Friday, July 13th, 2012

A Takedown of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial

I've never heard anyone say an ill word about the Berlin Holocaust Memorial! And yet here is a fairly thorough take-down.

The title doesn’t say “Holocaust” or “Shoah”; in other words, it doesn’t say anything about who did the murdering or why—there’s nothing along the lines of “by Germany under Hitler’s regime,” and the vagueness is disturbing. Of course, the information is familiar, and few visitors would be unaware of it, but the assumption of this familiarity—the failure to mention it at the country’s main memorial for the Jews killed in the Holocaust—separates the victims from their killers and leaches the moral element from the historical event, shunting it to the category of a natural catastrophe. The reduction of responsibility to an embarrassing, tacit fact that “everybody knows” is the first step on the road to forgetting.

That's certainly true, the way history works: in 200 years, will people even be sure what the Holocaust was? While they are guzzling Brawndo.

26 Comments / Post A Comment

NinetyNine (#98)

Huh? People argued about the design for literally years, about each and everyone of the points he made.

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

@NinetyNine He who does not remember past architectural criticism is condemned to repeat it.

Interesting points indeed. Deserves some mention of the Stolperstein project, though.

WaityKatie (#79,377)

I felt kind of the same way about the Berlin German Historical Museum's treatment of the Holocaust. It was just kind of in there in the WWII section, and they did talk about it a little bit, but there was also kind of this almost equivalency attitude of "but the Allies did some terrible things too when they bombed German cities!" Which is true, but…the way the Holocaust was sort of shoved in a corner with "this was really bad, but MOVING ON!" made me kind of uncomfortable.

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

So it's just "mistakes were made"?

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@Ham Snadwich Plus, the people responsible are no longer with the company.

chris4d (#10,180)

I know there are still living WWII vets, for a few more years at least. Honestly though, how do you suppose people should take ownership of atrocities committed by their grandfathers? It's too recent to view dispassionately, but not recent enough to be a living memory for a majority of the population. We don't do a great job in the US of owning up to our forebears' treatment of american indians or black slaves. The conversations we do have would likely go away without members of those groups still agitating to keep it alive.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@chris4d Well, Holocaust was not simply an aggregation of individual crimes. It was a systematic process that was born out of a certain culture, cultivated for a long time (and that was not put on trial and hanged). So, in that, the seeds of that evil are still alive (and kicking around), and cannot be dismissed simply as something done a long time ago by people no longer among us. It's a shame that this still needs to be explained, even among "us" here.

chris4d (#10,180)

@Niko Bellic Uh, thanks for the lesson? I was unclear, so I'll try again. Yes, the evil was pervasive, but so is the acknowledgement of it. You can't walk down a street in Munich or Berlin or Salzburg without passing the markers in front of houses where holocaust victims lived. It's taught extensively in the schools, and the sites are all preserved. In another generation or two, maybe people will need a stronger lesson, because it will feel so distant. But rubbing salt in that wound now – reminding them of something they can't forget – will only prevent the wound from healing. To suggest that ordinary Germans today can somehow do more to atone for crimes that they did not personally commit is, in my eyes, unfair and unproductive.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@chris4d "Honestly though, how do you suppose people should take ownership of atrocities committed by their grandfathers?"
I don't know, let's ask European-Americans:

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

I wonder what Germans think about our massive memorial to the victims of slavery in DC, oh wait…

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

Why should Germans have to worry about this, when we know it was The Nazis (Obama, Pelosi, Soros, and that gang) who did it?

hershmire (#233,671)

I'm kind of bothered that the memorial also doesn't mention the other six million partisans, political prisoners, communists, resistance fighters and homosexuals who were murdered in the camps.

Max Clarke (#3,635)

@hershmire FWIW, there is a very moving (IMO) monument to gay Holocaust victims just across the street in the Tiergarten. And a memorial for the Roma victims is being built nearby.

hershmire (#233,671)

@Max Clarke Nice to hear. It's been a long time since I was in Berlin.

