The Neue Wache, a monument that stands in Berlin, tells the story of the turbulence and darkness that has festered in the city over the last hundred years rather well. The building itself was build in 1818 as a guardhouse for the nearby Kronprinzenpalais, or Palace of the crown. However, this is just background; the story starts in 1931.
After the Great War, the building was redesigned to be a monument in honor of those killed in combat. The truly remarkable aspect of this, though, was that the monument commemorated those who lost their lives on both sides of the war. At this point, barely 10 years after the war, they had the compassion, perspective, and humility to unite these opponents through their act of reverence and condolence.
Just two years later, however, things were changing in Germany; the Nazi party had seized power. Shortly after the rise of the new party, they redesigned the monument. With the redesign, the connotation of the monument was that it stood for Christian, German-born men killed in WWI, specifically excluding Jews. Overnight, this building went from a testament to unity in suffering and reverence to a token of hate and division.
The monument stands in what was East Germany, which was in German controlled territory. During this time, the Soviets reconstructed the monument as a "Memorial to Victims of Fascism and Militarism." Again, the monument was used as a pawn in projecting a political message in defying the enemies of those in power.
Finally, in 1993 the memorial was rededicated to the victims of war and dictatorship.
The group was first able to see the monument on our walking photography tour with Johnny, the guide from England. He was the one that told the history of the monument. He shared the story from in front of the memorial; from there the most striking thing about the structure was its pronounced simplicity. It was feebly sized, compared to many of the monstrous buildings and monuments in the city. Additionally, it presented itself as meek; the simple pillars and the modest outer walls gave it a subdued presence.
Inside, you see a mother tearfully grasping her dead offspring. The creation manages to be gripping despite being simple and uncolored in presentation. However, the emptiness of the interior is the most powerful element of the room. The vastness centered around the morbid statue almost creates a need to fill the void with something, anything. But the truth is that nothing can fill the void that just rests in the room, whose silent cries can be heard ringing in the air.
The sharpest pain in the memorial doesn't even lie in the evil that it commemorates. Surely, the fact that the memorial stands, at least connotatively, for the victims of Nazi Germany, which is a striking image. And, truly, it poetically expresses this thought in the most potent of ways. However, the thought that this building stood first for such a noble and profound cause, and with the span of a few years be turned into something so vile for such a repugnant group is revolting. One must mourn for the artist who first designed such a beautiful work of art, only to have to face it being torn apart and used to exude evil.
Certainly, things are rectified for the memorial now. It no longer is just a political pawn, being merely used by those in power to "commemorate" while marginalizing the enemy (save if you're a explicit fan of war or dictatorship). However, does changing this truly void the abhorrent values for which it had stood? If it does, then one must acknowledge that the nobleness for which it stood prior to 1933 is equally void; also, this means the current meaning could just as quickly be replaced with evil once again. If it does not, then Berliners must be content knowing they walk by a building that holds the morals of Nazis and Fascists. It seems, however, that the truth for this building is similar to the truth that all of Germany is facing now: the past is filled with both moments of triumph and moments of extreme awfulness. It is obvious when speaking with the people of this country that the evil that was done here bothers them in an extreme sense, and pains them to the bone. However, they also are doing well with facing this pain with courage to examine their whole past, and to use that to make the future brighter.