The Visual Rhetoric of Scale

Charles E. Stevens, “Confronting the Past … Cautionsly.”
Neue Wache, Berlin, 11 June 2012.
Digital photograph.
With permission, all rights reserved.

In October 2013 this photograph was used on the cover of Perspectives on History, the newsletter of the American Historical Association, and in a short note on p. 5, the cover was explained.  (By the way, this explanatory note is currently missing from the newsletter’s digital edition.)  The photograph shows the interior of the Neue Wache in Berlin, which since 1993 serves as the central memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany to the victims of war and tyranny.  The Neue Wache (lit. “New Guard House”) was the first government commission of Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841) in the Prussian capital.  Schinkel’s building near the eastern end of Unter den Linden, the tree-lined avenue leading from the Brandenburger Tor to the Stadtschloss, is considered one of the major works of Greek revival architecture in Europe.  The Neue Wache was designed to form an ensemble with the adjacent Zeughaus and the Kronprinzenpalais, the residence of Friedrich Wilhelm III. (r. 1797-1840), diagonally across the street.  Nowadays an enlarged copy (h. ca. 1.6 m) of “Mutter mit totem Sohn,” a small sculpture that Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) created between 1937 and 1938 in memory of her son Peter (1896-1914), stands at the center of the rectangular room below a round skylight (Lat. oculus).  In early 1990s Germany, the repurposing of Schinkel’s Neue Wache generated a heated public debate on how Germans can, and should, remember the enormous bloodshed and suffering inflicted on millions of people by German political ambition.  About twenty years after this debate, there is a significant body of critical scholarship on this memorial, as is indicated by the bibliography of the German Wikipedia entry on the Neue Wache.

The choice of this memorial was an apt visual opening for a newsletter issue which offered its readers four different contributions on historical empathy and imagination.  Stevens’ photograph captures a moment of reflection, and serves therefore as a brilliant visualization of the emotional and intellectual difficulties posed by every memorial in post-unification Germany.  Still, I was bothered by the image and its use on the Perspectives cover.  This interior view provides no clue whatsoever to the entire room, and there is no obvious explanation for the shadow in the corner between the man and the sculpture.  This missing information makes it impossible to gauge how small or large this early nineteenth-century interior is and whether a person stepping into this space will experience the room, for example, as monumental or grand.

Neue Wache, Berlin, 8 October 2006.
Digital photograph by Luukas.
Wikimedia Commons.

Neue Wache, Berlin, 27 August 2007.
Digital photograph by Daniel Schwen.
Wikimedia Commons.

My own experience of the interior, on a sunny afternoon in October 2012, was dominated by darkness, stillness, and modesty – despite the blown-up copy of the Kollwitz sculpture and despite my own objections to the memorial’s 1993 repurposing.  Whatever political abuse Schinkel’s Neue Wache suffered in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this is a well-proportioned beautiful building designed on a human scale.  I had not planned on visiting the memorial and happened upon the building, which appeared surprisingly small, when walking from the Museumsinsel to the Brandenburger Tor.  Stepping from the hustle and bustle of Unter den Linden into this quiet room, which is more or less on street level, I entered a somber space which did not attempt to impress, or even dominate, its visitors.  The central skylight in the rectangular ceiling reminded me of the oculus in the dome of the Pantheon in Rome.

My discomfort with the presentation of the Neue Wache memorial in the October 2013 issue of the Perspectives on History did not stir me into writing a letter to the editor.  Instead I have clipped the cover with the accompanying note and put them into my copy of Peter Burke’s Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001) in order to keep these pages as an important reminder of my own limitations:  How often do I misunderstand an image related to books in Arabic script or any aspect of Middle Eastern and Islamic history because I myself have no personal hands-on experiences of the relevant artifacts or places?