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.