Reckoning with the Past: Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial as Model

In the fifth installment of “The Monuments Among Us” series (see Sara Porterfield’s post on Bears Ears here, Travis May’s discussion of British memorials here, Alessandra Link’s reflection on Louisville’s city parks here, and Caroline Grego’s review of South Carolina house museums here), Erstwhile contributing editor Graeme Pente draws attention to the National Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.


Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial. Photo by author.

Covering a city block not far from the Brandenburg Gate and within sight of the German parliament building sits the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. American architect Peter Eisenman’s design contains many hundreds of concrete slabs arranged to evoke a graveyard when seen from street level. Nestled in the heart of the capital city, the memorial is a centerpiece of Germany’s attempts to come to terms with some of the atrocities in the country’s past. These efforts should serve as a model of memory, recognition, and responsibility for the past in the United States.

In 1999, the German parliament decided to construct the memorial as part of the recently reunified country’s reckoning with its dark twentieth-century past. The preceding decade had been a time of intense debate and national soul-searching as West and East Germany became a single nation. Reunification ended the postwar period in each country and forced a reconciliation of the two countries’ versions of the Nazi past. In the capitalist Federal Republic of Germany, Nazism stood in for the dangers of totalitarianism generally and was elided with East Germany. In the communist German Democratic Republic, the state criticized the leniency with which West Germany handled former Nazis and emphasized the role of workers and communists as resisters, victims, and liberators of Nazi-occupied Europe.[1] At reunification, Germany felt the need to confront its twentieth century, and focus fell on the Third Reich’s many victims. Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial was finally unveiled in 2005. All told, then, the process took nearly 17 years.[2]

Eisenman’s architectural design is stunning, evocative, and humbling. The 2,711 concrete slabs are all relatively equal in height when observed from street level. As visitors enter the memorial and walk among them, however, the path descends and the stelae rise above. The space becomes claustrophobic as the slabs begin to enclose the observer and threaten to block out the sky. The stelae become great pillars, reminding the guests of parts of a bar graph, as though they represent the rising loss of life through the progression of the war. The visitors march forward through time as the dismal accounting goes on around them. Surrounded, the magnitude of this great horror threatens to suffocate those in the center. It is a simple monument, packed with powerful effect. Fortunately, the monument does not stand without some interpretation. An underground information center supplements the memorial with history, diaries, photographs, and brief biographies of some of the Holocaust’s many victims.


Within the memorial. Photo by author.

The scholar of memory James Young has identified three main aspects that must be part of representations of the Holocaust: they cannot be redemptive, they must represent memory as an act in the present, and they must address the void caused by the destruction.[3] Eisenman’s design does not violate these tenets. It serves mostly as a painful reminder of the scale of the loss of life, so that the memory of this event cannot be avoided. Its location on over four acres of Germany’s capital creates an inescapable void in the center of the city. The New Yorker cultural critic Richard Brody’s otherwise entirely inadequate 2012 review of the memorial raises one troubling omission. The very title of the memorial neglects to identify perpetrators and fails to situate the event in time. As Brody points out, does the memorial stand for the Jews the Nazi regime and its collaborators murdered between 1938 and 1945 or does it include figures such as Rosa Luxemburg, a Jewish radical murdered in 1919? Such questions indicate a larger debate about memory and the Holocaust as an event “outside of time”—about the ease with which its horror comes to represent all past persecution of Jewish people.[4] For those visitors who do not use the information center to orient themselves, such questions could easily go unresolved, lessening the memorial’s intended impact.

