CEC Journal: Issue 4

Remembering || Germany

"A monument of shame?" 
A critical analysis on the Berlin Holocaust memorial 

Dresden, January the 17th 2017.

Björn Höcke [1] at the time one of the leading party members of the AfD – Die Alternative für Deutschland [2] (the alternative for Germany) gave a speech in front of young party members and participants of the so called PEGIDA (patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the western world) protests. This speech caused an uproar among politicians, journalists and became an intense topic of discussion in schools and universities. Clearly Höcke aimed to polarize. He compared Angela Merkel to Erich Honnecker, called the established parties staatsfeindlich (a threat to the country’s stability), and claimed that:

unsere hochgeschätzte Kultur droht in einer multikulturellen Beliebigkeit unterzugehen […] unser liebes Volk ist […] durch die Masseneinwanderung erstmals in seiner Existenz bedroht (Höcke, B. 2017).

Our highly valued culture is endangered to dissolve in a multicultural arbitrariness […]our beloved people is endangered in its existence for the first time by mass-immigration.

These statements illustrate a conservative right-wing belief whose potential allure should not be underestimated; a situation that is alarming for any people of moderate political views. While this is a topic that would exceed the frame of this article, Höcke made another comment in this speech that demonstrates a current issue for the field of history -- and its contribution to the culture of remembrance within society:

Wir Deutschen sind das einzige Volk der Welt, das sich ein Denkmal der Schande ins Herz seiner Hauptstadt gepflanzt hat (Höcke, B. 2017)

We, Germany, are the only people in the world who planted a monument [3] of shame in the heart of their capital. 

Of course, most people’s initial reaction is to call this Nazi-propaganda and that will lead history to repeat itself, but that kind of “emotional outburst” might not deal with the argument itself. Furthermore, the commonly used proverb "Geschichte wiederholt sich" (history repeats itself) is often addressed carelessly in this context and there is a need for critical examination on the narratives around this monument, which stands as a manifestation of German culture of remembrance.

This paper attempts such an examination, on a small scale, supported by the following structure: first, it will examine at the construction and decision-making process of the monument alongside the narratives that followed and accompanied this process. Second, the historical and theoretical background shall be explored. This implies the inclusion of scholarly work on the topic of culture of remembrance, as well a short breakdown of the recent rise of right-wing populism in Germany. Finally, I will draw conclusions from these analyses and include a personal statement on the speech that sparked this paper. Even though the conclusions cannot be exhaustive to the topic, they might give some sense of direction and links for further research. Since the rest of the paper tries to stay rather objective, this is an opportunity for the author to introduce a personal opinion without compromising the work and may provide a greater transparency about the paper itself since biases that could not be prevented can be identified by the reader.

The monument and its narratives

Since the 1990s there have been discussions and more formal acknowledgements of the Holocaust [4] in the capital of Germany. In 1999 the parliament then agreed to the erection of the “Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas” (memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe), in close proximity to the Brandenburger Tor [5] (berlin.de 2017). After a long architectural competition and multiple amendments to the original winning proposal by Peter Eisenmann, the monument was opened to the public on May 10, 2005 (berlin.de 2017).

The installation consists of two parts. The first part is the actual monument above ground, which takes 1900 m2 covered in 2711 steles that have the same base area, but differing in height. The underlying ground is wavelike, and the field of steles can be entered from any side of the square that contains them. Generally, when entering the visitor will walk downhill to the center of the field, so that they are enclosed by towering steles. This central low point is also the entrance to the second part of the installation. Here one enters what is called the “Ort der Information” (place of information) (berlin.de 2017). By entering, one arrives under the stele square and this part of the monument is rather exhibition like [6] while the above ground component can be perceived as being aesthetic in nature. The place of information documents the persecution and attempted annihilation of the Jewish community in Europe; the goal is to place the above-mentioned parts into context by having variously themed rooms around the central topic of the holocaust, including a significant number of time-witness-interviews [7]. Even since the early planning stages, discussions abounded about whether this monument should be built at all or in the way proposed. In the following writing, a couple of those narratives shall be presented albeit without a thorough assessment; this will happen when tied together with the historical and theoretical background in the conclusion.

