The Remainders of Memory: Berlin’s Postnational Aesthetic

Joshua Synenko

The scar, the wound, the place marking death exceeds our sense of order. One impulse is to repair, to repudiate, to erase in an attempt to aid forgetting.

-Karen Wilson Baptist


 
We stand upon graves.

-The Active Museum


Introduction

Berlin’s memorial culture reached its zenith after 1990 and the ‘turning’ (die Wende), but little attention has been given to the particular circumstances of this conjuncture. Twenty-five years since the fall of the wall is perhaps long enough to begin thinking about the cultural and political impact of this event’s most visually circumspect achievement: the counter-monument.

Micha Ullman, Bibliothek, 1995. Berlin, Germany. Courtesy of Givon Art Gallery.

Micha Ullman, Bibliothek, 1995. Courtesy Givon Art Gallery.

One of Berlin’s more subtle counter-monuments is that of Micha Ullman’s Bibliothek, which was included in the walking tour for the memory-obsessed back in 1995. This work can be found beneath the Berlin Bebelplatz, in Mitte next to the law buildings at Humboldt University and the State Opera House. The object, though inconspicuous, represents an effort to acknowledge the Nazi book burnings that occurred on that site on 10 May 1933. Its ‘negative-form’[1] display is composed from a hollowed interior extending six feet into the ground amid the cobblestones. An empty set of bookcases sits behind hermetically sealed glass, with a ghostly bluish light around its frame.

A plaque sits next to the underground library with a description of the event of destruction, followed by an even more intriguing epigraph situated below. The latter passage is taken from a line of Heinrich Heine’s tragic play, Almansor (1822), illustrating an ongoing battle between Moors and Christians in the Iberian Peninsula during the medieval period.[2] In a particularly dramatic scene, Heine describes the destruction of holy books just prior to the Grenada War with a strange sense of foreboding. He writes: ‘Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too’ (‘Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen’).

With its inclusion on the site of the Nazi book burning, this epigraph acquires further significance in relation to the memory of the Second World War, the Holocaust, and to post-Wende Germany. Heine’s quote is thus used here precisely as a way of capturing the depth of messianic apprehension that Ullman’s sculpture attempts to visualize, with its situated absence of books in the library.

Indeed, by juxtaposing Heine’s quote against the background of Ullman’s exquisite presentation of a literary and philosophical canon under erasure, the Bibliothek memorial is intended to interrupt the blithe of visitors into remembering the otherwise unspeakable crimes of an attempted genocide against the Jews and other minorities in the late years of the war. However, Bibliothek is important in another sense. By extrapolating from its measured task of simply remembering those crimes, the structure exposes the contradictory forces at play within the specific history of post-wall Germany. Holocaust memory remains here a crucial element of the narrative, as the motivation to build counter-monuments in the first place was because traditional memorial structures tend to ventriloquize the former, recuperating the German state from its recent and violent past.

Berlin’s new memorial district owes a debt to this recuperation. It includes sites like Ullman’s sculpture along with larger ones like Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Indeed, one of the more prominent criticisms that was raised during the building of that particular memorial was that the resulting memory district in Berlin would eventually reduce the practice of cultural memory to that of ‘international cultural exchange, avant-garde art, and the establishment of cultural institutions, international architecture, and global corporate culture.’[3] For Karen Till as for Lutz Koepnick, ‘the new Berlin Republic architecture has assumed a highly significant role in recalling the past and marking the nation’s place after the end of the Cold War.’[4] Yet the ostensibly ‘cosmopolitan’ aspirations of this architecture have filtered into the established traditions of holocaust memorials and their attempted expansion, as I discuss in Chapter three. Can the counter-monument thus be remembered beyond the insistence of this memory, despite the sanitized images of Europe’s postnational future that such memory perpetuates?

The Burning of Books in Nazi Germany

With Bibliothek as the main point of reference for my investigation, I propose to begin with a description of the event and the circumstances that led it to its memorialization decades later.

