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Partial to Home: Difficult conversations


Birney Imes



In the city of Berlin south of the Brandenburg Gate and several blocks west of Checkpoint Charlie, there is a museum called "Topography of Terror." 


This history museum with the sinister name -- it's referred to as a "documentation center" -- is located on the site of the buildings that housed the Gestapo and SS, the two primary instruments of terror during the Nazi era, 1933-1945. 


The square building, of minimalist design, sits at the center of a large plaza. It is one or two stories high with a courtyard. The exterior walls, which are mostly glass, are covered by a metal mesh screen. The effect in the exhibition halls inside is one of openness and light. Admission to the facility is free. 


A permanent exhibit in the building details the terror that emanated from that place during the Nazi period. The Gestapo tortured and executed victims in the basement of their headquarters here. Across from the entrance to the building, along a trench bordered by a pockmarked section of the wall that once separated East and West Berlin, is an outdoor exhibition titled "Berlin 1933-1945 Between Propaganda and Terror." 


Using photographs, text blocks and recordings, the exhibit details Adolph Hitler's ascension to power and the horrors inflicted on dissidents and those who did not meet the Aryan ideals espoused by the Nazis. The exhibit also shows in painful detail the destruction of a city and misery inflicted upon its people. 


Last week, on a cool, sunny morning, a trickle of visitors grew to a crowd as tour groups arrived. Having walked through the exhibit earlier, I sat on steps nearby and watched visitors engage with the displays. Most were mesmerized. 


Just north of here is a Holocaust memorial -- "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe" -- a five-acre site covered with rows coffin-shaped concrete slabs of varying heights.  


One block south of the Memorial was the site of Hitler's bunker -- The Fuhrerbunker -- where Hitler spent the last days of the war and where he and Eva Braun committed suicide. The site is now a parking lot with an information marker. 


From what I have seen, Germany has been thorough in its efforts to acknowledge, memorialize and seek atonement for the atrocities of the Third Reich. One can find scattered across the country preserved concentration camps, memorials and historic markers that meticulously document Nazi atrocities that happened merely two generations ago and in which much of German society participated. 


While it didn't happen without debate and struggle -- neo-Nazis are still active there -- the Germans have made admirable efforts to address a past so dark as to defy description. And in doing so, one would think they have found a degree of liberation, as much as that is possible. 


Granted, they are two very different things, but it seems to me parallels can be drawn between what the Germans have done and the conversation taking place in our country about Civil War monuments. 


Along these lines, National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" on Friday featured an interview with the Very Rev. Randy Hollerith of Washington's National Cathedral about the recent decision to remove from the Cathedral stained-glass windows depicting Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. 


Hollerith said discussions about removing the windows began in the wake of the 2015 shootings in Charleston. He said initially the church hoped there was some way to "contextualize" the windows and leave them in place. 


"But, ultimately, we felt that the meanings of these monuments are changing around the country. And they were becoming a barrier to our ultimate work," Hollerith said in the interview. 


He said the windows will remain in the cathedral in a place where they can become "a tool for education and further conversation." 


And then the Reverend went on to address the "slippery slope" argument: 


"You know, people talk about the fact that Washington and Jefferson and Madison and others are in the cathedral. ... Are we going to start removing all of the folks from the cathedral for whom they may have had struggles or personal lifestyles or choices that were difficult? And the answer is no. 


"You know, when you look at it -- Washington was a slave owner and Jefferson was a slave owner. And, of course, that's a tragic reality about their two lives. But they were building a system of government. And, although they were incomplete as human beings, they built the system that ultimately allowed us to end slavery and continues to inspire us to move forward and create even more freedoms for one another." 


These are not easy conversations to have; yet, they are beginning to take place across the country with increasing frequency. Thanks to Mr. Jefferson and his collaborators, we have a system that both tolerates and requires difficult conversations. This is one such conversation, one I hope we can have with civility and without strife. 


Birney Imes is the publisher of The Dispatch. Email him at [email protected]


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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