Lingua Franca

December/January 1999, Lingua Franca

Totem and Taboo

The new Berlin struggles to build a Holocaust memorial

Inside James Young’s white clapboard colonial house in Amherst, Massachusetts hangs a framed image of Nazi troops goose-stepping past the Brandenburg Gate. The stylized photograph by contemporary artist David Levinthal — the soldiers in this picture are actually toylike figures — is a jarring presence in the otherwise serene living room. But Young, a professor of English and Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts, has an unusually intimate relationship with the traumas of the German past. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that this judicious forty-six year-old American academic has the power the cast Germany’s memory of the Holocaust in stone. For the past two years, Young has been providing aesthetic and moral guidance to the German government as it struggles to build a national Holocaust memorial in Berlin. The director of the German Historical Museum has likened him to a family therapist for a troubled nation.

This is especially ironic since Young ahs written widely on the perils of monument building and once took unconcealed delight in what he called the “spectacle of Germany’s self-flagellation” over its decade-long struggle to build the memorial. He has admitted to “making a fine career out of skepticisms” about the efficacy of any nation’s bid to preserve memory in built imagery. But now the skeptic of monuments has become an advocate. And the monument Young is supporting is hardly uncontroversial. Under his eyes, the debate over what kind of memorial Germany should build to the Jews it slaughtered half a century ago has turned into a contentious political and cultural drama with a shifting cast of unlikely allies and antagonists — including an avant-garde New York architect, a conservative chancellor who overstayed his welcome in power, and Germany’s leading novelist. Positions have changed; proposals have been advanced, abandoned and modified. Nobody in official German circles seems to know much about public art, but everyone seems to know what they don’t like. In the middle of it all has been the professor from Massachusetts.

The idea for a Holocaust memorial in the city where the crime was organized dates back to 1998, a year before the Berlin Wall came down. The initial drive was spearheaded by a prominent television journalist named Lea Rosh, who created an umbrella group of intellectuals, cultural figures, and civic and business leaders to raise private funds for the memorial’s construction. The group originally envisioned a monument, a “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” to be built on or near the site of the former Gestapo headquarters. But in the wake of the decision to establish Berlin as the capital of a reunited Germany, German politicians decided that the memorial should have a more prominent place in the city’s new landscape. The federal government designated a new site for the project — an entire city block just south of the Brandenburg Gate, close to the location of the bunker where Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun spent their final hours as Soviet troops fought for control of Berlin in May 1945.

More than fifty years after the fall of Berlin, a state-sponsored competition to create the monument attracted 528 entries, many of which inadvertently highlighted the aesthetic risks of monument design. Sentimentalism, bombast, and incoherence are perhaps especially acute perils in the case of the Holocaust. The competition’s guidelines advised participants that they had five acres at their disposal: Most entrants were determined to use them all. The winning design was characterized by gargantuan scale and misguided symbolism. It called for a flat tombstone wider than a football field, whose surface was to be covered by eighteen boulders from Masada, in Israel, where Jews had committed suicide rather than accede to Roman conquest in the first century A.D. (Eighteen is associated with the idea of life, according to Jewish custom.) The plan was swiftly — and, many now think, mercifully — vetoed by Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who feared that it would cast a permanent funerary shadow over the restored capital.

In 1997 the government announced a second competition. This time participation was by invitation only, and the jury was smaller and more expert. Fearing that German history was too sensitive to be left entirely to Germans, the Berlin city government also invited Young to join the five-member panel. Young was the only foreigner — and the only Jew — on the jury, which included the directors of the German Historical Museum in Berlin and of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Bonn, as well as one of Germany’s most eminent art historians “He was the most important person,” another juror, the Berlin architect Josef Paul Kleihues, said of Young. Because of his religion, “he had an entirely different legitimacy.” Young agrees that this selection as a juror owes something to the fact that “whenever they try to make any kind of decision with a Jewish component, the Germans are paralyzed.”

