Wednesday, April 11, 2007

What do we memorialize in a memorial?

Neue Wache
Originally uploaded by uncascrooge.
This is probably the best photo I've ever taken on holiday. It's kind of too good. Here we have the Neue Wache - the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Tyranny - and it looks like I'm selling you a new car.

And yet, that's somewhat appropriate. I was not terribly impressed by this memorial to be honest. Thing is, it's hard to take seriously – or somberly, at least – because of the way it has changed over the years.

The building used to be a guard house, but after World War I it housed a Memorial for the Fallen of the War.

After the next world war, the Soviets - it's on the Unter den Linden in East Berlin - rechristened it Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism, a name more suited to their propagandistic purposes. They buried an unknown soldier and a concentration camp victim inside.

After reunification in 1991, the Neue Wache was given its third name: Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Tyranny, a name that sounds, if anything, more Sovietesque than its last one. Under the central skylight was placed an enlarged version of Käthe Kollwitz's Mother with her Dead Son, a statue that only really moved me when I learned the story of Kollwitz losing her own soldier son when he was just 17 (and she had given him permission to join the army young after his father had refused).

So, today, we have all this memorial that has had all these names and all these purposes. It's to both the soliders and the victims of war, and apparently anyone who suffers under tyranny – an egalitarian, inclusive sentiment, but too non-specific and vague. You can't weep for all the pain in the world. How do you feel that? How do you pay your respects, and who are you paying your respects to?

The shifting nomenclature also makes you question the purposes of war memorials in general. To what extent did the manipulation of the sadness and pain and resentment over the German WWI war dead help Hitler come to power? And then, how absurd is a memorial to the victims of Fascism and Militarism erected by a tyrannical, militaristic regime?

And by turning it into such a non-specific memorial in 1991, were Germans avoiding the big questions about responsibility by lumping all “victims” of war in together? (During the Cold War, all the former Nazis were always on the other side of wall from you...) And isn’t it just a memorial to Germany’s war dead disguised behind all this other stuff because they’re too embarrassed or nervous to have a memorial for fallen Nazis (who were brothers, fathers, sons, too, lest we forget)?

It’s wishy-washy. The memorial is everything and nothing and it's ambiguity verged on the sinister for me. (Which, from another perspective, makes it one of the more memorable and interesting memorials I've ever visited.)

In other parts of the city, Germans have faced up to the big questions in a way that really is admirable. The new Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is really incredible - a field of concrete slabs that you walk through and immerse yourself in. It's thought-provoking and you have to engage with it directly on a personal level. It is, without a doubt, the most brilliantly conceived memorial I have ever visited.

But it's impossible to take a picture of it that does it justice. So, there you go. Take this photo for what it is worth.


Tasmia said...

I appreciate your thoughts and explanations; it is a really striking picture.

...When did you come off the fence?

J. Kelly said...

Earlier this week... Though, it's been a little while coming. I suppose I should write an explanation.

Tasmia said...

please do.