Less Is More

Less Is More

The dense details in Berlin’s memorial museums overwhelm the stories they try to tell.


When I first started traveling to Berlin in the 1980s, piles of rubble still marred the landscape. I was most struck, though, by what was missing. Nazi vandalism, Allied bombing, the postwar razing of Nazi offices, the construction of the Berlin Wall and vigorous urban renewal had all contributed to erasing the architectural traces of the city’s fraught twentieth-century history. But the absences were always palpable, even if walking tours devoted to Nazi sites or Jewish Berlin often had to conjure up what was no longer there.

Since the fall of the wall a quarter-century ago, and the subsequent reunification of a divided Germany, the pace of rebuilding has accelerated. The sprawling agglomeration of skyscrapers at Potsdamer Platz gestures, however clumsily, toward the future. And the past, too, seems to be getting its due: efforts to grapple with what Germany calls the Nazizeit—Hitler, National Socialism, World War II and the Holocaust—have proliferated, leaving their mark on the built environment. As a result, the evidence of the crime is once again part of the urban fabric.

Berlin’s extraordinary memorial landscape includes transformations of existing sites, such as the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg and the Villa Minoux in Wannsee, where the logistics of the Final Solution were hammered out in January 1942. Smaller memorials abound as well. Micha Ullman’s striking Library, in Bebelplatz, is underground—rows of empty white shelves visible through a glass pane in the sidewalk, marking the Nazis’ 1933 book burning. Along the leafy residential streets in Schöneberg’s once heavily Jewish Bavarian Quarter, Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock have installed Places of Remembrance: faux street signs spelling out anti-Jewish edicts that would seem nonsensical if we didn’t know how the story ended. Casting viewers as voyeurs, the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism invites us to peer at a film of same-sex couples kissing and spectators reacting. Among Berlin’s most notable memorial achievements is Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum, with its architectural voids, Garden of Exile and Holocaust Tower.

I returned to Berlin this fall, after a decade-long absence, to visit three other major sites: the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Topography of Terror and the German Resistance Memorial Center. Each includes a museum, and both the Jewish memorial and the resistance center contain designated sites of remembrance. But in the case of the Holocaust or other overwhelming historical tragedies, there is no bright line between the imparting of information and commemoration: a stark recitation of statistics or a fragmentary letter can be the most potent of memorials.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which encompasses a field of stelae designed by the New York architect Peter Eisenman and an underground information center, concentrates on the victims. The Topography of Terror, at the site of the Nazis’ SS, Gestapo and Reich Security offices, emphasizes the actions and fates of the perpetrators. And the German Resistance Memorial Center pays tribute not just to the assassination plotters of July 20, 1944, four of whom were executed in its courtyard, but to a surprisingly broad range of resisters.

Though they view the Holocaust through different lenses, the three institutions share a similar historiographical bent. The Topography of Terror in particular draws on the work of contemporary German historians, who grapple frankly with the popularity that Hitler and National Socialism enjoyed in their pre-Stalingrad heyday. Nor do these museums flinch from detailing the suffering of the victims or the inadequacy of postwar Germany’s efforts to address matters of guilt and accountability. Even the resistance center, which celebrates the military officers who spearheaded the 1944 assassination plot against Hitler, makes it clear that many were earlier enthusiasts of National Socialism and its war of aggression.

As commendably sophisticated as these historical narratives are, the museums that purvey them are, to varying extents, exhausting to visit. In their commitment to documentary detail, they overestimate our capacity to absorb information. No doubt discussing the Holocaust in the former capital of the Third Reich requires a certain extra caution and earnestness. Employing the full audiovisual playbook of contemporary history centers (and their theme-park progenitors) would surely provoke charges of insensitivity.

Yet the “book on a wall” exhibition model, with its voluminous texts, is outmoded, and audio tours, which add yet more layers of detail, simply compound the problem. US museum professionals have largely accepted the mantra that “less is more.” Designers often prevail on curators to shorten exhibit labels, refine story lines and let artifacts breathe. In Germany, by contrast, thoroughness remains the summum bonum. The exceptions that prove this rule—a gallery that relies on dramatic lighting and a handful of poignant artifacts, a landscape design so austere that it is a monument in itself—show how effective metonymy and minimalism can be.

