I was recently on a trip through Germany and spent a couple of days in the town of Bamberg, in the north of Bavaria in the region known as Franken, or, in English, Franconia. Bamberg is a lovely place and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is pedestrian-friendly with lots of public spaces and well-preserved medieval and early modern architecture, including a unique city hall (the Altes Rathaus, in German) dating from the 15th century and built on a bridge as part of a manmade island in the Regnitz River. Of course, it wasn’t built this way just so future visitors could have a quaint old building in the middle of a bridge to ponder. The historical markers on the building explained that this middle point in the river was a kind of neutral zone between the religious holdings of the local bishop and the secular authority of the city fathers, and as the bishopric didn’t want to give an inch of the church’s land to build a city hall at the time, the city made do by making an island and building a city hall there. Today the building is a museum as the political authority has been fully secularized.
But the main reason I wanted to write about Bamberg is because of the memorial placards on a church located just below the old city hall and at the edge of the other short bridge crossing the river in the old city center. On the front of this church are two memorials, and they link both to my previous post and mini-lecture on memorial landscapes, and to questions about why and how exactly we want to remember certain historical moments or periods or people by building monuments to them and arranging the landscape around them. This has become a difficult (for some, at least) question in the US South right now, where many localities are removing or resituating monuments and memorials commemorating the military and political leaders of the Confederacy. I have some thoughts on that which I’ll save for a later post, as I think it deserves its own more focused discussion, and there is a lot of geographic research on the struggle over memorialization in the US South, not just of the Confederacy but also of the 20th century civil rights movement and of the African-American experience more generally. In human geography, Derek Alderman at the University of Tennessee has done the most prominent work on this, and I highly recommend it.
In Bamberg, I was struck by the two memorials on the church wall because one is a memorial to those Jews and other minority and politically persecuted groups who were murdered in the Holocaust, a common sight in Germany and some parts of Eastern Europe, while the other is a memorial to the German soldiers and civilians from Bamberg who died in World War II. This is not something I had seen much of in my several trips to Germany, though I generally have remained in Berlin or areas that were in the former DDR/GDR, and these kinds of memorials would not be common in that context. I saw two thematically similar but slightly different memorials in Gonsenheim, part of the city Mainz, though I was not able to get decent photos of them. One was a column, maybe 4 meters tall, commemorating a particular artillery division of the German army that was from, or had been stationed in, Gonsenheim during the period after World War I and through World War II. The second was more like the Bamberg church memorial, but was a kind of carved stone block in front of a church near the center of town, depicting three or four German soldiers laying another to rest in a grave, with some wording that I didn’t quite make out as we went past.
I don’t read these kind of memorials as celebrating the strength of German military might under the Nazis, or endorsing or advancing any positive associations with the Nazi regime that ruled in Germany from 1933 to 1945. But they do emphasize the loss of German lives, especially but not only German military losses, during WWII. During this trip, I also had a chance to visit the city of Cologne (or Köln, in German), home to the beautiful and enormous Kölner Dom cathedral. Allied forces executed several dozen bombing raids on Cologne through the war. Outside the cathedral are several poster-size photographs (for sale) of the city in the years immediately following World War II, when 95 percent of the population had left the city or been killed (for the record, that meant several hundred thousand people), and most of Cologne had been left a pile of rubble by Allied bombing campaigns. Even as late as 1949, the bridges crossing the Rhine in Cologne remained a twisted pile of metal lying in the river, and incendiary bombs dropped by the British and Americans meant years of housing shortages as the city was rebuilt and people came pouring back in at the war’s end.
All of this is to note that the German population suffered heavy casualties during the war, both from military combat and from attacks on civilian and industrial infrastructure. The small memorials like those I encountered in Bamberg and Gonsenheim are reminders of this, but they also walk a fine line in terms of what exactly they inscribe into social memory in contemporary German urban landscapes, and how they do it. Any symbology that openly replicates, celebrates, or endorses the Nazis is strictly illegal in Germany, and anything that hints at nostalgia for the Nazi era would be, for the vast majority of people, an embarrassment at best and an affront to Germany’s self-image as the peaceful leader of a modern Europe. To speculate a bit, though, perhaps extreme nationalists (and those concerned with and opposed to a revival of xenophobic nationalism) might see these memorials, or some aspects of them, as equating the loss of German lives in the pursuit of Nazi domination of Europe and beyond with the murder of innocents carried out as part of that same project. In other words, memorializing the German war dead is for some a painful reminder that many Germans lost family members and loved ones in the war, not all of them fighting for the Reich and even then not all willingly. As the war drew to a close, many German men who would not normally have been eligible for the military because of age or physical limitations were pushed into service upon pain of prison or death. For others these memorials might keep alive the idea that Germany was once a military power, that undue casualties were inflicted upon the nation, or that the cause of war and of the loss of German life is somehow separable from the larger political context and strategies through which the war was waged.
While historical specificity and differences are important, these are roughly the same issues that confront those who want to maintain memorials to Confederate generals and leaders in the US South. Is it possible to separate the death of military combatants and other victims of war from the perpetration or execution of wars and the ideals or political projects that inspire them? Can we memorialize the Confederate or German war dead without also noting that the former were fighting to uphold slavery as a political, economic, and social system, and that the latter fought to expand the German state in conjunction with the wholesale eradication of “lesser peoples” as determined through a violently racist worldview? If so, how do we do this in ways that can provide useful understanding for the present and future rather than trying (and failing) to capture a static past by freezing some particular memories of it in stone? These are difficult questions without easy answers, and the traces of the past are often built hard into the landscape in ways that we don’t always notice, and as social and political change force reconsideration of the past and our relationship to it, these memorials take on new and different, and sometimes unacceptable, meanings. As I said, I have a lot of thoughts on the Confederate memorials that are now under scrutiny, and in some cases coming down, across the US South, and some examples of my own, and will come to those in my next post. Far be it from me to tell the people of Bamberg or Gonsenheim how to remember their past and their dead. Bamberg is over 1000 years old anyway, so there is much more to be considered than the 12 years of Nazi rule, though that period left an indelible stain on future generations and the place itself. The question of how Germans can remember their own war dead without producing touchstones for those eager to revive a sense of exclusionary nationalist pride is difficult, especially as Germany becomes more diverse and takes on new leadership roles in Europe and the world. So the functions of these memorials in the landscape are multiple, not least as warnings to ourselves and our descendants, and it does well to remember Marx’s famous line:
“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”