When thinking back to the speech by Höcke, this might seem even more extremist and reprehensible after understanding what the monument is linked to, since he appears to be challenging the honest documentation and acknowledgement of one of the biggest crimes in history. However, the statement of it being a “monument of shame”, can be seen from two different perspectives. As the Taz [8] pointed out: Rudolf Augstein and Martin Walser made a similar comment during the so-called Walser controversy in 1998. While no one would call Rudolf Augstein a Nazi, they are both part of the “Tätergeneration” (generation of offenders) and belong to the loud voices that are demanding to end the continuing discourse on the abysses of German history (Dinak, R. 2017). So, what one sees, on the one hand, is a far-right ideology that asks for German history to be viewed from a different angle and to be stripped of shame. For this, as Höcke said in his speech, the classes must focus on German achievements and abandon the current culture of remembrance. On the other hand, more moderate, conservative voices also call for an end of that culture, to simply move on; however, without a specific call for revisionism.

But what does that mean? Of course, suppressions of the past happen all the time and in a private context, arguably a valid coping mechanism for traumatizing events from the past. Nevertheless, for the collective memory, particularly in Germany, one can claim that:

Es darf keinen Schlusstrich unter der Erinnerung geben [aufgrund] kollektiver Verantwortung der Zukunft (Dinak, R. 2017).

It can never be permitted to draw a final line under the memory [because of] the collective responsibility for the future.

This would most likely be the opinion that most formally-educated Germans would align with, as this narrative is the one that is predominantly used within the school system.

Keeping this in mind, it is to look at the initial press responses, shortly after the monument was opened. An article published in Der Spiegel will serve as an example for the multiple approaches towards the installation (Fischer, S. 2005). First, police officers describe how youth do not seem to understand the serious nature of the place and how they are probably not well enough educated on the topic:

Die klettern da auf den Stelen rum, rauchen auf dem Mahnmalgelände – und keinen stört es. […] Den Jugendlichen fehle offentsichtlich der vorbereitende Unterricht in der Schule  (Fischer, D. 2005)

They are climbing around the steles, smoke on the monument’s area – and nobody seems to care. […] The juveniles are obviously lacking preparations in school.

Then, one sees three differing approaches described: some foreign tourists ask why one would put something like this in a capital; others see the installation solemnly as a piece of art; lastly a woman is mentioned who put down roses on a stele, that then remained untouched.

So, the general sentiment when the monument was created appeared to be that there is a right and wrong way of remembrance. Whereas the installation itself is not put in question here, the way the people approach it, is. It appears that the call for a “final line” is not present at all, but rather the assumption that only a quiet and a specifically mannered encounter is respectful remembrance with a positive impact.

10 years later Der Tagespiegel paints a slightly different picture. They claim:

Mit dem Holocaust Mahnmal wurde Berlin die Freiheit des Gedenken geschenkt  (Die Freiheit des Gedenkens, 2015).

With the Holocaust Monument Berlin was gifted with the freedom of remembrance.

It seems like the people have gotten used to their new portrait of remembrance and the above mentioned article celebrates the fact that the monument is both a proper way to acknowledge the country’s past, while also acknowledging the shame that comes along with it and the opportunity to remember in individual ways with the different components that the installation offers.

Tying these opinions together, one sees that different values and problems are deduced from the monument, however only the far-right demands a change of existence after its implementation. Also, one sees generational conflict around it. While the Tätergeneration demands that society moves on, their children call for remembrance in a specific manner which is challenged again by the new youth. Nevertheless, an even clearer divide appears with regard to remembrance in other cultural and national contexts. Therefore, the following section will deal with the culture of remembrance in the German context and current as well as future challenges to it.

Theoretical and historical background

As mentioned above it is important to take a closer look at culture of remembrance in Germany in general to get a better grasp of the impact of the Holocaust memorial monument. At this point, this paper will look at a possible definition for the term “Culture of Remembrance” and its historical development.

According to the OME-lexicon the term Erinnerungskultur/en (Culture of remembrance/s) is a neologism that emerged in the 1990s, when the history of WWII and its effects began to be processed. Of course, one sees the term appearing earlier in history as well, particularly regarding monasteries and their tradition of chronology. However, the German use of this term has a very different connotation since the remembering of monasteries was largely about keeping record, the 20th century remembrance is related to:

“historisch und kulturell variable Ausprägungen von kollektivem Gedächtnis” (Wünsch, T. 2013).

historically and culturally variable nuances of collective memory. 

