Rachel Winter (M.A.R.)

Uncovering the Past: Forgetting and Remembering

In my impressions of Germany from our trip, a pattern stands out—not of a developing history, but of a culture and a society perpetually remaking itself.  To begin with, Germany presents us with objects and architecture bearing the marks of up to a thousand years of history.  The Munich Residenz, the palace complex of the Wittelsbach dynasty for four hundred years (1508-1918), began with the construction of the Neuveste castle in 1385.  In the centuries following, it acquired a ballroom, a treasury, gardens, an opera house, countless state and private apartments, and several royal chapels, before becoming a public museum in 1920.  Older buildings were sometimes remodeled, and sometimes destroyed to make room for new ones.  These changes reflected current movements in art and architecture, as well as particular royal tastes; thus the Residenz, as we experienced it in May, is a pastiche of the heights of Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical decorative styles.  elics in the museum—some dating back as far as the ninth century—reflect artistic tastes of their times, besides telling us something about their owners’ piety.  When we consider along with the developments of taste the destruction caused by fires, and, later, damage from 1944 bombings, the Residenz begins to seem not only a recovering pastiche of tastes, but also a memorial to lost lives, and to the devastation of disaster and wartime. 

Munich impressed many of us simply by its orderliness.  Between the swept streets, kempt gardens and strict adherence to traffic regulations, it seemed impossible that Munich had experienced extreme destruction such a short time ago.  World War II seemed a distant memory in this clean, well-engineered city.  And this is, I think, how it should be; there is life after war, after the Holocaust, after depravity and cruelty have run their awful courses.  The remaking of the Residenz over the centuries seems to have been driven by changing tastes, compounded by political ambitions.  Munich, on the other hand, aside from all practical reasons for rebuilding, had to be remade, I suppose, because German leaders were determined that the horrors of the 1930s and 40s would not haunt them forever, driving them to ruin.  The past could not be allowed to be decisive, and in that sense it had to be forgotten.

Yet by the same time, the past had to be remembered.  As we moved into East Germany, recent history seemed harder to avoid; its memorials were more vivid, more glaring.  Behind the literary and artistic glories of Weimar—Goethe and Schiller, literary icons of the eighteenth century; the Bauhaus movement and the short-lived Weimar Republic, Germany’s avante-garde and its first democracy—sits the internment camp Buchenwald, horribly intact, terrifyingly vivid.  In this case, almost nothing has been papered over; to the contrary, the suffering endured and horrors inflicted under Nazi rule are presented calmly and factually.  As we followed our young tour guide over Buchenwald’s grounds, our group was silent, taking in the stark facts of the past as she gently reported them.  Between 1937 and 1945, as a Nazi camp, and between 1945 and 1950, under the Soviet Secret Police, Buchenwald was more or less unknown to most citizens of Weimar; now it is uncovered, exposing us to the past we’d still rather not see. And see it we must, horrific as it is, because as we look at Buchenwald and try to understand it, we learn not only what has passed, but what must not pass again; we learn not only about those who suffered, but those who caused suffering; we see not only traces of our forebears, but traces of ourselves.  We leave Buchenwald mourning, arguing with ourselves, thinking and writing, fighting, working, praying, so that that such things may not be again.

Is it right to compare such things—on one hand, a state palace complex, expressive primarily of high culture and high tastes—and on the other, a work camp demonstrating some of the darkest manifestations of the human psyche?  In general, perhaps not; yet they have this in common.  Both offer extreme examples of how we respond to the past, and both responses are necessary.  It is not exactly a moral choice to redecorate a room at the Residenz, but it is not amoral either.  Such choices tell us not only what people wanted to preserve from the past, but also what they wanted life to be like in the present, and in the distant future.   Likewise, the choice to leave Buchenwald intact is not only ethical; it is a narrative choice, a choice that allows the historical truth to be told, and, perhaps, someday, understood.  We cannot shut out the past, and we cannot take it with us.  We can only take from it the knowledge of what human life can be, with all of its inconsistencies.