George Santayana famously claimed that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” To the extent that this is true, Germany is in no danger of repeating its 20th century history. No place on the planet has done more to memorialize its own heinous past.
Since Germany was reunified and Berlin designated its capital in 1994, its attempt at redemption has been focused on the Holocaust. The question of how adequately to commemorate its victims has been addressed in part by the establishment of scores of Holocaust memorial sites, some of which are minor, and others of which are major, even monumental. Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by architect Peter Eisenmann, stretches 4.7 acres, with a centerpiece consisting of some 2,500 geometrically arranged concrete pillars, situated on a deliberately slanted slope.
Memorials like these have been called “counter-monuments” or “anti-redemptive” because they seek not to perpetuate the memory of a noble past, but to perpetuate the memory of an ignoble one. Never forgetting becomes tantamount to forever atoning – and to never repeating.
The memorializing of the Holocaust continues even now. Beneath the spanking new headquarters of the European Central Bank, in Frankfurt, is a basement just designated a monument. It consists only of rooms that between 1941 and 1945 kept captive some 10,000 Jews, until they could be deported to concentrations camps. The rooms remain bare – silent testimony.
While Germans have grappled with their Nazi past for decades, they are only now coming to grips with their Communist past. Between roughly 1945 and 1990 East Germany was a communist state. Some of the implications of this are mundane – lives that in some ways were cherished, but in other ways were difficult, grayer in any case and more meager than those of their West German capitalist counterparts.
There is, however, one aspect of life under communism that resembles life under Nazism, and that therefore requires similar scrutiny. It was the Stasi, or Secret Police. The Stasi was modeled on the Soviet Cheka: it was famously oppressive and repressive and, equally famously, it was intrusive. It pried into people’s private lives and, if they were in any way suspect, spied on them, harassed them, and even arrested them. By 1989, on the eve of its dissolution, the Stasi had 91,000 full time employees, and a network of 189,000 informers.
In recent years, as former East Germans have aged and died, and as historical records, especially Stasi archives, have become available, Germany has begun carefully to examine this chapter in its history. It now has exhibitions, museums, and memorials dedicated to exploring its Communist past, including, in Berlin, a Stasi Museum. With the passage of time, then, has come an unprecedented attempt by Germans to own their past – in its entirety.
Only time will tell what impact grappling with Germany’s recent past will have on Germany’s distant future – if any. We cannot now know if counter-monuments immunize against evil. What we can do, though, is to respect those intent not on burying their painful past, but bent instead on exposing it to the harsh light of day.