Once deliberations got under way, Young was astounded at the German jurors’ lack of faith in their own judgment. “They began by asking me, “What do you make of this?’ They deferred to me more and more,” he says. Again his Jewishness played a role. “They didn’t know anything from Jewish,” he explains. “They had no idea how any of these designs would fit or not fit” as iconography for a memorial to Jewish victims. This became clear early in the process, when several jurors expressed support for the sole figurative entry — a proposal by the Düsseldorf artist Markus L’pertz for a twelve-foot-high bronze statue of the biblical matriarch Rachel, intended to symbolize “motherhood, mourning, compassion, and hope.” Such an image, Young advised his colleagues, violated the biblical ban on representations of the human form. The statue, Young notes, “would be practically illegal for about one third of those murdered to look at. I realized that issue had never crossed the other jurors’ minds. They had no grasp of its significance in the Jewish eye.”

Sitting in his upstairs study in Amherst, the shelves weighted down with volumes of Jewish history, Young argues that a successful monument would be a perpetual source of unease for Germany. “The more demanding the place is,” he says, “the happier I’ll be.” In his book The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (Yale, 1993), Young questions the symbolic vocabulary of the traditional monument. Too often, he says, monuments end up embalming the past instead of keeping it alive and responsive to contemporary issues. “There is nothing more invisible as a monument,” he quotes Robert Musil as writing. “They are no doubt erected to be seen — indeed, to attract attention. But at the same time they are impregnated with something that repels attention.” That assertion resonates through much of Young’s writings, which question whether memorials actually defeat the purpose for which they were intended. He concludes that “once we assign monumental form to memory, we have to some degree divested ourselves of the obligation to remember.”

Is it possible to build monuments that take account of this risk and thus avoid it? In his book, and in many articles and lectures, Young expresses a fascination with so-called countermonuments like the one created in Hamburg by conceptual artists Jochen and Esther Gerz. Unveiled in 1986, it consisted of an aluminum pillar coated in a soft veneer of lead and originally towering to more than thirty feet. But over the next decade it began to shrink — as if to symbolize the element of forgetting inherent in the process of remembering. Local citizens were invited to inscribe their names on the pillar, using a steel-tipped stylus hung from its side. Along with decorous signatures, the monument became magnet for graffiti of lovers and neo-Nazis alike; a local paper called the inscriptions “a fingerprint of our city applied to the column.” As sections of the pillar were covered with markings, it was gradually lowered into an underground chamber. Eventually it disappeared altogether, transferring the burden of memory to those who had seen it.

Young’s taste for this kind of monument influenced the nature of the second competition and introduced a decidedly avant-garde element into public discussions of the Berlin monument and its mission. Many of those invited to participate at Young’s behest, including the California artist James Turrell and the British sculptor Rachel Whiteread, as well as the deconstructivist architect Peter Eisenman and the abstract sculptor Richard Serra, were suspicious of nineteenth century monumentality’s ongoing relevance and efficacy. This skeptical tendency had found its most prominent exemplar in Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Her simple, brilliant proposal for a black-marble gash set into the ceremonial center of Washington, D.C. unleashed an intense debate among Americans. The controversy led to the eventual inclusion of more conventional representations of soldiers and nurses at the site. Lin’s monument, however, has become one of the most visited public places in Washington, and it has provoked extraordinarily emotional responses from the families and comrades of the men and women it commemorates, as well as from visitors with no personal connection to the Vietnam War.

Perhaps because the Holocaust itself was an event of virtually unimaginable extremity, some of the entrants in the second Berlin competition took the idea of the countermonument to extremes. An artistic collaborative from Schiltach, in southern Germany, proposed leaving the site entirely vacant, except for the placement of four large billboards along each of its sides These would be inscribed with the following text:

Between 1933 and 1945 more than six million European Jews were murdered. The children and grandchildren of the perpetrators wanted to build a monument there to the victims. This attempt failed. Berlin 1997.

Another proposal would have disrupted the lives of ordinary Germans buy turning a short but heavily traveled portion of their beloved Autobahn into a penitential path. One kilometer of the eleven-thousand-kilometer national highway network — a public works project initiated under the Nazis — would have been repaved with large, rough-hewn stones. Germans revel in the absence of speed limits along much of the Autobahn, and the project by Rudolf Herz and Reinhard Matz would have required motorists to slow to a crawl. A large overhead road sign emblazoned MONUMENT TO THE MURDERED JEWS OF EUROPE would announce the entrance. Rest stops at either end would feature educational panels about the Holocaust.

