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From the Past, For the Future: How the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe has evolved the Modern Memorial

Published on 25th March 2017

William Gass, in his work “Mentality, Monumentality,” claims that “there aren’t very many cautionary monuments. It goes against the grain.”[i] In a sense, he is right. It does go against the grain. For most, monuments are meant to be celebratory. Even when a monument is constructed to memorialize a painful event, it is nearly always construed to venerate not the event, nor the negative impacts of that event, but the triumphal overcoming of it. For example, Valley Forge, the site of thousands of deaths in the Revolutionary War at a point when things looked bleakest, has on its premises none other than a triumphal arch. In Gass’s work, and likely too in David Rieff’s, this makes sense. States use memorials and monuments to assert their legitimacy and create a national mythos, for better or for worse. However, these works do not address something all the more complicated: the Holocaust. There is no way to construe the Holocaust in a sense of national pride, not unless one counts Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, but that is mostly concerned with pride in survival and martyrdom. Even so, the Holocaust has no one set country that it took place in, no simple and homogenous set of victims, nor even an eventual victor. To build a memorial to the victims of a systematic genocide goes beyond any prior discussion of monumentality and embraces a new mentality. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, however, does just that. It fits well into Gass’s framework of monumentality, while avoiding the overt propaganda that Rieff is concerned with. More importantly, however, it expands upon these notions using its lexicon, design, layout, location, and message to effectively create a new, modern, and complex memorial.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The name alone generates controversy, in this case concerning the memorial’s genesis. What of political opponents, of the Roma peoples, of anybody who didn’t fit Nazi standards of ideal humanity? Gass argues that there is no reason why words cannot be memorials and that the essential point therein being that they “return an idea to consciousness” and create specific audiences, all the while catering to those audiences, exemplified by the notion that “the Renaissance masters…did not provide for a place in their plans where we might revisit our first Ferris wheel.”[ii] The idea returned to consciousness here is that of the Holocaust and, specifically, what its results were for the Jews of Europe. The obvious element missing is who did the murdering and who that specific audience is supposed to be, but that is evident in the location of the memorial.

Location, location, location: A cliché for sure, but no cliché takes on that definition without being rooted in truth. Location says a great deal about message. In Gass’s framework, this falls under the umbrella of visibility and the idea that “Visibility, in short, is never a matter of mere bulk.”[iii] The Holocaust memorial is vast, to be sure, but that vastness is difficult to ascertain if one is anywhere but above the memorial. An as yet undiscovered ability to levitate notwithstanding, this downplays the memorial’s size, rather than fortifying its significance. According to project consultant Guenter Schlusche, “at first, people just see a mass of concrete blocks.”[iv] It is also not tall, with the highest stele rising only 4.5 meters out of a depression in the ground. Even so, that does not preclude its visibility; such a quality lies with location and Young’s idea that “a monument necessarily transforms an otherwise benign site into part of its content, even as it is absorbed into the site…”[v] The memorial is on a large piece of prime real estate in central Berlin. It is just a stone’s throw from the Reichstag, the Tiergarten, the Brandenburg Gate, and Unter den Linden, a veritable greatest hits album of German landmarks, which makes the memorial more conspicuous and more jarring. Because of this contrast between marks of German pride and arguably the greatest mark of German shame, the memorial does not really need to be grand, vast, or tall. Its physical significance is made apparent by its surroundings. In extension of that fact, the memorial is also unavoidable. Throngs of people visit the aforementioned sites every day and so, even if they had no intention of ever doing so, they must interact with the Holocaust Memorial. Its presence gives them no choice.

The first thing that one may think when experiencing the Holocaust Memorial would probably pertain to what it actually is. There is nothing on it to indicate as such. It is simply a field of somber stelae in central Berlin, but a field that draws people in, forcing them into single file, stelae that isolate people from the outside light, sound, and other individuals. This abstraction in form has certain benefits. Gass asserts a multitude of ideals that monuments ought to aspire to, but a curious one is that they must be noncommittal, as he takes this to mean that they can be for rent.[vi] Again, he is not incorrect in so saying, but ambiguity does not necessarily imply rentability. As Young asserts, Holocaust memorials are oft maligned due to their ambiguity. In a quote from a survivor, he states: “we weren’t tortured and our families weren’t murdered in the abstract…they were real.”[vii] Fortifying this, Gass asserts that the best memorial to war would include “the muddy trench, the bloated corpse, the stallion lying by its bowels, blown-apart buildings, abandoned equipment, recordings of outcry” as a memorial’s legitimacy ultimately stems from its honesty.[viii] This is why a monument honoring Pol Pot would likely be a bad thing or why the Yasukuni Shrine creates so much anger. Humanity, however, does not live in a perfect world, and in this imperfect world of nuance, it is unlikely that a brutally honest memorial would be altogether that effective. As such, abstraction becomes the next best thing.

