What is it that makes standing in the exact location of something historical, momentous or simply in the footprints of someone famous, so thrilling? Or horrifying? On Tuesday I was standing on a stage in the beautiful east coastal town of Aldeburgh ready to give one of my talks on Germany’s WW2 memorial culture when someone said, “You’re standing exactly where Bill Nighy stood last night”. It was tiny but there it was, a subtle tingle, a flutter of excitement. I like Bill Nighy and I liked knowing that I was so hot on his heels, talking in a venue in which he too had talked. But what’s really happening, what are our bodies or minds reacting to when we are in the presence even of such tenuous claims to fame or significance?
This visceral reaction to places or objects that are linked to certain people or events has always fascinated me. The idea that the physical world can hold the memory of something or someone is not new. It is what lies behind the religious culture of relics and its modern day equivalence seen in the inflated profits that arise at auctions of Margaret Thatcher’s handbag or Princess Diana’s Versace dress. Holding my deceased father’s hairbrush is for me a way of feeling him close. People just do feel more strongly connected to other people via “things” or places.
scene of the Beer Hall Putsch, 1923
Three weeks ago I was in Munich, both to visit friends and cousins and to do research for my book about the long shadows of WW2. There is probably no other city in Germany in which visitors can bump so casually and frequently into the hefty pillars that supported the rise of Nazism. On a two-hour walking tour we visited the beer hall, scene of the famous 1923 Beer Hall Putsch; the site of the ‘Brown House’, now destroyed but then headquarters of the NSDAP (National Socialist German Worker’s Party); the Gestapo Headquarters; the Führerbau, now a Music School, where the 1938 Munich Treaty was signed by Western leaders in a hopeful attempt to halt Hitler in his tracks. And just outside the city, is Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, site of infinite suffering, cruelty and death and home to the infamous sign Arbeit macht frei (Work sets you free).
With my now well-trained imagination, I find it easy to superimpose the black and white photographs of the 1930s and 40s onto the vibrant, colourful scenes of contemporary Munich and bring them to life. The cobbled streets and stone walls of the massive buildings seem to whisper me some of their memories. I can ‘hear’ the synchronized march of Nazi boots, the cheers of jubilant crowds that once filled the vast squares. I can ‘see’ the bombed devastation behind the renovated facades. Nothing, however, prepared me for Nuremberg.
It’s a medieval town, home to Albrecht Dürer, Kaspar Hauser… and the Nuremberg Rallies of 1923-38. I visited the Rally grounds with the now almost obligatory Information Centre, one of hundreds around the country casting an unflinching gaze on every aspect of Germany’s Nazi past. I walked past the unfinished Congress Hall where a young couple was posing in full wedding attire for a camera.
Nuremberg Congress Hall
I walked around the edges of the Zepplin Grandstand with its countless entrances enabling people to stream in with the greatest ease and fill it to maximum capacity. I walked along the now overgrown rows of stone seats that had once looked out onto the spectacle…
and then onto the small platform from which Hitler had addressed the people.
The scale of the place, the vastness of the now empty space bar a few parked lorries, it was nothing less than completely horrifying. I felt terror fill my body. I felt sick. I hurt from the ache of pure dread. Never have I stood in such a powerful place, the exact place from which Hitler had fired his deadliest poison arrows into the minds and hearts of ordinary Germans.
The air echoed with his evil words disguised as virtue and full of empty promise; the space filled with the theatrical displays of military might. I could see the whole force of the Nazi movement in all its ugly, popular power. And for that moment, standing in that place, I understood it all. How it had happened. How it had worked so effectively. But far worse, I understood the hitherto unthinkable thought, that it could, one day, all happen again.
But it won’t, not it we don’t let it. Not if we don’t forget that it did.