Most of my German friends are pacifists. They do not like seeing Germans involved in foreign wars. The image of a German in an army uniform brings up memories of Nazi atrocities authorised by Hitler and his military command during the Second World War.
And yet, in the centre of the Tiergarten (Berlin’s Central Park), one of Berlin’s most celebrated monuments is its Victory Column (Siegessäule), commemorating 19th–century military victories against neighbouring countries.
The column, finished in 1873, was moved in 1938/39 by Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect, from a position near the Reichstag to the star–shaped intersection in the park. He made it taller and envisaged it as the framing landmark on the East–West axis of his masterplan for the Nazi capital, Germania.
The Siegessäule survived WW2 bombardments, but the occupying French wanted it destroyed. It celebrated the Battle of Sedan, the decisive 1871 victory that led to Germans marching into Paris (a war which also rallied Germans to political unification). The other allies rejected the request; they agreed pre–WW1 monuments should not be eradicated. The column stayed, and became a favourite place for victorious allied soldiers to take pictures. The photogenic qualities of the column, and its angel of victory on top, were not lost on Obama who staged his famous Berlin election speech here in 2008 (you can check out my article for the Canadian national newspaper on his visit).
For tourists, the column offers a remarkable view over the city from the top. For Berliners, the military history is largely forgotten, and the column takes on more recent associations: summer, parties and celebration of diversity. The Love Parade was held here many times. The phallic symbolism is not lost on the Les–bi–gay–trans community who use it as the end point of the annual gay pride parade.
I came here to see Albert Speer’s only remaining works in Berlin.
Perhaps the Allies thought the four small temple–like structures, which serve as entrances to underground walkways at the corners of the traffic circle, were too practical to demolish. Doing so, they ensured Speer is still represented among Berlin’s buildings.
Speer designed in a severe classical style and his constructions benefited from forced labour. They were meant to dwarf and intimidate their viewers. Hitler was impressed by the antiquities of Rome, and asked Speer to design eschatologically, with the buildings‘ demise in mind. Nazism both looked to the future, embracing (often pseudo-)scientific and technological progress, just as it was obsessed with the past. Hitler was aware that his empire would not last forever (he wanted 1000 years and got just over a decade) , and these buildings were designed so that (perversely) they would eventually crumble into attractive ruins.
I feel odd standing before his works. I confess being suscepitable to classical architecture, to clean lines, to simplicity. And they have aged well. You need only look at how the different blocks of stone have changed over time. The surface of the pavillions is now covered with a remarkable texture of weathering, signage, bullet holes and traces of erased and newly applied graffiti.
But I cannot help, looking at these buildings which are so easily not noticed, feeling that they embody an ideology. Why is this? I easily overlook the symbolism of the military column, but find it very hard to forgive these temples. They are connected to the Siegessäule, with underground passages. Does not the connection run the other way? Did not German militarism begin with the Siegessäule, its victories, the Empire‘s cult of nationhood, and feed the Nazi Weltanschauung?
The Berlin authorities do not maintain Speer’s buildings. Although the Sieggessäule is undergoing a precise and expensive renovation, his buildings accumulate the results of vandalism. And inside them, the city has fitted toilet facilities, and so visitors can actually shit on Nazi architecture.
The sun sets over the Tiergarten, young people lounge on the temple steps. They are perhaps unaware of what these pavillions represent. They are the surviving traces of the life work of an artist entrusted with visionary plans for the capital city of the world. They are now but tombs where you enter, descend, and follow a tunnel. From there, you eventually climb to a view over a city whose population, more than any other place I have been, live in committed rejection to authoritarianism and extremism. Perhaps we needed to pass through Speer’s ruins to arrive here.