This week’s trip to Berlin straddled the results of the US election and the anniversaries of Kristallnacht and the end of the Great War. And my hotel was less than five minutes from Checkpoint Charlie. The first reaction to news of the victory of a man who wanted to build a wall between the US and Mexico was to walk to a site where a divisive wall had been taken down within my own lifetime. Were it not for the ghoulish tourist industry that has sprung up around Checkpoint Charlie, cashing-in on the wall’s notoriety, you would never know that Berlin had ever been a divided city.
If there is one grain of comfort to be gleaned from Donald Trump’s victory it was that it pushed Brexit down the agenda in dinner-time discussions with European colleagues, though the consensus was that both were manifestations of similar social phenomena. And, many told me, nationalist and anti-EU parties are on the rise in other countries too. Marianne Le Pen is using Brexit as a springboard to make her own overtures in France, and she is not the only one. It would be highly ironic if one consequence of Brexit was that the ambition of those who have been arguing for “ever closer union” has to be tempered as a result of anti-EU sentiments encouraged by Brexit. The other side of this argument is that the UK is generally seen as a voice of moderation within the EU and some fear the loss of our voice against the federalists.
A short walk on from Checkpoint Charlie brought me to the Jüdisches Museum, housed in a wonderful building by Daniel Libeskind (who also designed the 9/11 Memorial in New York: see “Reflecting absence”). I visited this museum on my first visit to Berlin not long after it opened in 2001 and was impressed by the way that the building itself drew you in and subtly adjusted your mood to fit the ambience of the museum and its message. The only comparable experience is a visit to one of Europe’s great Romanesque or Gothic cathedrals. The message of the Jüdisches Museum is not pretty in a time when Trump and Farage are stoking up fears of the “other”: Jewish communities have lived their distinctive lives for well over a thousand years in Europe, often in peace alongside their Christian neighbours, but sometimes not. The coincidence of the rise of nationalist movements with increased suspicion of Jewish communities is stark. We need “them” in order to define “us” and the Jews have been the convenient foils for nationalists for time immemorial. Perhaps Islam now takes that role in Europe?
I wonder, too, if the Jüdisches Museum is somehow symbolic of Germany’s determination to make a Europe that transcends old nationalistic prejudices and limits? The Second World War feeds the UK’s national myth of a small proud independent nation, the “Few” battling against, and ultimately overcoming, forces of Evil. Germans walking through the Jüdisches Museum and contemplating the history of the 20th century can only leave with the question “what must I do to ensure that this never happens again?”
Libeskind’s building is more than just a container for the museum’s exhibits: it also speaks directly to visitors. He created “voids” into his design: empty spaces that extend vertically through the whole museum as a counterpoint to the exhibits themselves. His intention was that these voids illustrated the absence of Jews from modern German society. One of these contains an installation, Fallen Leaves, by Menashe Kadishman, an Israeli artist, who has filled the floor of the void with 10,000 faces punched out of steel to represent all the innocent victims of war and violence. The eleventh hour of the eleventh month passed while I was in the museum but the atmosphere inside was such that there seemed no need to mark that moment. The building, itself, more than compensates for two minutes of silence that, in UK, we mark at this time.
Menashe Kadishman, Fallen Leaves / Shalekhet, Jüdisches Museum, Berlin.