The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape Book Review
Brian Ladd attempts the perilous task of analyzing urban landscape and architecture in The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape. Architecture and preservation become the stepping stones in order to further examine the connections and disconnections within the German history. From this scope Ladd questions and opens broader discussions in regards to the issues of culture, civic identity, psychology, memory, and guilt that orbit around the physical landmarks of Berlin due to its troublesome history. Ladd debates the means in which the Third Reich has been operating and how it is currently conceived by Berliners, as evident in the physical structure of Berlin as well as in the debates that revolves around it. Ladd views the past as immoral, a being notion that does not die, but rather stays to haunt, which is not only unique to Berlin among German cities, but it continues to haunt many more European cities throughout the course of the 20th century just like ghosts, most notably as city planners and experts involved with historical preservation carefully weigh what has sentimental values, whether it must be kept or not as opposed to what does not possess those value and must be wiped out in order to make room for other public needs such as housing, libraries, recreational facilities etc. In comparison, American city planners tend to arise some heated arguments and generate conflicts amongst society in order to debate the need for a public space or even its aesthetics, however historic preservation seldom causes such debates to that intensity as it does in Germany. Ladd points out how the most recognizable symbol of Berlin, being the Berlin wall, has resulted in a separation amongst East Berliners and West Berliners which as a starting point opens up the door to discussions in regards to historic preservation and urban planning. Throughout the book, Ladd examines five periods in the history of Berlin, focusing on the impact of physical structures such as buildings, statues and monuments on German’s history. He begins by referring to 18th and 19th centuries, an era where kings came to power and demanded the construction of their executive center of operations which involves the legacy of Karl Friedrich Schnikel, a Prussian architect and city planner that helped shaped the image of Germany at the time throughout his neo-classical and neo-gothic designs. He then moves to the early 20th century, where Berlin began to develop modernist desires as well as the fear of modernism amongst its residents. Then was the Nazi period, where Albert Speer worked closely with Adolf Hitler to plan the city as the capital of the world (p. 139), to be known as Germania, which involved building of many colossal public structures. Next period to be examined was the period of post-war, where the city remained divided on whether to represent itself as communist or liberalist. Finally the present-day period, a unified Berlin that represents itself as the capital of the reunified Germany. A period where many attempt to figure out how to cope with Germany’s past and Berlin’s involvement within that past.
The book consists of six chapters: Berlin Walls, Old Berlin, Metropolis, Nazi Berlin and the Capital of the New Germany Chronology of Berlin’s History. Ladd views the history of the buildings as a pioneer in regards to the “controversies over their disposition.” which throughout this book he attempts to analyze and signify their effects on Berlin’s civic character. The book is organized in two ways: buildings undergo studies within historical context and how that history is then deciphered during the present times. Ladd does a great job of gracefully bouncing from past to present and vice versa, allowing the reader to be placed in the core of the debates while still providing some of that history. Throughout the debates, Ladd stays away from taking a stance and rather focuses on how that debate folds out in Berlin’s landscape.
The reader comes to an understanding that the two ghosts (as the title of the book) haunting Berlin and Germany in a broader sense are Holocaust and Nazism. Which then brings up the issue of coming to terms and dealing with the past after war. The author examines the Reich Ministry and Gestapo headquarters in order to allow the readers realize the scale of the Nazi projects and then points to the difficulties caused by that scale such as demolishing them in the future making it impossible. Reich Ministry of Aviation building brings up the debate on whether the remains can be useful on rigorously functional grounds or not. The West-Berlin city officials agreed to install a plaque on the Reich Ministry of Aviation building in response to the 1953 East German worker’s riot that took place there, however it failed to honnor and recognize the victims of the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaigns. Ladd acknowledges that understanding any aspect of the Nazi horror is difficult and those who came in terms and accepted it are those whom generally commemorate without being too critically specific in terms of judgment. In the “Topography of Terror”, Ladd begins to elaborate more on what came after the discovery of prison cells located in the basement of the Gestapo headquarters in the year 1985 which then turned into an exhibit and was put on display. He considers it successful by pointing out that “the organizer’s emphasis on documentation rather than interpretation or judgment successfully avoided the usual controversies about understanding the Third Reich’s role in German history” (p. 162). It turned into a place that evoked the wrongdoers rather than honoring the victims in people’s minds. The exhibit helped recognize Berlin and even Germany’s part in the Third Reich, while shedding some light on the leaders of the state, and not just the “ordinary men.” The two examples provide the readers a broader understanding Berlin’s civic characters.
Another interesting aspect of the author’s work is his prominence on rising conflict over how to perpetuate the government of the German Democratic Republic, a topic that until this day has received very little devotion from urban critics. He mentions the “Wessies” meaning the West-Berliners and “Ossies” meaning the East-Berliners and encourages the readers to consider the buildings, statues, headstones and monuments of the German Democratic Republic as remainders of another totalitarian German government rather than the one in power currently. Both “Wessies” and “Ossies” have complete different views on what the buildings and monuments may mean to them, after reading the examples, one can begin to distinguish the characters associated with their buildings and monuments within the city. For instance, Ladd uses the statue of Lenin which at the time served as a pivotal point for the apartment complex. The statue depicted a defeated cause in the minds of West-Berliners which when it was taken down they considered it “completing the revolution of 1989” (p. 197). On the other hand, to East-Berliners, the statue was a representation of their journey as Berliners, regardless of any political view. The author quotes one East-Berliner saying “For me it’s not about Lenin, but rather about demonstrating our power and not letting ourselves be pushed around”(p. 197) in order to enlighten the viewers that East-Berliners had a feeling that their contributions to shape and mold the city should not be erased for the sole purpose of the West-Berliners simply feeling ashamed of defeat.
In terms of materials and sources, the author utilized many articles from periodicals, memoirs, documentations of important meetings, voice recordings and even pamphlets. The book includes black and white pictures, which help provide proof of what has been discussed and better understanding of the analysis. The book also contains a bibliography in addition to a timeline. Throughout the book, it becomes evident that the author has had been in contact with many Berliners before writing this book in the research phase, such as Hans Stimman (City Director) and Eberhard Diepgen (Mayor of Berlin). I personally believe that if Ladd included any of his interviews with those political persons of interests, it could’ve helped many outsiders get a better grasp through the scope of Berliners themselves.
Overall, this book exhibits how Germans take the many encumbrances of their history quiet utterly, and how every attempt to push the more revolting traits of its past has faced severe opposition. Brian Ladd is mainly gratified with recitation of one controversy after another. However, the overall continuum of the narrative is missing the full depth in terms of analysis. At times where necessary, the author tries not to commit to any side of the argument, which to me it seems that this book lacks a clear argument by itself. He paves the ground for some exclusive opportunities to tie a number of debates on national landmarks together, but he then fails to calculate and draw the common denominator in order to provide the final answer which leaves everything up to the mind of the readers to do and draw the connection between them.
The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape Book Review