There are problems and controversies that have come along with a culture of remembrance that is as well part of political interests as aims of the civil society. A common problem described on literature is, that in the process of setting a culture of remembrance, it is possible to -- rather than creating new remembrances that are limited or are tools of political ideology -- critically revising the past and the view thereof (Wünsch, T. 2013). This means that by introducing places of remembrance, a new kind of ideology is to be promoted. Basically, this is what Höcke accuses the monument of doing; according to him it is skewing German history towards self-victimization, but at the same time he is using this narrative to promote his own ideology and rewrite history. Wünsch suggests that a monument that includes transnational perspectives is less likely to be partaking in such pollicization of memory.

The Berlin installation represents collective memory in a rather unique way. It respects the need for documentation and transnationalism, but embodies them in an artistic approach The argument Höcke and Augstein’s propose represents the problem that has been pointed out above: Is the artistic approach in combination with the documentation center critical enough? However, it cannot be forgotten that these installations need constant reevaluation to keep their goal to inform and educate in place. So maybe Höcke’s reaction may also be seen as an indicator that the education around the topic in general needs reconsideration for it to maintain its positive impact on teaching critical thinking and tolerance.

Aleida Assmann, a highly recognized scientist dealing with narrations of history, adds a couple of points to the ones above in here evaluation of the shifts in culture of remembrance in Europe throughout the last centuries. She describes three methods of remembrance: triumph, remorse, and self-critique. She also touches upon the conflict between a critical engagement with history and the forgetting that might be needed to move forward. Despite the common call for an “act of oblivion against all crimes and follies of the past”, as made by Winston Churchill to forming a European family has been overruled by the following generations whose culture of remembrance “subverts old patterns of national self-heroization based exclusively on pride or suffering and also expands self-image to include elements of self-criticism” (Assmann, A. 2015). But this also clearly demonstrates that memory has to be renewed and the European situation, and the German one in particular, will be highly affected once the generation of witnesses of WWII has entirely passed. Assmann, as well, highlights the possible impact of remembering history transnationally and transculturally: “What [was] once divisive and destructive [can turn] into a common history” (Assmann, A. 2015). Drawing from Assmann’s considerations, a clear value of the monument in discussion can be derived. The installation is in-between stages of remorse and self-criticism, since affecting a great majority of cultures and nations has great integrative power. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether this place of remembrance can step up to the changes in collective memory, as the situation of remembrance in the civil society changes and as the witnesses pass.

As mentioned earlier the concept of culture of remembrance is rather young and appears to be a complicated matter when looking at it on a deeper level. Memorials and monuments as places of remembrance can have different tasks and different characteristics. Though, all of them are shaped by remembrance as a selective process, remembrance is a natural process, so:

Erinnern per se für etwas gutes zu halten ist Unsinn” (Reemtsma, J. P. 2010).

to think remembrance is naturally something good is nonsense.

Also, regarding the ubiquitous goal to prevent history from repeating itself through displaying the crimes committed by the Nazi-Regime: is the portrayal of the effect violence, really going to keep a young aggressive extremist from being intrigued by Nazi ideology? (Reemtsma, J. P 2010). Maybe not, but the importance of such memorial can be summarized in another way:

Es geht nicht Erinnerung, es geht um das Bewusstsein einer Gefährdung, von der man weiß, seit man weiß, dass es eine Illusion war, zu meinem, der Zivilisationsprozess sei unumkehrbar, von der man also weiß, dass sie immer aktuell bleiben wird (Reemtsma, J.P. 2010).

It is not about remembrance, it is about the acknowledgement of a danger of which one knows, since one knows that it was an illusion to think that the civilization process is irreversible, of which one knows that it always will be relevant.

This is a very honest way of saying why the discussed monument is where it i,  and where its value and right of existence in civil society come from. In addition to that:

die Debatte um das Berliner Mahnmal […] gehöre zum Mahnmal selbst (Reemtsma, J. P. 2010). 

the debate about the Berlin monument […] belongs to the monument itself.

Erinnerung dient der Orientierung in einer Gegenwart zu Zwecken künftigen Handelns. […] Die Zukunft macht Vergangenheit erst verstehbar und motiviert Geschichtsbewusstsein (Welzer, H. 2010).

Remembrance helps the orientation in a present for guidance for future actions. […] The future is only making the past comprehensible and motivates an acknowledgement of history.

