My sister-in-law lives in the old East Berlin, and every day when she walks out of her door she sees this statue in a park across the street from her apartment:
That fellow was a German communist who was executed by the Nazis. His bust is one of many statues that the Soviets erected across East Berlin after World War II to remind the Germans who was in charge.
One of the most popular parks in that half of the city was converted by the Soviets into a mass grave and memorial for thousands of their soldiers who were killed in the assault on Berlin:
As you can tell by how tiny the people sitting at its base look, that is one hell of a big statue.
But that’s typical of totalitarian architecture. That’s the aesthetics of intimidation.
And you can see those aesthetics at work on a stroll around the Olympiastadion, which hosted the recent European Championships.
This is a picture of my daughter inside the stadium during the recent European Championships:
Can you see that tower rising up beyond the opening in the far end?
That’s a structure that looms over the grandstands of a giant parade ground built, along with the Olympiastadion, in the 1930’s by the Nazis.
Here’s a closer look at it:
This picture does not do justice. There are twenty-five acres of grass in front of those grandstands. That’s about the size of twenty American football fields. And the entrance is bordered with statues like this:
When you walk around those grounds, you can’t help but feel the sense of grandeur that the architects of this vast facility intended to convey. Then, you remember who those architects were.
That’s a heavy load for the Germans to bear. How do you forget the horrors of those years, and at the same time, how do you remember so as never to go down that path again?
That’s the difference between attending a track meet in Berlin and attending one in Zurich or Eugene or Des Moines. I’ve been mulling this over quite a bit, and I think I’ve finally got it figured out. It’s not the quality of the beer and chocolate. Those are just as good in Zurich. It’s not the enthusiasm of the fans. The folks in Eugene get just as nutty. It’s not the quality of the competition. Lots of the marks posted at the US Championships in Des Moines this summer would have earned medals in Berlin.
It’s the weight of history.
The ghost of Hitler. The shadow of Jesse Owens.
And it’s the grace with which the Germans bear that weight.
My sister-in-law told me that the Germans have left many of the Soviet-era statues intact because they don’t want to forget the cost of being seduced by fascism. I assume that they have let the Nazi parade ground outside the Olympiastadion stand for the same reason.
But it’s more than just letting a bunch of old structures stand as memorials to human folly. It’s what they’ve done with those structures.
One of my daughter’s favorite novels is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. When she heard that we would be visiting Germany this summer, she asked if we could travel to Dresden, where Vonnegut was held as a prisoner during WWII. He and his comrades were used as laborers throughout the city by day, and were kept at night in the basement of a slaughterhouse, hence the novel’s title.
One night, the city of Dresden was bombed and at least 30,000 civilians were killed. Vonnegut and his mates, saved by their subterranean sleeping quarters, emerged to a scene of unspeakable destruction.
We did travel to Dresden, and engaged a tour guide to show us sights related to Vonnegut and his novel.
It turns out that the actual slaughterhouse five is still intact.
This cow marks the entrance:
But they don’t process animals there anymore. The very spot where Vonnegut and the other POWs sheltered from the bombing is now a coat check room.
Above, the huge open halls of the slaughterhouse now host concerts and exhibitions. People gather there to drink and to dance and to remember never to forget.