What is This Place?

This post originally appeared on Open Salon on February 27, 2012

How much of a role does place—a physical, geographic location—play in the way we conceptualize history, others, and ourselves? Places do have importance, but it’s not intrinsic. The historical significance of a place, I think, has less to do with an effortless emission of ‘history,’ but with the ability of people to weave history and place together. Place might function as a short-hand to understanding history, but it is important to concede that the understanding is limited. Sometimes, this limitation is self-imposed; like an almost knee-jerk reaction to the way we relate to foreign places.

I am currently a history graduate student living in Berlin. In the time I’ve been here, I’ve had numerous conversations with people—Germans and non-Germans, but mostly other US citizens—where the question of my presence in Berlin came up (with fellow US citizens, this is a mutual question that always arises). After explaining that I am a graduate student in history, the response, almost without exception, is: “well, this is the perfect place to be to study history.” In a sense, they are right. This is the perfect place for me to be, and one of the central reasons for that is because the relevant archives are here, as well as large collections of materials at the State Library that are not very easy to secure elsewhere. But that’s not what they mean. What I think they mean is that place exudes history. That one can better understand because a lot of stuff happened here. Again, this is partly true. Berlin (for example, although I think similar sentiments would be expressed in other places in Germany, Europe, and elsewhere) has been described as a ‘city of ghosts,’ whose contested buildings, streets, and monuments contain layers of historical change that do in fact enable historical understanding. However, I think that this has less to do with Berlin as a place in which historical events took place than with the evolving nature of historical consciousness in Germany and the necessity of making German history a part of public discourse.

This vernacular perception of place is by no means limited to everyday conversation. In Ruth Kluger’s memoir, Still Alive (German edition published in 1994; English edition 2003), about growing up in Nazi occupied Europe, experiencing concentration camps and dealing with the shifting legacy of what we now call ‘the Holocaust’ ever since the end of World War II, she criticizes the importance that we invest in particular places in history and in everyday life. Her example is Auschwitz. Auschwitz as it exists today, she argues, is a museum that attempts to capture time in place, an impossibility with questionable goals (who wants to recreate a death camp?). At best, the rebuilt camps of Auschwitz and the visitors they attract function as an attempt to provide its visitors with a connection to those who died there and a semblance of the feelings that they might have felt; at worst, according to Kluger, they function as a site of fetishizing death by circuitously making the visitors feel better about themselves, their humanitarianism, and the ‘human spirit’ of survival. Place cannot capture time, and better understanding of history follows from making this concession.

Kluger contrasts her feelings of Auschwitz as a place to Claude Lanzmann’s extensive 1985 documentary Shoah. Lanzmann is obsessed with recreating the places of the Holocaust, as if knowing how many steps taken by a prisoner or a guard from one place to another will make it easier to understand precisely what happened. Lanzmann also employs aggressive interviewing tactics. He asks and re-asks questions of those he interviews—mostly former camp guards, officers, and inmates—pushing for more and more detail, as if he can finally access the subterranean experiences that will eventually make the places make sense. Lanzmann’s approach suggests that historical places can and should be reconstructed in order to facilitate understanding.

Of course, place can also be considered with a bit of levity: a 2000 headline from the satirical website The Onion reads: “Woman who ‘Loves Brazil’ Has Only Seen Four Square Miles of It.” The article then tells of a woman who spent her twentieth anniversary in a sheltered resort four miles south of Rio de Janeiro, well away from the urban center’s poverty and crime. The critique in the satire should be clear: tourists tend to extrapolate regional ‘authenticity’ from minimal and controlled experiences in a foreign place. Clearly, there’s no real understanding in that. However, the assumption of understanding and authenticity (the resort has four authentic Brazilian restaurants!) leads to the oft-uttered phrase of the tourist: “I love this place!” Beyond the realm of satire, Paul Thereoux recently wrote in the New York Times about Nogales, Mexico, a border town. He assures his readers that there is more to Nogales than dentistry (you just have to read the article), and he implores everyone to “stay longer, travel deeper, and overcome timidity” in the places they visit.

I’ve found myself making such declarations. In the first meeting with my German tandem partner (where we get together to practice our respective foreign languages, English and German; tandem bicycles are not involved), I was telling him about myself and how I ended up in Germany studying German history. Not the first time I had this conversation, I knew to discount the requisite question of German lineage before he could even ask. But, somewhere during my explanation, I said: “and I just love Germany!” I immediately felt like as if I were a middle aged tourist on a resort in Brazil; finding it ‘neat’ that although Carnival only comes around once a year, Brazilians at the resort lounge Vedas Secas (translation: Barren Lives; I’m not sure to whom the joke is directed) mask on stage for ‘mini-Carnival’ every Friday night. Surely he didn’t read this feeling through my facial expression, but he did ask me why I ‘love Germany.’  I think I rambled on for a bit about there being a lot of bakeries, which evidently is a quick way to my heart. He was satisfied with the answer, if perhaps a bit confused.

What I did not say, however, was anything about there being ‘a lot of history here.’


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