More revered than the magnificent burning of the library at Alexandria by Julius Caesar, or Louvain during the Great War, the Nazi-perpetrated burning of books has acquired a reputation that is unparalleled in the history of biblioclasm. The Berlin event is unique because of the way it transposes the logic of destruction onto the revelation of a specific modernity. Indeed, the memory of this event adequately demonstrates how the logic of destruction is in many ways paradigmatic for modern statecraft as the Third Reich conceived it. Ullman’s memorial, however, appears to further suggest that the book burning itself essentially presaged a materialization of statecraft and its logic as destruction ‘to come.’ In fact, the desire to burn supposedly un-German books at this critical juncture may include a provision for the onset of total destruction.

Ullman’s memorial opens a line of questioning about how to fathom a memory of this magnitude. Should we, the vicarious and belated witnesses of total destruction, strive to acknowledge the inherent speculation on which this act of remembering is premised? If by challenging our interpretation of the event as a microcosm of book burning history, can we situate it as one that speaks a greater truth?

The messianic quotation of Heine’s—whose work, incidentally, was targeted by the perpetrators—is combined with Ullman’s sculpture as a prophetic warning of genocidal violence. Yet that outcome could not have been predicted on the night of the burning. Matthew Fishburn describes initial reactions to the event as ‘hypnotic…’ creating a ‘sensation’[5] that was meticulously curated for the international community. The spectacle of destroying books in the heart of the nation’s capital was certainly effective in terms of silencing international critics in the face of actions from a state apparatus whose murderous potential was slowly becoming apparent. For domestic audiences, on the other hand, the burning of books was a demand for vigilance. It was designed to mobilize popular support for National Socialism, and to illustrate policies that would come to reflect this projected image in the body politic.

Undoubtedly, the Germans had other motives for burning books at this time. Fishburn suggests, for instance, that the event was staged to deflect attention from a controversy over the arson fire at the Berlin Reichstag earlier that year in February.[6] The popular media at the time had more or less determined that fascists were the perpetrators of that arson. The fascists argued, however, that it was the design of Communists, and therefore just another example of how a Communist government would sow disorder into the social fabric. By strategically redirecting the public’s attention toward a second arson—one that is ideologically consistent with the Nazi brand—the fear-inducing message of a Communist threat could be further justified.

Another motive for the event was the scheduled closure of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research), led by its founding director Magnus Hirschfeld, a psychoanalyst. For obvious reasons, including its acknowledgement of gender diversity and its supposed promotion of homophile culture, the Institute became an immediate target of the social restructuring.[7] Its closure, however, resulted in a spontaneous ransacking of its library of more than 20,000 books, all of which ended up in the square together with works from the university’s collection. A book burning was organized shortly afterwards by a local students association, acting in accordance with founding precepts that were clearly under the influence of the national state.[8]

Countering Fishburn’s hypothesis, while it appears that many of these actions are tainted with retrospective irony, there is little indication of whether it is truly justifiable to make causal inferences between this event and the Final Solution. It may rather be the case that the burning of books illustrates but one instance of the ‘symbolic’[9] articulation of fascist ideology. In this regard, the event was certainly useful for the Nazis because it imposed a fictitious ‘blank slate’[10] onto allowable forms of cultural expression. It became a way of starting over, and thus a means of building new paths for the realization of the social as measured by a persistent ideal. It enjoined the population to work for an Aryan lebenswelt from the ashes of an outmoded civilization. Indeed, the purifying of Germany’s intellectual life by means of fire and brimstone could have been the next logical step in this solution.

The Total Monument

I now want to situate Ullman’s desire to expose the entanglements of this particular destruction of the books. I begin with a point of contrast to his implicit critique of the monumental aesthetic, drawing from the emphatic architectural vision of the Nazi urban planner Albrecht Speer. This contrast is useful because of the magnitude of Speer’s investment in the monument. His ‘blood and soil campaign’[11] to redesign Berlin through the fabled image of Germania takes us to the architectural limit of that particular aesthetic paradigm. That is, Speer’s model of Germania participates in a sublime illustration of his unwavering commitment to an indestructible form of destruction—a monumentalism of the built environment that, in the end, survives ruination.

