If you walk up the stretch of Müllerstraße, past the Jobcenter, a pillar beckons from the shadows of the trees on Max-Josef-Metzger-Platz. Is it a climbing wall? Old smokestack? Bell tower? As you approach, you see that the stele – the technical term – is covered in Keith Haring-ish figures.
In the distance, the chimney of the former crematorium that is now the Silent Green culture centre seems to echo the structure. As you approach the stele, you feel that you are entering an eerie, shadowy space. Close up, you see that this is no 1980s pop-art. All fours sides are covered in mosaics depicting faceless bodies doing things that aren’t easy to identify. Some are working with hammers, some have their arms raised, as if in protest. Others appear to be bound together. The base of each side is labelled with a single word:
As you circle the monument, you realise you’re not sure which one of these historical phases is supposed to happen first. It’s brutally cyclical, as if humanity might be stuck in this circular process. When you read up on it, you find out that this is a memorial titled Trümmerstele (Rubble Stele). It was completed in 1954. The artist Gerhard Schultze-Seehof built the structure out of bricks from bombed buildings in the neighbourhood, which must have looked like another planet just nine years after the end of the war. The mosaic was composed with 40,000 fragments of brick lifted from the ruins.
The sculpture was part of the urban renewal underway in Berlin at the time. At the unveiling, the mayor of Wedding honoured the Trümmerfrauen (Rubble Women), the women who famously toiled to clean up after the immense destruction. And so the monument is also sometimes called the Trümmerfraustele.
Like most German memorials to the war and its victims built in the post-war period, this one is very vague about who did what. Slavery? Who were the slaves, exactly? The Germans under Hitler? The Germans in the GDR, where workers had revolted in 1953? Or perhaps specifically the Jews of Europe and the millions of other minority people Hitler tried to eradicate? And, besides, who were the perpetrators? The Nazi leadership? The Germans as a people? Each individual German or the collective? In 1954, the trauma of dictatorship, the war and its aftermath must have been so fresh that Berliners were incapable of answering these questions coherently.
The Germans themselves had been through Hell and often saw themselves as the primary victims of the war. It was virtually impossible at that stage for them to imagine that they had themselves brought such destruction and terror upon themselves and the world. It would be at least another decade until honest, open discussions about responsibility for the Holocaust would move into the mainstream.
The Vergangenheitsbewältigung began in the 1960s, when writers like the psychoanalyst Margarete Mitscherlich-Nielsen began to explore the psychological aftermath of apocalyptic war. She identified in the Germans an Inability to Mourn – the title of her 1967 book. This was probably the first time a German intellectual addressed the country’s collective avoidance of questions of guilt for the Holocaust, that had been committed not only in their name, but also often with their complicity, as painstakingly described in Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.
The park itself is named after a victim of the Nazis. Max Josef-Metzger was a German Catholic priest and pacifist with a love for Esperanto. Throughout the 1930s, he was repeatedly arrested by the Gestapo for his pacifist writings. In 1943, when he tried to send a letter about a post-war world peace to a Swedish Archbishop, it turned out that the courier, Dagmar Imgart, was a Swedish Gestapo agent who turned in him. Metzger was executed in Brandenburg-Görden Prison in 1944.
After reading up on all this cruelty, you sit on the grass in front of the totemic structure and begin to feel a little compassion for the German women who went through the war. Many of the Trümmerfrauen experienced starvation and rape. That, on top of the loss of loved ones and the wholesale destruction of their city. Some of them might have been heroes, victims and perpetrators wrapped up into one – though we’ll never know exactly what each individual woman experienced, or did or didn’t do during the war.