As this week’s protests show, memories of what went on there are far from gone—nor should they be.
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.