The trip has finished. As Jeremy Cronig said in his Topography of Terror Site Report, all roads led to Berlin. A general theme of our adventure was that for some reason, nearly every monument, museum, or landmark, was covered in scaffolding. Berlin’s scaffolding was, however, a little more symbolic than most; Berlin is a city rebuilt with a reconstructed image. The Allies leveled the city by the Nazi surrender, and in the decades since Germany has worked tirelessly to present itself as a nation which remembers its past and will not repeat it.
As we walked through Berlin I kept wishing to see the same sort of grand architecture seen in Paris or London, and then I had to remind myself whose fault it is that all of those buildings were destroyed. Our hotel was near the site of Berlin’s prewar train station, Anhalter Bahnhof, which now only survives as a single wall of the former entrance, the only piece which survived American bombing. Its replacement, Hauptbahnhof, is a beautifully modern building, similar to Pottsdamer Platz, where, after reunification, architects flocked from around the world to reconstruct Berlin’s commercial heart. This structural modernization, and all the scaffolding it entails, is representative of today’s Berlin. That same modernization can also be seen in the way Berlin presents its own history.
Our first museum visit was to the German Historical Museum, which gave and honest and transparent presentation of Germany’s role in WWII and the Holocaust. This museum was not shy; it openly displayed Nazi artifacts, anti-semitic propaganda posters, and photographic evidence of the holocaust. When describing the interwar period and the rise of the Nazi party, the museum tried to explain the origins of Germany’s rampant antisemitism, but never to justify it. This trend was followed at the Topography of Terror, a museum built on the site of the headquarters of the SS, the Gestapo, and the Reich Security Main Office. The museum demonstrates how the Holocaust was administered. It names names, shows faces, and directs visitors towards the basement prison and torture cells. These museums do not try to hide, nor separate themselves from their past but to show that Germany has grown past the Nazi era.
This idea was most featured in the rebuilt Reichstag. Originally constructed by the German Empire, the building now is an almost entirely modern building inside a historic façade. The building fell out of use after the 1933 fire and was further damaged by the Soviet invasion of Berlin in 1945. It remained unused until reunification, when it was reopened as the new home for the Bundestag in 1999. The modern Reichstag is a completely symbolic building, its austere interior was designed to prevent distraction, its many windows represent the parliament’s transparency, and the parliamentary chamber was designed such that no politician will ever sit above their constituent. There are, however, a few preserved sections of the interior: places where Soviet soldiers graffitied the walls after taking the building in 1945. The Reichstag was reconstructed to imply that Germany is a modern democracy which remembers its past.
Scaffolding is often placed to maintain, but Berlin is a city which has gone through a metamorphosis. The scaffolding on Notre Dame in Paris or Big Ben in London was there to keep those monuments the same they’ve always been, despite time. Berlin’s scaffolding is close to the opposite. Berlin was a city that had to change, it was known to the world as the capital of Nazi Germany, and then as a divided city which represented the Cold War. Since reunification, Berlin has renovated itself to become a modern European capital city, who willingly recognizes its past. Instead of being an excuse for power to be consolidated, the modern Reichstag serves as a symbol that never again will Germany lose its democratic way. Berlin still has room to grow, many museums point out who committed the Holocaust, but shy away from the consequences beyond the Nuremburg trials, or how the German people let it all happen. Luckily, there is plenty of scaffolding to go around.