My freshman year at Luther, we all had to take this class called Paideia, which would be more aptly described as “Adminstration-Required Rite of Passage Disguised as Lots of Books, Most of Which Are Interesting Except for That One Called Useless Arithmetic Because If The Title Says It’s Useless Then I’m Going To Agree 101”. My professor happened to teach in the English department, and also happened to have been an extra in a little movie called Animal House. Upon my class’ discovery of this factoid, he lamented that anything he taught us that year would forever be overshadowed by the fact that he once stood next to Kevin Bacon in a movie. This is relevant to my life in Germany, and this is why:
I’ve often felt that any story I tell about the work I’ve done in Germany this year will be trumped by the story of the building in which I’ve done it. The present institution with which I am affiliated was founded in November of 1946, in the aftermath of that little-discussed event some call World War II. During the war, the building (along with its twin across the street) was used as the administrative offices of the Nazi party, and after the war was used by the American army as a center for stolen art to be returned to the countries of origin before housing the art history research center that’s here today. It also happens to be right next to Königsplatz, a big square in Munich that is outlined by museums built in the 19th century, and was used for mass party rallies under the Nazis.
Now, stay with me for a minute, here.
Despite its other failings, one of my favorite histories of Germany (Steven Ozment’s A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People) is so because it was written with the premise that “it is one thing to know the end of a story and to be moved by it to learn the whole story, and quite another to tell that story from its known outcome.” (Also, Steven Ozment is a Reformation scholar with a huge amount of respect for Martin Luther, but I digress) I get frustrated when I tell Germans what I’m here to study, because it’s very commonly assumed that I fall into the category of Americans whose knowledge of and interest in Germany starts with WWII and ends with Oktoberfest. Likewise, it’s sometimes difficult to explain to my fellow countrymen (and women) that there is so much more to Germany than thirteen years of an infamous government.
Being in this building most days a week has forced me to constantly confront what it means to work, literally, in the remnants of the war. Earlier this week, I was searching for the binders full of the records with which I’m currently working, and my quest took me to a part of the building where there exists an underground passage linking the two main buildings to the rest of Königsplatz. The passageway was covered in graffitti from the Allied troops, and desks from the party officials whose offices used to be in this building are still stacked in the hallway, unable to be discarded. Around the corner from the passageway, my coworker showed me a line of huge cabinets now repurposed as storage for the Institute’s needs but also where the Nazi party membership records were once held. Likewise, Königsplatz itself has been re-repurposed after the war, having gone full circle from a public square to propogandistic center back to a politically sterile cultural center. A few weeks ago, I walked through Königsplatz with a couple friends, and expressed that I used to think it was a beautiful little collection of neo-classicism in the middle of Munich, but now it feels almost eerie. While my workplace does not shy away from its past, even offering public tours of the building through the lens of its wartime purpose, Königsplatz itself contains one public acknowledgement of the square’s importance to the Nazi government, a sign that was erected in 2001 on the street opposite the square itself.
All of this, to me, begs many questions, most importantly being: if we follow the logic that most people will be more interested in the history of my office building than of the actual work that goes on there, how does that play out for the larger story of Germany’s place in the world? And for me, personally, does that mean that I now place much more emphasis than before on 1933-45 in my own interpretation of Germany, one that I like to think has been more fully informed both by studying German history that occurred long before the 20th century and by living in present day (or post-war, hats off to Tody Judt**) economic-and-engineering-powerhouse Germany?
I don’t like it, but maybe it’s true.
*This would again be the time where I say that nothing I say on this blog represents the opinions of any of the organizations with which I am affiliated. We good?
**Seriously, if you are at all interested in the massively interconnected, messy, and unlikely story that is Europe since WWII, please, please, read Tony Judt’s book Postwar.