Diary note 27: Wannsee

Berlin, 25 September 2018

We went to Wannsee where of course the Hitler-criminals decided on the genocide of all Jews in 1942. I refused to go to the building where they conspired the assassinations. I will do nothing that gives a touristic legitimacy to Hitler-times.

Though Wannsee is directly reached by S7, it took us some time because the train (Zug fällt aus!) did not appear. We took another to Westkreutz and another from there. Many were shivering in the cold draughts on the platforms. The light was clear, the clouds were white, the open patches of sky blue, but the temperature was autumnal. At Wannsee bus 114 took us quickly to the villa Liebermann had built on the last stretch of land still open along the lake in the twenties. Many grand villas had been built there since long and there was some aptness in Max Liebermann calling his finishing touch Der Schloss am Wannsee.

There he made himself a comfortable retreat. His wife Martha was happy there, the children had space, he created a small studio, Spartan, on the first floor, with good light and a view of the neighbourhood. But it was only gradually that he got inspired by landscaping the surroundings to his taste. In collaboration with his friend Alfred Lichtwark from 1928 on his garden hobby turned into a passion to get things right.

I must admit that his first lay-out along the street of a mixed vegetable and flower garden suffers from his fancy for full colours, especially reds and yellows and blues, in high abundance and a bit slapdash. But this painterly extravaganza became bridled on the side overlooking the Wannsee. There a long open lawn provided a central axis towards a white pavilion at the waterfront and a comfortable landing for boats. Keeping open this central view was clearly a priority with him and his friend, for the main intervention was to make parallel walks on both sides towards the water, secluded by hedges and trees.

I was pleasantly surprised to find my 1984 ideas for the Hooigracht garden – a series of green chambers – already present here. There was a square hedge garden, followed by an oval one with iris, and a crosswise rose garden, all made private by hornbeam hedges. But happily the colourfulness of the planting did no longer dominate.

I felt impressed by the so-called Lindenkarree, with trees making a inner room inside a wider room, and only one bench to read, in white. This purist, ascetic place seemed suddenly ahead of his times, without becoming just Bauhaus. It reminded me of the restraint of Michael van Gessel, landscape architect, who once told me he would always start by eliminating all incidents of design, “to make things calm”. This austere green garden was a delight and rose above the bourgeois hobbies of the rest.

Purism was also present at the other side of the lawn, where a walk among silver birches was enough to give this Birchenweg an autonomous feel. I had always felt negatively towards these parsimonious trees, but here they convinced me with their vertical white splashes of light, as if in a painting by Liebermann himself.

After the enclosed left-hand walk towards the waterfront tea pavilion, we made a restful right-hand walk back to the house. At the open beginning of the birch path we stood and watched a group of cormorants, black, drying their outstretched wings in the sun on the moorings.

Over this enlightened paradise of bourgeois ideals (Jewish emancipation and integration, an open view of the future) in 1933 the shadowy wings of fascism spread. We saw the letter of M.L.’s resignation from the academy, accompanied in the showcase by a menacing letter of an anti-Semite, remarkably like present day social media in its primary hate and malevolence. Also the official letter grabbing the villa from his wife Martha. He had suffered a bitter death in 1938 (if I remember well) but his wife lived on till 1942 when a scoundrel came to fetch her to Oranienburg death camp and she committed suicide by taking Veronal at the age of 86.

It was the year of the holocaust come-together a few villas farther on along lake Wannsee.