Echo of the Past

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Abstract:

Recently, Germans have been debating how to represent the past in a Holocaust Memorial to be built in the center of Berlin. The continuing debate over the Memorial indicates that many Germans still have not yet been able to come to terms with their history. The lessons of this debate will aid in understanding the rise on neo-Nazism spurred by the surge in unemployment in the early 1990s. However, the erection of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial symbolizes a willingness to come to terms with the past and to learn from it.

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Germany's Stifling Indecision

In Bernhard Schlick's novel The Reader, the character Michael Berg asks, "What should our second generation have done, what should it do with the knowledge of the horrors of the extermination of the Jews? ... Should we only fall silent in revulsion, shame, and guilt? To what purpose?"

Berg's words echo the real anguish of Germans who were toddlers or not yet born when the Nazis systematically eliminated six million Jews. Recently, Germans have been debating how to represent the past in a Holocaust Memorial to be built in the center of Berlin. The continuing debate over the Memorial indicates that many Germans still have not yet been able to come to terms with their history. The lessons of this debate will aid in understanding the rise of neo-Nazism partly spurred by the surge in unemployment in the early 1990s. While neo-Nazis represent only a small minority in German society today, their numbers are increasing. The resolution of the debate over the Memorial would be an important step in a broader confrontation with the persistence of neo-Nazism.

Two-thirds of Germans are not old enough to remember the Holocaust that burdens their past. However, its specter is everywhere. It is on television, on commemorative signs and sculptures in almost every city, and most recently, it has been the focus of intense debate concerning the design of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial. The Memorial was proposed a decade ago, but has since ignited discussion as to how Germany should represent the past in this structure. Several Germans, including the well-known author Gunter Grass, questioned whether it would even be possible to represent the atrocities of the Holocaust. Others suggested the former concentration camps as a more fitting location for the Memorial. However, then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl insisted that a monument in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate would expose more Germans to the Holocaust. Two international competitions produced designs varying from a ferris wheel built of railway cattle cars similar to those that transported condemned Jews to the concentration camps to a design by French sculptor Jochen Gerz that consisted of a field of 50-foot masts bearing the expression "Why?" in the languages of the victims. Kohl provisionally selected US architect Peter Eisenman's design of a labyrinth of 2,700 wordless stone pillars.

Thus, along with tax reform, treatment of immigrants, and unemployment, the Holocaust Memorial became a divisive issue in the 1998 chancellor elections. Candidate Gerhard Schroeder opposed the monument in Berlin because he believed it would not increase awareness and remembrance. Schroeder's successful election seemed to suggest that the German public wanted to move away from the shadows of the war imposed on them by Kohl.

Shortly after Schroeder took office, a fiery debate ignited between Martin Walser, a well-respected novelist, and Ignatz Burbis, leader of Germany's Jewish community. Upon receiving the top prize at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Walser expressed his discontent with the "routine of accusations" that had developed against Germans. He remarked, "Auschwitz is not suited to becoming a routine threat, a tool of intimidation that can be used any time, a moral stick or merely a compulsory exercise" After the speech, many Germans wrote letters to the press, praising Walser's articulation of what many felt unable to voice-that Germans no longer want to be burdened by a past that they cannot remember. …

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