Commemoration Saturation Can Berlin Handle Any More Memorials?

When Helmut Kohl gave the green light for a Holocaust Memorial in Berlin during the early 1990s, he set in motion a process that has seen a proliferation of monuments across the capital's government district. This Friday the German parliament is to vote on yet another memorial: one dedicated to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Von Petra Bornhöft

Nov. 9 is the perfect day to vote on memorials in Germany: It is the most German day of all. No other date is quite so pregnant with history: In 1918, it saw the proclamation of Germany's first democracy; in 1938, it was the date of Kristallnacht, when violence against Jews in Germany escalated; and on Nov. 9, 1989 the Berlin Wall came down.

And so it is only fitting that members of the German parliament, or Bundestag, will reach a decision on the possible raising of a "Monument to Germany's Liberty and Unity" this Friday, Nov. 9. The date may be fitting, but the location chosen for the proposed monument is problematic. It is to be "located in the center of Berlin," according to the motion by the governing Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD). The question is whether there is any room left.

The memorial for the 1989 dissident movements in East Germany and elsewhere would be one more in the area surrounding the Reichstag that is virtually overflowing with places of remembrance. Anyone strolling through Berlin's city center could easily lose track of which victims are being commemorated where.

The mania for commemoration has escalated in the German capital over the past few years. The documentation center on refugees and displacement was the latest project to make the headlines, due to the controversy within the CDU and the SPD as to whether the president of the Federation of Expellees , Erika Steinbach, should be involved in it.

The German daily Frankfurter Rundschau registered, with a slight shudder, that it seemed as though "more and more commemorative projects" are piling up in Berlin to create "a kind of imaginary arsenal of Germany's history of guilt." Even in the chancellery there are growing concerns that one day the woods in Berlin's Tiergarten Park could disappear from view behind all the memorials.

The bulk of the commemorative sites are devoted to the victims of the Third Reich and of East Germany's former communist dictatorship. They have recently been joined by a third kind of memorial, intended to focus attention not just on the sinister aspects of German history but to also allow the country to commemorate its own unity and the progressive movements of past centuries.

'Excessive Sense of Guilt'

And new groups of victims continue to be discovered. Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung recently revealed plans for a monument to commemorate those who have died while serving in Germany's military, the Bundeswehr. Meanwhile, the president of the Bundestag, Norbert Lammert, expressed his support for a proposal to erect "a memorial plaque in the capital, near the parliament and the seat of government," for the victims of the Red Army Faction, the German terrorist group that was active in the 1970s. More specifically, Erwin Huber, the leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), recommended that the plaque should be placed "inside or in front of the Reichstag."

And yet there are already probably more than enough memorial projects in the center of Berlin. More than 20 different projects have either already been realized or are being planned to commemorate the horrors of the Nazi era alone.

There is a growing suspicion that after decades of silence and denial, the Germans now want to be the world champions of remembrance. "If the Germans were once the greatest sinners, they now apparently want to be the greatest penitents," essayist Wolf Jobst Siedler once remarked mockingly about the "excessive sense of guilt."

These days, visitors to Berlin's government district are sure to stumble across numerous construction sites dedicated to remembrance. For example, the Topography of Terror site on the premises of the former SS and Gestapo headquarters, just south of the Finance Ministry. Up until last week wild grass was still growing on the site and the only evidence of any activity were an excavator and a portable toilet. Then, on Friday, the ground-breaking ceremony was held for the creation of a new Nazi documentation center -- a mere 20 years after the exhibition opened on the site.

A gray placard on the northern wall of the Finance Ministry on Leipziger Strasse has recently been alerting drivers and pedestrians to "June 17, 1953." The placard is intended to make it easier for tourists to find the huge photograph of a demonstration during the worker's uprising in the former East Germany, explains Rainer Klemke, a Berlin city government culture official.

Remembrance Overload

Those who follow Leipziger Strasse in the direction of the Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall may come across a dark plate embedded in the sidewalk to honor the victims of the Nazi euthanasia programs. For a few days now, a panel has been informing passers-by about the murder of people with mental disabilities that was organized by the "Aktion T 4" unit, headquartered in Tiergarten Strasse 4. A short distance away, in the Tiergarten Park itself, the monument to the gay victims of the Nazi era awaits some finishing touches. South of the Reichstag, a sign announces the construction of a memorial devoted to the Sinti and Roma victims of the Holocaust.

Germany's capital owes this flood of monuments to former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, even though he originally intended to concentrate the culture of remembrance in a single location. Back in 1993 he pushed through the decision to declare the Neue Wache, or New Watchtower, built by 19th-century German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel on Berlin's central Unter den Linden boulevard, Germany's central place of remembrance. The building now features an oversized replica of German artist Käthe Kollwitz's "Pietà" sculpture. In a statement as sweeping as it was insensitive, the site was dedicated to "the victims of war and violent rule" -- not just to Jews or the victims of the Stasi, that is, but also to dead soldiers of the Waffen SS.

"We Jews cannot commemorate our dead in this New Watchhouse," declared Jerzy Kanal, the then president of Berlin's Jewish community. Ignatz Bubis, the chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany at the time, also protested. Kohl reacted with a personal promise to push for the creation of a Holocaust Memorial close to the Brandenburg Gate.

This proposal had certain consequences: Representatives of other groups warned against creating a "hierarchy of victims' groups" by building a purely Jewish memorial. In reaction to the Holocaust Memorial, the desire of many of the persecuted groups to get their own memorial site was accommodated. This in turn led to even more calls for memorials.

'Inflation of Memorials'

The city finally needs a "site of joy," said Günter Nooke, the German government's Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid -- referring to the Monument to Liberty and Unity that the Bundestag will probably rubber-stamp on Friday.

The motion proposes erecting the monument in 2009, the anniversary of both the Weimar Republic and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But it remains unclear where exactly the memorial site will be located. What is at least pretty certain is that the monument is unlikely to be built right by the Reichstag.

The fear of an "inflation of memorials near the parliament" has become too great, as Hans-Joachim Otto, a member of Germany's business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) and the chairman of the Bundestag's cultural commission, explains. Ever since a bronze plaque on the northern side of the Reichstag was set up to thank the Hungarians for opening their borders -- and, with them, the Iron Curtain -- other countries are stepping forward with requests of their own. The Poles, for example, have already sent out feelers on whether a memorial for the Solidarity trade union would be possible.

In responding to the proposal, parliamentarian Markus Meckel of the SPD had a groundbreaking idea. He made a case for locating the memorials to other neighborhoods in the city.

In Friedrichshain in eastern Berlin, Meckel discovered a memorial that he admitted was "horrible aesthetically." The East German government had erected it to celebrate the alliance between the Soviet Red Army, the Polish military and German anti-fascists. But "our common history of freedom could be rendered visible there," says Meckel, who is chairman of the German-Polish parliamentary group. Even the inscription could stay the same. The words are taken from the mid-19th century, when enthusiasm for Poland was widespread in Germany: "For Your Freedom And Ours."

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