Looking for intentional monuments in Berlin

Last week, I was exploring the topic of resistance during the Third Reich with my students in a German conversation and composition class. One student brought up the question of gender differences in the resistance movement, and explained a research project that she had worked on a few semesters ago about the Rosenstraße Demonstration (1943). In February 1943, police gathered some 2000 Jews (mostly men married to non-Jewish women) and held them in the Jewish community building at Rosenstraße 2-4. The partners feared that the men would be deported to one of the concentration campus. Over the course of several days, some 200 non-Jewish Germans demonstrated outside the building, calling for the release of the inhabitants. Ultimately, all but 25 of the prisoners were released. The protest was the topic of the 2003 film Rosenstraße (dir. Margarete von Trotta), which may have served to popularize it, but it is still relatively unknown. None of the other students in the class had heard of it.

Coincidentally, I have been rereading Svetlana Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia (2001), particularly the distinction between restorative and reflective nostalgia. Boym draws on Alois Riegl’s concepts of intentional and unintentional monuments. Both sets of concepts present an interesting framework for my research on the construction of monuments in the city of Berlin. There is a monument that commemorates the Rosenstraße demonstration, on a small side in the former Jewish quarter street near the Hackesche Höfe and in the shadow of Alexanderplatz, both of which are popular tourist destinations in Berlin.

During summer 2016, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Berlin, and the view from my hotel room looked out onto the Rosenstraße memorial. Despite its proximity to popular attractions, traffic to the site is minimal. This prompted me to ponder why and reflect on what kind of memorial this might be.

As Boym explains it, an intentional monument tries to mark a specific moment in time and make it meaningful for the present. By contrast, an unintentional monument occurs does not seek to commemorate. Certainly, the Rosenstraße memorial is intended to mark a specific event from history. But the visitors I witnessed last summer did not seem intentional. Rather, it appeared that they had stumbled upon the site by accident. Nonetheless, I also witnessed their desire to learn and engage with the monument as well.

I invite readers to share their experiences about monuments and Berlin or their other favorite cities and to consider if these monuments do imbue the present with meaning.

 

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