Le Panoptique

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Topography of National Amnesia

Publié le 1 novembre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires

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While elites in Germany bemoan young peoples’ lack of knowledge of the history of East German Communism and occasionally reveal the limitations of their own understanding, they neglect to preserve the landmarks that ground the historical knowledge of this period in the urban landscape. Effacing collective memory may be the intention. Indeed, the recent demolition of the former seat of the East German parliament represents an implicit desire to erase this period in German history and to foreclose alternatives to the status quo.

White Cubes
Jutta, White Cubes, 2005
Certains droits réservés.

On the weekend of August 11th, 2007, a media furor erupted in Germany that brought the history of East German socialism back into the spotlight. The affair was precipitated by the discovery of an internal government document of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) stating that East German border guards were to shoot-to-kill those trying to flee the socialist state. The order to fire, even on women and children, had been consistently denied by a small group of high-ranking GDR functionaries before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Shortly after the document’s discovery was announced by all of Germany’s major news outlets, Egon Krenz, the last chancellor of the GDR, issued a statement to Bild magazine stating that “There was no order to kill […] or shoot. I don’t know that from the files but from experience. An order to kill would have been counter to the laws of the GDR.(1)” Contrary to Krenz’s assertions, however, over 130 people were shot to death on the Berlin border alone while attempting to escape.

As it happened, the following Monday, August 13th, was the 46th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall. This day had been marked by small, solemn ceremonies in the past. But unlike in previous years, dignitaries and officials flocked in scores in order to be seen displaying their acts of commemoration in light of the recent public and media interest. Embarrassingly, however, it was soon revealed that the remarkable discovery of the communiqué to the border guards – definitively proving the demonic character of the East German socialist state – had already been made a decade before. An almost identical document to the one recently found by a Madgeburg archivist of the Birthler-Agency had been published in a compendium of STASI files in 1997 (2). The media immediately began back-pedaling, attempting to re-spin their initial enthusiasm by asking why so little about GDR history was commonly known and how such a public oversight could occur.

Germany’s lack of familiarity with its socialist past has been corroborated by disparate sources, including an ambitious study of high school students’ acquaintance with the GDR’s history released last year. The study found that less than half the students polled knew that a 1953 worker uprising took place in East Berlin, and more that than 7 percent believed that Erich Honecker was the second Chancellor of West Germany (3). In the aftermath of the STASI document’s recent re-discovery, journalists covering the issue voiced the general anxiety felt throughout Germany’s intelligentsia regarding the lack of historical knowledge about the events that led to the creation and eventual demise of the socialist state, and consulted experts to determine the cause. Most respondents found fault with teaching methods, while others blamed a deficiency in the political sphere or a general disinterest in the media. The answer, however, is literally to be found in the writing on the Wall.

When the GDR collapsed on the 9th of November 1989, most East German citizens could not get rid of the Wall fast enough. The now-famous images of East and West Germans hacking at the barrier that had cut their city in half for almost fifty years circled the earth within minutes. Most of the “anti-Fascist protection barrier,” as the East German government had euphemistically labeled it, was thereby destroyed, except for some isolated fragments scattered through the city. The largest of these sections – the “East Side Gallery” – spans one kilometer and is located on the Mühlenstraße. Painted by 52 German and 59 international artists, it is one of the few remaining visible signs left in unified Berlin that attests to the existence of the GDR.

But the Wall is decaying. Large holes mar the surface of what was once an impenetrable bulwark. Although money has been allocated for its restoration, the city government seems uninterested in spending the millions of Euros it would cost to rescue the Wall from crumbling. Its imminent fate bespeaks a general unwillingness to preserve the physically embodied memory of a half-century long chapter in Germany’s contemporary history.

The fading presence of the GDR in Berlin’s architectural landscape is exemplified by the razing of the Palace of the Republic, the former parliament building of the East German government. Situated in the heart of old Berlin, at the opposite end of the Brandenburg Gate, the modernist structure occupied land which had once held the imperial palace of Prussian royalty. The original palace was badly damaged during the Second World War. In an ingenious stroke of socialist marketing, East Germany’s chancellor Walter Ulbrecht decried it as a bourgeois monstrosity and had the remains demolished, the rubble buried, and the new parliament building erected in its place. Although the bronze cube weathered the end of the state for which it was created, it did not last for long. In 2003 the unified German government, now (again) situated in the Reichstag just a few hundred meters away, voted to tear it down. The ostensible reason was that the Palace’s asbestos contamination made it impossibly expensive to renovate. There is now little remaining where it stood.

