Memory is not a voluntary act


Joshua Ellison explores the presence of the past in Berlin @ Habitus.
Memory is everywhere in Berlin, but history is curiously absent. There isn’t much to see that’s especially old. A few churches, a few grand buildings and statues, a few ominous relics, but otherwise the post-war and post-wall city is gray and mute. There are lots of places where significant things used to be: a cheerless park where Hitler’s bunker used to be; tidy streets that used to be bisected by the wall; endless holes in the ground and scaffolding and cranes.A hundred years ago, the journalist Karl Scheffler famously wrote that Berlin was a “city condemned to becoming and never to being.” Even now, nothing looks quite finished. Berlin is always becoming something else, but it’s condemned precisely by what it had been before.Even where the past has been all but erased, Berliners are constantly recording and remembering. Monuments, large and small, are everywhere. Berlin is perpetually retelling its own story. It’s how the city brands itself, in both senses of the word.Engrossed with self-accusation—sometimes touching and sometimes a little smug—the city also seems to be aching for redemption. Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum is easily the most iconic public memory project in the city. It’s not a Holocaust memorial, technically, but rather a requiem for and tribute to German Jewry. Still, it is so full of tragic portent, even melodrama, that it reads more like a passion play (the wing devoted to contemporary life is called the “Axis of Continuity”) but feels like a resurrection myth. Libeskind leaves little to the imagination; you feel the architect over your shoulder at all times, tapping and pointing. On the other hand, the institution has created a vibrant public presence. On my visits, the museum was more