Unexpected Sites of WWI Remembrance: Berlin

No, it’s not unexpected that the capital of Germany would have commemorative sites related to World War I. But the ways that the memory of that war show up in Berlin can catch you off guard, as I discovered on my recent tour.

Amazingly, I’d never been to Berlin, so we started by orienting ourselves to the city’s main axis, running from the Reichstag east along the Unter den Linden to the old Royal Palace and Protestant cathedral on Museum Island. Near the Reichstag is Berlin’s version of a triumphal arch: the Brandenburg Gate.

Though erected as a symbol of Prussian power, used by the Nazis, and later made famous as an epicenter of Berlin’s experience of the Cold War (John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan spoke here), the Brandenburg Gate also played an important role in Germany’s chaotic transition from monarchy to republic at the end of 1918

On December 10th, nine divisions returning from the Western Front marched through the Brandenburg Gate. Though not quite a victory parade, it was still an occasion for nationalistic fervor. The new leader of suddenly republican Germany, pro-war Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert, told the troops that they “returned undefeated in the field”:

Be welcomed wholeheartedly, fellow soldiers, comrades, citizens. No enemy overcame you. Only when the opponent’s superiority in people and materiel became ever more oppressive did we give up the fight. And especially in the face of your heroism it was [our] duty not to demand senseless additional sacrifices from you…. With heads held high you can return.

Alas, this notion of “undefeated” Germany, coupled with the widespread belief that Ebert’s party had betrayed the nation in signing the Treaty of Versailles, ultimately helped pave the way for the rise of National Socialism in 1933. Further down the Unter den Linden, the most famous incident of Nazi book burning took place that May in Bebelplatz, in front of the Humboldt University. Across the street stands another Prussian symbol that became the city’s main WWI memorial.

Somehow I forgot to take an exterior photo of Neue Wache, so I’ll borrow someone else’s — licensed by Creative Commons (Ansgar Koreng)

Called Neue Wache because it was the new guardhouse for soldiers charged with protecting Prussia’s kings, the neo-classical building was inaugurated in 1818 in celebration of Germans’ liberation from the rule of Napoleon. But in 1931, it was redesigned by architect Heinrich Tessenow (the teacher of Albert Speer) as the Prussian state memorial for World War I. While his memorial hall remained, the actual sculpture changed over time as new governments shifted the meaning of Neue Wache. During the Cold War, the communist rulers of East Germany recast it as a memorial to victims of fascism, removing the classical sculptures out front and replacing the WWI memorial (a granite block) with an eternal flame and the unidentified remains of a soldier and a concentration camp victim. But after German reunification, Neue Wache became a memorial to “the victims of war and tyranny.”

That language arouses ambivalent feelings — were Germans actually victims of wars they had caused, of a fascist tyrant they had brought to power? — but the sculpture that now stands in the memorial hall, exposed to the elements via Tessenow’s uncovered skylight, is deeply moving: an enlarged replica of Mother with her Dead Son, a modernist pietà by the great Käthe Kollwitz, whose son Peter was killed in battle in October 1914. (I often mention to students her statues of two grieving parents that watch over the German military cemetery in Vladslo, Belgium.)

It was interesting to watch people’s reactions to the interior of Neue Wache. For several minutes, a crowd gathered at the entrance… but no one moved into the space. It was like they thought it was sacred ground, and so contented themselves to take pictures from a distance. But then a young boy inched forward, until he stood silently in front of Kollwitz’s statue.

One final instance of WWI commemoration in Berlin… it’s predictable, but hard enough to find that I’ll keep it under the “unexpected sites” theme. After doing some pre-trip research, I realized that there are over 7,000 German soldiers buried in Columbiadamm cemetery, in the district of Neukölln. (It’s not easy to get into: one gate was locked, and the next one turned out to be the entrance to a mosque.) Originally the cemetery for the garrison of Prussian soldiers at Tempelhof (which became an iconic airfield), Columbiadamm has an entire section of WWI dead (including one Indian soldier who must have been a prisoner of war) identified with nothing but small grave markers.

One of the many graves for an “unknown soldier” in Columbiadamm…

Near that section are the graves of officers who died in Germany’s colonies abroad, plus Johann Boese’s dramatic 1888 memorial. Though erected in honor of soldiers who didn’t survive brief wars with Austria (1866) and France (1870-1871), the image of an eagle over a grieving Prussian flagbearer took on new meaning decades later, when a veterans’ group added to the rear base of Boese’s obelisk an inscription in memory “of our unforgotten comrades of the German army [Wehrmacht], 1939-1945.”

Then the center of the cemetery includes several unit memorials from World War I, none more striking than that for Queen Augusta’s Grenadier Guards. Dedicated in 1925, Franz Dorrenbach’s sculpture shows a dead soldier covered by a blanket; his features are entirely obscured, save for a clenched fist extended defiantly. The new president of the Weimar Republic, Paul von Hindenburg, attended the dedication service, but another former general of the Great War, Friedrich Sixt von Armin, laid a wreath in honor of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had abdicated at war’s end and remained in exile in Holland.

“We died so that Germany may live,” reads the inscription, “so let us live in you.” According to historian Stefan Goebel, that bit of German was added later, in case residents of the then-working class borough couldn’t read the original Latin quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid: “May an avenger one day rise from my bones.”