Certainly, the Berlin competition demonstrated that unconventional monuments can take on a monumentality all their own. A proposal by Jochen Gerz, for example, called for creating a vast plaza studded with thirty-nine pillars of stainless steel and illuminated with the word “Why?” in the various languages spoken by the persecuted Jews. As in Hamburg, a writing instrument — this time a computerized stylus — would inscribe stone slabs with the responses to that question written by visitors on podiums. At another corner of the site, in a darkened room in an ear-shaped structure, visitors would contemplate the question while listening to a recording of the “eternal e” by the experimental musician La Monte Young.

While James Young and other jurors did not think that such a monument should be built, they were drawn to the equally ambitious countermonument proposed by Eisenman and Serra. Like the massive tombstone vetoed by Chancellor Kohl two years earlier, the Eisenman-Serra plan envisioned making use of the entire site. Its inhuman proportions would thus correspond to the scale of the crime. The Americans wanted to plunge visitors into a forbidding labyrinth: They would place some four thousand concrete pillars on a vast, undulating field and invite visitors to wander among them. The passageways between the pillars were so narrow that even visitors who arrived in groups would be forced to enter alone and to walk through the stony gray maze in solitude. The combination of Eisenman’s penchant for dizzyingly intersecting planes and Serra’s often brutal gigantism produced a plan for a highly potent and menacing public space. Young called it “the Venus flytrap of Holocaust memorials.”

At the same time, Young was drawn to a more modest design, by Berlin architect Gesine Weinmiller, made up of eighteen large stone walls loosely scattered around an open plaza. And while he admired the Eisenman-Serra proposal, Young admits to feeling that there is something to be gained by giving the commission to a German. He notes that Weinmiller is “a young woman of the generation now obligated to shoulder the memory of events for which she is not to blame.” The German members of the jury were also taken with Weinmiller’s relative youth — she was not yet thirty-five — and the sober dignity of her designs. “Everybody kept referring to her near-Oriental effacement and quietude,” Young says. He recalls that the director of the German Historical Museum, Christoph Stoelzl, remarked during the jury’s deliberations that Weinmiller “could be our Maya Lin.”

In November 1997, the jury issued a report — written by Young, who also announced its conclusions at a press conference — endorsing the Eisenman-Serra and the Weinmiller designs. The report was submitted to Kohl, to the city of Berlin, and to the private group that had initiated the project. The chancellor and several other members of the Berlin municipal senate preferred the Eisenman-Serra scheme. But Kohl couldn’t accept the plan as it was. Accordingly, he summoned the sculptor and the architect to his Bonn offices and asked them to rework their proposal.

The meeting between the stolid Christian Democrat, the mercurial champion of aggressively disorienting architecture, and the world’s most controversial maker of public sculpture lasted two hours. Kohl explained that he was committed to using the official architecture of the new capital to express Germany’s enduring responsibility for the mass murder of European Jews. But the premier also wanted to see a number of changes: He wanted the design reduced in size, he wanted landscaping around the edges, and he wanted an area designated for official ceremonies. Not surprisingly, these desires grated on Richard Serra, an uncompromising artist if ever there was one “Serra was very melancholy and stern,” says Stoelzl, who attended the meeting. “The sculptor has refused comment, but according to Stoelzl, he told Kohl that he feared a reprise of his bitter dispute with the U.S. government over the 120-foot-long steel sculpture Tilted Arc, which had been removed from the plaza fronting the U.S. customs courthouse in Manhattan in 1985, after several years of complaints from the public.

A few days after the Bonn meeting with Kohl, Serra withdrew from the competition. With Serra out of the picture, Eisenman quickly moved to modify the design. For Eisenman, who is equal parts philosopher and showman, the prospect of designing a Holocaust memorial on five acres of the former Third Reich capital must have been irresistible. He dutifully reduced the number of slabs from four thousand to twenty-seven hundred. The height of the tallest slabs was cut from twenty-four feet to around twelve feet. And the narrow passageways leading into the depths of the monument were modified to remove the risk of visitors becoming lost in the labyrinth or falling down and injuring themselves. Surely a monument commemorating the Holocaust needn’t claim any victims of its own.

