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.