Hans Haacke, Germania, 1993, exhibition view from the Venice Biennale. Courtesy of Hans Haacke and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Roman Mensing.

Hans Haacke, Germania, (installation view, Venice Biennale), 1993. Courtesy Hans Haacke and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Roman Mensing.

The aftermath of Speer’s indestructible image of urban ruin is perhaps best visualized by Hans Haacke’s Germania (1993), featuring a hall of dilapidated marble bricks with the proper name draped above. Haacke’s exhibit sought to uproot the object cause of fascist desire from the dead spirit of this imagined city, in part by inviting visitors to assume the role of archeologist. Haacke thus manifests destruction here in such a way that guarantees the survival of Germania in our imaginations, as depicted by an empty vessel of monumentality. However, because this very outcome was the one that had been intended by Speer from the very beginning, it may be worthwhile to ask whether Haacke’s work actually goes beyond repeating the spirit of Speer’s vision. Ullman’s work, by contrast, is notable because it escapes any such attempt at inscribing the monumental aesthetic into the image of ruin, preferring instead to represent the ruin in its absence from the scene of the memorial.

Anselm Kiefer, Sternenfall/Shevirath Ha Kelim (Falling Stars/Destruction of the Vessels), 2007. Courtesy of Raphaël Labbé.

Anselm Kiefer, Sternenfall/Shevirath Ha Kelim (Falling Stars/Destruction of the Vessels), 2007. Courtesy Raphaël Labbé.

A second counter-example of Ullman’s approach is that of Anselm Kiefer’s Sternenfall/Shevirath Ha Kelim (Falling Stars/Destruction of the Vessels), which first appeared in Monumenta 2007 but is also part of a longer series by the artist featuring bookish themes in some truly magnificent works.[12] Sternenfall, however, goes beyond prior iterations of this theme by making direct references to the symbolic destruction of Jewish-German communities or ‘people of the book.’[13]

Though dramatic and beautiful, Kiefer’s aesthetic is defined above all by the way it situates the logic of destruction explicitly in the memory of its victims, evoking the 1938 November Pogrom or Kristallnacht with his conspicuous use of broken glass. Indeed, I wish to challenge this evocation by arguing that despite the significance of acknowledging the violence of the Pogrom, as Ullman does with the book burning, Kiefer has few choices here but to construct a retrospective history of its destruction. I suggest that Kiefer’s demand for retrospection produces narrative structures that are ultimately designed to consolidate the ‘cultural amnesia’[14] that Andreas Huyssen famously described in connection with Germany’s built environment: a desire to look back and reflect upon the past in a way that obscures our better understanding of it. Beyond the demand for retrospection, the Bibliothek memorial issues a warning that effectively resists such amnesia in the first instance.

On this basis, and similar to the pairing of Ullman with Haacke regarding assumptions of their shared attitudes about the endurance of monumentalism, the works of Ullman and Kiefer have little in common apart from their bookish displays. Ullman’s Bibliothek stands alone from these examples because it participates in aesthetic strategies that are famously described by James E. Young as designed ‘not to console but to provoke; not to remain fixed but to change; not to be everlasting but to disappear; not to be ignored by its passersby but to demand interaction; not to remain pristine but to invite its own violation.’[15] By participating in these strategies, as I describe below, Bibliothek thus permits us to reject the foundational practices that art’s memorial function[16] demands.

In the following pages, I extrapolate from Bibliothek to consider the counter-monument in some of its broader iterations. I analyze its emergence within postwar Germany, questioning both what is at stake in its continued popularization and how it interacts with the political, cultural and economic fluctuations of more recent times. I then move on to explore some of the theoretical consequences of the counter-monument.

