Ladd, Ghosts of Berlin

Brian Ladd, Ghosts of Berlin:
Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape

(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 271 pages.
UCSB: HT169.G32B4127 1997

Book essay by Stephanie Malcolm
March 15, 2006

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany since 1945
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2006

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About Stephanie Malcolm (back to top)

I am a senior psychology major and history and Spanish double minor at UCSB. Prior to this class I had little formal knowledge of German history but had traveled to multiple German cities (including Berlin) with school groups and with friends. As a result of these trips, took an interest in German culture and history. I chose to write about the legacy of the Third Reich in the German psyche as reflected in physical Berlin due in part to the way in which the topic combined psychology and history, and in part to my desire to learn more about the history and significance of sites that I saw while traveling.


In his book The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape, author Brian Ladd uses Berlin’s architecture and preservation as a window through which to examine the continuities and discontinuities of German history. It is from this vantage point that Ladd discusses the issues of identity, psychology, memory, culture, and guilt that are inevitably caught up in the physical markers of a city like Berlin because of its troubled past. Ladd spends much time discussing the ways in which the Third Reich has been and is currently conceptualized by Berliners, as seen in the physical structure of Berlin as well as in the debates regarding it. In the end, Ladd does not come to a clear-cut conclusion regarding the identity of Berlin, which reflects the difficulties that Berliners themselves have had with this task. It is my contention that, while there is no single answer to the question of how Germany has attempted to come to terms with its Nazi past, the three myths of ignorance, resistance, and victimization can be seen in the discussions of what should and should not be done with the physical and architectural legacy of WWII.

Essay (back to top)

Reflections of the Legacy of Third Reich in German Consciousness in Physical Berlin

Brian Ladd notes in the introduction to his book, The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape, that buildings are "the symbols and repositories of memory" (p.4). With this as his focus, Ladd examines the history and collective memory of Berlin, asking what is reflected in and what can be learned from the architectural decisions and indecisions that have occurred in the city. While focusing on a range of architectural issues, one of the themes that weaves its way through the book is the question of coming to terms with the troubled legacy of the Third Reich since 1945. The examination of the buildings and sites serves as a starting point for a much wider discussion of the political, social, and psychological ramifications of this legacy as reflected in the debates and choices made regarding preservation, the erection of memorials, and other such questions. It is clear that no single clean-cut answer exists when it comes to the issue of how to come to terms with such a troubled past, but in the years following WWII, three main "myths" surfaced regarding these atrocities: the myth of ignorance, the myth of resistance, and the myth of victimization. While not explicitly referenced by Ladd, the presence of these myths in his history is undeniable and can be seen in the conceptualizations of what should and should not be done about the physical and architectural legacy of WWII. Taken together, the myths weave themselves into a net of sorts that separates modern Germany from fully acknowledging and examining the legacy that was left by the Third Reich, a separation that is clearly reflected in the plethora of highly debated architectural issues that continue to emerge.

A further explanation of the exact nature of the three myths is required in order to understand how each myth presents itself over the course of the history laid out in Ladd’s book. Germans who ascribed to the myth of ignorance took the stance that they weren’t aware of exactly what was happening during WWII, and that when the war came to an end and the truth was brought to light, they were horrified to learn of the death camps and the suffering. Over time this mentality transformed into a desire to move on and to remain unaware of the atrocities. The myth of resistance, on the other hand, was held by those individuals who felt that, while they did not know everything, they resisted as much as they could based on the knowledge that they had. Over time this myth developed into the mindset that enough is known about WWII, that the physical markers of the war should be swept away, and that the survivors of the war should not be emphasized so much. Those who believed the myth of victimization held that WWII and the Holocaust were not the fault of the entire German people, but rather that the "good Germans" were victims of "bad Nazis," which with time became the conceptualization of the Germans as victims of the Allies (Marcuse, lecture, 1/27/06).

