'Haunted Berlin’ Bearing Witness to the Dead

FALL 2020

by Eileen Doktorski

Cohort ’18

Last summer, due to Covid-19, we could not take a trip to Berlin as planned, so IDSVA had to move our intensive residencies online. During our second year Topological Studies summer course, Professor Howard Caygill prefaced that he would not be giving the usual lecture with Q&A, but instead would provide the experience of a virtual, walking tour of Berlin. Over the next three hours, he guided IDSVA students through a cultural history of memorials to victims of Nazism; providing philosophical insights into the city’s relationship with its past and reasons for its importance to a particular cultural moment in European history. He began with an excerpt by Walter Benjamin, printed in The Berlin Chronicle.  

“Noisy, matter-of-fact Berlin, the city of work and the metropolis of business, nevertheless has more, rather than less, than some others, of those places and moments when it bears witness to the dead, shows itself full of dead.”

Caygill presented the experience of memorials as ‘bearing witness to the dead.’ Like the most experienced of guides, he wove into his conversations of ‘Haunted Berlin’ personal stories and memories; from his own life, including an imagined, misremembered event, and an account from Kant’s private life on purposeful forgetting. These stories examined mnemotechnics (devices to aid memory) while enhancing the sense of an intimate journey. Caygill referred to Nietzsche’s concept in On the Use and Abuse of History for Life: “…a kind of mnemotechnics that we call monuments or memorials” and paraphrased Nietzsche’s idea that “Human beings are animals who have learned to make promises” and thus comprehend obligations to the past. Caygill described that these ‘public mnemotechnics’ determine the relationship between who remembers and how it is remembered.

Caygill divided memorials into heroic verticality and non-heroic horizontality, citing Washington D.C.’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial by Maya Lin as an example of the latter. The “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” (Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas) by architect Peter Eisenman and the “Stumbling Blocks” (Stolpersteine)  by guerrilla artist Gunther Demning were two of the memorials viewed and discussed. Nandita Baxi Sheth (Cohort '19) responded to Eisenman’s memorial—2,711 concrete slabs occupying and emphasizing the undulating topography of a 200,000 square-foot vacant area: “For me the sculpture was both cold, but it was intimate because literally the ground changes under your feet… it makes you feel a little nauseous and uneasy.” Caygill referred to the work as experiential—different floor and pillar levels, site lines opening and closing—contributing to the sense of a ‘lack of security.’

“Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” (Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas) by architect Peter Eisenman. Screen Shot from Professor Caygill’s Screen Share presentation: June 23, 2020, 9:59 AM
“Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” (Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas) by architect Peter Eisenman. Screen Shot from Professor Caygill’s Screen Share presentation: June 23, 2020, 9:59 AM

Caygill described the experience of discovering Demning’s memorials underfoot while walking in Berlin. These stumbling blocks “…record the names of victims that lived in the building in which just outside of these plates are laid.” He called Demning’s unobtrusive, embedded brass pavers “the porthole or the mnemotechnic …pointing back to this event, this European event,” which, in a sense, transports the unsuspecting witness through time. The approach to these is simultaneously public and intimate. Caygill identifies them as Denkmal, (a moment of thought) and as having, “a strong sense of memento mori,” Standing over these memorials in a public street, there is the recognition that “you are walking where they were.”

Works Cited

Caygill, Howard. “Topological Studies II" 801.1 Seminar V, Part I: Topological Studies II. 23 June 2020. IDSVA. Class lecture.

Demning, Gunther, (Stolpersteine) ‘Stumbling Blocks,’ Berlin. 1990’s.

Eisenman, Peter, (Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas) ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,’ Berlin. 2004.