…a wonderful, terrible city that wears its scars on its sleeve…
…a city like a great organic stenograph, constantly writing the past into the present…
Looking at your city through someone else’s eyes. Seeing things from a completely different angle. A South African historian’s take on Berlin, interpreting her own country and its history in light of what she sees here. Fascinating!
History. There is so much ugliness, certainly here, and in South Africa as well. What do you do with that? This is what the author notices in Berlin:
The city carries its past crimes and defeats in plain sight. Walking from the Brandenburg Gate down the elegant stretch of the Strasse Des 17 Juni towards the Berlin Victory Column, you come upon the Soviet War Memorial in the Tiergarten. An imposing structure with Russian lettering on its facade, this memorial to the Red Army soldiers who fell in the final days of the battle for Berlin in 1945 is arresting. The apex is an enormous statue of a Red Army soldier, his hand raised in haughty domination above the city he has conquered. The monument, built in the months after the end of World War II, is kept up by the City of Berlin. So there it is: the defeated Germans tending the monument of their conquerors, out of respect for what was defeated by those conquerors, which was Nazism.
In Berlin, history is everywhere. There is no hiding it, ignoring it. The Holocaust memorial, the double row of cobbled stones marking the path of the wall through the city, war memorials, Stolpersteine – it’s all there, people pass it every day. It’s woven into the fabric of modern day Berlin. Apparently (and I can only rely on the article for this), that is not the case in South Africa. Her explanation:
In Germany, the perpetrators of Nazism were the German people, and they remained the majority who themselves had to carry forward the burden of accounting, acknowledging, healing and seeking redemption.
In South Africa, the white minority that perpetrated apartheid is now just a white minority, full stop. The mentality of the minority is often the laager, and old enmities can simmer and burn inside it. Now the national narrative is being retold from the perspective of the victims as victors. Is this why, I thought, standing before the Soviet monument in the Tiergarten, we care so little for this kind of tangible symbol of atonement in South Africa?
“…had to carry forward the burden…” That’s probably it – had to. There was no choice. The evil that had happened was so stark, so in your face. And everyone was a part of it. Ignoring it, simply leaving it behind, would have felt like a very attractive option, I’m sure. But it was not an option that was available. Moving forward, yes. But in that, weaving the past into the future. We had no choice. Maybe that was a blessing in disguise. Some of it is sincere, some more a facade. There are constant arguments and struggles over what it should look like. But it is there. However imperfectly.
How have you seen this played out in different places?
Do read Lauren van Vuuren’s full article here