Over spring break I traveled with a group of friends to Milan, Berlin, and Paris. Among the many things we set out to see in our limited time in Europe was the German Reichstag in Berlin. The Reichstag is the seat of power in Germany, within which the Bundestag (or Parliament) meets for official legislative proceedings.
Visitors to the Reichstag are allowed access to the glass dome above the building. Accompanied by an audioguide, we ascended and descended the dome with spectacular views over Berlin. The audioguide contextualized what we were seeing: train stations, music halls, embassies, museums, Brandenburg Gate, the Fernsehturm (Television Tower), etc.
Right next to Brandenburg Gate, however, it seemed as if the audioguide paused, unsure of what to say as the visitor’s attention naturally turned to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. A genuine concrete jungle, the memorial is hard to miss, and ostensibly on the list of sites most tourists end up frequenting, along with the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate. But the audioguide reduced its presence to a single fleeting sentence, telling us that the memorial commemorated the “some six million Jews killed when Germany was oppressed by National Social tyranny.”
The audioguide seemed, perhaps appropriately, uncomfortable. But by depicting “National Social tyranny” as something external to the Reichstag, it effectively excuses Germany and the Reichstag itself of its role in the Holocaust.
The Reichstag, admittedly, was not where the Nazi goverment conducted business, and yet it still proved a useful entity for Nazi rule. When the Reichstag caught on fire in 1933, the Nazis used the alleged arson to justify further political restrictions on communists. The Reichstag fire gave the Nazi government a useful propaganda tool for consolidating power, scapegoating its opponents, and accelerating its genocidal ambitions, with Dachau concentration camp opening in the months that followed.
Not only was the Reichstag building useful for the Nazis, but there is no decisive rupture between German government before Nazism or after, as the audioguide would like us to believe. The audioguide suggests that Nazi rule was an anomaly, a glitch in an otherwise sound political system of democracy and capitalism. But this idea, of Nazism independent of or divorced from the Reichstag’s history is a fiction. Hitler came to power because of the crises and contradictions wrought by German liberal democracy and capitalism.
I’m at this point compelled to raise the more recent and contextually relevant example of former President George W. Bush. At the end of February, Bush addressed the new Trump Administration by telling the press that: “I don’t like the racism and I don’t like the name-calling and I don’t like people feeling alienated. Nobody likes that.”
For some on the (liberal) left, Bush’s words have redeemed him, at least to a degree. But the President who Kanye noted “doesn’t care about Black people” should not be let off so easily. As observed by Branko Marcetic in his article in Jacobin, almost everything those liberals hate about Trump owe themselves, at least in part, to the second Bush Administration: torture at Guantanamo Bay, deportations, the targeting of Muslims, the enlargement of the surveillance state, and use of alternative facts to encourage war (anyone remember Saddam Hussein’s alleged WMDs?).
Bush also spoke positively of an open and independent media, at a time where the Trump Administration has made the media its primary adversary. But that doesn’t make him heroic — it means only that he adheres to the baseline of presidential precedent in a way that Donald Trump does not care to do. And anyway, Bush was no friend of the press when he was in office, repressing Al Jazeera journalists in particular on several occasions.
In the center of the Reichstag is a tower of mirrors, facing outwards. These mirrors distract and deflect; they are beautiful, and at the same time move one’s attention away from its center, located directly above the German Parliament. When the audioguide at the Reichstag talks about National Social tyranny as something foreign and external, rather than something integral to the Reichstag’s own history, it distorts history and deflects responsibility. George W. Bush’s tepid but nice words do the same; Bush’s words seek only to whitewash their speaker, making a hero out of a war criminal and deflecting the responsibility for Trump on the errors of past administrations — Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama together. We can’t let him get away with that.