Germany's Vanishing Holocaust Monuments

By Young, James E. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Germany's Vanishing Holocaust Monuments


Young, James E., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


A NOTORIOUS NAZI LEADER ONCE SAID THAT WHEN he heard the word "culture" he reached for his gun. Now when good Germans hear the word "Nazi" they invariably reach for their culture. It is almost as if the only guarantee against the return of this dreaded past lies in its constant aesthetic sublimation--in the art, literature, music, and, finally, in the monuments by which the Nazi era is simultaneously recalled and contained in Germany today.

On the one hand, no one takes their memorials more seriously than the Germans. Competitions are held almost monthly across the "Fatherland" for new memorials against war and fascism, or for peace; or to mark a site of destruction, deportation, or a missing synagogue; or to remember a lost Jewish community. Students devote their summers to concentration camp archaeology at Neuengamme, excavating artifacts from another, crueler age. Or they take up hammer and nails to rebuild a synagogue in Essen, or to build a monument at the site of Dachau's former satellite camp at Landsberg. Brigades of young Germans once again report dutifully to Auschwitz, where they repair dilapidated exhibition halls, tend shrubs around the barracks, and hoe weeds from the no-man's-land strip between formerly electrified fences. No less industrious than the generations preceding them, German teenagers now work as hard at constructing memorials as their parents did in rebuilding the country after the war, as their grandparents did in building the Third Reich itself.

Nonetheless, Holocaust memorial-work in Germany today remains a tortured, self-reflective, even paralyzing preoccupation. Every monument, at every turn, is endlessly scrutinized, explicated, and debated. Artistic, ethical, and historical questions occupy design juries to an extent unknown in other countries. Germany's ongoing "Denkmal-Arbeit" simultaneously displaces and constitutes the object of memory. Though some might see such absorption in the process of memorial-building as an evasion of memory, it may also be true that the surest engagement with memory lies in its perpetual irresolution. In fact, the best German memorial to the Fascist era and its victims may not be a single memorial at all--but simply the never-to-be resolved debate over which kind of memory to preserve, how to do it, in whose name, and to what end. Instead of a fixed figure for memory, the debate itself--perpetually unresolved amid ever-changing conditions--might be enshrined.

Given the state-sponsored monument's traditional function as self-aggrandizing locus for national memory, the essential, nearly paralyzing ambiguity of German memory comes as no surprise. For traditionally, the state-sponsored memory of a national past aims to affirm the righteousness of a nation's birth, even its divine election. The matrix of a nation's monuments emplots the story of ennobling events, of triumphs over barbarism, and recalls the martyrdom of those who gave their lives in the struggle for national existence--who, in the martyrological refrain, died so that a country might live. In assuming the idealized forms and meanings assigned this era by the state, memorials tend to concretize particular historical interpretations. They suggest themselves as indigenous, even geological outcroppings in a national landscape; in time, such idealized memory grows as natural to the eye as the landscape in which it stands. Indeed, for memorials to do otherwise would be to undermine the very foundations of national legitimacy, of the state's seemingly natural right to exist.

While the victors of history have long erected monuments to remember their triumphs, and victims have built memorials to recall their martyrdom, only rarely does a nation call upon itself to remember the victims of crimes it has perpetrated. Where are the national monuments to the genocide of Native Americans, to the millions of Africans enslaved and murdered, to the Kulaks and peasants starved to death by the millions? …

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