Diary note 26: Neue Wache

Berlin, 19 October 2018

At Unter den Linden I had mainly wanted to find back a classical hall with two soldiers in front of it. Half a century ago on two sides of a closed iron gate they had stood guard (in their East German inelegant uniforms) just as unemployed as those at Buckingham Palace. It had remained in my memory as a pure facade, yet enigmatic. Had it been a monument to the unknown?

Unter den Linden was no longer a dreary place. It had been polished, but neither was it now full of meaning. It was just well visited. Tourists were led to the place where a book-burning had taken place. This book-burning by German students in 1938 had targeted the symbol of book-learning: Humboldt University. Beneath the locus delicti an artist had created an underground memorial consisting of empty bookshelves. This was apt, but also vacuous. Reading on the pavement Heine’s words struck a deeper vein, because they had been spoken a century earlier: when books are burnt , humans will follow.

After the historical fact, artists can only fail.

I recognized the sombre building I was looking for. We crossed the sun-swept traffic lanes to join it. It was called Die Neue Wache. In the 18th century it had had been created to house guardsmen opposite some dwellings of the Prussian Royal Family. No guards were posted there anymore.

I now seemed to recollect something. Had it not been used by the communists as a memento to the victims of fascism? Presently a bronze plate enumerated many specific categories, including gypsies and homosexuals, alongside the victims of war and ideology. In changing from East to West the place had become ecumenical. One would expect some eternal flame to burn to commemorate such thing, this absence.

Peering through the grill, with my eyes still blinded by the sun setting on the horizon, I recognized the shape on the floor inside. It was the shadowy form of Käthe Kollwitz’s Mother and Son, more than ever evoking its Christian predecessor, the Pietà. The wooden original we had visited a few days ago.

It brought all abstract victimhood back to what it is: personal tragedy.