UPDATE, Feb., 2005
To find out the latest developments in the opening of the Berlin Holocaust Memorials, click here
In 1999, historian James Young of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst addressed the German Parliament on the question of how Germany should build a national Holocaust memorial. He asked "how does a divided nation reunite itself on the bedrock memory of its crimes?"
In Young's view, the members of Parliament needed to remind themselves of the challenge of memorializing a nation's crimes, rather than victorious events. Young cautioned that far too often "nations do not build themselves on the memory of their crimes but on the memory of their triumphs and martrydom".
With Young in mind, as well as the advice from a variety of German scholars, the Parliament eventually approved a resolution:
With the memorial we intend to
honor the murdered victims
keep alive the memory of these inconceivable events in German history
admonish all future generations never again to violate human rights
to defend the democratic constitutional state at all times
to secure equality before the law for all people and to resist all forms of dictatorship and regimes based on violence
The memorial will be a central monument and place of remembrance, connected to other memorial centres and institutions within and beyond Berlin. It cannot replace the historical sites of terror where atrocities were committed.
This resolution accelerated a national effort to finally build and open a memorial to the Holocaust, something that had eluded Germany since 1945. Nonetheless, the process of soliciting and selecting a memorial design uncovered layers of conflicting views among Germans about responsibility for World War II and the Holocaust, as well as Germany’s role in the postwar international community.
The design itself became a focus of dissent. The first winner of an international competition proposed a single massive tombstone, on which would be engraved the names of 6 million victims of the Holocaust. This idea was quickly dismissed, and the competition was reopened.
When Peter Eisenman’s design was initially proposed it too was widely challenged for its resemblance to a field of tombstones.
Eisenman’s concept was to arrange more than 2700 concrete slabs on an undulating slope to give visitors the sense of moving through a series of waves.
His vision was entirely abstract. As Eisenman noted
The enormity and scale of the horror of the Holocaust is such that any attempt to represent it by traditional means is inevitably inadequate ... Our memorial attempts to present a new idea of memory as distinct from nostalgia.
After some design modifications and the addition of an interpretive center and library, the design was approved.
Although the plan for the Berlin memorial was complete, its actual construction has been plagued by site problems and continuing controversies about the design. In October 2003, a German company involved in the memorial construction, Degussa, was linked to supplying of Zyklon B gas to extermination camps during the Holocaust. Construction was temporarily halted until the Memorial Foundation decided that the participation of Degussa in the memorialization effort was a reasonable acknowledgment of its actions during the Holocaust.
Ongoing efforts to build a national memorial to the Holocaust in Berlin continue. James Young, in his seminal book At Memory's Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture asks
How does a city like Berlin house the memory of a people no longer at home there? How should Germany commemorate the mass murder of Jews once committed in its name?
A direct response to Young may remain elusive until this memorial is opened, visited and interpreted both by Germans and the international community.
Although it was scheduled to open in January 2004, a public opening is planned for the summer of 2004.