The Holocaust memorial is a centerpiece of Germany’s wider effort to confront this darkest part of its history. Small memorials to those who died on forced marches in the chaotic last days of World War Two pepper the countryside, facing visitors exiting train stations or walking through public parks. Some key sites of the Third Reich have been preserved as museums—such as the top officials’ summer homes at Obersalzberg in southern Germany—that lay bare the moral repugnancy of the regime, while others have been destroyed—such as Hitler’s bunker in Berlin—to prevent their use as pilgrimage sites for neo-Nazi followers. Many former concentration camps now serve as museums that every German schoolchild must visit so that they are aware of, and have to grapple with, the country’s past crimes.[5] And of course, Germany has strict laws against denying the existence of the Holocaust. The laws, for instance, barred English historian and Holocaust denier David Irving from entering the country. At the level of official policy, Germany takes seriously the power of history in the present and the importance of memorials. The resurgence of far-right political parties in Europe in recent years puts such crucial policies in jeopardy. For example, Poland recently made it a criminal offense to discuss the country’s complicity in Nazi war crimes, and Germany’s third-largest party, Alternative for Germany, advocates a return to an outmoded German national pride through reclaiming words such as “Volk” and opposing “monument[s] of shame.” In such cases, history has become a key site of political struggle, and all sides seem to recognize its importance to national self-understanding.


A monument to those who died during forced marches at the end of the war, Kaufering, southern Germany. Photo by author.

West German society met the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust largely with silence, both from the state and within families. As historian Roger Frie notes, “the Nazi past was covered up by an intergenerational guilt and shame.”[6] West Germany’s postwar generation forced the country to end its tacit silence during the 1960s. The official policies of recognition and responsibility took shape over the ensuing decades. It is this act of confrontation with the past that sets the German example apart from commemorative efforts in the United States.

The central European nation offers a model for how Americans might confront the many dark parts of their country’s past that too often go unacknowledged. The recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture, while an incredibly important and overdue initiative, does not accomplish the same national and historical self-reflection that a monument to the victims of slavery would. The museum commemorates Black history and culture in the United States, which includes the many ways in which African Americans have suffered and been wronged in the United States. But in some sense such a memorial effort more commemorates and celebrates the strength and perseverance of African Americans. It does not necessarily admit national guilt or responsibility for those crimes and challenges. A monument to the victims of slavery would force the country to confront, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil,” the country’s original sin. In short, the new museum is a necessary but insufficient step toward a full reckoning of the country’s history of enslaving a part of its population. The museum and a monument to the victims of slavery on the National Mall would be one further step in the right direction. After all, the country has some five dozen memorials to the Holocaust, including its own memorial museum on the National Mall dating back to 1993. The United States has great sympathy for the victims of historical tragedies in other parts of the world but remains reticent to confront its own status as a perpetrator of suffering.

As Frie further notes, “every society constructs collective memories and narratives that focus on some elements of the past while neglecting others. In this sense collective memory and the stories we tell about the past cannot be separated from social and political developments or from the interests of each succeeding generation.”[7] For too long, the United States has focused on the wrong elements of the past—including opting to glorify white Southerners who betrayed the country—while neglecting its role in perpetuating the bondage and exploiting the labor of Black Americans. It will be up to this new generation to decide whether it is among their interests to correct at last the collective memory of the nation and whether a change is gonna come.


[1] For more information, see Caroline Sharples, Postwar Germany and the Holocaust (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016) and Dan Michman, ed., Remembering the Holocaust in Germany, 1945-2000: German Strategies and Jewish Responses (New York: Peter Lang, 2002).

[2] For a good overview of this history, see chapter 6: “Memorializing the Holocaust” in Sharples, Postwar Germany.

[3] See the introduction to James E. Young, At Memory’s Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000). The author is grateful to Alessandra Link for bringing this work to his attention.

[4] See, for example, Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999); Gary Weissman, Fantasies of Witnessing: Postwar Efforts to Experience the Holocaust (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004); and Alexandra Garbarini, “ ‘Unprecedented’: Concepts and narratives about mass violence and the Holocaust” in Roger Frie, ed., History Flows Through Us: Germany, the Holocaust, and the Importance of Empathy (New York: Routledge, 2018), 61-73.

[5] Forms of Holocaust education vary by state, but the Holocaust has been a compulsory subject across all sixteen states since 1995. Sharples, Postwar Germany, 160.

[6] Frie, History Flows Through Us, 5.

[7] Ibid., 6.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s