The museums of Berlin are filled with amazing artifacts of past societies and civilizations, perhaps none more imposing than three exhibits in the Pergamon Museum, each filling enormous rooms. The biggest and heaviest architectural reconstruction in any museum is the Market Gate of Miletus, built 2000 years ago by the Romans as the entrance to the market square of Miletus in present-day Turkey, destroyed in an earthquake 900 years later, then unearthed and reconstructed by German archaeologist Theodor Wiegand. This gate, 100 feet wide and 50 feet tall, represents the power of the Roman emperors extending to the far eastern edge of the Mediterranean.
In a nearby room, the reconstructed Ishtar Gate displays the might of King Nebuchadnezzar II, who had it constructed about 575 BC in Babylon, the capital of his empire and perhaps the largest city in the world at that time. Thousands of brightly glazed bricks with reliefs of lions, dragons and bulls created an imposing sight, which was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
The most famous holding of the museum, the Pergamon Altar, won’t be open for view until 2020, because the entire museum is gradually being renovated piece by piece. This monumental place of worship was built about 160 years before Christ’s birth to honor the political and military achievements of the Greek King Eumenes II. Visitors can ascend stone steps 60 feet wide to view a sculpted frieze depicting the battle between the Olympian gods and the giants.
These ancient monuments are the most imposing celebrations of power among hundreds of such displays in Berlin. Similar displays can be found in all European cities, where museums preserve reminders of past dynasties, public statues glorify past rulers, and restored palaces attract millions of visitors.
When we enter a museum, we have learned to expect representations of past authority, power and prestige, constructed of the finest materials by great artists, preserved for the wonder of succeeding generations. We see the most elaborate creations of the past.
There are other artifacts and memorials in Berlin which represent resistance, the opposite of power. Because Berlin was the site of two terrible 20th-century dictatorships, the bravery and foolhardiness of those who resisted power are also celebrated here. The Checkpoint Charlie Museum was built right at the Berlin Wall to memorialize the East Germans who succeeded or failed to escape across the Wall. Instead of finely wrought art objects, the most interesting exhibits are cheap East German cars reconstructed to create tiny hiding places for escapees or rusty tools used to dig under the Wall. The names and faces of those who resisted the Communist government are noted here, but remain unknown elsewhere. Their achievements were not beautiful, but daring and inventive, and often ended in death or prison.
The theme at Checkpoint Charlie is escape. Getting past the Berlin Wall or across the border into West Germany meant freedom. Escaping from the vast territory of Nazi-controlled Europe was much more difficult. Resistance to the Nazis was more likely to be a lonely battle against a murderous regime in favor of human rights, that predictably ended in death. Bernard Lichtenberg, a Catholic priest at St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in the center of Berlin, began to protest the brutalities of concentration camps soon after the Nazis took power, going directly to high Nazi officials to complain of their policies. He protested against the mistreatment of Catholic priests, of Jews and of the handicapped. He prayed publicly every day for deported Jews. He was imprisoned and died as he was being deported to Dachau.
In a small park on the quiet Rosenstrasse, a group of sculptures commemorates a remarkable act of group resistance. Hundreds of Christian wives of Jewish men who had been arrested in 1943 gathered before the building where they were being held to demand their release. They were threatened by SS trucks with machine guns, but did not move. After a week of constant protest, the men were released, the only instance of a successful German protest against the Holocaust. One of the women, Elsa Holzer, later said, “If you had to calculate whether you would do any good by protesting, you wouldn’t have gone.”
Celebrations of power are all around us. We don’t often think about how that power was exercised, about who might have suffered to make that power possible. Those who resist power usually pass into the fog of history because they were not famous and they had little opportunity to create imposing objects to memorialize their actions. Stone palaces and golden objects attract more attention than lonely dissent.
The more we know about the great rulers of the past, the more we realize that the trappings and accomplishments of power rested on the conquest and exploitation of vast numbers of people, some of whom protested. Like the still anonymous Tank Man who stopped a line of tanks at Tiananmen Square in 1989, they could calculate that their actions had little chance of success. They were not counting on their names being recorded in history books. They acted from conviction and desperation.
They deserve statues and museums, too.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 18, 2017