Harburg is a neighborhood of Hamburg, Germany, and in 1983, the local council held a design competition for a monument that would stand against fascism. The winning design came from Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev–Gerz.
That design was constructed as a four-sided, steel column, twelve meters high. It was built to be lowered over time into the ground, essentially disappearing from view. The outside of the column was coated with lead, which offered a surface soft enough on which to write.
A stylus was provided at the site that allowed anyone to mark the column The intention was for people to sign their names as a pledge of vigilant against fascism.
The following invitation was placed nearby in seven different languages:
We invite the citizens of Harburg and visitors to the town to add their names here to ours. In doing so, we commit ourselves to remain vigilant. As more and more names cover this 12–meter tall lead column, it will gradually be lowered into the ground. One day, it will have disappeared completely and the site of the Harburg monument against fascism will be empty. In the end, it is only we ourselves who can rise up against injustice.
As the portion of the column that could be reached for writing became filled with names and markings, it was lowered into the ground, providing new, clear space, on which the public could write.
Ultimately the monument completely disappeared underground with only a small portion still capable of being be viewed through a window on a staircase.
The husband and wife team had rejected the city’s offer of placing the monument in a pleasant park and instead had chosen a working–class neighborhood for its location, an “ugly spot in Harburg which is packed with buildings, a heavily trafficked central crossing.”
Many people wrote their names on the monument, as the invitation suggested – their pledge against fascism, but the overall public response was much more varied and ragged than the neat columns of names that one might have anticipated.
The monument evoked graffiti and neo–Nazi responses, as well as the intended commitments to vigilance. Anti–fascist groups were angry, because it did not honor victims.
However, from the perspective of the artists who created it, the monument’s role was to engage people and to require them to consider their willing ness to commit themselves to fight fascism, and if that engagement drew irrelevant or antithetical responses, so be it. The markings in the soft lead added up to the heart and soul of the German people, still in turmoil about their history.
If part of that response was fascist or seemed to miss the point, that was all the more reason and proof that public awareness and commitment against fascism was necessary.
There are a series of assumptions here that run counter to the standard conception of a monument. The Harburg Monument Against Fascism was placed in an intentionally ugly location, was meant to be impermanent rather than eternal, and rather than sitting behind a fence, aloof on a pedestal, it invited the public to leave their markings on it.
Such a countermonument is designed to remind, confront, engage, and require people to choose. The object, the monument itself, is a catalyst, not an end in itself, but rather a way of placing the burden and responsibility of history in the minds of the people who visit it. The monument itself is not meant to be the embodiment or resting place of those value and beliefs.
What other commitments could such monuments seek to foster other than vigilance against fascism?
Names are very important in such monuments as the Vietnam Memorial. Are there any common underlying assumptions about the use of names in that monument and this countermonument? What are the dissimilarities?
If a monument against fascism that invites such public expression has swastikas drawn on it, did it fail? Is it paradoxically promoting the ideology that it is seeking to battle? Should it be taken down? If not, why not?