* * *

Unveiled in 2005 after years of controversy, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is vast and sited near the center of Berlin, across from the Tiergarten, a short walk from Potsdamer Platz and close to Hitler’s now-inaccessible underground bunker. At the edge of the field of stelae, a warning sign cautions visitors against “climbing onto or hopping across” the slabs. Some nevertheless clamber around; others enjoy ice-cream cones or pose gaily for photographs. Softened by rows of trees on its western boundary, the memorial contains 2,711 concrete blocks of various shapes, suggesting abstracted coffins and giant, elongated tombstones. Near the edge, the stelae are horizontal slabs permitting a view of the whole. But as one moves through the field, the cobblestoned ground slopes down and the stones loom higher, shutting off light and obscuring exits. The multiple pathways are labyrinthine. The experience can become claustrophobic, disorienting. At twilight, the effect can be particularly eerie. Without labels to guide them, visitors may imagine the memorial as a trap without possibility of escape, a descent into death, a massive graveyard.

At the memorial’s eastern edge is the information center, cunningly designed by Dagmar von Wilcken with visual echoes of the stelae. The center’s mission is to contextualize and personalize Eisenman’s abstractions in a series of thematic galleries. Its introductory foyer has a timeline and portraits of Jews from different demographic groups—six to represent the 6 million.

The exhibition’s emotional climax comes early, in the next gallery: the Room of Dimensions. Wrapping around the walls in this darkened room is a statistical rundown of the number of Jews killed in each country under Nazi dominion. At our feet are illuminated glass slabs evoking gravestones. Each contains fragmentary evidence of loss: the facsimile of a document—a letter, postcard or journal entry—left behind by a Holocaust victim, with translated excerpts and brief labels.

Each is heartbreaking in its own way. Penning a suicide note to his wife and daughter, who have escaped from Germany, 65-year-old Richard Oschinski writes: “Think of me with love, as I do of you. Final greetings, kisses to both of you.” Judith Wischnjatskaja, a 12-year-old girl in eastern Poland (present-day Belarus) facing her executioners, writes in farewell to her father: “We want so much to live, but they won’t let us, we will be killed. I am so afraid of this death, because the small children are being thrown alive into the pit. Goodbye forever….”

One emerges utterly shaken, not needing to see or hear more; yet there is more, starting with a numbingly detailed accounting of the fate of fifteen different families decimated by the Holocaust. Additional galleries provide audio biographies of selected victims and oral histories linked to specific killing sites. The most assiduous visitors can listen to video histories by survivors, search for other sites of Holocaust commemoration, peruse Yad Vashem’s database of victims, or explore the debate over the memorial itself. Afterward, the walk through the field of stelae in the gathering dark assumes the quality of an elegy, metaphorical loss having been replaced by the echoes of actual voices.

The Topography of Terror is largely about the murderers. Its name refers to its charged location, along Wilhelmstrasse and Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse (now Niederkirchnerstrasse). Here, the sometimes competing bureaucracies that persecuted and killed Hitler’s political opponents—as well as Jews, homosexuals, the ill and disabled, and other groups—maintained their central offices. The Gestapo also had its own “house prison.” The buildings themselves are long gone—damaged during the war, razed in the years that followed. For decades, only the bare land and building foundations remained—just below the Berlin Wall and next door to the Renaissance Revival splendor of the (rebuilt) Martin-Gropius-Bau. Beginning in 1987, visitors (I was among them) could walk along a trench and see an open-air exhibition highlighting the excavated foundations of the demolished structures and describing what was done there.

Today, a graffiti-marked and damaged stretch of the Berlin Wall remains part of the historic site. So, too, do the foundations and identifying labels, now weatherproofed with a plastic roof. A new audio tour describes the entire site. On my recent visit, the trench hosted a temporary exhibition (now gone) on the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, which followed the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by just over a year. The exhibition, a celebration of Polish courage and nationalism, was most notable for what it omitted: any mention of Polish anti-Semitism or violence against Jews. The contrast with the Topography of Terror documentation center’s soul-searching, exhaustive reckoning of German guilt could not be starker.