The Memorial Function in Postwar Germany 

As the end of the Second World War marked the beginning of a new geopolitical world order, the practice of memorialization was more or less insignificant throughout postwar Europe for at least a decade or more.[17] Memorial sites did, however, crop up in the first days of the liberation, most of which were arranged by surviving members of the death camps using objects they found onsite. But these structures were never made to last.[18] Unique because of their intended temporariness, the sites of survival eventually gave way to a growing sense of anxiety over the new obstacles of an uncertain future. This was particularly the case in postwar Germany.

Janet Ward describes this period of German history as dominated by attempts to revolutionize the national infrastructure in compliance with an internationally enforced policy of denazification. Envisioned as ‘fiercely modernizing,’ [19] the directives coming from Berlin at this time suggested that ‘de-rubbling took precedence over preservation.’[20] Less focused on remembering the past, the national agenda at this time was aimed at responding to the demands of urban planners, real estate agents, profiteers, and foreign stakeholders.[21] In other words, the urgency of refashioning Berlin’s urban and built environment in accordance with these demands projected the image of a ‘city under construction’[22]—a place where collective amnesia regarding the past’s atrocities was essential for daily survival.

The significance that Berlin took on in this new and industrious German state only magnified in 1961, as attempts to discourage emigration by Eastern authorities resulted in the construction of an anti-fascist protective rampart or Berlin Wall. This enclosure of the East marked an important transition for the national capital. Once understood as a ‘blank slate’[23] for developers, Berlin from this point forward was conceived in world-historical terms as the urban locale for a ‘divided memory’[24] between opposing global superpowers. Memorial cultures emerged in the intervening years that were by and large responsive to this geopolitical situation. As the two Berlins increasingly mirrored fluctuating ideological hostilities on the international scene, their national and cultural memory practices became impacted by the antipodes of an internal conflict.

Not surprisingly, the GDR’s memorial aesthetic was dominated by the tropes of socialist realism, incanted by heroic narratives and figurative motifs in which the ritual of hyperbolic instruction ultimately triumphed over preservation and dialogue.[25] With the socialist state’s calculated refusal to acknowledge particular victims of the war—going so far as to position such refusal as a defining feature of Communist universalism—its memorial culture came to be reflected in a spectacular and exuberant anti-fascism.[26]

Though it has been mentioned repeatedly, the West German historians were deeply invested in recognizing victims through a larger Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a coming to terms with the past through sanctioned practices of interrogating the legacy of National Socialism.[27] Driven, it would seem, by popular demands for reparation and social justice, the Western variant of cultural memory engaged historical events with considerably more nuance and depth of perspective. Civil rights and leftist groups working in the FRG in the 1960s felt increasingly emboldened by the desire for a critical engagement of the nation’s past. In fact, they did so in the interest of provoking larger changes in their society with minimal interference from the state.[28]

How, then, did the cultural memory of Berlin at this time communicate the traumatic division of its urban life into East and West? For an answer to that question, I want to examine Berlin’s first counter-monumental project, namely the Topography of Terror exhibit at the site of the former Gestapo Gelände. I suggest that this particular site illustrates how the division of Berlin was a determining factor in the emerging memorial culture of this period. A careful examination of its emergence indeed challenges the assumption that a divided Berlin reflected two separate or discrete memorial cultures.

Topography and Revelation

Rubble. Overgrown fields. Debris.

-Karen Till

The Topography of Terror exhibit in 2011. Berlin, Germany. Courtesy of the author.

Topography of Terror exhibition, 2011. Berlin, Germany. Courtesy Joshua Synenko.

Located amid the ruins of the Gestapo Headquarters, the Topography of Terror exhibit predictably describes the onset of Nazi atrocity and its eventual downfall in a linear fashion. The narrative wall in question is situated alongside the building’s remaining subterranean torture chambers, moving westward on Niederkirchnerstraβe from the Martin-Gropius-Bau, a celebrated hall from the nineteenth century, to Wilhelmstraße.

Lodged between ruins and historical landmarks, the memorial function of this site at first appears to be reduced to a transparent interpretation of the events that hastened the destruction of Germany, and eventually, of fascism. But this function includes a further element, a remnant of the Berlin Wall, which acts like a frame for the exhibit from high above, displaying a subtle if persistent juxtaposition of another distinct period in the city’s postwar history.

