In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, The Svenborg Poems
These lines from German playwright Bertolt Brecht seem almost as if composed for a world shuttered and locked down during the coronavirus pandemic. I’ve seen them used for just that purpose, that though is a little off the mark. The lines introduced a collection of poems composed while in exile in Denmark and published in 1939. The dark times of 1930s Germany would soon turn into war and genocide. The era Brecht refers to was more dystopian and dangerous than our own.
Brecht had communist sympathies and was a fierce critic of Hitler. Brecht’s wife and artistic collaborator, Helene Weigel, was Jewish. These facts could easily have been a death sentence for them and their children in 1930s Germany. In 1941, as the Nazis prepared to invade Soviet Russia, Brecht fled to the United States and safety. He later had to flee the United States during the McCarthyite anti-communist witch hunt, returning to Berlin in 1949 and the only country that would have him, communist East Germany.
Brecht lived to witness the chaos of a defeated Germany in 1918, spent the creative 1920s in Munich and Berlin, before witnessing the rise of Hitler and the destruction of the Weimar Republic – events leading inexorably to an even more vicious and destructive war in the 1940s and the Holocaust. His death in 1956 meant he never saw the German capital reunited, or to witness the extraordinary changes the city has gone through since the terrible days of May 1945 when the war came to its bloody end.
Today marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe and of the murderous Nazi regime. Commemorations of the end of the war take place against a backdrop of a resurgence in far right sympathies and, even though many events to mark the occasion will be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, they provide a timely reminder never to take our democracies for granted. In Berlin the scars of 1945 are still visible, as are memorials bearing witness to the horrors of National Socialism.
Berlin, capital of Imperial Germany until 1918, was co-opted by the Nazis as a potent symbol of the power of National Socialism. A symbolism that Stalin understood when his armies captured the ruined city on 8th May 1945. Today, only a few symbols of Nazi Germany still exist. Some Nazi-era buildings survived, including perhaps the most famous, the 1936 Olympic Stadium. The Olympics were a showcase for the Nazi regime, but are best remembered for Jesse Owens’ four gold medals proving Nazi ideas of Aryan supremacy to be nonsense.
The former Nazi Ministry of Aviation survived the war in such good condition it still houses the finance ministry. Tempelhof Airport was there before the Nazis but was substantially remodelled to reflect the Nazis favoured monolithic architectural style. Other buildings that were associated with the Nazis have been deliberately destroyed to stop them becoming pilgrimage sites for neo-Nazis. Hitler’s bunker is just the most prominent. The Topographie des Terrors now sits on the former site of the Gestapo headquarters.
If you have to search for these few remnants of National Socialism, you don’t have to look far to find monuments to the madness that ended with the destruction of Berlin. Whether the reconstructed Reichstag that was left a symbolic ruin after the war, the monumental Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Soviet cemeteries in the Tiergarten and Treptower Park, or the bombed out ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church. The reminders of previous horrors are rarely far away in this town; the lessons though are universal and should never be forgotten.