Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtnis Kirche

The Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtnis Kirche / Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church near the shopping paradise known as Kurfürstendamm

A couple of days ago I walked by the famous TV tower on Alexanderplatz as tourists lined up to buy tickets to go up in the tower. Viewing Berlin from the tower had never occurred to me, and for a few seconds I wondered if this might provide the same enjoyment as ascending the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai. But, those seconds slipped by and I took a pass on the tower tour.

Because here is my insight (and I know I’m safe to share this because no one comes to this blog): visually, Berlin has little to offer. In terms of signature monuments and dramatic architecture, Berlin comes in behind every Western European capital that I’ve visited (and some I have not—looking at you, Paris). Where is its Hagia Sophia, its Colosseum, its Westminster Abby, its Plaza Mayor? Brandenburg Tor facing the (back of) the Siegessäule (Victory Tower) makes a claim to a grand vision of the city. But these are at almost opposite ends of the Tiergarten (a vast park) and so far apart they just about loose one another. The most important built feature of the city was the Berlin Wall, something that everyone knew and could not avoid. And also something that was torn down as soon as that became possible. (Parts still stand as a memorial to the wall that everyone hated.)

I say this to make clear how strongly drawn I am to one major feature of Berlin architecture, the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtnis Kirche. The church was completed in 1895, a memorial to Kaiser Wilhelm I but really more of a shrine to German military successes, especially its victory in the Franco Prussian War that created the German empire. As such, it is a companion to the Siegessäule, which is only a couple of kilometers away.

But unlike the tower of winged victory, the Memorial Church was extensively damaged in World War II. The Allies refused to rebuild it, and by the late 1950s was on its way to being demolished. But it was not. Instead, the church was left in its devastated state and integrated into a companion building, a new church dedicated to actual worship. Leaving the towering and yet devastated church was meant to draw our attention to the evil of war. For me, it does just that. In busy, ultra modern Berlin, the Memorial Church prods our memory by shocking us with its war torn walls and vacant belfries.

Inside, there are bas reliefs around what I assume must have been the sanctuary (today it is a space for tourists to mill about and purchase souvenirs). These are not the 12 stations of the cross (because Protestant church), but there is one station in evidence. Jesus, in the garden, praying the words below the relief— “doch nicht mein sondern dein wille geschiet” (not my will, but thine be done). But below the supplicant Christ we see a relief from the Franco Prussian war, the whole point of this church. There sits Wilhelm I (king of Prussia and soon to be the German Kaiser) with his generals, studying plans of battle, with his chancellor, Bismarck (who had orchestrated this, and two previous wars), standing and facing out into the worship space. This relief, still standing in that wrecked church, with its glorification of imperial aspiration and military might, serves for me as a perfect visual irony. The fruits of war surround this testament to the esteem of war. And with the words of Jesus just overhead, as though part of the ensemble below them, the irony also becomes verbal.

Gardelegen and historical memory

The only remaining wall of the Isenschnibbe Feldscheune at Gardelegen.

In early April, 1945, a transport of more than a thousand concentration camp prisoners came to a halt in Gardelegen, in Saxony. Allied bombing had destroyed the rail connections, and the U.S. army had pushed into the vicinity. The local Kreisleiter, eager to do his duty and keep the prisoners from escaping and rampaging through the countryside, had the transport housed at a military riding academy in the town. Then, on April13, he found enough manpower (in spite of the steady desertion of SS guards) to move the prisoners to a nearby barn. There, under orders to eliminate the prisoners, the rag tag of guards and others mobilized for the task doused the straw with gasoline, locked the prisoners inside, and set the barn on fire. Those who tried to break out were shot. 1,016 prisoners died in the massacre.

Over the past two years I’ve made several presentations about the massacre at Gardelegen. Visiting the village and the massacre memorial became an important motivation for me to return to Berlin this May. In the event, I did not plan the “tour” of Gardelegen very well. With two train I arrived right on time at the train station. But, I had no real idea how to find the memorial other than to check the map at the Bahnhof bus stop, and then to look for signs along the way. I did ask directions from a young man who clearly had never visited the memorial himself, and had only a general (incorrect) idea how to reach it on foot.

Walking to the site made sense, at least for me. I had wanted to have some sense of the distance traveled by the prisoners to the Isenschnibbe barn (Feldscheune). The country here is flat—really flat—and once outside the village you see that fields here are still turned over to farming. The approach to the scene is a long dirt road, tree-lined, that takes a 90 degree turn half a kilometer from the memorial site.

The memorial consists of the one remaining wall of the Isenschnibbe barn and the graveyard of murdered prisoners. There is also an educational center there, and some monuments built to commemorate and interpret the event. There is ample didactic material available so someone with no prior understanding could know what had taken place. But, with the open landscape, the memorial seems almost minimalist.

The concrete blocks each contain a plaque for one of the nationalities murdered in the massacre.

The memorial had its origin in military occupation. The 102nd Infantry Division arrived only hours after the massacre, and when military units were informed of the event and found the barn they also found bodies still smouldering. Major General Frank Keating ordered that partially buried bodies be given proper burials, and in the coming days imposed on the people of Gardelegen the maintenance of the cemetery and memorial.

Because I had the area almost literally to myself, I had time to think about the site and the events. I had not known that only one wall of the Isenschnibbe barn still stood. I’d seen photos of the cemetery but found it more extensive than I expected. Seeing one cross or Star of David after another marked “unbekannt” (unknown) impressed me more than anything else. There is a book of names, in stainless steel, at the cemetery. The names of fewer than half of the victims are known, but these are listed.

The book of names.

The only other visitors there that day was a German family from nearby Stendal. I threw myself on their mercy for a ride back to Gardelegen. I soon discovered that the mother had been an au pair in the U.S. and had visited Pittsburgh. Back in the village, I found nothing suggesting a connection to the massacre. I saw no references to the massacre while walking around (I admit, my visit was brief) and I could find no postcards featuring the memorial. In fact, I only found one that featured any scenes of Gardelegen.

So, in the end I’m struck by the contingency of historical memory. Without a clear appeal to some other force (patriotism, tourism) how does historical memory thrive?