Finished in 2010, Ursula Wilms’s low-slung modernist building, a glass rectangle with a steel-screen facade, is deliberately unostentatious and emphasizes the connection between interior and exterior. Heinz W. Hallmann’s landscape architecture makes an even stronger statement: the building is surrounded only by crushed gray rocks, a vista of barrenness that suggests the poisonous activities here made it impossible for anything to grow.

The permanent exhibition—using mostly text, photographs and German documents, as well as some audio and film clips—dissects the complex Nazi bureaucracy of terror. Those intricacies and internecine battles mattered once but are achingly hard to follow. There are biographies of perpetrators both famous and obscure, though not much insight into how and why they became murderers. Seeking balance, the exhibition also has sections on the various groups targeted by the Nazis, and an epilogue that deals with the postwar aftermath, including the Nuremberg, Auschwitz and Eichmann trials.

The quotations from German historians are hard-hitting: Götz Aly stressing that Hitler’s was “a dictatorship of consent” with extensive popular support; Ulrich Herbert noting the Germans’ “indifference and readiness to accept the persecution of the Jews.” There are chillingly ordinary photographs of daily life in Nazi Germany, including the image of an amorous couple on a beach surrounded by little swastika flags. From the eastern front, a 1942 letter writer identified only as Administrative Leader K. complains to his family: “Everything would be lovely if it weren’t for the shooting.” The exhibition casts a critical eye, too, on the German postwar response—including Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s famous admonition to Germans in 1952 to “put an end right now to all this sniffing out Nazis,” because “once we start, who knows where it will end.”

The German Resistance Memorial Center provides something of a tonic to the Topography of Terror, even if its new exhibition—which opened in July—is stylistically similar. (The two museums employed the same designers, Ursula Wilms and Gerhard Braun.) The building housing the center once contained the offices of the Army High Command. Col. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, who planted the suitcase bomb designed to kill Hitler in Operation Valkyrie, worked here. His story is told in his former office, and in a commemorative courtyard dating from the early 1950s. Its focal point is the monumental statue of a nude man, who is serenaded by a poem beginning, “You don’t carry the shame…”

The resistance center—using extensive text, images, documents, an audio tour and touch-screen computers—keeps the 1944 plotters at the center of its narrative. Considerable space is devoted to describing the long planning and quick fizzling of Operation Valkyrie. The culmination of what passed for a German resistance movement, the plot united a network of civilian dissenters with military officers who had grown disillusioned with Hitler and the war. However checkered their pasts, they produced a commendable blueprint for a post-Hitler regime that called for a constitutional government and an immediate end to the persecution of Jews.

Before Valkyrie, there were other assassination plots, and at least one that came very close to succeeding: Georg Elser, a carpenter, missed blowing up Hitler in Munich’s Bürgerbräukeller on November 8, 1939, by just thirteen minutes; the dictator would likely have died, radically altering the course of history, if he hadn’t chosen that day to be less long-winded than usual. The exhibition has a photo of the site after the bomb exploded, killing eight other people.

Resistance arose from varied quarters and motives. Communists and socialists were impelled by political ideology, Christians by religious and moral scruples. Some artists and intellectuals resisted, as did groups such as the White Rose, the Red Orchestra and the Kreisau Circle. (The latter mostly just talked about life after Hitler, but even that was dangerous.) The center’s definition of resistance is wide-ranging enough to embrace young people who refused to join the Hitler Youth, as well as Jews, Roma and Sinti who resisted in concentration camps.

The exhibition is busy and dense, but the power of the material, even seventy years on, is undeniable. On display are the half-dozen supremely eloquent leaflets produced by the White Rose, the Munich students (and one professor) whose morally based attacks on the regime were as rare as they were courageous. “We will not keep silent; we are your faulty conscience,” one leaflet declared. Most of the group’s members were caught and summarily executed. But that single phrase, echoing through the decades, is their epitaph—and a pithy summary of the museum’s message.

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