At the end of last year I went to Berlin, my first time in Germany. It felt quite transgressive, I should tell you. My father was imprisoned in concentration camps during the war, his (my) family all murdered by Nazis. The idea of visiting Germany for recreation was unthinkable when I was growing up.
I was nervous in a way I can’t quite describe but you may imagine before I landed, but it evaporated quickly. Every Berlinner I spoke to was friendly, patient, nice. Everyone, of course, speaks English. Many of the voices you hear are English or American. Menus are almost always supplied with a translation. It is a city of immigrants. It’s evidence of an integrated Europe, an argument for the EU. Open borders may be the finest and most noble idea of the late Twentieth Century.
Most of Berlin has been built, or rebuilt, since the end of the War, by which I know you know I mean the Second World War. Much of it is grimly utilitarian. It was at the centre of so much that was terrible about the last century. The whole city is, in one way or another, a monument to something, to the unspeakable, to the unimaginable.
The Fernsehturm is a tall, late Sputnik-era telecommunications tower, and a structure I love. You can see it from many points in the city. It looms like an alien spaceship from War of the Worlds. It’s beautiful. It’s ugly. So much of what was once East Berlin was built without bourgeois decoration. For a counterpoint there is the large, ornately-decorated Neue Synagoge, from the nineteenth century, glowing with gold. I wanted to say how ironic that it’s still standing, but of course it was mostly destroyed and has been rebuilt. This is both saddening and heartening.
Cläerchens Ballhaus is a ballroom unimproved since the fall of The Wall. It is dowdy in ways that ballrooms shouldn’t be dowdy. There are sections of The Wall that have been left standing. Beside one is a monument to everyone who died trying to leave the East, fresh white roses left in front of their photographs.
The long, straight, road that leads to the Brandenburg Gate is perfect for showing off military power. An army, its buckles polished to a shine, could march along it for a long time, saluting whoever it is that needs an army to salute them. It could march up to the Gate, wheel round and salute from the other direction. I could imagine the echo of all those unsmiling soldiers kicking like Rockettes.
And next to the Brandenburg Gate, at the dark heart of this unpretty city, is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It covers an area the size of a football pitch. It is made from black, rectangular boxes, of different heights, reminiscent of coffins, of course, or tombs, maybe, something deathly, all leading in the same direction. You can walk among them. The ground slopes and as you go deeper the boxes rise up, the light dims. It is powerful and moving. It is brilliant as a metaphor and as a monument and it brought me to tears. I never want to walk along its sombre aisles again.
It is impressive how seriously Germany takes its past. It occurred to me that the greatest – I’m not sure what word to use here – vindication? outcome? – of my father’s survival is that I can swan about this city on holiday. They would have hated that, the men and women complicit in the Nazi crimes. They would have despised it.
The most moving monument is the Stolpersteine. You barely notice them as you look for cinnamon buns, but their gleam from the ground will catch your eye. People polish them until they’re as bright as soldiers’ buttons. Stolpersteine, meaning ‘stumbling stones’, are small, brass plaques set into the cobbles, maybe four, five, six at a time, bearing the names of the people who once lived in those buildings who were murdered by the Nazis. Perhaps the most unexpected thing about them is that they aren’t the work of any government body, but of an artist called Gunther Demnig, whose hand I’d like to shake. People sponsor them, it costs only €120, and they are researched before they are installed. There aren’t that many, six hundred or so in Germany so far, but in other countries, too, just scratching the surface of the many millions. In some streets they are in front of every building. But more are planned, new nominations arrive every day.
People had their lives torn from them, their families, everything, including their names, taken away. Many had numbers tattooed on the inside of their forearms, which is no replacement. But the Stolpersteine give them their name back, even if the rest is impossible. The Stolpersteine give each of them a memorial. This is worthwhile work, don’t you agree. This is my favourite work of art, ever. And that’s why I love the Stolpersteine.