Myth of Resistance

Soviet War Memorial at Berlin-Treptow
The Soviet War Memorial at Berlin-Treptow is an example of how the legacy of communist struggle against the Third Reich was clung to as a cornerstone of the East German myth of resistance. (Ladd, 195)

The myth of resistance, while present in both states, took on a distinctly different flavor in East Germany than it did in West Germany. In East Germany, those who glorified this myth clung to the resistance of the Communists who fought against the Nazi party both before and after 1933, such that this "formed the cornerstone of the German Democratic Republic’s identity as the antifascist German state" (Ladd, p.149), and allowed East Germans to reside in a land of "conquering heroes." In turn, this worked to create the illusion of a break from the legacy of the Third Reich (Ladd, p.206). One East German monument that clearly attempted to further the myth of resistance was the Ernst Thälmann memorial, the biggest monument in East Berlin, which honored the chairman of the German Communist Party from 1925 to 1933 who was murdered at Buchenwald in 1944 (Ladd, p.201). Another example of this mentality could be seen in Treptow at the main Soviet memorial that depicted an oversized soldier stomping on a swastika, such that the monument formed a "grand expression of heroism and triumph – a style the GDR’s leaders embraced in the name of the anti-fascist German state, born of the alliance with Soviet antifascism" (Ladd, pp.195-196). Here the connection being drawn between Communism and the struggle against the Nazis served the GDR’s attempt to illustrate that resistance to the fascist regime existed on the part of citizens of the GDR and their Nazi-era predecessors, thus aiding to ameliorate post-WWII guilt.

In West Berlin, the concept of resistance as a myth is tinged with multiple layers of irony. To begin with, the main heroes of the resistance that the West had to place on a pedestal were those individuals involved in the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944. This is ironic in one sense because these people were high-ranking conservatives in the government and military, who, as Ladd points out, "supported the Third Reich until it began to lose the war" (p.150). Their positions and late action do not make most of them resisters so much as opportunists who were with Hitler while it benefited them, and then wanted him out of power at least in part because he was losing.

The myth of resistance is also ironic in that the response of the populace to the early attempts to spread and solidify this myth largely negated the myth itself. For example, a statue that was dedicated in 1953 to the attempted assassins at Bendlerblock, where some of the conspirators were executed, was only given the status of a national memorial to resistance in 1967 (Ladd, pp.149-150). Clearly the delay in widespread recognition and adoption of the statue as a national memorial reflected that many Germans "considered them [the would be assassins] to have been what Goebbels’ media had portrayed them as: traitors" (Ladd, p.149). If the indoctrination was so strong among Germans that they continued to view those who attempted to assassinate Hitler as traitors, how could the people claim to have resisted? Regardless of the lack of consistency, the statue erected as a resistance memorial came to serve the myth well, with a 1972 visitors’ brochure at the memorial stating that, "The German resistance proves that the entire German people was not stricken with the disease of totalitarianism and that, in Germany, too, the tradition of inalienable human rights could not be destroyed" (Ladd. p.150). This clearly demonstrates the way in which the myth of resistance helped to ease the minds and clear the consciences of those who ascribed to it.

Myth of Ignorance

site of Hitler's bunker in Berlin
The site of Hitler's bunker, pictured here in 1995, is a clear illustration of the myth of ignorance with its lack of documentation about its significance during the Nazi era. (Ladd, 134)

The reactions of many people, particularly conservatives, to proposals of preservation and other such markers of the Nazi legacy show how the myth of resistance transformed from the notion that the German people resisted as much as they could based on their awareness of Nazi atrocities, to the mindset that the sites of Nazism and Nazi crimes should be swept away and that enough is known about the era. This, in turn, works in conjunction with the development of the myth of ignorance into the mindset that it is not desirable to know more about the Third Reich. The developments of these forces clearly come into play in a common reaction to the unearthing of the bunker in 1990. Ladd points out, "Many people, especially conservatives, wished to destroy the bunker or cover it up and forget about it" (Ladd, p.132). As can be seen with what ended up happening to the Führerbunker, "Typical German treatment of a historically burdened site, Kernd’l [the head of the municipal archaeology office] observed sardonically, is either to plant it with greenery or to use it for parking, and here we have both" (Ladd, p.134). These conscious attempts to ignore or gloss over the Nazi influence on the city are clear extensions of these highly influential myths.