Some German art critics had worried that such changes might diminish the power of the original design, but when Young himself visited Eisenman’s Manhattan office to look at the revised mode in late June, he was pleased with what he saw. He faxed a note to his fellow jurors in Germany. “I enthusiastically applaud the modified proposal — and fervently recommend it to the chancellor and the memorial commissioners,” he wrote. With a more human dimension, the monument still suggested “both the scale of the destruction and the void left behind, as well as the necessarily fraught relationship Germany will always have to the memory of crimes committed in its name.” According to Young, the four other jurors continued their custom of deferring to the American member of the panel: “They relied heavily on my take,” he says. When Young’s evaluation was sent on to the chancellor by the German jurors, not a word was changed.

Of course, the project had its detractors. While many Germans on the jury and in the government came to the conclusion that the best kind of monument was a countermonument, some prominent members of the Jewish community objected that all of the proposals were too abstract and would be incomprehensible to future generations. This was supposed to be “a monument to six million innocent murdered people and I can’t find this message in any of the projects,” the famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal wrote in a Berlin newspaper. And the playwright Arthur Miller, in Germany as a fellow at the newly created American Academy in Berlin, objected that the winning design failed to make any comment on the essence of fascism. “What’s the point of piling up stones and creating a cemetery?” Miller asked a German interviewer. “People should learn something. What can a cemetery teach us?”

Such complaints were only the beginning. Over the summer, the German election campaign heated up — and Young and Eisenman found themselves in the midst of an escalating political debate. Though the professor and the architect might have thought that intellectuals would rally to their cause, such an assumption would have been wrong. Already, in February 1998, a politically diverse group of nineteen German intellectuals — including the novelist Günter Grass and the publisher of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, Countess Marion Dönhoff — urged Kohl to scuttle the project. For Grass, this was a dramatic about-face. In 1989, he had been a leading supporter of the monument, calling it “an obligation for all Germans.” Perhaps the fact that a political conservative like Kohl had adopted the monument as a priority was reason enough for a leftist life Grass to oppose it. But whatever their motives, Grass and other intellectuals argued in an open litter to the government that art was incapable of representing the Holocaust. A monument, they contended, would be an “abstract installation of oppressively gigantic proportions” that would be “neither a witness to the past nor a sign to the future.” Other critics challenged the concept of a monument devoted exclusively to Jewish victims of the Nazis, insisting that to ignore others, like homosexuals and Gypsies, was to risk adopting the Third Reich’s own racist hierarchy.

In July the petitioners found a powerful new ally: the Social Democratic Party, which was running ahead of Kohl in the polls. For years the Social Democrats had been the primary advocates of remembering the Holocaust and attempting to make compensation for its crimes. Few could forget the image of Willy Brandt on his trip to Poland in 1970 kneeling in atonement at the memorial for Jews killed in the Warsaw ghetto. But with just two months remaining before the national elections, the Social Democratic challenger to Kohl — Gerhard Schröder — came out against building the Berlin memorial, after Schröder’s own nominee for culture minister, Michael Naumann, argued that the monument would do more to deepen amnesia about the past than deepen understanding of it. Despite the sophistication of his arguments, Naumann’s stand raised fears that the Social Democrats were pandering to voters eager to see a confident new Germany freed of the burdens of its recent past.

Naumann, a former journalist who had just returned from a stint in New York publishing as president of Henry Holt and Company, brought the memorial question into the center of German politics. Articulating ideas not dissimilar to those put forth earlier by James Young, he accused Kohl of displaying a “crude understanding of historical memory, which thinks that things can be finished by a modeled memory, and then you move on in history.” As an alternative, Naumann suggested that Germany take the $10 million it would cost to build the monument and put it toward preserving the deteriorating remains of concentration camps.

Even as he derided the Holocaust memorial, Naumann advocated a plan to rebuild the grandiose royal palace that once stood at the center of Berlin. The war-damaged former residence of the Hohenzollern dynasty was destroyed by the communists in 1950, but since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, there have been nostalgic calls for its reconstruction. Critics noted if Naumann had been a conservative, he would have been accused of suppressing the unpleasant truths of the Nazi era in favor of a nostalgic return to the imperial past.

