The Reichstag building on a gray day

In the final summer of the last millennium, I was in Berlin and decided to go visit the Reichstag building. One did not need an appointment or security clearance for this at that time. I walked around Norman Foster’s dome and peered down into the debating chamber of the Bundestag. This time around, I’d left it till too late to make the appointment, so The Family and I did not get to go up to the dome. On the cold and rainy afternoon of our last day in Berlin we walked up to this famous building.

As we walked around it we reminded ourselves of the history of this building. The original parliament building dated from the 1890s, and was abandoned after a fire in 1933. The fire was blamed on a Dutch communist, Van der Lubbe, who was found in the neighbourhood. We recalled bits and pieces of the controversy around it. Although the Nazi court sentenced Van der Lubbe to death by beheading (while finding four co-defendants not guilty), there were claims even then that the fire had actually been set by the Nazis. It has been claimed many times that a single person working alone would not have had time to set such a large fire. Goering’s name was associated with the fire multiple times but this was never proved. Historians remain divided over the incident.

What is well-documented is that Hitler used this incident as an excuse to get the then-president, Paul von Hindenberg, to pass a decree which allowed opponents of the Nazi party to be imprisoned (by suspending the right called Habeas Corpus), and to censor and suppress publications which criticized the Nazis (and also allowing the government to examine personal mails). The fire happened 6 days before the German parliamentary election of 1933. So before the election already Hitler arrested many members of the Communist Party, Social Democrats and the right-wing Catholic Center Party. Nazi organizations including the SS and Brownshirts were sworn in as auxiliary police to monitor the elections. We did not remember at that time that the Nazi party still got less than a majority of votes.

A little memorial outside the Reichstag building is devoted to the 92 parliamentarians who were arrested and murdered by the Nazi party. The rain was like a fog which had condensed into drops just large enough to fall. This dreary weather seemed like the right time to remember when large scale political murders enabled the Nazis to seize absolute power and shut down German democracy. The memorial consists of uneven iron plates, about knee-high, on which the names of the murdered parliamentarians are etched along with their party, the prison or concentration camp where each was interred, and the date of their death.

We knew that the parliament never reconvened in this building, but still forget it when we see photos of Soviet soldiers posing in front of it. The restoration work in the 1990s was seen in Germany as the final end to the war. In a sense then, the war which started in 1914 ended in 1989. At least two empires were destroyed during this period, two more arose during it and vanished again in this 75 years long war. Several countries were devastated. Some thought briefly that the end of the war was the end of history.

We walked out on the muddy path that leads to the modern building which houses the offices of the parliament. Signs pointing in that direction said Paul Loebe House. This has the offices of the Bundestag. The inevitable question has a simple answer. The German parliament was called the Reichstag in the 1890s. It is now called the Bundestag. The parliament still debates in the old Reichstag building, but all the offices are in the modern buildings here and across the Spree which seem deliberately low-key.

Remembered murder

The Memorial to Murdered Jews is a strong name. I was aware of the many different responses to this memorial to the Holocaust two blocks away from the Brandenburger Door. One opinion was voiced in an article in Der Spiegel, which asked “…is it really possible to sense mortal fear? And how exactly can it be triggered by this mass of concrete, surrounded as it is with the street noise of a busy metropolis?” This was a response to Wolfgang Thierse’s assertion in the Bundestag that a space has been created which lets you feel “what loneliness, powerlessness and despair mean”.

Memorial to murdered jews

The coffins rise higher around you as you progress into the memorial. The ground undulates under you. Walking through these narrow paths between the dark columns, The Family and I had similar thoughts which we shared later. It is a memorial to political murder, and we both felt that it worked better since the six million dead had not been named here. That was the opinion also of the designer, Peter Eisenmann. An article in The New Yorker grants the complexity of the emotions raised by walking through the stelae. However, it differs from Eisenmann in the idea of not integrating the specific murders with the memorial. It asks the pertinent question, how do you understand 6 million murders while also keeping in mind the individuals who died?

The article in Der Spiegel says how the underground information center “…realized against Eisenman’s will, [will] make the memorial into a memorial. Even for those who doubt the symbolic value of the concrete blocks above, the confrontation with stories of deportation and annihilation will not fail to have an effect. It’s like a punch line of history that the worst crime in German history will be remembered underground — just a stone’s throw away from Hitler’s bunker.” True enough. But we had no stomach to walk through the flattened site of the murderer’s bunker after this.

Memorial to murdered jews

Walking through the memorial I wondered whether there will be any ever for the two million Bengalis murdered through deliberate starvation when the imperial British government withdrew stores of rice from Bengal during the same war in order to prevent food from falling into the hands of the advancing Japanese army. We know today that the orders to do this came directly from Winston Churchill, who acted against the recorded advice about deaths that would result. Offers of landing food from the USA and Australia were refused. The refusal of all successive British governments to own up to these murders till today stands in stark contrast to this monument in the center of Berlin.

I don’t hold with apologies. The past is past, once the murderers are dead. If justice is to be done, the murderers have to be tried in their lifetimes. But acknowledgements, even if late, help everyone to see the clay which is dressed up with marble.