Architecture of forgetfulness

Published June 9, 2021, 6:00 AM

by AA Patawaran

With the Berlinale in full swing, with Filipino films like Venice Atienza’s ‘Last Days at Sea’ celebrating our return to one of the world’s largest film festivals, I am reminded of my first time in Berlin

VICTORY OVER PARIS On top of Berlin’s most famous landmark, the Brandenburg Gate, is the quadriga of Victory on a chariot drawn by oversized horses and Victory looks over the plaza below named after Paris, the Pariser

I wrote this on the U-Bahn to the Mitte, the center of Berlin, just two stops past Alexanderplatz, where I was to meet a friend.

It was my first time in Berlin, although next to Paris, through the books I’d read and the films I’d seen, I might have spent the most time here, since I had been more interested in no other point of recent history than in Germany’s Hitlerian episode, the Holocaust, the horrors of World War II, and the great divide between the two sides of Berlin.

Berlin is not pretty like Vienna or charming like Paris or ancient like Istanbul, but I can say I fell in love with the city before first sight. As I arrived by plane from Venice at the Schönefeld Airport, weighed down by a suitcase, a backpack, and an overnight bag, it had me at “Willkommen in Berlin.”

MUSEUM ISLAND Or Museumsinsel, where lies the Berlin Cathedral, a neo-Renaissance gem photobombed by the Fernsehturm, a television tower near Alexanderplatz

But that welcome sign was by no means synonymous to the banal, perfunctory “Enjoy yourself.” The beauty of Berlin runs deep underground, like its club scene, tucked away behind a door that simply says, “This door is open (Enter at your own risk),” or in an old, converted power plant that is guarded like a deep, dark secret by a door policy that seems so obsolescent in these highly democratized times.

But there are terrible memories here, some too painful to process, let alone remember. Even now, the Germans are finding a way to come to terms with the past not so much to put it on record, but to assimilate it in the present so as to emerge from it intact into the future.

COLD LIMESTONE The Waldorf Astoria in Berlin, cold, flat, and imposing like Nazi architecture

There is a phrase for it in German, but it seems stuck on the tip of my tongue. I ask the nearest German, but it’s not easy to explain. I tell him it’s like you want to remember, but not too much. He ponders too long on the question, not a bit surprised by a stranger and a foreigner like me asking such a question instead of the usual queries on directions, and I stand beside him watching him struggle for the right words.

“Do you mean Hitler?” he says, after an interminable moment.

A bit uncomfortable that I may have so rudely put him under pressure, I am verbose with my answer, “Yes, and the Holocaust and, uhm, East Berlin.”

THE FORGOTTEN PLAYWRIGHT A century ago, it would be a disgrace not to know German poet, philosopher, physician, and playwright Friedrich Schiller. He was Europe’s next most important playwright after William Shakespeare, but Germany’s fall in recent history might have also diminished the significance of his legacy. This statue is in the center of Gendarmenmarkt, a beautiful square in the center of Berlin

He borrows my iPad and types in these words.

                                               Herrschaft von Vergangenheit

He explains that, though it is hard to translate directly into English, the words mean “to dominate the past.” He looks up to think it out further. “Do you say to manipulate the past?”

I shake my head. “Not really, not to change it, not to forget it, not to deny it, but to remember it with caution so it is not too harmful to keep in mind.”

EAST AND WEST And here’s what put worlds and oceans between West Berlin and East Berlin during the Cold War 

He nods, “Yes, I get what you are trying to say,” and keys in these new words on my iPad.

                                              Beherrschung der Vergangenheit

This phrase means, “mastery of the past.” I’m not sure, but it’s more like it. I believe there is a more official word for it, official enough that is almost like policy applied in the way the lessons of their history are integrated into the education of the German youth, in the labeling and presentation of historical landmarks, in the planning and execution of urban spaces. 

MEMORIAL TO THE MURDERED JEWS Memory, horrific and harrowing, is the challenge in mastering the past

There is no forgetting Adolf Hitler. Even the neighboring Austrians, who eluded damnation simply by not being German, are now confronted by the reality that many Austrians served in the Schutzstaffel or SS, the paramilitary organization under Hitler, for which they did not work only as part of the Foreign Legion of the Waffen-SS, but as regular personnel of the Germanic-SS. In fact, according to Tufts University political scientist David Art in his 2006 book The Politics of the Nazi Past in Germany and Austria, “75 percent of commanders at death camps were Austrian.”

One cannot help remembering Hitler, least of all the Berliners, but Hitler is nowhere to be found. In present-day Berlin, it’s as if he never existed.  I have a few times stood right on top of the exit point of the Führerbunker, a multi-story subterranean complex and the nerve center of the Nazi regime for a few months before its downfall at the end of World War II in 1945. It is by every measure a historic site. It was in this air raid shelter that Hitler married Eva Braun just before they committed suicide, as did many other SS high officials, including Joseph Goebbels, his wife Magda, and their six children, a few days before the Soviets arrived. 

MAGNIFICENT The Hotel Adlon Kempinski at Pariser Platz

But there, at the corner of In den Ministergärten and Gertrud-Kolmar-Straße, just a walking distance from Potsdamer Platz, sprawls the most nondescript, the most unremarkable, the most ordinary parking lot in the most suburban of locations, surrounded by residential apartments where the Reich Chancellery used to be.

While it is true that in the realm of great European cities, Berlin is the new kid on the block, barely 800 years old, its landscape of memories—its Topographie des Terrors, as so aptly put by the name of the outdoor and indoor museum on Niederkirchnerstrasse, where the headquarters of the Gestapo and the SS used to be from 1933 to 1945—must be the reason Berlin appears flat on the surface, at least to the first-time visitor. Just below the surface roars and rumbles an undercurrent that shapes the city’s culture, architecture, infrastructure, and everything else, including its openness, its tolerance, its permissiveness that finds expression in the cigarette butts that litter the pavements and the many Berliners who walk around the streets or ride the Bahns and the buses with a beer bottle in their hands. 

Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders. ―Friedrich Nietzsche

I love Berlin. I have since I wrote this thinkpiece gone many times, but I guess I will need to visit more and more on a deeper expedition into its soul to justify my love.

Incidentally, I was in Berlin on my first time on vacation from an assignment in Italy, where I witnessed the return of the Philippine Pavilion in the prestigious Venice Architecture Biennale after a 51-year hiatus. I ache to know if there is anything my own country, the Philippines, can learn from the Germans in terms of processing the past, or mastering the past, so we can integrate it into our present as place-markers of our social, political, economic evolution, as monuments to our trials and triumphs, as a shrine to our collective experience. 

But first we have to put the lingering shadows of our dark history—Martial Law, for instance—behind us, not to be denied, not to be forgotten, but to be dealt with, resolved, and closed at last, remembered only rather than left open like a festering wound.