Meanwhile, Kohl himself was facing complaints about the memorial from within his own Christian Democratic Union, most notably from Berlin mayor Eberhard Diepgen, who proclaimed that he did not want Berlin transformed into a “capital of remorse.” On August 24, Kohl agreed to Diepgen’s request to put any action on the memorial question on hold until after the election, saying it would be “irresponsible” to let the Social Democrats turn it into a campaign issue. But after the American Jewish Committee criticized the delay, warning that it constituted “a seriously negative message about the new Germany,” Kohl stressed that he was by no means advocating that the new project be canceled.

A few weeks after his career-ending defeat on September 27, Kohl restated his strong support for the project. The memorial “involves the core of our national self-understanding,” he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “There is a high degree of agreement within the parliament, the government, and the public that Germany has a special responsibility to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. Therefore it is necessary that near the places that Nazi crimes were perpetrated and where they are documented a central place be created to commemorate the murdered Jews of Europe.”

At the same time, he made it clear that his support for the monument was motivated not only by a sense of historical duty. “Many have not yet realized how closely our debates are followed around the world, and not only with within Jewish communities,” he said about the monument dispute. “We would be condemned around the world if we were to say, “Because it is so difficult, it would be best to drop it.”

Whether the victorious Social Democrats will be willing to risk such condemnation remains to be seen. Several Berlin municipal representatives have spoken out in favor of building a national memorial, as has Joshka Fischer, leader of the Green Party and the designated foreign minister in Schröder’s government. The agreement signed on October 20 between the Social Democrats and the Greens outlining the terms of their governing coalition states that the question will be referred to the Federal Parliament, the Bundestag. Aesthetic judgments are not a parliamentary specialty, although the Bundestag did devote considerable attention to the 1995 wrapping of the Reichstag by Christo, voting narrowly in 1994 to approve that project.

Young, for all his openly expressed ambivalence, remains a strong advocate of the project. He concedes that this represents a change in his thinking on the effectiveness of monuments. “Either I’ve evolved,” he muses, “or I’ve been co-opted altogether. If they were paying me $50,000 to do this, then you could say I’ve sold out, but I’m getting 6,000 D-marks,” or about $3,500, plus travel expenses. “It’s not very much.”

“The problem is not that James is being used or co-opted by the German government,” say Jeffrey Herf, associate professor of history at Ohio University and author of Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys, “but that all too many German intellectuals and politicians in Berlin are finding one pretext after another not to build a memorial specifically to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.”

Still, Young’s evolution is far from complete. He says he initially agreed to serve on the jury because he “wanted to force myself to get off the fence. Did I want there to be a public and central acknowledgment of what happened the last time Germany was governed from Berlin? On balance I’d say that 51 percent of me says, “Yes, there must be that,’ and 49 percent remains completely skeptical — wondering if the monument is being made for all the wrong reasons as a way for the government to put this behind Germany so that they can move on into the twenty-first century unencumbered. To my mind, the monument functions just as much to put the memory out of mind as it does to embody it, And I still believe that.” But he adds: “When the time came to put my money where my mouth is, I came down on the side of trying to make something that would formalize the extreme difficulty and perhaps even the impossibility of a memorial.”

Will Eisenman’s project allow Young to have it both ways? What he has proposed seems to fall short of being a countermonument like Jochen and Esther Gerz’s literally self-effacing Hamburg column. Indeed, its enduring and mammoth form could well become an iconic landmark of a proud, confident twenty-first century Berlin. Still, it does abjure any didactic function or imagery. “This will always represent a cut in the fabric of the city that will remain unexplainable,” Eisenman says. “What I wanted to do is to say that the ground in Berlin is no longer stable, sacred. In other words, it’s the plane that no man occupies without some trepidation.”

Peter Eisenman naturally hopes his design will be realized, but, he adds, it will exist in the imagination regardless of what happens next. “Whether they build it or not, it’s still there and it’s recorded.” And Young will relish a lively parliamentary debate, having earlier argued that discussion itself may be an effective antidote to forgetting. As he bluntly counseled the Germans when he began advising them on their quandary, “Better a thousand years of Holocaust memorial competitions in Germany than any single ‘final solution’ to Germany’s memorial problem.”