Max Clarke (#3,635)

I saw the memorial recently… as well as the memorial to gay victims of the Holocaust nearby, and the Anne Frank house. I thought all 3 were extremely effective, albeit using different strategies. It's too bad that Brody somehow completely missed the existence of the museum underneath the memorial, which pretty much invalidates all his arguments. My only complaint would be that the lines for the museum are so long that it's very difficult to see (I and my traveling companions weren't able to stay long enough to get in).

Memorials usually do not come with a giant billboard of explanatory text for the poorly-informed. If this is the standard we're now supposed to apply, most celebrated monuments would fail. Context is what a well-functioning, well-educated, self-aware society is supposed to supply. I have to give modern Germany credit for having done pretty much as thorough a job as any nation ever has in confronting its horrific history.

gregorg (#30)

I asked Richard Serra about this once, at a LACMA panel. He had originally been co-designer with Eisenman, but took his name off, though the design as built seems unchanged as a result. I think his problems with it arose from the German political wrangling at the time it was approved/built, the facts of which also seem to have eluded Brody.

I admit, it is a fun Holocaust memorial.

Leaving the monument under-plaqued and relatively anonymous as to the #s and those behind what it memorializes (which I'm still not sure is a verb that should be easily attached to anything related to the memory of the holocaust) is, to me, part of the intended experience (again, not an entirely excellent noun to relate to the holocaust). When entering the monument on foot, it takes a few minutes before you reach a point where you become enveloped in it and can at least begin to imagine struggling to find your way out – what were at first small, nameless blocks have risen to greater heights, and though they remain as nameless and vague as those initial minorliths, the more central blocks demand more attention, just as the final figures of those killed in the holocaust demand more attention then individuals but are at their very base (architecture pun), are the same.

All in all, it's a difficult subject to make any sort of attempt to memorialize – the more symbolic, personal, yet vague approach to the Berlin memorial is as successful as possible.

MILEAGE (#3,250)

It's called "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe." This makes it very clear what it is about. "Holocaust Memorial" would in fact be a less effective title because the word "Holocaust" may not have a specific meaning a century or more hence.

@MILEAGE Not with that attitude it won't.

johnb78@twitter (#11,834)

A Memorial To The Murdered Jews of Europe is actually better, as it establishes the Holocaust firmly in the tradition of the antisemitic murders that Europeans had committed in the name of nationalism and Christianity over the preceding millennium or so – rather than the "aberration under hypnotic influence of uniquely evil madman" that there's a natural tendency to chalk it down to.

berts (#235,918)

It's astounding that Brody would visit a monument and submit a piously indignant review of it without bothering to visit the information center that is in fact easy to find and mentioned prominently in every conceivable write-up of the memorial. An information center that basically does everything he suggests the memorial should do, but in a much more tasteful and thought-provoking way– (…"it would have been fitting for six million names to be engraved"…seriously?).

@hershmire's comments on the title: there's actually a convoluted history of why it's exclusively a memorial "to the murdered jews of Europe"; part of the decision to have different memorials for different groups of victims was because the Roma didn't want to share a memorial with the gays

I also love the brainless tourist detail about eating dinner on Oranienburgerstrasse (for reference, basically the Broadway of Berlin) and the profound observation that "even the street names are redolent of death." Is he talking about the act of enunciating the syllables? Or referring to the obscure Oranienburg prison, at which a total of 16 inmates died?

GandS (#32,590)

@berts thank you – this article bothered me so much, mostly because it's asinine to write a scathing review of the entire site when you don't even visit the half of the site that addresses all of your qualms. and to pick on the title! what a clown – every aspect of the memorial was carefully designed, does he really think the title was chosen to lessen the impact?
criticizing the design for allowing people to act disrespectfully or unknowingly at its edges misses the point of having such entrances. at its outset, people were not paying enough attention to the abuses directed towards other ('first they came…'), and it was only as it progressed further that the towering doom of that era held every single being in its shadow. they're not just graves, they're prison bars too.

musicmope (#428)

Isn't that a photo of Berghain?

musicmope (#428)

Brody's piece begs the question of the German tendency to memorialize IN LIEU OF remembrance. There's a reason those stones look so cold. Fun Fact: the anti-graffiti coating on the memorial is by the company that created Zyklon-B, so if you spray "Never Forget" on one of the slabs, it wipes right off.

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