A short walk from the Brandenburg Gate, amidst the hustle and bustle of Berlin, is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Like Nazism, it sneaks up on you. One minute you’re admiring the glass dome of the Reichstag Building; the next, you’ve stumbled into a warren of lugubrious concrete slabs the color of smoke:
This unassuming piece of prime real estate, an enormous city block, was once home to the wall dividing East and West Berlin. Designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman, the Memorial comprises 2,711 concrete slabs—or, properly, stelae—of various sizes, arranged in neat rows. As you can see from the photos, they look like tombs. The cascading heights of the slabs, the fact that some are slightly askew, and the natural slope of the terrain underfoot combine to create an effect that is extremely disconcerting.
On the fringes of the Memorial, the first stela comes up to your knees—a manageable height. Then you start along the path, and before you realize what’s going on, the slabs tower over your head. You think: How did this happen so suddenly? How did I not see this coming? Many Germans in the late 1930s, I’m sure, had the same thought about the rise of Adolf Hitler.
My friend who went with me to the Memorial said: “What makes this so powerful is that you don’t need anyone to explain what it is or what it means.”
How to reconcile today’s progressive, artsy, creative Berlin—one of my favorite cities in the world—with the capital of a genocidal regime responsible for the systematic extermination of six million Jews? How can those two cities possibly be the same place?
For that matter, how does a nation—how can a nation—atone for the unforgivable sins of its past? In the United States, of course, we simply omit the shameful parts of our history. We turn the page and hope everyone forgets. We segregate Black history and honor it only during the shortest month of the year. We construct narratives that make heroes of slaveholding secessionists, that insist that the Civil War was about anything other than slavery. We decry “wokeness” and “CRT” at any honest attempt to teach the truth about the ugly institutionalized racism that has permeated American society since 1619. We pretend the insurrectionists were just overzealous tourists.
We dutifully preserve the Native American names of our towns and states and rivers and lakes, while ignoring the pesky fact that we actively tried to exterminate the people who gave those places such wonderful names. “Manifest destiny” was our pompous euphemism for wholesale slaughter.
Hitler studied what we did to the Navajo and the Cherokee so he could do the same thing to the Jews.
We were the model.
In Nazi Germany, Jews were rounded up and killed. Romani were rounded up and killed. The disabled were rounded up and killed. Gays and Lesbians were rounded up and killed. Political opponents were rounded up and killed. Conquered peoples were rounded up and killed.
Nazis did that. That’s what Nazis do. That’s all Nazis can do.
Nothing can ever fully atone for what the Nazis did before and during the Second World War. But acknowledgement is the first step toward atonement. In Germany today, Nazis are rightly regarded with shame and horror; the Memorial is part of the reason why. In the United States today, Nazis are invited to break bread with the FPOTUS; our defiant historical ignorance is the reason why. Nazism appeals to the stupid, the petty, the artless, the cruel. It is, ultimately, a death cult.
So today, let us be perfectly clear: There are no good Nazis. All Nazis are bad, without exception—even Nazis who say they are rehabilitated, who claim to now be working for the good guys. There are no half-Nazis. To abet a Nazi—to platform a Nazi and allow him to spew lies, under the bullshit guise of “free speech”—is to become a Nazi.
In the summer of 2001, to raise funds for the Berlin Memorial, an ad campaign was launched in Germany. As the New York Times reported:
“The Holocaust never happened” is the provocative slogan to appear in newspaper advertisements and on billboards starting Thursday seeking donations of $2 million for the Berlin Holocaust Memorial. Under the slogan and a picture of a serene mountain lake and snow-capped mountain will be smaller type saying: “There are still many people who make this claim. In 20 years there could be even more.”
Twenty-two years later, and somehow, there are even more. For shame.
Photos by Greg Olear, February 1, 2023.
I’m Armenian. Genocide occurs in many Nationalities. However the the amount and the occurrence. There’s no other nation that gets half the attention they do. Why is that?
Reading this feels a smack to the back of the head, or is it between the eyes? 🎯 Thank you, Greg, for another revealing and important piece.