Berlin Before and After: A Look Back at What the City Lost to the Nazis

A year-long German festival sets out to reveal the lost faces of early-1930s Berlin.

BERLIN - From afar, the posters on the advertising kiosks at the northeastern end of Unter den Linden looked like more election propaganda. It was only after we walked down the boulevard and reached the Lustgarten (Pleasure Garden) on Museum Island that we realized that the old-fashioned group of cylindrical pillars was actually a portrait exhibition, commemorating more than 200 cultural, political and professional figures who fell victim to the Nazi regime. The goal of the organizers is to reveal the faces behind the cultural diversity of early-1930s Berlin before they were “marginalized, exiled, deported or murdered” by the Nazis.

Called “Diversity Destroyed: The Portrait Exhibition,“ it is part of the monumental commemorative project "Diversity Destroyed - Berlin before and after 1933," around 100 projects and events at sites throughout the city between January 30 and November 9 of this year. These two dates mark, respectively, the 80th anniversary of Hitler’s accession to power and the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Like Berlin itself, the city-wide project, is simultaneously impressive and intimidating. The Theme Year's events focus on the Nazi regime’s destruction of the city’s diversity and its devastating impact on German culture and democracy for years to come.

“That we can claim today to have regained such a degree of diversity is not a foregone conclusion. It is an achievement on the part of our city and its citizens that we must actively seek to preserve,” Berlin’s Governing Mayor, Klaus Wowereit, said at a press conference in January launching the Theme Year. The message seems to be that Germany itself also suffered damage from the terrors of the Nazi regime, shifting the focus somewhat away from the victims, to the country's own fate.

More than 170 partner organizations, including universities, commercial firms and church organizations are supporting the Theme Year. Perhaps it was the somewhat oblique name of the project, focusing on the loss of diversity without mentioning the main loss, that attracted so many partners or at least failed to deter them. Berlin's district authorities also took part; "urban commemorative pillars" were installed in 11 of the city's districts. Together, they comprise an open-air exhibition that traces the development of the state terrorism mechanisms and the measures that enabled the confiscation of property from and the expulsion and extermination of "unwanted individuals." Thus, near the Berlin Philharmonic Hall, orchestra auditorium on the border of Tiergarten Park an exhibition documents the appalling T4 "euthanasia program,” considered a "preliminary trial" to check the feasibility of mass extermination.

The Lustgarten portrait exhibition is the central event of the Theme Year. Alongside the portraits, the pillars display biographies of the commemorated figures. Many became famous, while others remained almost anonymous. Many, though not all, were Jews; many were murdered by the Nazis, though some managed to flee. They include artists, musicians, film directors, scientists, teachers, doctors, lawyers, athletes and businessmen.

Prominent personalities include Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Fritz Lang, Robert Musil, George Grosz, Walter Gropius, Hannah Arendt and also Nissim Zacouto (1891-1987) – a wealthy carpet wholesaler, a Jew of Turkish descent who sold merchandise to Berlin's most prestigious department stores. After his property was confiscated by the Nazis he fled to France, where in 1943 he narrowly averted deportation to a concentration camp. After the war he remained in Paris and rebuilt his business empire.

Milking the Past

The Lustgarten is charged with memories no less than the exhibition itself. Originally it was part of the Stadtschloss (Berlin Palace), an enormous Baroque edifice in the former East Berlin which for centuries was the home of Prussian royalty. Despite having been demolished, the presence of the palace continues to haunt the city.

Since its creation, some 500 years ago, the Lustgarten has been vegetable garden, promenade, military parade ground and paved plaza. It was where leftist demonstrated passionately against the rise of the extreme right at the end of the Weimar Republic, and, by contrast, where Hitler addressed audiences of hundreds of thousands during the Nazi regime. During the Cold War, it was renamed Marx-Engels-Platz. After reunification the Lustgarten was restored to its former glory, this time as a public park.

The Prussian palace is being rebuilt as well. It was demolished by the East German government in the 1950s and replaced in the 1960s by the Palace of the Republic, a Modernist structure with a golden metallic sparkle. After reunification it was torn down to make room for the reborn Berlin Palace.

Each stage in the palace’s history was accompanied by battles for the collective memory. This time, when the Bundestag voted to restore the royal palace, the battles were particularly vicious. Many Germans are nostalgic for the country’s lost glory, while others dread it. The site is currently a giant pit with cranes towering above.

The new palace, which is scheduled for completion in 2019, will be dedicated as Humboldtforum, a cultural center that is to complete the ensemble of museums that gives Museum Island its name. Artisans’ workshops have already begun to recreate the palace's ornate Baroque decorations.

The restoration of the garden and palace are not unusual initiatives in Berlin. Since being almost entirely destroyed during World War II and then further damaged under the Communist regime, the city has been rebuilding itself with remarkable, not to say forbidding persistence and confidence, in the very same historical styles and using the same urban principles, texture, skyline and street panorama, as if nothing had happened. Only the monuments and anniversaries tell the real story.

After five or six visits to Berlin over the last three decades, the city seemed this time to be overflowing with memorial sites, more than ever before. Their quantity and dimensions reached climactic proportions at the Holocaust memorial near Brandenburg Gate and at the new Topography of Terror museum, located in what were once the Gestapo's dungeons. Commemoration seems to cover the city like a gray-brown blanket on an eternally rainy day. It is no longer Israel "milking" the German past, as was claimed this week in Haaretz – the Germans themselves are doing it even better.

Christian Kielmann
KPB/Christian Kielmann