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Adrian Daub

It was one of the more ingenious disappearing acts in a city famous for them. Rudolf Heß, at one time Adolf Hitler’s second-in-command, was Berlin-Spandau’s last remaining inmate when he died in the prison set aside for major Nazi offenders in 1987. To prevent the place from becoming a commemoration site for neo-Nazis, the Allies decided to tear down the old structure and replace it with a shopping mall for British servicemen. Today, the area appears to be a Kaufland supermarket. Or more accurately: most of the area was never a shopping structure nor a Kaufland supermarket. The most efficient way to erase the past, to prevent neo-Nazi pilgrimages, to turn an erstwhile prison complex into non-geography was and remains: a parking lot.

Parking lots are an architecture of use and they are an architecture of amnesia. They are, perhaps in Germany more clearly than elsewhere, about amnesia through use. The walls of the Spandau prison were ground down and scattered in the Baltic Sea, as if they were literally contaminated. The site itself, by contrast, was filled with quotidian substance: shopping carts, sad patches of grass and minivans backing into too-small spots. Every visitor to Berlin will have come across the Stolpersteine – little brass plaques put into the sidewalk to memorialize Jews murdered by the Nazis. The Stolpersteine – ‘tripping stones’ – are meant to arrest you in your everyday routines, if only for a moment, to force memory from thoughtlessness. The paving stones of a parking lot are their opposite: smoothing stones, handmaidens of thoughtlessness.

The photographer Eva Leitolf spent twenty years assembling the series Deutsche Bilder (German Images): photos of places where racist attacks – arson, assaults, murders – have occurred. There is one picture in the set that reminds me of the Kaufland in Spandau. A four-lane road, two houses and three parking spots. The street itself is in Helmstedt, Lower Saxony, but the image feels like it could have been taken anywhere.

The attack that happened here in 2007 – a Turkish-German man was smashed against the fence and threatened with death – is so ordinary that news reports about it are almost impossible to find today. As is the setting: the road with the leafless trees on the other side; the pretty two-story houses that suggest an urban planning rationale long since abandoned or forgotten; the metal fence that seems to be the preordained perimeter of suburban supermarkets across Germany. And the three tiled parking spaces, separated by lines of white tiles: I’ve always found them deeply oppressive, perhaps because they’re not – as in Californian parking lots with their washed-out markings on failing asphalt – evidence of neglect. Someone cared enough to set down these stones, to hammer them in just right, to engineer this pattern, to go the extra inch. This surface is uncaring by design, not by neglect.

The small parking lot feels as though it looks the way it does in order to shrug off what would one day happen. This projective amnesia, as though whatever violence and misery could take place in this location could never truly find a home there in memory – this ability feels deeply connected to the fact that it is traffic architecture. Pictures of roads, intersections or sidewalks don’t make up the bulk of Leitolf’s pictures. But they show up in a lot of them.

Leitolf photographs to emphasize absence: she nearly always keeps human figures out of frame. But whenever I’ve seen any part of the cycle, it has taken me a few pictures to catch on – for the simple reason that these are places we are conditioned to imagine depopulated. The parking lot makes you want to move on. It is inhospitable to lingering, looking carefully, asking questions. The car has become the outer contour of what goes without saying.

Today, Germany knows it’s supposed to talk about cars. The new government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz has made the Verkehrswende a priority: a climate ‘turn’ in transportation policy. But wende is one of those words Germans like to use when absolutely nothing changes. Traveling through Germany in the summer of 2023, you saw more people than usual taking public transportation. Drawn in by a discounted ticket meant to kick-start a shift toward more rail and tram travel – but, characteristically, not matched by new investments in new trains or tram lines – the public seemed to briefly explore a foreign territory, knowing that they’d return to their normal mode of transportation. And normal meant cars.

Decades of unequal investment have created an unequal field of disturbances in German transportation systems: as the number of cars continues to climb, people have come to understand the ubiquitous traffic jams as an expected and calculable risk, whereas every rail journey has become a baffling cascade of Buster Keaton-esque mishaps. People wait for the next train announcement with barely concealed glee glimmering through their frustration: what will it be this time, a cow on the tracks, a brush fire, a broken-down connecting train? Wait till folks back home hear about this! Cars are the dysfunction we have learned to live with, but which we have forgotten how to narrate.

The sense that automotive architecture was almost intentional in its hostility to reflection and memory is much older than Leitolf’s pictures. Theodor Adorno left Frankfurt in 1933, when the Nazis came to power – and when all of Germany had about 300,000 cars. He returned in 1949, when there were about half a million cars in Germany. In 1959, when he gave a lecture on ‘The Meaning of “Working Through the Past” ’, in which he pointed to ‘a lack of self-reflection, in the end an incapacity to experience’ among his contemporaries, there were about 3.5 million.

He had spent the intervening years in Los Angeles (1.5 million inhabitants, 1 million cars in 1940), and in Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life, he referred again and again to the car. ‘Every intellectual in emigration,’ he wrote, ‘lives in an environment which necessarily remains incomprehensible, even if one can manage to find one’s way among trade union organizations or automobile traffic; one is forever getting lost.’

The car, and that sense of alienation, followed Adorno home. In 1962, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He demanded a traffic light for a crossing close to his institute’s new building.

When crossing the Senckenberganlage, near the corner of Dantestraße, one of our secretaries was recently run over and seriously injured, only days after another pedestrian had died in the same crossing. On your way to university you have to run across the street in an altogether undignified way, as though running for your life. Should a student or a professor be in the state that is actually appropriate for them, namely in their thoughts, then there is an immediate threat of death.

Years after the philosopher’s death, the city of Frankfurt put a traffic light in place at the crossing – the ‘Adornoampel’, as it is known today. The traffic-light episode is often told as one of the more light-hearted moments in a fairly downbeat biography. But there was surely a very dark dimension to Adorno’s worry: the professor had reflected for years on what the ‘immediate threat of death’ might do to thinking. The letter to the editor suggested that the effect of the exploding car traffic around the German metropolis raised the same concern for him. Amid the mindless mania for rebuilding, Adorno detected not just an allergy against recollection, but also a readiness for repetition.

The letter reflected less a change in Adorno’s thinking than one in his choice of transport. He had gone from being a driver in California to being a pedestrian in Frankfurt. The Californian landscape had appeared to him ‘disconsolate and inconsolable’, and it had appeared that way behind the windows of a speeding car. ‘For what the hurrying eye has merely viewed from the car is not retained, and the landscape drops away without a trace in the mind, just as all traces on the landscape fade away.’

By the 1960s, Adorno was no longer concerned about what driving might do to the driver’s psyche. When crossing the Senckenberganlage, he became concerned with the alienation felt by the car’s potential victims: that is, pedestrians. The car was, just as in the United States, a mode in which a society made its peace with mass death. But, as Adorno was keenly aware of, closing their eyes to mass death was something that Germans had considerable practice in. It seems at least possible that Adorno sensed a continuity between their tacit acceptance of one and their acceptance of another.

Adrian Daub

Adrian Daub is a writer for various newspapers and magazines in the US, Germany and Switzerland. He teaches at Stanford University. His most recent books include WhatTech Calls Thinking and Cancel Culture Transfer.

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