Topographie des Terrors

Somewhere I’d read the desert of stone around Topographie des Terrors was composed of greywacke, one of my favourite rocks, but I think that was perhaps an inventive mistranslation. Still, the grounds of the museum are blanketed in it, when not forested.

Two weeks ago I went to the Jüdisches Museum and managed to formulate some thoughts on it while talking with Isabelle, who asked me if I’d been to Topographie des Terrors. Following my entirely indiscriminate approach to Museum Sundays, I couldn’t think of another that seemed more likely, so this afternoon, after lunch in with Dasniya and Florian in our kitchen (harhar if you know our kitchen), I was on my bike southwards.

I like the Bundesministerium der Finanzen, formerly the Reichsluftfahrtministerium, but then I’ve always had a fondness for that particular style of modernist architecture, despite its habitual association with fascism. Perhaps it’s just the time it emerged in, though I think equally there is a mentality in its aesthetics that corresponds with that period of industrialised, colonial nationalism. It’s just across the road from a stretch of the wall and Martin Gropius Bau, where I’ve been a couple of times, and juts oppressively over the remnant slabs of wall, windows all mean and small, hammered into battlement stone slabs like prison cells.

Unlike the utter absence of people in the reaches not around the wall, this section of the museum was heavily populated with people photographing themselves in front of the barrier. It’s somewhat bizarre a choice of holiday snaps.

I liked the barrenness of the grounds. It’s about as close as one can get to a fitting response to what happened in the buildings that were once here while remaining apprehensible by visitors. To salt and poison the earth and render it hostile to all who tread it, then wall it in, or gouge it out and blast the sandy Berlin geology until it melts would also be equivalent acts of memorial. It’s also good to arrive in winter, when the light is dim and listless, visibility is washed out by fog and mist, colour only comes from greyness, and cold and damp accompany.

Formerly this was a block containing the School of the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Prinz-Albrecht Palais and gardens, Europahaus, other buildings of Art Nouveau and the Kaiserreich along wealthy streets of the same. And now it is stripped bare. I followed the outside path first, short biographies of the buildings which once stood where nothing now remains, photographs of the edifices, dates when the Nazis moved in. It grew dark by the time I arrived at the air raid shelter dug by slave labour of political prisoners from Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Political prisoners meant largely communists, Die Rote Kapelle, liberals and intellectuals, artists, and either in combination or separately, homosexuals.

After and during Jüdisches Museum I was angry, enraged. Topologies des Terrors imparts a dull numbness. It is the lifeless grey stone of the Reichsluftfahrtministerium at dusk in winter, bereft of the living, of trees, greenness. It’s hollowed out and empty. There are many Nazis though, and they all are laughing.

I didn’t take many photos inside; it felt distasteful, like carrying the corpse of a rat out to the rubbish. What could I photograph anyway? The laughing Nazis? They were always smiling and full of life, especially when on holiday from murder. Their victims? Hanging broken-necked from trees and lampposts, starved to skeletons, kneeling or showing their back about to be shot, the moment of the shot, tumbled into graves. The numbers? Always numbers, columns, instructions, lists, documents, stamps, signatures, plans, orders. Does the number “11 million” mean something, signify something, declare something worse, more horrific than the 6 million the SS got away with? Jews that is. A document with a line-item: Jüden: 11.000.000. Or what of the plans for Lebensraum? More than double that figure. And the architecture. The Palais, the hotels, the studios of the Kunstgewerbemuseum the other edifices bounded by four streets, all turned from their original use to this.

Two photographs from inside. One is a map of the Reich in June, 1937. It documents those arrested in that month, stamped in red, ”Geheim!” The key: Communists, Social Democrats, Enemies of the State, Catholics … Jews … Homosexuals has small coloured circles next to each. Homosexuals get a circle with a black cross. 102 arrested in Berlin for the month of June. Gay, lesbian, trans, bisexual? It doesn’t indicate though other documents and photographs imply it was gay men; lesbians being more pliant and less of a threat to the state.

The other is titled ”Kennzeichen für Schutzhäftlinge in den Konz.-lagern” – “ID markers for Protective Custody Prisoners in Concentration Camps”. The top row lists: Political, Professional Criminal, Emigrant, Jehovah’s Witness, Homosexual, Work-shy (a catch-all for Roma, pacifists, lesbians, prostitutes, mentally ill, homeless, anarchists …); the left column indicates: Base Colour, Recidivists, Penal Labour, Markings for Jews.

A Jewish holocaust scholar said, in his criticism of the memorial to gay and lesbian victims of Nazis, among other things that it was only German homosexuals the Nazis persecuted; that it was political. He does not say there were no Jewish queers, though there is little need to as the manicuring of history which has placed Jewish identity at the centre of the holocaust has simultaneously diminished or denied their existence. So here we see a combination insignia: a yellow triangle overlaid with a pink triangle, for Homosexuelle Jüden.

Unlike the Jüdisches Museum, Topographie des Terrors does document the genocide against other groups and locate them within the overarching structure of Nazi racial purity. Perhaps what is critical here is the statelessness of the victims. Whether Jewish, Roma, Homosexual, Slavic, all are groups of significant number, and all had (or have) a lack of statehood. Statehood for queers sounds laughable, a logical fallacy, a misunderstanding of what a state is. Yet Jews were German, they were not a special case of German or some fiendish Other. To say otherwise is only possible if one declares exactly and precisely what constitutes a German, and adheres to a line of thinking that by elimination leads directly to the gas chamber. Through the removal of statehood from a person or group of people, committing acts of violence is no longer a question in the domain of philosophy or ethics; it is simply one of bureaucracy and accounting.

There were some Brazillian football players in town to play against Bayern Münich, they asked me to take a photo of them in front of the wall while holding up their team’s flag.