Such an idea should not be construed as a compromise, though. This noncommittal nature specific to the Holocaust memorial in Berlin allows for a multiplicity of interpretations. For example, the stones could symbolize graves, or simply serve as vehicles for emotional isolation, or exist purely to stand out. Different people will take what they will from the memorial, thereby making it democratic. For a memorial on the Holocaust to be dictatorial would be somewhat dishonest and take away its legitimacy. Even so, the memorial does not lose its meaning because of this. A loss of meaning, rightly so, is one of the primary concerns that people have with abstract memorials. If there are no words, no figurative elements, what is to stop the passage of time from erasing the symbolism of the memorial? Young expresses this worry by raising the argument that maybe lay people need figural monuments, to which Gass would respond that to do so would be dishonest.[ix] The Holocaust memorial surmounts this issue with its information center.

Museums at somber memorials are always subjects of controversy. They are oft painted as disingenuous, crass, or misleading. For some, such as the families affected by the 9/11 attacks, they can be downright insulting. At the Berlin Holocaust memorial, though, the idea works. The above mentioned concerns about abstract memorials and monuments are largely valid concerns voiced by quite learned people. As a result, abstract memorials require some sort of balance. In this instance, the information center performs that function quite well. On the memorial itself, “Visitors will search in vain for any writing, names, Stars of David, or triangles.”[x] In the end, they will find nothing, not even the memorial’s name, and this is intended. The memorial itself is meant to speak to individuals through emotional response, with “understanding…propelled by the emotions.”[xi] The role of historic preservation is not a fundamental aspect. That is left to the information center. Inside, one can find detailed and stark information on the events of the Holocaust, as well as exhibits putting faces to many of the nameless victims through photographs and letters. There is not a single relic in the structure, just information for people to do with what they will. Then, their innocence in ignorance stripped, visitors emerge back into the memorial with a perhaps altered perception, although they never really left. Peter Eisenman, the architect, knew well the limitations of museums, and so he integrated it into the memorial, embedding it within, carrying over the symbolism of the stelae, and not resorting to fearmongering, just facts. As such, the information center is quite effective at what it does, but it goes beyond that by fortifying the memorial’s right to be abstract. The structure itself cares little to educate people on events, leaving that to the information center. Instead, it educates people on emotions, which is critical due to its nature and location.

David Rieff, in his “After 9/11: The Limits of Rememberance,” clearly does not discuss the Holocaust or any memorials pertaining to it. What he does discuss, however, is nationalism and jingoism in regards to a nation’s memorials, arguing that these memorials have a tendency to create a political agenda.[xii] Gass touches on this point as well in his discussion of American memorials and the towering phallus of George Washington. This is where the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe begins to deviate from the script somewhat. While its title indicates no perpetrator, astute observers can infer. As previously discussed, the memorial is situated in central Berlin, a mere football field away from the remains of Hitler’s chancellery and partially on top of Goebbel’s bunker. Initially, it was meant to be “a prominent memorial to the murdered Jews on the site once occupied by the Gestapo,” subtlety not even a slight factor.[xiii] The design also contributes to this. The memorial actually begins on the sidewalk, the initial stele embedded completely at ground level, the ground gradually sloping downward, pulling people down into its depths until it literally swallows everybody. This grim sense of inclusion gives the memorial a distinctly democratic nature, and being in the heart of Berlin, the target demos happens to be Berliners and, by default, Germans. In that sense, the memorial is not so much for the German people as it is to the German people, even though it was commissioned by German people. This is almost reverse nationalism, in a sense. Generally, nationalistic monuments are meant to bring people together around an ideal, with the assumption that such an ideal be a positive one, such as the 9/11 memorial and its exhortations on freedom. Even the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, commemorating a turbulent era in history, places a premium on the American soldiers who died. The Holocaust memorial does the exact opposite. It unites the German people in a much more somber fashion. It places the blame and the burden of memory upon the German people. Many visitors to the memorial may have ancestors who were devout Nazis, not unlike white Americans whose families owned slaves, the difference being degrees of separation, but even those with no connection are still intended to feel the weight of national history.

