Smears upon the walls are history

May 2, 2003

Deborah Lipstadt argues that erasing Soviet graffiti from the Reichstag will also erase part of Germany's past.

Adolf Hitler despised the Reichstag. He avoided the neo-Renaissance former home of Germany's parliament whenever possible. It is, therefore, ironic that one of the most enduring symbols of the fall of the Third Reich was the Red Army's successful assault on that building.

When, on May 2 1945, a Soviet soldier hung the hammer and sickle from a Reichstag window the war was, for all intents and purposes, over.

As the battle for Berlin began in April 1945, it was obvious to all but the most diehard Nazis that Germany was defeated. Yet the fighting was fierce; 70,000 Soviet soldiers fell in the assault. As the struggle drew to a close, Stalin's troops streamed through the Reichstag doing what victorious warriors have done for thousands of years - they affirmed their victory by scribbling on the walls. Using charcoal from fragments of the Reichstag's charred timbers, the soldiers signed their names and expressed contempt for their enemy. The officers among them did the same, only with the coloured grease crayons they used for marking their maps.

The messages those soldiers left are raw and unambiguous: "Death to Germans" and "You got what was coming to you, you sons of dogs". They scribbled obscene sexual references to Hitler and rejoiced in the victory of communism over Nazism: "It's you who ended up in the ****, you fascists, not Russia."

The graffiti was covered by plasterboard and asbestos lining when the Reichstag was refurbished in the 1960s. More than three decades later, it resurfaced as the architect Sir Norman Foster began stripping away the building's interior before its reconstruction. A debate immediately erupted in Germany as to how these unpleasant reminders of the past might best be handled.

There were those, among them members of the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, who wanted to obliterate the graffiti. One MP, Wolfgang Zeitlmann of Bavaria's Christian Social Union, labelled them Schmierei, a scrawl, smear or smudge, and declared them "morally offensive". He wanted them painted over and forgotten. After almost 60 years, the opponents said, it was time Germany and its legislative body moved on.

In January, 69 deputies, led by the Christian Social Union's Johannes Singhammer, argued that the graffiti was a burden on relations between Germany and Russia. The members of the Bundestag wanted to replace them with German national symbols, and Singhammer complained that the absence of such symbolism in the refurbished Reichstag "confused" visitors.

Others contended that the scribbles by Soviet soldiers had no real historical value and dismissed them as the equivalent of "tribal markings".

Those who took this position ignored Walter Benjamin's argument that it is in the detritus of history, the markings left by the common person, and not just in legislative or governmental actions, that essential elements of history are to be found.

Recently, Polish construction workers found wads of paper stuffed beneath the floorboards of a building in an area of Warsaw that had been part of the ghetto. They assumed these had provided some meagre insulation against the bitter winter cold during the war. When one sheet was inspected, the workers noticed a child's handwriting on it. It was an essay written by a ghetto boy in which he explained that when he grew up he would become a warrior for justice and right the wrongs being perpetrated against his people. Though "only" the scribblings of a child, it was a precious insight into the mindset of one young occupant of the ghetto.

The debate about covering up the graffiti was ostensibly a debate about how the rebuilt Reichstag should be designed. In fact, it was about something far more significant: inconvenient history. Those who wished to cover the graffiti were espousing - consciously or not - the architecture of obliteration; in this case of a reminder of a very bleak portion of Germany's history. The graffiti are the tracings of that history, not that of the generals or politicians but of the common soldier.

There have been other, far more nefarious, attempts to transform or deny the most horrific aspects of the Third Reich, primarily by those called "Holocaust deniers". Though deniers are a cause of concern, they have had a limited impact on the public at large.

Most people have long recognised them as liars and falsifiers of history.

What they espouse is not just loopy; beneath their pseudo-historical arguments lies a rightwing, racist and anti-Semitic neo-Nazi agenda. The existence of such an agenda was recently affirmed by the UK's High Court in April 2000 and by its Court of Appeal in July 2001.

Though deniers try to wreak havoc with history, their form of erasure, while the most radical, is not the most dangerous. It is not the most dangerous precisely because it is so radical. The seemingly benign efforts of those who wish not to deny but to relativise or ignore the past are far more dangerous.

In the 1980s, German historians began to debate intensely how Nazism and its attendant horrors should be addressed. Some contended that it was time for a re-evaluation of Germany's Nazi past. They posited that historians should no longer demonise the Third Reich as an unprecedented brutal and horrific regime. Instead, Nazi Germany's wrongs should be placed within the context of "normal" 20th-century history.

These historians, Ernst Nolte most prominent among them, contended that other countries, the Soviet Union and Turkey in particular, had conducted group exterminations. Consequently, it was wrong to depict the Third Reich as having done something radically different. They also argued that in light of Stalin's brutal treatment of the so-called " kulaks ", Hitler had justifiable reasons to fear that the Soviets would conduct such a genocide against Germany. It was that terror, the relativisers posited, that prompted Hitler to conduct the Holocaust against the Jews. These relativisers' objective was to erase Nazi Germany's unique burden of shame; only by removing this inconvenient history could subsequent generations of Germans develop normal national pride in their country.

Those who wished to cover up the graffiti in the rebuilt Reichstag did not seek to deny Auschwitz or any of the other horrors. Nor did they desire to diminish the importance of Auschwitz by relativising it and depicting it as Hitler's pre-emptive action against the Soviets. They did, however, feel that it was inappropriate for Germany's legislators to be reminded of this aspect of their country's past as they entered the chamber to deliberate policy and make law. A new millennium had begun; a building was being built afresh - this was the time to look forward. The renewed Reichstag was not the place to highlight Germany's inconvenient history.

The graffiti's opponents argued that there was something "masochistic" about asking Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, whose father died on the way back from the Russian front in 1944, to go past these obscenities about Germany and Germans on the way to his office. (It should be noted that Schroder was a strong advocate of keeping the graffiti.) This attempt to cover up is precisely the kind of "denying" or "forgetting" that causes the greatest concern because it seems so benign. Therefore, it is of exceptional importance that those who sit in the legislative chambers of this building decided to leave these inscriptions as they are and not to obliterate them. They chose to let the graffiti stand as a silent memorial to the horrors that were perpetrated by a previous German regime.

The graffiti are a memorial to how their predecessors, those who once sat in this legislative chamber, passed a law in 1933 that institutionalised and legitimised the destruction of German democracy. The graffiti stand not just as a memory to what happened in the past, they are also a warning and a reminder that history will one day take note of what the legislative heirs to the Reichstag will do now that they have "returned" to the original home of Germany's legislative democracy.

While the graffiti may be a remembrance of Germany's history, the decision to let them remain was a sign of the new Germany. As Foster observed, there is no more compelling reason for keeping them than the fact that, close to 60 years after the war, they still have the power to inspire such emotion.

He understood that the Reichstag is where history, politics and memory intersect.

A Jewish teacher, the Baal Shem Tov, once posited that memory is the key to ultimate redemption. Only by truly grappling with the past can an individual, a people or a nation move forward to build a constructive future. The decision to preserve the graffiti is a small step towards the building of far more than a new Reichstag building. The thus far unsuccessful effort to remove them indicates that a new and different Germany is still in the process of being formed.

Deborah E. Lipstadt is professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University, US. She is author of Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory and a contributor to Reichstag Graffiti, edited by David Jenkins and published by Art Books International next Thursday (£24.95). An attempt by Holocaust denier David Irving to sue Lipstadt for libel was rejected by the High Court and the Court of Appeal.

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