I recently visited Berlin at a time when climate change and environmental protection were at the forefront of protest cultures around the world thanks to the efforts of Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement, and Extinction Rebellion. Whilst touring the German Bundestag (Parliament) with my students, I witnessed a Fridays for Future protest which involved activists handcuffing themselves to the handrails seen in the image above. In last week’s post, I wrote about Berlin’s protest stickers, but there were so many protest stickers in the city relating to climate change and the environment that it warranted its own post. Again, I must thank my colleague Julia Affolderbach for translating a lot of these stickers for me.
Earlier this year, I went to Berlin as a member of staff on an undergraduate field trip. I had never been before, and I was really looking forward to the chance to explore a city with such a complex history, as well as a reputation for alternative culture and politics. Berlin did not disappoint; it is a vibrant city, with an admirable approach to coming to terms with the most difficult moments of its past. It has a lively culture of protest stickers too, so much so that I have decided to do two blog posts on the topic. At this point I would like to say thank you to my German-speaking colleague, Dr. Julia Affolderbach, who never once ran out of patience with me for repeatedly asking “What does this sticker say?”
Most cities have moments in their history that remind us of the extent of humanity’s capacity for cruelty. Arguably, Berlin has witnessed more of it’s fair share of these moments. They are events that it would be easier and more comfortable to forget, but that is exactly why we must remember them. Memorials serve as physical reminders of our past, commemorating people and events that are triumphant and inspiring as well as dark and shameful. There are numerous memorials in Berlin that mark events that should never be allowed to be repeated. On a recent visit to the city, I visited many of these memorials, including the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under the National Socialist Regime, the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism, the Topography of Terror, and the Berlin Wall Memorial. The memorial that most resonated with my research interests, however, is the German Resistance Memorial Centre, which commemorates all those who stood up to the Nazi regime in various ways. It is housed in the Bendler Block, which was used by the military during the Nazi regime and was the centre of an attempted military coup on 20th July 1944.
Like other large memorials in Berlin, there are two key elements to the German Resistance Memorial Centre. The commemorative courtyard is the site where several of the officers involved in the failed uprising were executed on 20th July 1944. There is a statue and two plaques. The second element is a memorial and education centre, on the first and second floors of the building. It is designed to inform people about the motives, aims, and forms of resistance against the Nazi state. The Bendler Block also houses the Silent Heroes Memorial Centre, which commemorates people who helped Jewish people facing persecution during Nazi rule.
The commemorative courtyard is a fairly typical memorial space, calm and reflective, with a sculptor inspired by what happened there. The memorial and education centre feels more like a museum, although it displays very few objects. Instead, it uses text, images, and copies of documents to tell the stories of hundreds of individuals who used a whole range of tactics to resist Nazi rule. The Nazi state used a thorough process of dehumanisation to rationalise and justify their systematic persecution and murder of minority groups. Berlin’s memorials are highly effective at ‘re-humanising’ what happened, highlighting the stories of individuals, and putting faces to tragedies which are often difficult to comprehend because of their sheer scale.
In Britain, if we hear anything at all about German people living under the National Socialist regime, its that they quietly accepted the cruelty and violence. They were all too scared to speak up, or were perhaps willing to accept the excesses of the Nazi government as long as the economy continued to prosper. The German Resistance Memorial Centre completely turns that narrative on its head. It tells the story of hundreds of people who resisted the Nazi regime for religious, political, or moral reasons, or even just because they wanted to listen to genres of music that the Nazis frowned upon (Swing Kids, for example, liked to listen to jazz music, which the Nazis classified as “cultural degeneracy”). Resistance ranged from listening to foreign radio stations and printing and distributing anti-Nazi leaflets to attempts to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the entire government. The Silent Heroes Memorial Centre tells the stories of Germans who hid Jews from Nazi soldiers, classified their Jewish employees as essential workers to prevent their deportation, and forged passports to enable Jewish people to escape Nazi-controlled territory. When even the most basic act of resistance carried the potential for severe punishment, or even death, I am amazed at how many people were willing to take action. I left the exhibition with more faith in the bravery and integrity of humanity than I had when I arrived, which is always a nice feeling.
The German Resistance Memorial Centre is not one of the best-known tourist attractions in Berlin. It is even not one of the city’s best known memorials. However, a visit there is not only educational and moving, but also unexpectedly uplifting. I highly recommend checking it out if you ever visit Berlin.
Paul de Gregorio has worked in fundraising since 1996; he is currently Head of Mobile at Open, a fundraising and communications agency. In his day job he finds ways to inspire the public to take action for some of the charities and not for profit organisations here in the UK and increasingly overseas. He blogs about it here. He’s also a fellow protest sticker-spotter, a habit he indulged on a recent trip to Berlin. In this post, Paul showcases some of the stickers he found, as well as reflecting on a museum exhibition he visited about antisemitic and racist stickers. He’s sometimes posts pictures of the stickers he finds on Instagram.
In my day job I help charities and non-profit organisations generate mass response to their campaigns and appeals.
In my spare time, down time between meetings and when I’m on holiday I spend an extraordinary amount of time taking pictures of political stickers on my mobile. I do it because I want to amplify some of the messages I see, but also because I find their designs a good source of inspiration for my day job.
Berlin is always a good place to find this stuff. On a recent trip I was lucky enough to be in town for the Sticky Messages exhibition at the Deutsches Historisches Museum. The exhibition, to give it its full name, “Sticky Messages. Antisemitic and racist stickers from 1880 to the present”, was a detailed look at the history of the political sticker in Germany over time.
The exhibition itself is great, and whilst at the exhibition I learnt all about Irmela Mensah-Schramm. She is a 70 year old woman, well known in Germany for her personal commitment to the removal of neo-Nazi messages from public places. For the last 30 years Irmela has been scraping off and spray painting over all the neo-Nazi messages she finds. From time to time this has put her into conflict with local Nazis. But she continues to do it. Having removed over 70,000 stickers since she started, she’s now a hero of mine! You can hear more of her wonderful story in the film below.
You can also read more about her here.
And what follows are a tiny handful of the stickers I found on that trip…
Paul de Gregorio
All photographs are my copyright. You can use them, I’d just like you to ask and credit me.