians, and activists began to dig. “Dig where you stand” became their rallying cry. Under the rubble, they discovered the foundations of buildings used by the Gestapo, SS, and Reich Security Offices, the nexus of Nazi terror. The foundations remain uncovered to this day, now a permanent part of the city’s geography.

Like many Americans, I’ve often stood in front of my own country’s grand marble monuments and been awed by the triumphant narrative they project. To see in Berlin so many commemorations of grief—not of victory—was a revelation. What would it look like, I wondered, if the United States was studded with reminders of the painful and violent parts of its own history? What would it mean? Imagine, as writer Hunter Oatman-Stanford does, “if a network of chains were embedded into the streets surrounding the White House and U.S. Capitol as a monument to the slaves who worked on these buildings, or if every major American city maintained one block of open space as tribute to the native people whose land we forcibly took from them.”

Yet just last month in New Orleans, workers resorted to taking down statues of Confederate generals in the middle of the night after facing protests and even death threats. Recent events, in other words, suggest the kind of radical transparency Oatman-Stanford envisions is a ways away.

But then, almost like an antidote, I come back to the motto “dig where you stand.” I’ve been thinking a lot about this phrase and the guidance it can provide, especially for journalists. It’s a reminder that sites like the Topography of Terror were not initiatives that came from the top down, from people who had vested interest in keeping the past’s painful lessons hidden — they came from the work of journalists, activists, and historians insisting that they needed to be dug up.

There’s a lot that can be learned this way. As investigative journalist Nikole Hannah Jones said recently about the film “Hidden Figures” (an account of the major and previously unacknowledged contributions made by African American women to the Space Race): “What is hidden reveals as much about our country as what is told.”

What stories are hidden in my community? In my country? By whom? Why? This fellowship has made me think a lot about what the role of a journalist should be. One suggested by the Topography of Terror—and one I keep coming back to—is that of “a person who digs.” A person who questions the state of things as they are, seeks out the truth underneath, and exposes it to the air.

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