Traces of Terror

2009.06.13

Last winter I visited Mittelbau-Dora, one of the concentration camps which used slave labour to build V2 rockets late in the war.   It left a strong impression: a bleak snowscape with occasional fragments of the camp’s buildings and fences, and the factory tunnels where inmates were worked to death.  What I found most shocking was not the existence of the Dora camp itself, but the museum’s exhibit on the many smaller sub-camps which existed across the region.  Many of these camps were based in towns and villages, where they provided slave labour to local businesses.  It’s easier for us to think of the camps as somewhere else, away from the public eye – ‘it wasn’t our fault, we didn’t know about it’.  Records of these ‘publicly integrated’ arrangements give the lie to such an argument.

The introduction to Traces of Terror: Sites of Nazi Tyranny in Berlin makes the point that museums alone are unable to keep the public’s memory of the Holocaust alive, and that knowledge of sites and buildings where atrocities were planned or carried out is an essential part of our historical understanding.  Unlike  Holocaust museums in the US and elsewhere, such museums in Germany and Austria “… would be stylish counterfeits to lessen the burden of being confronted with the authentic.  Imagine a flash, post-modern museum in Berlin compared to Ravensbrück, where reality can be experienced and comprehended.”

It’s a point that I agree with; even though Berlin is severely lacking in good recent architecture, and Peter Zumthor is a very good architect (and not at all ‘flash’) I do think that, had his building been completed at the Topography of Terror site, it would have become as much a mecca for architecture students, than a place for marking perpetrators.

This book is not a record of building’s erected around Berlin by the Nazi regime, but rather a thoughtful analysis of key sites. Some of these, such as Ernst Sagebiel’s Reich Air Ministry, we know as architectural symbols of the Third Reich; stripped neoclassicism, imposing, bombastic.  Other locations played a more complex role, for instance the  SA-Stormlokale (’Storm Locals’, I guess) – bars and restaurants which served as bases for the SA (the paramilitary group which provided the ‘muscle’ for the Nazi’s rise to power).  The basements were often used as prisons and torture rooms, and they also became ad hoc police stations when the SA became officially sanctioned from 1933.

It’s also a sad reminder of how Berlin paid the price for the crimes of the Nazis.  Many of the buildings featured are shown in pre and postwar condition, as well as later, during the cold war and beyond.  The photographic cycle of baroque edifice / bombed out shell / rainswept parking lot / bland Commerzbank office is a salutory lesson.

To praise this book is not, of course, to criticise such guides as Matthias Donath’s Architektur in Berlin 1933-1945, (there’s a fuller version in german) which covers key buildings erected during the regime – I’ve found this an essential in trying to understand the Nazi’s architectural legacy, rather than just as a trainspotter’s guide.  But Traces of Terror, with its careful commentary on each site and building, slowly builds the argument that I clumsily attempted at the beginning of this post; that to understand how these atrocities occurred, it’s important to realise that they took place in public view: at Westhafen S-Bahn station, where hundreds of thousands were deported to ghettos and death camps in the east, or at a concentration camp, not hidden away in woodland, but in a brewery in the middle of Oranienberg.

Traces of Terror – Sites of Nazi Tyranny in Berlin
Spuren des Terrors – Stätten nationalsozialistischer Gewaltherrschaft in Berlin

with a foreward by Paul Spiegel

Amazon link

English / german, Verlagshaus Braun, 2002

2 comments

  1. I was wondering whether you’d seen the following exhibtion:

    http://berliner-unterwelten.de/mythos-germania.637.0.html

    which is mainly about the buildings the Nazis didn’t build. If not, it might be worth a look.

    I was thinking about how the architectural style of some of these buildings might be described, and I guess “stripped neoclassicism, imposing, bombastic” does pretty much cover it. One thing I would say about Nazi architecture, though, is that its bombast is rarely overtly vulgar – something that is not the case of many more recent right-wing dictatorships. It occurs to me that maybe the austerity of the classicism acts here as a kind of cover, giving the building the superficial apppearance of retraint, while the its other qualities, not least of all its size, very clearly indicate the opposite.

    Another effect of this austerity is to accentuate the monotony of the facade, with the consequence that restraint emphasises a repetitiveness that is anything but restrained, and lends the buildings the sepulchral character that has been widely noticed inthem. There is something about the length and narrowness of the windows in the Aviation Ministry that makes me think that coffins could be suitably slotted into them, and reminds me of those Italian cemeteries where the dead are inserted one on top of the other into holes in high walls.

    T.M., June 26, 2009
  2. Yep, have indeed seen it – http://architectureinberlin.wordpress.com/2008/04/09/victims-perpetrators-and-the-myth-of-germania/

    I think there’s something odd wrong with the ‘categories’ section in wordpress at the moment, so a lot of stuff is difficult to find on the blog unless you’re really dedicated and spend hours trawling through it…

    I agree though, it’s true that many of the archetyple (is that a word?) Nazi buildings are quite restrained in their styling – their presence comes from their enormouse scale. Some buildings – I’m thinking Tempelhof airport – have become de-linked from their nazi associations. I don’t think tempelhof is mentioned in the book, as not a site of the planning or carrying out of a crime as such, and only actually completed in the 1950s. It has many associations now in the public mind; the Berlin airlift, and more recently its closure and debates about its gentrified future.

    architectureinberlin, June 26, 2009

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