BERLIN -- Berlin is a city of contradictions, subtle and sensational, like Germany itself. Nearly three-quarters of all Germans were born after May 1945, when the Third Reich finally collapsed, but memories of the world at war stalk the land still.
How that war is remembered continues to be a subject of hot debate, dramatized most extravagantly in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which occupies five acres of prime real estate near the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate, not far from the unmarked site of Hitler's bunker. Seventeen years' work was required to build the memorial -- five years longer than the Third Reich lasted -- and tempers still come quickly to boil in any discussion of it.
Martin Walser, a German author, sees the monument as an exercise in masochism, referring to the "never ending presentation of our shame." Horst Hoheisel, an artist, suggests that a better test of the public will for national sacrifice would have been to tear down the 200-year-old Brandenburg Gate, the city's iconic landmark, and grind its stone and bronze into dust and scatter it to the winds.
Several groups targeted for persecution by the Third Reich were angry not to be included in the memorial. These include homosexuals, pacifists, gypsies (Sinti and Roma), Jehovah's Witnesses, the mentally and physically disabled, victims of medical experiments, and political prisoners, including more than three million Soviet prisoners of war who did not survive imprisonment in German camps. Some Berliners even wanted to memorialize German soldiers as victims of Hitler and his Nazi evil. Victim politics in Germany, like victim politics elsewhere, becomes a competition to see who has the deepest scars.
But whatever anyone thinks of this memorial, with its 2,711 concrete commemorative slabs of uneven size set on an uneven surface, it's an extraordinary declaration by the German government that the Third Reich requires remembrance and reflection in the midst of throbbing urban life of offices, apartment houses, shops, hotels and embassies. The memorial sends a powerful warning of what can happen when the state becomes a killing machine. Unlike specific sites of the Holocaust, such as the death camp at Auschwitz, the Grunewald train station where Jews were pushed into deportation trains, or plaques marking places where Jews once lived, this memorial grew spontaneously out of a grass-roots effort by ordinary Germans, supported by the Bundestag, to mourn six million Jews and to document systematic crimes of the German state.
The context for the memorial, says Peter Eisenman, the American architect who designed it, "is the enormity of the banal," drawing on Hannah Arendt's description of the Holocaust as an exercise of the "banality of evil." The stones force a visitor to realize that many of those murdered remain anonymous, lost from the records of ordinary life, as mysterious as the flickering shadows that play across the stones at different times of the day. In an underground information center in one corner of the memorial, words and photographs document with chilling understatement the experiences of innocent men, women and children. The stories of warm family life are illuminated against the cold calculations of government policy, crying out for contemplation.
In one photograph, laughing Nazi officers are snipping the sidelocks of an orthodox Polish Jew, who is to be hanged with his father, a rabbi, and eight other Jews. In another photograph two members of a firing squad walk casually among the bodies of women they have shot in an anonymous ravine in the Ukraine.
The debate over the Memorial to the Murdered Jews continues to raise questions for the Germans over their national identity, what and how they absorb the past into their culture. While the memory concentrates on the victims, the Topography of Terror, the site of the Gestapo headquarters only a short walk from the memorial, focuses on the perpetrators. The outdoor exhibit shows specifically how the killing machine was operated by ordinary men who saw themselves as cogs in a wheel of an efficient bureaucracy designed to terrorize and murder effectively. Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler's henchmen, and their assistants sat at desks at "Gestapo Central" working over plans for the Final Solution as if they were designing summer camps for children.
Museums, monuments and memorials have different purposes and speak in different voices to subsequent generations. To Germany's credit, it has not taken an easy route to remembrance and remorse. Everyday life confronts unspeakable evil. Children run through a forest of stones, playing hide-and-seek in a labyrinth of abstract memory. Ghostly villains haunt the conscience of the new millennium. We live and learn. We hope.