09 June 2006

remember.

For a history student, memorials serve as physical reminders of the events we'd sometimes rather consign to history books. As a lifelong pacifist, it was during my internship at Quantico that I developed the profound respect I now have for the men and women of the armed forces worldwide. While some misinterpret my love of traveling as a dislike for my own country, traveling in other countries has only reinforced how lucky I am to live in a nation that allows me to criticize it. It angers me that so many (American and foreign) are quick to confuse criticism with disrespect or hatred. It is precisely because I love my country so much that I believe it can be better. Bringing me back to my original point about memorials, for me, the Vietnam Wall is one of the most powerful in the world. I am indebted (for far more than a television show, I assure you) to the friend who introduced me to The West Wing, and a line from the show embodies why I can't look at that wall without tearing up: "Men died for us. We have a responsibility to live our lives with integrity and honesty to honor their sacrifice." It pains me to see students my age walk past that monument with no comprehension of or respect for what it represents. That's why I study history - because I don't think we should ever allow those sacrifices to be ignored. I love my country and those willing to give their lives in defense of the ideals on which it was founded.

In that vein, considering the rich, and often painful, history of Berlin, the city's memorials offer a provoking illustration of its past. Treptower Park, in the former East, is home to an enormous statue of a Soviet soldier, rifle in one hand and orphaned child in the other, crushing a swastika with his boot. (as Orwell would say, "If you want a picture of the future, picture a boot stomping on a human face - forever.") Buried under the site are the bodies of 5000 Soviet soldiers who lost their lives in the battle of Berlin. In the wake of World War II, the Soviets wanted no questions in the minds of East Germans about who rescued them from the crushing grip of Hitler. In later years, I imagine it served a similar purpose as a vivid reminder of the power of the Soviet-backed East German government. While not my favorite war memorial, today the statue illustrates all too clearly how history is written by the victors.

While not a war memorial per se, Berlin's memorial to the 10 May 1933 Nazi book burning is one of the most simplistically beautiful monuments I've ever seen. A translucent glass panel in Humboldt University's plaza reveals an underground chamber of empty white bookshelves with space for the 20,000 books burned that day. The chamber is completely sealed, save a small trapdoor to change the lightbulb, symbolizing that we cannot change history no matter how badly we may want to. A small plaque in the ground bears a line from poet Heinrich Heine: "Where books are burned, in the end people will burn." The line proved eerily prophetic, considering his words date from 1820 and were among those burned in 1933.

The controversial Holocaust memorial, officially titled "The Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe," opened last May, and it is only fitting that unprecedented events in human history are remembered by unconventional memorials. A sprawling array of 2700 concrete slabs in the heart of Berlin, blocks from both the Brandenberg Gate and the site of Hitler's bunker, American architect Peter Eisenman's design has been raising eyebrows since well before ground broke on the project. Among the objections - What about non-Jewish victims? Is Berlin the right location for Germany's memorial? Should it be such an accessible, public space? Graffitti? Is it too vague? While you can debate the validity of such objections until you're blue in the face, the memorial is indeed vague. The concrete slabs, reminiscent of coffins, are all slightly different sizes and shapes, creating a dizzying effect when they tower over visitors' heads. The monument is intentionally devoid of names or other identifiers, and is open to the public at all hours, staffed only by a single (frequently ineffective) guard to ensure visitors do not climb the slabs. Eisenman never intended the site to be a graveyard - he envisoned a memorial that would become part of daily life in Berlin, and indeed, Berliners meander through the rows much like the tourists. Is that a positive thing? Are Berliners acknowledging their history by accepting a 200,000 square foot reminder, or are six million victims being disrespected? See for yourself and decide, but in my eyes, Eisenman's vision was right on task. Even those who hate the memorial can't ignore the tragedy it represents, and in the end, isn't that why we build monuments?

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