Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Berlin and Nuremberg: Museums For A Ghostly Past

I've written the past few tourism blogs in a thematic manner overlooking the chronology of when I visited those places. Also I've not delved into the anecdotes of what I 'experienced' as a traveler in those cities about food, commute, people etc. I'll get to the tourist aspect in the coming days.

Subsequent post-war generations of Germany have confronted their parents with the question of "how did Nazism happen", "how did we allow holocaust to happen" etc. Ever since the unification Germany and Germans have taken it upon themselves to answer all that forthrightly. This is also possible only after the unification for several reasons. The historical sites in Berlin are now accessible giving an authenticity that was not possible earlier for a museum constructed anywhere. For instance the museum 'Topography of Terror' which details the repressive Gestapo regime during the Nazi era stands in Berlin in the same spot where Gestapo headquarters used to be. The Berlin Wall used to pass right next to it hence after the fall of the wall it is now possible for the museum to exist. Another reason is now Germany tries to view the Soviet repression and Nazi era in a connected manner of how they mutilated the soul of Germany.

Several erstwhile Nazi places that are now museums in Germany are often referred to as 'Documentation Center'. The 'Topography of Terror Museum'  constructs in artistic and painfully detailed manner the emergence of a repressive thuggish state apparatus. Running along the remnants of Berlin Wall is a series of very nice display of glass panels that are hung from steel frames detailing in chronological manner aspects of the rise of Nazism (check the picture at the right of this page Every Siemens factory that utilized slave labor is mapped out. An artistic display tells us by using pull-outs on a calendar how holidays were declared based on Nazi festivals. Unflinching accounting of how many Nazis managed into slip into civilian life and even become judges in West Berlin is recounted in full. USSR wanted to embarrass West Germany and released a list of judges who were known to have been Nazis. While some of who lost property under Nazis some like condom manufacturer Julius Fromm, a Jew, were branded as 'Jewish proprietor of the capitalist kind' and refused restitution. Nazism which gifted the word 'Goebbelsian propaganda' was all about propaganda. A poster depicting a muscular healthy man carrying on his shoulders 'hereditary sick people' informed school students of the 'cost' of such an effort.

The inside of the museum is breathtaking. The colors are not too bright in the room, the expansive hallwith chronologically arranged labrynthine looking hanging displays with surrounding glass walls conveys a surreal feeling of openness in discussing a shameful chapter of German history (see the pics in the link ).

Himmler talking of extermination, interrogation records of Jews stamped with 'J', transport lists, pictures of Jews having their beards snipped by smiling Nazis, details of camps and so much more is laid out for anyone wishing to study and learn. I'd say come to this museum not just to learn of Nazism or of how Jews were persecuted. Come to this museum to learn how hatred manifests human soul. Come here to learn what a set of human beings man did to their fellow human beings. Victims and perpetrators may change but the theme is sickeningly continuous. 

The holocaust museum in Berlin is situated, intentionally, I was told, right next to the notorious Fuhrer bunker were Hitler committed suicide. This museum is uniquely constructed with large cement blocks with grid like cobbled stone pathway that rises and falls in an undulating manner. The museum architecture evokes a sombre dark mood albeit not too depressing. The use of steel and glass is deftly combined to give a sense of openness and grimness. A room details stories of families, again with very well researched documents to trace the families path through holocaust. The room itself is imposing with mammoth cement blocks hanging from the roof inlaid with backlit glass panels of photos and documents.

The Fuhrer bunker was razed to the ground and filled up with mud by invading Red army in order to prevent any future 'shrine'. Today the place is a car park. This bunker was identified only recently. Sadly I saw some hooligan had scribbled 'holocaust ist luge' in a cycle stand nearby (and hence opposite to the holocaust museum). I jotted it down and used google to translate, it read 'holocaust is a lie'.

Nuremberg is an hour away from Munich by train. This city was the cradle of Nazism. There are no good English speaking hop on hop off tours. I just went to the 'documentation center' which is next to the large grounds where Nazi rallies took place. The taxi driver who dropped me said "look at that steel arrow like structure piercing the colosseum style building. This colosseum was left unfinished by the Nazis and the arrow like structure is there to signify an arrow into the heart of Nazism". Here we learn how Nazis used mega rallies as a method to project power and popularity. A room had displays of front pages from world newspapers that spoke of the rise of Hitler. It is sad to note how much the world knew and indeed feared Nazism and yet allowed it all to happen until an unspeakable price in human lives was paid to undo it. 

Nuremberg is not just any city. It was the center of German culture. It is here that Nazism took its shape and it is from the notorious Nuremberg rallies, so often pictured in Hollywood movies of that era, that Hitler mesmerized a nation and plunged it into untold misery. I could not visit the famous Albrecht Durer home. 

Coming a full circle Nazism faced the long arm of justice in Nuremberg. It was in Nuremberg the famous trials that convicted and executed many top Nazis took places. Those trials form the basis of today's war crimes trials. Ironically USSR which killed thousand of Polish officers in Katyn sat as part of the judges. During the trials none of the Nazis could even say a word of the conduct of Red Army which could easily be accused of war crimes that are only less severe in relation to what the Nazis did. Red army plundered and raped German villages. Allies punished Germany by obliterating most of the nation in punitive bombing raids. Dresden was flattened. The British who had their boot on India's throat and the French who plundered North Africa too were the judges.