The first time I came to Berlin was March 2016. My host took me to a famous park called Tempelhof, were an abandoned airport still exists. This park is huge, and has very few trees. Imagine an enormous field of grass with a creepy airport on one of its ends. I asked our host to leave, because this place felt incredibly haunted. I wasn’t surprised to open Brian Ladd’s The Ghosts of Berlin and find that the first sentence of the introduction says: “Berlin is a haunted city” (1).
Most of us are aware of Germany’s troubled history. In this book, Ladd relates Berlin’s architecture to its history, and utilizes it as a tool to discuss memory, politics, identity, and space. To me, the most interesting chapter was in regards to Nazi Berlin. All throughout the book Ladd poses the questions: how does a city reconcile with its history? Is there one way to do so? What kind of controversies exists around this idea?
I was grateful to reading this chapter, because it allowed me to think about the spaces I move in a lot more. Ladd explains that different people had different positions on how to occupy space and buildings after the Third Reich. Some believed that it would be best to clear all signs of Nazi Berlin in order to come together as a nation who had dealt with their past. Others believed that several monuments should be created around this time, in order to commemorate the victims, acknowledge, and come to terms with a moment in history. This, evidently, created a lot of discussion. Ladd made me not think only about Berlin in regards to this conflict, but in regards to Chile as well. Now, I wonder how Santiago reconciled architecturally with Pinochet’s regime. This is an idea I had not though of in the past.
What is perhaps even more interesting about this chapter is the role activism and art had. Ladd discusses the process through which the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin was created. He emphasizes that activists began to think of monuments as more than just a site for honoring something. He says that “Most Berliners committed to a deeper examination of the Nazi past feared that symbolic gestures encouraged the very nationalism exploited by the Nazis, from which, they believed, Germans could only be liberated by the tools of reason” (168). So, when Lea Rosh decided on a design for the commemoration of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, there was controversy. Some believed that the architectural design reduced the conflict of Nazi Berlin to simply a “nineteenth-century” monument. As Ladd poses, “How could an artists design give form to Germany’s need to remember the Holocaust?” (170). I visited the Holocaust Memorial not too long ago, and not for a second did I think this debate could even happen. I don’t really think anybody was thinking about this. People were casually leaning against the steles of the memorial, taking selfies and family pictures. Recently, I read an article about how wrong it is for people to take these kinds of pictures at this specific memorial. In fact, an author called Shahak Shapira has taken pictures from people’s accounts and changed the background of the memorial for pictures of the Holocaust. It’s interesting to think how this sort of memorial has evolved and how it is creating its own kinds of conflicts nowadays. Ladd’s chapter opens up the possibility for this sort of though, without providing a concrete answer. As he states in his introduction, “But the haunts of Berlin’s famous ghosts have provoked, and continue to provoke, impassioned and sometimes thoughtful discussion” (2).
- Memorial: Spiegel Online