I had a few days in Berlin recently. Had never been before and had wanted to visit for a long time. I wasn’t disappointed. The whole history of Germany is there on display, from its monumental impressiveness, its awesome technological efficiency to its unimaginably dark past. A visit leaves much to think about.
Alongside the visit I read Neil MacGregor’s brilliant Germany: Memories of a Nation (2014) and the history parts of this post owe a lot to his book.
Way back in my PhD I studied nationalism and national identity, particularly the belief structures that are characteristic of ‘hot’ nationalisms.
They tend to construct a simple, glorious narrative of the past that legitimizes present political goals of ‘freedom’, ‘self-determination; ‘respect’, ‘autonomy’ and national pride. Alongside such political objectives are cultural markers like language, music, art, literature, food, and so on. Such a combination forms a potent mix that gives a sense of destiny, hope, unity and willingness to suffer – and inflict suffering – in the pursuit of the utopian nationalist myth.
Such memories are everywhere in Berlin. We stayed in Moabit, just outside the city centre in an apartment up 113 steps (!) with a great view of a huge prison across the road which is also Berlin’s central criminal court.
Why mention this? Well, with a little bit of reading (i.e. wikipedia), I found out that this prison was rebuilt after the demolition of an older one just down the road. The memories of the Gestapo and prisoners murdered in the original prison were too awful – the old site is a now a memorial garden. The stories of two murdered prisoners stand out.
One is Albrecht Haushofer who wrote the ‘Moabit Sonnets’. Jailed for his involvement in the plot to kill Hitler, he had formerly been involved in the rise of the Nazis. He was executed by the Gestapo just as Berlin was falling. One of his sonnets was this one:
I am guilty,
But not in the way you think.
I should have earlier recognized my duty;
I should have more sharply called evil evil;
I reined in my judgment too long.
I did warn,
But not enough, and not clearly enough;
And today I know what I was guilty of.
The other was Klaus Bonhoeffer, Dietrich’s older brother, executed just two weeks after Dietrich’s hanging because of his part in the attempt to assassinate Hitler and just as Soviet troops were entering the city.
Germany only became a united Empire in 1871 under Bismarck. The Siegessäule (victory column) below commemorates this short glorious period of German unity.
Yet, defeat in the first world war, subsequent humiliation, the rise of National Socialism and the evils of the Third Reich destroyed any narrative of national glory. The catastrophe of Hitler bequeathed immeasurable suffering on the Jews of Europe, cost millions of other lives and led to invasion, defeat and division of Germany between the Allies and Stalin’s Red Army.
Nowhere was this disaster more graphically played out than Berlin with the building of the Wall in 1961 – on one side a working democracy, on the other dictatorship, the Stasi and communist brutalism.
Berlin’s most famous building, the Brandenberg Gate, stood on the east side of the wall. This is where Napoleon entered Berlin in 1812, where the Nazi’s organised mass rallies and where the Russian conquest of Berlin reached its limit.
Not much remains of the Wall. The longest section is in the east of the city and is decorated on its eastern side by art from a 2009 festival.
What struck me is how pathetic a wall it was. Ugly, low and thin – it represented everything bad about Communism. Its cheap brutalism dividing people by pitiless and inhuman slabs of grey concrete.
Modern Germany is therefore unlike any other Western European nation in its relationship to its past, present and future. What is, I think, tremendously impressive is how it has sought to reflect honesty on its shameful recent past – a past that implicated in some way pretty well every German family. As MacGregor says, that past is still highly charged, often silently so. Yet, there has also been a huge effort to deal publicly and corporately with its legacy.
As Berlin has been rebuilt there has been a conscious attempt to make public the most painful memories, the supreme example being the Holocaust Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe …. I know of no other country in the world that at the heart of its national capital erects monuments to its own shame. (MacGregor, Germany, xxiii)
The memorials include this one
And this one to the Jews of Europe
Another striking theme is the public commitment towards openness and transparency in government. I visited the Bundestag museum telling the political story of Germany, warts and all in how Hitler was democratically elected and his plans for the Jews known by all.
One fascinating model was of Albert Speer’s planned Great Hall of the People – a vast monument to the glory of the Third Reich. That’s the Brandenberg Gate in the foreground. If built it would have dwarfed even the mighty neighbouring Reichstag.
Given the history of National Socialism and of a police state in the East, there is a deep public sense that government needs to be kept in check. Unlike surveillance UK, there are very few CCTV cameras on the streets and when there are there are signs to indicate you are in a CCTV zone (like the underground).
But the most symbolic image of transparency is the re-built Reichstag, the seat of the unified German Parliament after the fall of the Wall in 1989. The huge building has a complex history. It was redesigned by British architect Norman Foster in the early 1990s. You queue up to get a ticket to visit – you need ID but there is no charge – the building belongs to the people (Dem Deutscher Volke). Foster erected a vast glass dome above the parliament chamber, a cupola where via a series of mirrors and glass panes, the public look down on the political process below. It is literally transparent – the imagery that of accountability of power to the people.
