When Germans began debating what kind of a national Holocaust memorial should be built in their capital, cynical Berliners worried that the government would seek an easy way out of an awkward challenge. These critics feared that elected officials wanted to create a Kranzabwurfstelle, or "wreath-dumping ground," where they could lay garlands in perfunctory ceremonies free of any rigorous confrontation with the past.
Now that the memorial—set in the center of Berlin—is nearing completion, it is clear that any wreath placed in its vicinity will immediately be overshadowed by the work's gargantuan proportions. Whether the project is an effective means of perpetuating the memory of Germany's darkest hour is another question. Visitors to the monument, which consists of more than 2,700 concrete slabs and covers an area the size of four football fields, will be plunged into a forbidding, stony swamp. Its stark and haunting contours are a counterpoint to the gleaming dome of the restored Reichstag nearby.
"The Venus flytrap of Holocaust memorials," is how James Young, a University of Massachusetts professor who served on the German government-sponsored jury that selected it, describes the design's potential to both captivate and unmoor the public. The monument, formally called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, will open on May 10, two days after the 60th anniversary of V-E Day, the end of World War II in Europe.
Located in the former East Berlin just south of the Brandenburg Gate, the memorial was first proposed by a citizens' initiative in 1988, a year before the Wall came down. Once the government decided to make Berlin the capital of unified Germany, it donated a five-acre plot a few blocks from where Hitler's headquarters once stood and held a series of design competitions in the mid 1990's. Because the site was so large, most of the proposed memorial designs were huge, evidently intended to satisfy a belief among German authorities that the extraordinary dimensions of Nazi crimes necessitated a monument of equal magnitude.
It would be difficult to imagine any other nation setting aside such a core parcel of its capital city to highlight the most horrific chapter of its history. New York architect Peter Eisenman won the commission. "The enormity and scale of the horror of the Holocaust is such that any attempt to represent it by traditional means is inevitably inadequate," says Eisenman, who originally collaborated on the design with minimalist sculptor Richard Serra. "It had to be something other than just a walk in the garden," he continues. "I didn't want to create a nostalgic experience, a kitsch experience."
Eisenman and Serra intentionally forged an architecture that would have a gut-wrenching impact: the memorial induces claustrophobia and disorientation. And although Serra abruptly pulled out of the project in 1998 after then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl asked for modifications to the design, the completed work retains his aesthetic imprint. The dark gray slabs with nearly knife-sharp edges are of varying heights. Many are placed off-kilter, like tombstones in a derelict graveyard. They fill an entire city block and are spaced only a few feet apart, so visitors are forced to move individually, single file, as they make their way through the site. People will enter the monument from the four surrounding streets and wade in, soon finding themselves knee-deep amid the slabs, then waist-deep, and eventually in over their heads, as the slabs loom up to 15 feet high at the center of the project.
The state-funded foundation overseeing the monument's creation is girding itself for a possibly dismayed public response. Security against vandalism has long been a major concern. The site will be open 24 hours a day, lit by lamps embedded in the ground. Guards will be on duty around the clock. But preventing defacement will not be their only task. "The security personnel will help people who get nauseated or people who are overcome by their emotions," says Günter Schlusche, the Berlin architect who is coordinating construction of the project. "Some people will feel it's too much for them. No one will have to go through the whole thing."
Psychological provocation is what Eisenman intended. "I've heard people say they were in awe and felt a sense of speechlessness, their hands got moist, and I'm pleased with these kinds of reactions," he says. "I've spoken to a lot of people who were Holocaust survivors who got off the trains at Auschwitz and had this sense of disorientation and loss." Eisenman says he wants memorial visitors to "have an analogous experience in the present."
In the monument's lower depths, no wind blows, sounds are muffled, and one looks in vain for signposts or arrows. "There's no entry, no middle, and no exit. Everyone must find their own way," Schlusche says, adding that he doesn't expect all visitors will make it into the monument's darkest passages. "Many will stay at the edge."
It is precisely this forbidding aspect that has made many people wary of the design, which was formally approved by the German parliament in 1999 after intense public debate. "The potential for a purely visceral experience that might occlude a more contemplative memorial visit was greater than some of us would have preferred," Young said when he supported revisions to Eisenman's original submission.
A politically diverse group of 19 German intellectuals also argued against the project, contending that art was incapable of representing the Holocaust. The group, including the novelist Günter Grass and Countess Marion Dönhoff, the late publisher of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, saw Eisenman's design as an "abstract installation of oppressively gigantic proportions" that would be "neither a witness to the past nor a sign to the future."
Pressed for changes by Chancellor Kohl, Eisenman did consent to reduce the overall number of slabs from an original plan for 4,000 and to significantly downscale their height. The German parliament, meanwhile, mandated that an "information center" be built as part of the monument. This has been tucked away underneath the monument itself and consists of four large rooms where exhibits will set the Nazi crimes in historical context and detail the identities of many of those who were killed.
But controversy dogged the $35-million project even after the design modifications and the addition of the information center were made. Construction came to a sudden halt in 2003 when the press reported that a subsidiary of the German chemical firm Degussa, which was supplying a product to protect the monument from weather corrosion and graffiti, had manufactured the poison used to kill Jews in the Nazi-era gas chambers. After much debate (during which Eisenman was attacked for attempting to make light of the controversy), the monument foundation opted to resume work and continue to use the Degussa product.
"The jury is still out as to whether the monument will be what you and I might call successful," says Eisenman. The citizens' initiative that spearheaded its construction has raised about $1.3 million to help fund the information center, in part in response to a televised appeal featuring the voice of supermodel Claudia Schiffer. But last February, police removed some 40 posters from hoardings around the construction site that condemned the monument as an "Atonement Theme Park" and called for support of the far-right German National Democratic Party.
Critics of the memorial argue that education as well as remembrance should be the goal. "School groups will go there and foreign tourists will go there, but I don't think the Berliners will be reconciled to this monument," says German-Jewish novelist and historian Rafael Seligmann. "They won't accept it and will avoid it and thereby it will not achieve its goal."
Seligmann and other detractors further contend that it's wrong to memorialize the Jews alone since this sets up a hierarchy of victims in line with the Nazi regime's racist ideology. In the meantime, other groups persecuted by the Nazis have been demanding their own monuments on prominent sites in the capital. The Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan has already drawn up a design for Gypsies, and gay-rights groups are hoping to build one as well, as are advocates for the disabled. For the moment at least, the undying controversy over these memorials at the very heart of Berlin keeps Germany's burdensome past a powerful part of the nation's self-image.
For more information, see http://www.holocaust-mahnmal.de/en.
MICHAEL Z. WISE is a T+L contributing editor.