Berlin 2015 – Commemoration, public space and law

I spent last week on the field trip to Berlin with second year Cambridge Geography undergraduate students, co-lead by Charlotte Lemanski and Dagmar Zadrazilova. Having come from the RGS-IBG conference where there was much discussion on urban informality, squatting and Berlin (not least in the session discussing Alex Vasudevan’s Metropolitan Preoccupations) it seemed strange to focusing on a different topic altogether: the form, spaces and effects of memorials and commemoration. As we heard at each turn (and underscored by previous visits), Berlin is a city of commemoration, with one faced turned towards the past, but what becomes apparent when visiting so many sites of commemoration in a short space of time is the value placed on different pasts, the hierarchies of memory, the different approaches to remembering lives, loss and injustice.

This variety was evident in the student projects: many studied variants of the question of the extent to which memorials could be understood as ‘public space’ and if not, what were the forces (cultural, governmental, economic) that shape behaviour. The different sites are variously enclosed, but is behaviour shaped by more fundamental questions that aesthetics and access: is it a reflection of what the memorials symbolise?  Others were exploring how different commemorative strategies began to blend into the background, even at sites that were initially as contentious as the Bavarian Quarter Memorial in the streets around Bayerisher Platz. This led to challenging questions of whether or not commemorations demanded to be seen, or whether there existence in the background of streetscapes was a signal of acceptance of their message.

From my perspective, the Bavarian Quarter Memorial contains the most interesting insights for work on geography and law. The work comprises 80 signs (see photo) attached to lamp posts that have a simple image on one side (almost child-like) and on the other one of the laws used to persecute Jews between 1939 and 1943. The memorial is, then, rendering visible the kinds of (often petty) invisible pieces of legislation used to normalise persecution. Though there is no simple narrative arc to the laws, the general move is from seemingly minor cultural exclusions (not singing in choirs or not being allowed to go to Wannsee beach) through to more brutal means (finally ending with laws and accounts of transportation). The signs are often placed in close proximity with relevant present-day uses of space (laws excluding Jewish children from mixing with Aryan children  is located next to a playground). It is an incredible way of demonstrating the pernicious role that gradual exclusion can play in producing violent and harmful political outcomes. It reminds me of Merje Kuus‘s point on geopolitical discourse: it is not that the early, seemingly petty, laws ’caused’ particular outcomes, but — over time — they made certain policy interventions seem more feasible and reasonable.

It was also interesting to see how much the city continues to change — even in the short space of time I have been running the trip — memorials expand, the former palace is rising to become a new part of Humboldt University, the underground between Alexanderplatz and Brandenburg Gate is nearly complete and the new airport…well, the new airport sits unused.

Alex Jeffrey, September 2015

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