Too Many Monuments
Glen Newey in Berlin
Why does Berlin have a museum dedicated to the Ramones? (Why does London have a museum with bits of the Parthenon in it?) It seems that the museum’s founder had stockpiled so much Ramonesiana that his girlfriend issued an ultimatum. It’s on Krausnickstrasse, not far from Museum Island, which hosts Berlin’s more established collections like the Pergamon. I went along hoping to be beaten on the way in with a baseball bat, or at least have feedback-spiked insults bawled at me, but it’s disappointingly tame.
Perhaps more striking than the presence of the Ramones display is how little of Berlin is not a museum or memorial of one sort or another. Der Spiegel reports that the latest, to Sinti and Roma victims of the Nazis, is currently stalled because of rows between its Israeli sculptor and the federal authorities. It will eventually take its place alongside the Holocaust memorial, sundry Denkmale to victims of Nazi ‘euthanasia’, people who have died of Aids, those killed trying to cross from East Berlin during the Wall era, and a generic memory-jogger for victims of war and tyranny, housed in Schinkel’s neoclassical Neue Wache on Unter den Linden, which features an oversized replica of a Käthe Kollwitz sculpture. More are on the way. Apparently the Poles want a slab of their own, while other proposals include name-checks for the 1953 East German workers’ uprising and for victims of the RAF – the Red Army Faction, not Bomber Command, though Scharnhorststrasse has one of those, too.
Sometimes the obsessive memorialising gets even Berliners down. You begin to wonder whether the end wouldn’t be served by a single all-purpose memorial to everyone the Germans have pissed off, including other Germans. In recoil from all the hand-wringing, politicians have suggested lightening the mood – with another monument. Cue the feelgood ‘Freedom and Unity’ sculpture to mark the fall of the Wall and reunification. That too, though, has been snagged by dissension. Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, doesn’t like any of the three shortlisted designs. And Hans Ottomeyer, the director of the German Historical Museum, made the reasonable point that freedom and unity sit rather ill together, as the more you have of one, the less you tend to get of the other.
More striking yet is that the fixated memorialising coexists with blank amnesia elsewhere. A case in point is the Potsdamer Platz, bisected during the Cold War by the Wall. After reunification, debate raged about what was to be done with the area. In one corner is the site of the Führerbunker, where in May 1945 the Red Army found the charred remains of Hitler and Eva Braun. During partition it was a grassy knoll in no man’s land. It is now levelled, with a car park nearby and a rental business hiring out retro-chic Trabants from the GDR period. Until 2006 zilch marked the spot but then a display-board was put up ahead of the World Cup. It’s said that anything grander might attract neo-Nazis, though the same surely goes for the eminently vandalisable victims’ memorials. Political wrangles over what to do with Potsdamer Platz itself, a prime real-estate site, were settled by dividing it between the victorious powers of Sony, Daimler and Otto Beisheim. The Platz is now a vitreous gulch of consumerism and corporate capitalism.
Outside the Sony building’s Lego Discovery Centre there’s a life-size Lego giraffe. It has suffered serial indignities. Reuters reported that visitors had been ‘making off’ with its ‘30cm penis made out of 15,000 Lego bricks … The [Lego] centre is now erecting a metal construction to protect the giraffe’s genitalia.’ This proved to be a cock-and-bull story. Even in its prime, the brick camelopard never boasted a virile member. It did have a 30cm tail, the German word for which (Schwanz) is a cant term for penis. Still, the Lego giraffe’s absentee dong made a good story. And, like the hollow tomb, it does duty for monumental statuary in general, its self-deferring pathos.