berlin – city in memorial

as a city which has been torn apart by conflict, it would be impossible to write about berlin and not consider how war has impacted upon the place, and how it is remembered. unsurprisingly there are memorials to the loss of life right across the city, with the spectre of the second world war and ongoing loss of life which resulted from the occupation of berlin displayed with a blunt matter of factness which i think few cities would attempt. berlin knows that it has a lot to remember, and doesn’t hide the fact. here i am going to consider two very different, but just as powerful approaches to memory and the differing traces, footprints and impressions they place into the context of the city.

the soviet war memorial at treptower park, like much of architecture of the former russian side of berlin, is about memory and scale. moving from the weeping russian motherland at one end, through to the gigantic red army soldier at the zenith of the gardens, this is an act of the soviet union states remembering those who fought in the battle of berlin, the role they played in the defeat of facisim, and more importantly acting as a ground on which to celebrate the lives of the 5000 men buried here.

the establishment of soviet strength cries out from each different facet of this monument. the weeping mother represents russia, morning her lost sons; looking on from here the scale begins to strike home. the shattered russian flags, fronted by red army soldiers bowed in reverence, cut perfect lines, furthering the sense of how small the individual is in the face of both the war, and the soviet state.

sixteen stone sarcophagi representing the states of the ussr carry the words of stalin, and in places the great leader manages to sneak in as a soviet worker; even in commemorating her dead the russian state was furthering stalin’s image – any opportunity is a propaganda opportunity. yet of these murals it is the image of lenin above a row of red army troops which is most powerful. the perfectly straight line appear once again, with a sense of perspective enforcing the strength of the succesful soviet army.

however, this all shrinks away in comparison with the twelve metre tall statue of a soviet soldier , holding a child, a sword (which held surprisingly tsarist overtones in my opinion…) and standing atop a broken swastika. the statue purports to represent nikolia masalov, a sergant of the guards who risked german machine gun fire to rescue a three year old german child whose mother was missing. this may be the tale behind the monument, but the unmissable message is that the soviet state is powerful, that you are insignificant in the shadow of it, but that it is also at its heart caring for you. a hugely powerful monument, a fitting memorial of those russians who died to defeat nazism, but steeped in hugely political overtones.

moving across the city, the second memorial i’d like to consider is denkmal für die ermordeten juden europas, which directly translates as the memorial to the murdered jews of europe. located right in the heart of berlin’s district of historic power, just down the road from the reichstag and brandenberg gate, this memorial is at the heart of the city, and in a way could be seen to define how berlin, and possibly germany or indeed europe at large, is seeking to bring a different manner of thought into memorial . scale is once again at play here, though in a hugely different manner to that seen at treptower park.

next to the shining american embassy, and just across the road from the tiergarten, the holocaust memorial appears far more understated in comparison to the soviet memorial. there is no huge statue dominating proceedings. in fact, from the street the 19,000 square metre site appears understated to say the least. 2711 grey concrete blocks, seemingly of minute difference across the vast area seem to lack a real impact. at first glance, other than the fact that a site of such size has been set aside for a memorial site rather than maximised for commercial opportunity, this is a possibly too understated monument.

yet the power of the holocaust memorial is evident as soon as you start to move throughout the maze of grey stelae. starting as low level protrusions, indeed seeming not much more than a series of concrete benches, as you move further into the memorial site the stelae slabs become more and more imposing, as the ground level undulates creating a sense of scale and loss. the concrete blocks vary in height from 20cm up to just short of 5 metres, and as you move further into the maze of monuments to lost life you find an inescapable sense of uneasiness, somewhere between loss, claustrophobia and confusion. where the memorial at treptower park makes its point by placing the viewing in a relationship of awe, here you are forced to face a grid system which appears ordered, but offers no support.

in amongst the concrete labyrinth there is a bunkered ‘place of information’, which i’ll be honest, i didn’t find. that said, i didn’t know it was there until i read about it later. what struck me most about this monument was the sense of peace which is created by the downward slope of the floor, which leaves you standing some way below street level and surrounded by concrete which muffles the city. you are faced with this contemplative silence, whilst also facing the anxieties which the structure itself brings on. i know that this memorial has caused a fair amount of controversy due to its lack of a monument or recognised symbols of grief/remembrance, but the questioning of a system of order, brought about by human design, is massively powerful when considering the lives of those taken away during the holocaust.

having spent the best part of half an hour getting deeper into the monolithic towers of the stelae, the sombre mood was shattered by a group of school children tearing around the memorial screaming and shouting. at the time i was really quite offended by this, they were clearly not respecting what this space was all about. yet after i got back i started to think about this memorial in a different way; the central positioning of this site places it very much in a role as an active role as part of the fabric of the city. would stopping kids from using a public space in the manner that they would naturally not be a tiny tiny tiny baby step vaguely in the direction of the problem that this memorial is here to recognise? the decision not to have an obvious entrance point with directions, signage and rules has been very carefully taken, so the means of use must be openly considered. one thing is for certain, this isn’t the kind of behavior that the imposing red guard soldier would abide…

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