While all of this seems valid and has been disregarded by Höcke entirely, it also appears to be a great burden for an artistic monument and a small exhibition to carry.

Going back to the circumstances of Höcke’s speech in the beginning, one could identify it as rhetoric that ties into actual problems the monument and its underlying goal face. The questions of timeliness and proper development/reassessment are valid, they are used to build up a paradigm that may blur the line between the German people of today and the German Nazi ideology of the 1930s (Dinak, R. 2017). However, this also illustrates that the current narrative around the monument or more so, the historical education in general needs to be reworked to continue to live up to the principles developed in the aftermath of WWII.


In conclusion, there are a couple of central points that have become clearer throughout this paper that shall be summed up at this point, uniting under the attempt to critically examine the role the Berlin Holocaust memorial plays today.

First, one could observe a shift in the general media from critiquing the existence of the monument toward the way in which civil society approaches. The media goes on to praise its multi-perspective approach ten years later and finishes by using a positive attitude to delineate between the majority and the far-right. However, there needs to be a right of discussion. It appears that one has to stick with the way remembrance is structured right now and it is very easy to simply claim that people like Höcke are radicals and that current remembering is fully functional. But the truth is there is no right or wrong, and by portraying it as such, the gap between people being mad at the establishment, and the far-right, is getting deeper and deeper. Remembrance needs to be self-critical. All the scholarly works consulted for this paper could agree on that, and this is where Höcke can be invalidated from an academic standpoint. His goal is to eliminate critical engagement with our past, which would lead to the danger of creating history as nationalistic markers described in the OME-Lexicon article.

Second, this paper touches upon the issue of intergenerational remembrance. There is a difference between the speeches of Augstein or Walser and Höcke. Also, different generations have been noted to approach the Berlin monument differently. So irrespective of the claims made the far-right, there needs to be a discussion whether the way of remembrance is still timely or not. This does only put the particularities of the monument in question but also the education surrounding it. How is the Holocaust taught; how is it not? What does it mean today and to youth who will never encounter a person who has lived through it? These are questions that need to be addressed, as although yelling will probably solve nothing, education just might.

Personally, I was outraged by the speech Höcke gave and was frankly very scared, when I heard his rhetoric and saw the people applauding him. Yet simultaneously, I also realized that calling him a Nazi and letting it go might give him more power by allowing him to victimize himself and not actually challenge his views directly. In this regard, I want to highlight this exact point: the need for reevaluation of our education with respect to our country’s history. Every generation is different, and education needs to be evolve accordingly. Since my parents’ generation, we have been cultivating shame and guilt in German education surrounding the Holocaust. However, I do not feel ashamed or guilty when visiting the Berlin monument; rather I feel empowered. I was raised with my parent’s guilt that they felt for their parents and the belief that because of them feeling that way I would have to be twice as compassionate, twice as tolerant and twice as political. For me their "guilt” shaped me in a positive way, it made me a more nuanced person when approaching conflicts. Nevertheless, the same education I got is still what is being taught and what surrounds German memorials. Naturally there is rebellion and questioning of that, and the history departments around our country need to find a way to deal with those questions constructively and not pushing them aside as an inevitable wake of the rise of populism.



[1] commonly referred to as Bernd Höcke
[2] The AfD is a recently formed right-wing party that now takes seats in various local governments and entered the Bundestag in the most recent elections. They are often in the press for some of their party members that are making distincly racist comments.
[3] He refers to the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe. The look of the installation will be discussed later in this paper.
[4] This memorial specifically acknowledges the genocide of the European Jews, but does not shed light on crimes committed towards other discriminated groups. Even though recently the use of the word holocaust is switched to "shoah" this paper continues to use holocaust since the monument is often referred to as the holocaust memorial
[5] The Brandenburger Tor (the Brandenburg Gate) is a big memorial that belongs in the complex of government buildings close to the former border.
[6] The way this part is curated is similar to what can be seen in most exhibitions at former concentration camps.
[7] As the first-hand witnesses of the holocaust pass, many places of memorial and museums have made a concoius effort to record their stories, inclusing those of holocaus survivors as well as people of larger German population at the time. Hence they provide a rather accurate account about the events.
[8] The taz may be perceived as a leftist newspaper, however is extremely well researched and should be considered also in the light of giving word to Höcke.

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