Another way in which it is possible to construe that these myths were and are present in the mindset of Berliners is in the repeatedly expressed desire and multiple attempts to restore or renovate city architecture in order to regain the appearance of the pre-Nazi era, typically going back to before 1914 and the First World War. Examples of this can be seen in the rebirth, "critical reconstruction," and accompanying rewriting of the history of the Mietkaserne (the five story tenement buildings inhabited by all but the richest Berliners by the 1900s, "the preeminent symbol of Berlin as industrial metropolis," p.100) and Friedrichstadt (the old commercial center of Berlin). As Ladd puts it, "What had been the troubling specter of modernity and upheaval is now a comforting link back to an idealized past" (p.109). Undoubtedly the urge to move away from the Nazi legacy points to these myths and the way in which they capture the mindset of a segment of the German population.

Sites that have not received memorial status also serve as examples of the myth of ignorance at work. Particularly interesting instances of this are the office buildings previously inhabited by Nazis that simply rolled over into use during the post-WWII era. Two of the most striking examples of this ignorance at work can be seen in the fates of the sites of the Third Reich’s Ministry of Aviation and Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. The building that housed the Ministry of Aviation during the Nazi era, having survived WWII fairly unscathed, was renamed the "House of Ministries" by the GDR. In addition to being a main center of the East German government throughout the GDR’s existence, the building housed the ceremony that officially established the GDR in 1949. While both a mural and a plaque commemorated significant GDR events in the building, no reference was made to the Nazi planning that occurred within its walls (Ladd, p.146). Just as troublesome, if not more so, was the smooth transition that occurred in the buildings of Goebbels’ Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. The GDR decided to use these existing buildings to house the Government Press Office and Ministry of Media Policy (Ladd, p.148). The clear dismissal of the Nazi legacies of these buildings speaks volumes about the degree to which the myth of ignorance played a role in the East German consciousness during the post-Nazi era.

Myth of Victimization

The myth of victimization is certainly no less important in the history of Berlin’s attempts to come to terms with the legacy of the Third Reich, and in some cases this myth even works in conjunction with the myths of resistance and ignorance. For example, victimization and resistance work simultaneously in the irony of the Western myth of resistance. This use can be construed as an example of how "bad Nazis" thoroughly indoctrinated "good Germans," such that the influence of the "bad Nazis" was what caused the delayed the acceptance of the memorial to the resisters. More concrete ways in which the myth of victimization can be seen influencing the architectural decisions of the post-Nazi era include the transition into identifying with the broader category of Nazi victims that began to occur in West Berlin with the 1952 establishment of "a memorial to victims of the Hitler dictatorship at the Plötzensee prison in northwestern Berlin" and its dedication to "all the millions who had been persecuted or killed because of their ‘political convictions, religious beliefs, or racial heritage’" (Ladd, pp.152-153). This tendency to lump all victims together is also evident in the slow build up of plaques and sculptures that marked where Jews were persecuted (Ladd, p.152).

While the decisions discussed above show an orientation towards the plight of victims and subtly highlight the ways in Germans saw themselves as victims as opposed to perpetrators, the most blatant example of the myth of victimization can be seen in the debate over a national Holocaust memorial. Lea Rosh, a television talk-show host, spearheaded the push for a national Holocaust memorial to honor Jewish victims, stating that Germany needed to do what other nations had already done in establishing the memorial (Ladd, pp.168-9). However, in looking at the need for a memorial from this perspective, Rosh failed to acknowledge that Germany is not like "other nations," particularly when it comes to the legacy of the Holocaust. In ignoring this she demonstrated her unwillingness to see the complex issues involved. Her complete attachment to the myth of victimization became most apparent in her rejection of placing a memorial in front of the Reichstag (on which the inscription reads DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE, "To the German People," p.87), stating, "Did the ‘German people’ murder the Jews? Hardly" (Ladd, p.172). This statement exposes her belief that it was "bad Nazis" as opposed to "good Germans" who were the perpetrators of the horrors of the Third Reich.

