I’d not been in Berlin since 1987 — before the Wall came tumbling down — so I eagerly accepted an invitation to speak at an international conference there this past November. The change is dramatic. Where the dreaded “Vopos” or Volkspolizei once goose-stepped, Starbucks now brews. In 1987, you could walk two blocks to either side of East Berlin’s Fifth Avenue, the Unter den Linden, and find buildings pockmarked by World War II artillery shells; today, the only relics of that period are a few buildings in which addicts have claimed squatter’s rights.
On my first night in town, I walked through the Brandenburg Gate and into the old Soviet zone to see if my 1987 memories still gave me navigational bearings. They did, but barely. No Man’s Land has been replaced by the massive Potsdammerplatz multi-use center; several Christmas Markets were doing a brisk Yuletide business; and the Unter den Linden came to a cheerful end in an amusement park with a colossal ferris wheel, which such hardline East German Stalinists as Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker would have thought unbearably bourgeois.
During my stroll through the former communist sector I was happy to re-discover St. Hedwig’s, Berlin’s Catholic cathedral, which has been considerably restored. It’s a curious structure — the Prussian king, Frederick II, insisted that it be modeled on Rome’s Pantheon — and the circular nave opens down into a large lower church where the altar of repose is built: and from which the main altar in the upper church “grows.” That singular piece of design notwithstanding, I found the undercroft an easy place to pray, as one of its chapels includes the tomb of Blessed Bernhard Lichtenberg, the heroic cathedral provost who vehemently protested the Nazi persecution of Jews and who died en route to the Dachau concentration camp in 1943. The same chapel houses a striking bronze memorial to some twenty cathedral parishioners who also paid the ultimate price for their anti-Nazi resistance.
When I got back to my hotel, I plotted a course for the following morning, during which I wanted to see the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” dedicated in 2005. It was only on examining the map closely that I realized that I’d walked right past the memorial a few hours earlier, thinking it a construction site. It didn’t get better when I returned the next day.
The memorial consists of 2,711 concrete pillars of various sizes, all a dull grey, which cover an entire square block two hundred yards or so from the Reichstag. There is no indication what these pillars are, or what this site is meant to commemorate. One critic called it, not inappropriately, “a constructed place, a non-place…a design that can stand for everything and for nothing.” I tried walking through the grid of pillars, an experience that only reconfirmed my initial distaste for this deliberately anonymous “memorial” to those who had died anonymously. The New York Times architecture critic lauded the “quiet abstraction of the memorial;” its “haunting silence and stark physical presence,” he claimed, would “physically weave the Holocaust into our daily existence.” How, pray, does this site do that, when it could just as well be a memorial to the fallen soldiers of the Wehrmacht or the Red Army?
At 6 p.m. Mass in St. Hedwig’s on the Second Sunday of Advent, I found a full cathedral in which at least half the congregants were young people. The grave of Blessed Bernhard Lichtenberg and the memorial to the martyred parishioners of the cathedral will, I think, teach those young people far more about radical evil than those 2,711 concrete pillars. In the Lichtenberg chapel, names are named; the dead are not ciphers. Europe’s collapse of faith in the God of the Bible may have made evocative public monuments impossible. Whatever the causation, Berlin has been given a “memorial” constructed as if a petulant giant had strewn an erector set over a field. I can’t help but think of this as a posthumous victory for Hitler – and that, as the Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim taught us, violates the 614th Commandment.