The Graffiti That Made Germany Better

Berlin's architecture blends the tragedy of the past with redemption in the present and renewal in the future.
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Russian graffiti in the Reichstag ( Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters )

BERLIN—One Thursday in March, Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, strode the light-bathed halls of the Reichstag building in Berlin on her way to its plenary hall, to address Germany’s parliament on Russian aggression in Ukraine. Her pace was purposeful. And yet, even without stopping, she must have glanced, for the umpteenth time, at the hallways’ walls, as almost everyone does when inside this building, the German equivalent of America’s Capitol. That’s because they are not only pockmarked by bullet holes but also covered by Cyrillic graffiti—faded but meticulously preserved.

Young Russians scribbled the graffiti after they took the Reichstag on April 30, 1945. The Soviets regarded the building’s capture as symbolic of their overall victory against Nazi Germany because they mistook it for “Hitler’s lair,” as one graffito calls it. (Adolf Hitler, in fact, had never given a speech in this building and committed suicide on the same day in his actual lair, a bunker 10 minutes away on foot, abutting the grounds of today’s Holocaust Memorial.) Some of the Russians wrote on the walls in charred wood that they found lying around. Others wielded red or blue chalk, which they had used during their push into Germany to mark the shifting frontlines on their maps: red for the advancing Red Army, blue for the retreating Germans.

Most simply wrote their names (“Ivanov,” “Pyotr,” “Boris Victorovich Sapunov”) as they would today take selfies. Or they marked the dates and routes of their personal journey (“Moscow-Smolensk-Berlin, May 1945”). “We weren’t proud,” said Sapunov, the first Russian to find his own name again after the graffiti’s restoration in the 1990s. “We were drunk. And we were afraid that we could still be shot right at the end.” Some of his comrades vented different emotions. Their phrases ranged from standard public-toilet fare to the apparently unspeakable (the Germans, often at the suggestion of the Russian embassy, removed some graffiti in the 1990s). Only one vulgarity remains today, barely legible in the building’s southeastern corner: “I fuck Hitler in the arse.”

***

No other capital deals with its past quite as Berlin does. At one extreme are cities like Beijing, where people traversing Tiananmen Square still look up at a huge portrait of Mao Zedong. Such architecture suggests obstinate denial. Jerusalem is at the other extreme. Like Berlin, it arguably has “too much history.” But its past, unlike Berlin’s, is not even really past, with many public spaces still contested by Jews, Muslims, and Christians. It is like Berlin before the Wall fell.

Then there are those countries—including America, Britain, and Russia—whose architecture constructs a fundamentally heroic narrative of their identity. A visitor to Washington will be awed by memorials to its eponymous founding father and to Jefferson and Lincoln, while the surrounding streets teem with victors on horseback. The style evokes the classical splendor of Rome. Sometimes nostalgia peeks through an urban landscape. Central Paris is in effect less a city than a vast museum to France’s former gloire. Other capitals have already passed through nostalgia and preserve the past with an essentially archeological style, as in Rome or Athens.

Berlin also has a few victors on horseback. Most prominently, there is the Alte Fritz (Old Fred, or Frederick the Great, the Prussian king who turned his country into a great power). But these statues are not the city’s architectural leitmotif. By harking back to the distant and mostly positive Prussian enlightenment, they merely frame the defining disasters of Berlin and Germany: world war, holocaust, defeat, division.

Instead, the dominant narrative is tragic, but with redemption in the present. The reunification of the city (and country and continent) in 1990, and the move of the German capital from Bonn to Berlin during the following decade, provided the opportunity and the physical space to express this narrative architecturally. Many public buildings built or rebuilt during this time visually acknowledge the disasters of the past but surround them with the achievements of the present. The combination constitutes an exhortation for the future. The Reichstag is perhaps the best example of how this distinct style came into being.

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For half a century after 1945, the graffiti on the Reichstag’s walls were forgotten and indeed inadvertently hidden. After the building’s sloppy first restoration in the postwar years, when the Reichstag was in the British-controlled sector of the city, tacky paneling covered the scribbles and bullet holes. But in 1995 the graffiti re-emerged, as the past is wont to do. A British architect, Norman Foster, was rebuilding the Reichstag to house the reunified Germany’s parliament, which was still seated in the modest and sleepy postwar capital of Bonn. Workers pulled the plaster off the walls and at first didn’t realize what they’d found. Once it became clear, the controversy was instantaneous.

What should Germany do with the graffiti? What was the proper role of these, or any, reminders of Germany’s dark past—of its crimes against humanity and subsequent devastation—in the new Germany’s parliament building and capital?

“‘Away with it,’ said some members of parliament. Others said, ‘That too belongs to our history,’” recalled Rita Süssmuth, a doyen of German postwar politics and the president of the parliament at the time. “Some said, ‘No way, we can’t let ourselves be humiliated again. This is over, and it mustn’t become visible again.’ They were more on the right, but all the way through [the political spectrum]. ... But I always said that this makes us stronger, not weaker. It makes humanity stronger.”

And yet even Süssmuth soon realized that keeping all the graffiti was out of the question. She refused to repeat the worst messages to me but said that some spoke of Russian “sabers” stabbing German “sheaths” or “vulvas.” Süssmuth was eight years old when the war ended and remembers its aftermath, including mass rapes by the conquering Russians. “And the victims weren’t just women, as we saw again in the Balkan war,” she explained. “It was women and men, girls and boys.” Her voice, always feeble, became even more halting when I asked her to recall the horrors of both wars again. Atrocities in the former Yugoslavia were occurring as she made her decisions about the graffiti.

A Reichstag wall inscribed with graffiti (Reuters)

I asked Süssmuth whether she ever imagined an elderly German woman who had been raped in 1945 standing before the most explicit graffiti. “Yes, and I couldn’t have answered for that. There are limits, as in cabaret or comedy, the fine line where it tilts,” she told me. Freedom of speech and opinion is sacrosanct, she thinks, as is art in all forms. But you still have to respect what people can bear.

An initial consensus emerged to merely document what the graffiti said, which in many cases was as simple as “we survived,” she recalled. But she advocated going a step further and preserving and even displaying the messages. “Yes, [the Russians] were here, and that was [the Germans’] end, and simultaneously our liberation,” she told me. Gradually, she convinced her skeptics and her view prevailed.

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Andreas Kluth is the Berlin bureau chief for The Economist and the author of Hannibal and Me.

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