One of Gass’s overarching points is that memorials need be symbols of themselves, but that they also need to be “guides for the future.”[xiv] They need to transcend themselves and they often struggle to do this, as they are faced with a seemingly contradictory dialectic of preserving the past and simultaneously shaping society in the present and future, a tall order for any architect. Eisenman largely succeeds in this final, most important arena. He claims that one of his main goals in the design of the memorial was to not have “people weep and then walk away with a clear conscience.”[xv] He wants people to be affected by it, thus addressing the underlying problem of ownership. He “leaves you standing on the edge of the abyss…he suggests that the parameters of guilt are not so easily defined: it includes those who looked the other way, continued with their work, refused to bear witness.”[xvi] There is a general concern with the Holocaust memorial that it will simply allow people to foist their grief and their shame onto the memorial so they are not burdened with the memory themselves, that it will become a sponge for peoples’ feelings so that they can go on about their lives in peace, that it is “too painful a reminder for a people who had long confronted the Nazi past.”[xvii] “Some critics were concerned that a memorial of this kind would essentially be a place where Germany could offload its national guilt.”[xviii] Eisenman’s design however, prevents this and achieves his overarching guiding principle for the future. Contrary to letting people forget the Holocaust, the memorial forces people to remember it, and not only that, to feel guilt. It is not a happy place to be. It is cold, grey, quiet, threatening, and isolating, this effect magnified when it rains. Quite cleverly, though, Eisenman realizes that there is a difference between taking ownership of guilt and grief, and wallowing in despair, which is why his design allows not only for remembrance of death, but also flowering of life. His initial design had the structure open to malleability, with the expectation that people would eventually come to use the space for life, read atop the stelae, and paint on them even. The state did not allow this, which is generally per the course as the German government is usually extremely careful concerning anything to do with its fascist past. Unfortunately, this blunts the message, and the memorial is consumed by just that, by memory. While this may affect its ability to mature in the future, the structure is still quite effective at those transcendent values that Gass discusses, here being those of atonement, on an individual level and on a national level.

It is clearly evident that Gass’s axioms of monumentality to this day define what a successful monument is, and the concerns of individuals such as Rieff and Young are very well documented. Even so, the Holocaust memorial checks these figurative boxes and also transcends them. Therefore, an addendum to Gass’s ideas may be necessary: that successful monuments must also be controversial. Gass discusses fan clubs and support bases. He also discusses that classics need their critics.[xix] While he states this in passing, it is a vital component of a memorial, especially a German Holocaust memorial. If everybody concerned all agreed that a memorial needed to be erected, and the process went smoothly with no outcry and no debate, one must question how necessary that memorial actually was. If there was a consensus that an event needed to be remembered in a specific way, then the people would be doing the memorializing already. No, it is the controversial memorials that are necessary, because they are built when people need to remember, not just when they want to. 

Change is hard for people. Very few like to confront their ugly pasts, even though everybody has one. It is unpleasant and uncomfortable, not something that is wanted or needed on a Monday morning on the way to work, and “They’d rather have pleasant news to see and read about,” but that is exactly why Germany needs a Holocaust memorial in the middle of Berlin, because any change worth having is difficult, and any memorial worth having is difficult to build. The Holocaust memorial is no different.[xx] The idea first came about in the 1980s and did not come to fruition until 20 years later, after much debate and public discourse, but the debate created not only a compromise but a message, not a message that too terribly many people desperately wanted, but one that they needed. Many are content to force negative pasts in to the backs of their minds, much like the Japanese government has been willing to do for the past 70 years in regards to World War II and the invasion of China. While convenient and easy, this provides absolutely no room to grow and to move forward. So, while there have been concerns, specifically from Young, that the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is excessive and that it does not allow Germany to move on, with the effect that we “encourage monuments to do our memory-work for us,” it actually expedites the process, showing that controversy or, more precisely, debate can be a powerful tool for memorials and can become a guide for the future of memorial architecture and human growth.[xxi] Hopefully, Gass would agree.


[1]William H. Gass, “Monumentality, Mentality,” Oppositions, no. 25 (Fall 1982), 139.

2 Ibid., 129.

3 Ibid., 136.

4 Craig Whitlock, “Going to the Heart of the Holocaust,” The Washington Post (May 7, 2005), A14.

5 James Young, Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 7.

6 Gass, “Monumentality, Mentality,” 138.

7 Young, Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, 9.

8 Gass, “Monumentality, Mentality,” 140.

9 Young, Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, 9.

10 Nikolaus Bernau, The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin (Berlin: Stadtwandel Verlag, 2005), 18.

11 Ibid., 6

12 David Rieff, “After 9/11. The Limits of Remembrance,” Harpers Magazine (August 2011), 47.

13 Bernau, The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, 4.

14 Gass, “Monumentality, Mentality,” 142.

15 Nicolai Ouroussoff, “A Forest of Pillars, Recalling the Unimaginable,” the New York Times (May 9, 2005), 1.

16 Ibid.

17 Whitlock, “Going to the Heart of the Holocaust,” A1.

18 Bernau, The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, 6.

19 Gass, “Monumentality, Mentality,” 137.

20 Whitlock, “Going to the Heart of the Holocaust,” A14.

21 Young, Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, 5.