The East Side Gallery and the Palace of the Republic are only two examples of the disappearing emblems of the GDR in unified Germany. Less spectacular examples range from the renaming of streets to the standardization of public infrastructure. The obliteration of the GDR’s history has not been all-encompassing, however. In 2006 Berlin’s municipal government approved the expansion of the memorial commemorating the Wall and its victims. There are also plaques scattered throughout the city in honour those who died escaping. But an asymmetry exists between the visibility of these monuments and those which have disappeared. The thin cobblestone line that snakes along where the Wall once stood is hard to notice. The news media blunder, the survey of high school students, and the diminished visibility of historical monuments suggest a concomitant amnesia surrounding Germany’s communist past.

In his Arcades Project, German social theorist and literary critic Walter Benjamin theorizes the relationship between city planning and memory through a discussion of the remaking of Paris in the 19th century. What Benjamin intimates in his fragmentary collage of texts is that there are political ramifications that accompany changes to (often entailing destruction of) the physical carriers of collective memories. When a building is torn down or a monument erected, the implications reach far beyond the realm traditionally bounded by aesthetics. Benjamin posits that its architecture represent the collective unconscious exteriorized. The city – in the form of monuments, memorials and public buildings – encodes the values, hopes and fears of its inhabitants. Memory is political. Indeed, the political resonances of changes to urban topography are registered on a variety of levels.

The memory of East German resistance and the potential for a different future is effaced with the demolition of the physical carrier of that memory. Architectural entities are not necessarily unidirectional in the symbolic messages they relay. Benjamin’s aesthetic theory suggests that the observer stands in an active dialectical relation with the observed (4). The necessary element to turn the subjective encounter with a historic piece of architecture is memory, which is partially present in the building itself. The hellish “eternal-return” of history, or the chance for a radically different future, is present in all monuments of civilization and offer themselves up to be read. With the disappearance of these structures the narratives of oppression and opportunity also vanish. In the Theses on the Philosophy of History, Benjamin sardonically notes, “there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.(5)” When that document no longer exists, the barbarism to which it speaks is gone as well.

And so it is with the history of East German socialism. As the order to kill those who would flee the GDR demonstrates, East Germany was not the utopian communist heaven promised in the late 1940s. Those who suffered the constant surveillance of the state security apparatus, recently depicted in films like The Lives of Others, will have seen those horrors symbolically reflected in the Palace of the Republic. The Palace also once oriented toward a better future, but like so much else in human history, represents an opportunity lost. The memory of that lost opportunity, however, is as essential for a revolutionary future alternative as the dream that led to the creation of the Palace to begin with.

When the Wall fell in 1989, what many people in the East were hoping for was not the end of Communism and the beginning of a West German-style of “democratic” capitalism, but a reformed socialism. The “third way”, as many in the church resistance movement put it, was to create a freer, more just social system that did not simply capitulate to economic demands. This hope for a different Germany, and a new social order, is also represented in the Palace of the Republic, in the street names of the former GDR, and its other physiognomic emblems. With the demolition of the Palace, these hopes too no longer have the anchor to root them in contemporary discourse. Without the memory of a radically egalitarian, socially just society, the public discourse in Germany is becoming ever more defined by the narrow dictates of the market economy. If German high school students do not know of the worker uprising in East Berlin, they certainly don’t know that the words on the lips of those who resisted state oppression up to 1989 was not market capitalism, but freedom, social justice and peace. Perhaps the forgotten memory of a revolutionary alternative, however, is the operative principle behind eliminating the traces of a different past.


(1) “Krenz bestreitet Schießbefehl.” Focus.August13, 2007.
(2) Judt, Matthias ed. DDR-Geschichte in Dokumenten: Beschlüsse, Berichte, interne Materialien und Alltagszeugnisse. Berlin: Links, November 1997.
(3) Stiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur. October, 5, 2007. <http://www.stiftung-aufarbeitung.de/>.
(4) For Benjamin’s aesthetic theory, see Benjamin, Walter. Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999; and Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Trans. John Osborne. London: Verso, 1998.
(5) Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Trans. by
Harry Zohn. Ed. by Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1968, p. 256.

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