The debate laid out by Ladd ends in 1997, before the erection of the memorial that was officially opened in May of 2005, so the impact of the memorial on the psyche of Berliners and the ways in which Berliners chose to interpret the memorial can now be studied. However, from the point of view of those examining the issues before resolution, the argument was made by individuals such as Kernd’l, the head of the municipal archaeology office, and those involved in the Active Museum, the group behind "The Topography of Terror" exhibition, that the memorial was an "alibi" and that placing the memorial on the site proposed by Rosh that was so closely linked to Hitler would in effect shift the blame onto his shoulders alone and thus remove the burden from common Germans (Ladd, p.170). These arguments were seemingly not a problem in the eyes of Rosh. Clearly the criticism of the concept of a national Holocaust memorial brings to light the concern of some Germans regarding the application of the myth of victimization.

Beginning in the 1970s, more and more individuals began to advocate the preservation and examination of Nazi sites that were not consistent with the tenets of the three myths. A particularly significant example of this departure is "The Topography of Terror." This exhibition, established on the site of the Gestapo and SS headquarters by the Active Museum during the 1980s, is characterized by Ladd as "perhaps the most self-conscious attempt to uncover the historical legacy of a particular place in Berlin" (p.154). The combination that was achieved by the Active Museum of preserving Nazi sites and documenting their use in order to allow for an open and nuanced look at the Third Reich‘s geographical links to history in Berlin moved beyond the myth-motivated memorials of its predecessors and showed the changing consciousness of younger generations of Germans.

It is clear that the three predominant myths regarding the atrocities of the Third Reich come to the surface in a variety of ways in Ladd’s examination of the architecture of Berlin and the stories behind the physical aspects. However, these three myths do not tell the whole story, as evidenced by the push by some like those involved with the Active Museum who are dedicated to documentation and preservation. The interweaving of the myths with other perspectives and opinions demonstrate the difficulty of coming to a consensus about such a troubled past. What is clear, however, is that the physical aspects of Berlin and the debates that they inspire are intimately tied not only the past of the city and the German people, but to what will become of them as well.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)

Published Reviews of Ladd’s Book:

  • Davis, Belinda. "The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape.(Review)." The Journal of Modern History 71.3 (September 1999): 769. 
  • Finger, Anke. "The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape.(Review)." Southern Humanities Review 34.4 (Fall 2000): 399(3). 
  • Schmidt, Albert J. "The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape.(Review)." Journal of Social History 33.3 (Spring 2000): 730.

Related Books:

  • Harold Marcuse, Legacies of Dachau: The Uses and Abuses of a Concentration Camp, 1933-2001 (Cambridge University Press, 2001). Provides further discussion of and elaboration on the three myths and the legacy of the Third Reich in the German consciousness with relation to the history and treatment of the Dachau concentration camp. (Legacies book page)
  • Michael Z. Wise, Capital Dilemma: Germany’s Search for a New Architecture of Democracy (Princeton Architectural Press, 1998). Discusses the architectural ramifications of the reunification of the East and the West and the process of creating and crafting a new national capital in Berlin while bearing in mind politics, economics, preservation, environmentalism, and function.

Related Websites:

  • "Architecture of Berlin, Germany," This site offers photographs of and brief discussions about many key buildings and monuments in Berlin along with a chronological timeline of their erection. (
  • "Center and Periphery in the New Berlin: Architecture, Public Art, and the Search for Identity," 5 August, 2005. This web site is home to an article written by Brian Ladd after the publication of Ghosts of Berlin that further discusses the significance of architecture and preservation in Berlin as a means of looking at national consciousness. (
  • "Nazi Past Lives on in Berlin’s Buildings," German news source Deutsche Welle discusses the impact of the Nazi legacy on the physical nature of Berlin. (,1564,1575988,00.html)
  • "Third Reich in Ruins," This web site showcases during and after side-by-side comparison photos of German landmarks during the Nazi era and what has come of them since WWII. ( [Professor's note: this is a great site!]

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