Berliners look at any mound in a park knowing that it’s rubble from their bombed-out city — bulldozed and landscaped after the destruction of World War II. And each year, more memorials are created to honor neglected victims of past sins. This year, for the first time, I saw the memorials to the Sinti and Roma (Gypsy) victims of Hitler, the homosexual victims of Hitler, and the Aryan wives of Jewish men who successfully demonstrated to free their husbands when they were arrested. Here are a few images of the many different memorials that speckle the streets of Berlin.
Consisting of 2,711 gravestone-like pillars (called “stelae” and completed in 2005), this memorial is an essential stop for any visit to Berlin. It was the first formal, German government-sponsored Holocaust memorial. And using the word “murdered” in the title was intentional and a big deal. Germany, as a nation, finally officially admitted to a crime.
Unveiled in 2012, this memorial remembers the roughly 500,000 Sinti and Roma victims of the Holocaust. “Sinti and Roma” (the main tribes and politically correct term for the group more commonly called “Gypsies”) were as persecuted by the Nazis as were the Jews. And they lost the same percentage of their population to Hitler. An opaque glass wall, with a timeline in English and German, traces the Nazi abuse and atrocities. Visitors enter through a rusty steel portal. On the other side is a circular reflecting pool surrounded by stone slabs, some containing the names of the death camps where hundreds of thousands of Sinti and Roma perished. In the water along the rim of the pool is the heart-wrenching poem “Auschwitz,” by composer and writer Santino Spinelli, an Italian Roma. Dissonant music evoking the tragedy of the Gypsy genocide adds to the atmosphere. Noticing how relatively humble and unkempt this is (with algae mucking up the pond) — and how the “do you speak English?” beggar ladies bussed in by traffickers from Romania hit up visitors here at their own memorial — made me appreciate, or at least ponder, the plight and struggles of a fragmented community with a nomadic heritage that refuses to conform to modern norms and has no organizational center or effective leadership.
This row of slabs (which looks like a fancy slate bicycle rack) is a memorial to the 96 members of the Reichstag (the equivalent of our members of Congress) who were persecuted and murdered because their politics didn’t agree with Chancellor Hitler’s. They were part of the Weimar Republic, the weak and ill-fated attempt at post-WWI democracy in Germany. These were the people who could have stopped Hitler. So they tried…and they became his first victims. Imagine an extremist takeover of our country and opposition politicians being sent to concentration camps. The meteoric rise of Hitler is breathtaking. Each slate slab memorializes one man: his name, party, and the date and location of his death — generally in a concentration camp. They are honored here, in front of the building in which they worked.
The most historic square in Berlin, Bebelplatz, has a glass plate in the middle. Underneath it is a room with empty bookshelves. This is the memorial to the notorious Nazi book burning of 1933. It was here that staff and students of Germany’s top university threw 20,000 newly forbidden books (like Einstein’s, Hemmingway’s, Freud’s, and T.S. Elliot’s) into a huge bonfire on the orders of the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Look at the giddiness in the crazed faces of the Nazi book burners in this photo. In fact, Goebbels himself tossed books onto the fire, condemning writers to the flames. He declared, “By burning these books, we end the age of Jewish Internationalism and pave the way for a new era for the German soul.” The Prussian heritage of Frederick the Great — who built this grand square — was one of culture and enlightenment. Hitler chose this square to thoroughly squash that idea; that era of tolerance and openness was over. Hitler was establishing a new age of intolerance where German-ness was correct and diversity was evil. A century earlier, the German poet Heinrich Heine had written, prophetically, “Where they burn books, in the end they will also burn people.” In so many ways, a thoughtful visit to Berlin can inspire vigilance against anti-intellectual, fear-mongering forces today that would burn the thoughts of people they fear to defend their culture from diversity.
One place where you’ll find no memorial is the site of the bunker where Hitler committed suicide in 1945. It’s just a nondescript parking lot.