Some thoughts and questions stayed with me:
It was Hannah Arendt who talked about the “banality of evil” – how ordinary people do extraordinarily bad things. The Third Reich is one stark reminder (among many) of the accuracy of Genesis 1-11’s diagnosis of the human condition. Created in God’s image, we have an inbuilt turn to autonomy, pride, violence and injustice.
Haushofer and the Bonhoeffer brothers all lost their lives in standing up (in quite different ways) to a ‘hot’ nationalism gone toxic. As one of the great Christian theologians of the century who died for his faith, Dietrich’s refusal to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler stands as a challenge for all Christians if their national identity starts to claim ultimate allegiance. Christ is Lord, and that means Hitler and the Third Reich was idolatry.
The importance of public national recognition of past failures: of how rare it is for there to be a sense of humility and repentance in politics. It takes huge political courage to confront the ghosts of the past. There are good reasons it happened in Germany, but what about nearer home?
What might be issues or events in 20th Century Ireland that need airing, discussion and some sort of ownership of past failures – not just past ‘glories’?
I’m not thinking of the failures of ‘others’ – the British Empire has rather a lot of its own past to deal with. I’m thinking of 20th Century Irish history – South and North.
Some starters for ten since we are in the decade of centenaries.
- The “right to take life” by unelected republicans inspired by Pearse’s toxic brand of religious nationalism in 1916 was generally glossed over in the 2016 commemorations.
- The Civil War was dealt with in silence for most of the century.
- A consequence of 1916 was deep political ambiguity in the South about the IRA campaign in the North. This, I think, has never really been acknowledged or openly discussed, let alone owned.
- And then there is the ‘dark side’ of Catholic Ireland, a culture that was freely chosen and almost universally embraced by the people as a whole. These days the Catholic Church gets all the blame, as if it staged a coup and took over the country like in Margaret Atwood’s Gilead of The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet such shifting of blame is too simple and too easy.
- And year by year, month by month, day by day there are ongoing revelations of a deeply entrenched Irish culture of elites, secrecy, and ‘golden circles’ of business, bankers and politicians where practically no-one is ever held accountable.
- Nowhere is the failure of the transparency of the Irish State more visible than the shambles that is the Garda Siochana. When the State Police force is itself involved in massive falsification of millions of pieces of evidence where no-one is held accountable (the breathalyzer scandal) it is a symptom of deep dysfunctionality. And that is just one scandal of a very long and very bizarre list. The current Charleton Tribunal heard eye-popping evidence this week of the then Garda Commissioner, his deputy (later Commissioner) and Garda Press Officer all conspiring to lie, misuse power and betray their duty (and country) in deliberately blackening the name of Sgt Maurice McCabe in order to discredit him and his allegations of Garda incompetence and illegality. No-one is holding their breath for anyone to be made accountable or for admission of failure or for the emergence of a deep-seated political will to effect reform and openness.
Then there is Northern Ireland.
Yes, there have been people of great courage and huge progress has been made. But the political culture is frozen. The past looms over the present. The Good Friday Agreement was a pragmatic deal that avoided deeper issues of reconciliation. That avoidance worked for a while but has run out of space. It will take acts of real political courage to confront failures of the past. And by courage I mean taking ownership of ‘my side’s’ participation in injustice. It is only humility and repentance that can unlock the future.
In terms of churches and Christians in the North – many have been outstanding and inspiring examples of courageous peace-making who have challenged their own ‘side’. But I am not at all so sure that Protestant denominations like the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) have really grappled with their relationship with political unionism. Back in that PhD (later published by OUP) I called a chapter on the PCI ‘At Ease in Zion‘ which concluded with this comment.
Volf has written that “the overriding commitment to their culture serves churches worst in situations of conflict. Churches, the presumed agents of reconciliation, are at best impotent and at worst accomplices in the strife.” Although it is apparent from my analysis that Irish Presbyterianism practised exclusion primarily through indifference rather than overt discrimination or domination, its spiritual bulwarking of the goals of Ulster unionism classify it as an accomplice during the Partition period and beyond. It can be said that the Church then represented a diluted form of belonging without distance. A significant reassessment of the PCI’s relationship with unionist identity has enabled Irish Presbyterianism to create significant distance from the ideology of its host culture. However, it seems that, as yet, the Church has only moved as far as a largely theoretical repudiation of a spiritual legitimation of national identity. As such, while no longer an accomplice, it continues to be, on this specific issue, largely impotent to confront the powerful emotive appeal of nationalism. It remains in open question whether distance, having once been lost, can be regained. (259)
Maybe you have your own suggestions?
Comments, as ever, welcome.