Barely a few minutes from the very heart of Hamburg, the Stadthöfe (“City Courtyards”) complex should be a developer’s dream come true. A cluster of historic courtyards constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries lying at the heart of Germany’s richest city is scheduled to reopen in May as a mix of luxury boutiques, high-end offices, and lavish apartments.
But the Stadthöfe is more than just a slice of prime real estate.
One section of it was also the 1933-43 headquarters of the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, who used them as a base for imprisonment, interrogation, and torture. For hundreds of people, this process ended in their deaths in concentration camps. Relatives of these Gestapo victims say that the complex and its presentation is an outrage. Not because the buildings must never be used again, but because the developer has proposed an offensively minimal commemoration of the building’s extremely dark history.
This, after all, is where the few Hamburg residents brave enough to stand up to the Nazis were systematically rooted out and imprisoned. People like 21-year-old Alwin Esser, who was brought to the complex in November 1933 (along with his sister Luise, later released) for admitting he was a communist. During an interrogation here, his face was stamped with anti-Nazi texts gleaned from communist pamphlets—texts which caught the eye of guards in the concentration camp he was transferred to the same day, who murdered him and recorded it as suicide. Esser’s nephew Bernhard was one of the people joining a demonstration outside the complex Tuesday to protest what they see as insensitive handling by the developer that will push commemoration to one side in favor of profit.
It’s not that the protesters expected the building to remain forever empty. It’s that developer Quantum Immobilien has totally disregarded the brief set for it. When the development was approved by the city in 2009, it recommended over 10,500 square feet of space to be set aside for a memorial exhibition. In the latest plans, Quantum had set aside a mere 750 square feet, a space itself that would be housed within a bookshop.
This surrender of memorial space to profit was always liable to cause anger. It might nonetheless have been less intense had the developer’s tone in marketing its product not so totally missed the mark. Quantum’s marketing tagline is, incongruously, “homage to life.” Browse their website and there is no tying of this phrase to some commemoration of the site. Instead, there is only breathless guff about eternal cocktail hours, shopping, and grooming—“high heels for Madame, a mustache for Monsieur”—that is inexplicably peppered with exclamation-pointed French.
It gets worse with the sign over the entrance gate, which reads, “Bienvenue, Moin Moin.” Moin Moin is a slangy phrase used in Germany’s far north meaning “hey”—a cliché feature of many comic impressions of North Germans. On a regular building, this kind of embellishment would be just another example of hokey developer’s overload. On this building, it’s almost like removing the Arbeit Macht Frei sign from a concentration camp gate and replacing it with a wrought iron “LOL.”
Following the protests, it looks like a now apologetic developer will expand the memorial space once more, before its public image is entirely in tatters. If they take that misjudged sign off the front gate, things might even get smoothed over. The debate nonetheless highlights a discussion that Germans have had on many occasions: How do you commemorate the victims of tyranny in a country where that tyranny’s reach was all-encompassing? In a country where no small town was left entirely untouched by Nazism, must every small town itself be a memorial to the period’s victims?
This is pretty much the approach tried by Germany’s Stolpersteine, the commemorative paving stones that place the remembrance of holocaust victims and others persecuted by the Nazis in the everyday locations from which these victims were deported. Their effectiveness has demonstrated that in encouraging people to reflect on a dark past, you can weave memorial into the fabric of everyday life. A site like a Gestapo headquarters, however, needs more than just a plaque (there’s already one on site), and certainly needs more than a small memorial couched within a commercial space.
As this week’s protests show, memories of what went on there are far from gone—nor should they be.