Ensconced in the fabled epicenter of Nazi power, the Gestapo Headquarters was known in its time as a gateway for the routine torture of political prisoners. Though many of the neighboring structures had been destroyed in the war, the basement cells of the Gestapo building were rediscovered because of their fortuitous location underneath the Wall. It would thus appear that the very existence of the Wall resulted here in a spontaneous act of preservation. In a space once deemed ‘geographically lost,’[29] I demonstrate how the former Gestapo Gelände now plays a crucial role in terms of providing us with knowledge of the divided city.

In 1978, a social movement formed around a citizen’s demand to excavate the ruins of the Gestapo Headquarters on Western land. Though state-initiated plans were underway to refurbish the Martin-Gropius-Bau, other voices challenged any such development of the area. In fact it was around this time in 1981 that prominent members of the community joined these voices of discontent. Notably, the urban planner Dieter Hoffman-Axthelm famously declared the terrain an ‘Ungelände’ or ‘antisite.’[30] His insistence was that the ruins should be left untouched as a future warning of the unspeakable crimes that occurred there.

In 1982, a Senate Competition was announced with the aim of soliciting entries for a new memorial site near the Martin-Gropius-Bau. The competition was eventually abandoned following a disagreement over the winning design. However, this outcome emboldened a citizen’s group from the radical left to stage ‘illegal diggings’[31] of the site as a way of guaranteeing its continued preservation. In what came to be known as the Active Museum, the group encouraged citizens of West Berlin to excavate, enjoining members to ‘dig where you stand.’[32] The broader intention here was to transform the dig into a ‘permanently open site of investigation,’ thereby returning to the land its former status as an ‘open wound.’[33] It would thus appear that by vigorously undoing the past, the act of digging on this particular site was considered by the diggers to be a means of prying open the closed narratives that have long been associated with memorialization.

Now, the Active Museum’s anti-establishment actions only strengthened the demand by West Germany’s new social movements for ‘localized education’[34]—a pedagogy that consciously set aside the national interest in favour of exploring issues and problems of a more immediate, if local concern. As Till explains, the social movements of this period insisted that postwar Germans begin to ‘work through the past self-critically at historic sites where particular events transpired.’[35] The pantomime of archeological practice through digging should therefore be considered exemplary of this cultural value.

As such, given the complexity of its historical conditions, the Topography today represents a condensation of two separate memorial types. On the one hand, it features a ‘site of admonishment’ (Mahnmal)[36] in which particular emotional responses are solicited in the face of certain evil. On the other hand, it represents a ‘historic site of the perpetrators’ (Gedenkstätte),[37] in which site-specific archives are consulted to provide factual knowledge for the purposes of education. The ‘ambiguous synthesis’[38] of these types allowed the exhibit to skillfully capture both emotional and intellectual content in relation to a particular site. This in turn gave individuals a chance to interrogate the traumatic memory of the place in relation to a collective silence in the years prior to its excavation.

A permanent exhibit opened in 2005 after years of disagreement and setbacks. Critically acclaimed, a temporary exhibit was prepared in advance of Berlin’s 750th anniversary in 1987. As the political situation unfolded, however, the final design of the site was altered by efforts to protect a neighboring remnant of the Berlin Wall, ostensibly in an effort to avoid ‘the precariousness of ignoring something.’[39] Historians like Georgina Webb-Dickin have suggested that this act of preservation happened simply because of the proximity of the wall itself. However, even if we accept that retaining the wall at this particular juncture was a ‘coincidence,’[40] I argue that it is nevertheless impertinent to adopt Webb-Dickin’s further claim that preservation for its own sake ‘is somewhat inadequate as a form of commemoration.’[41]

I argue that Berlin’s memorial engineers demonstrated a cautiousness here that forever changed the collective memory of the former Gestapo Gelände. Juxtaposed with an iconic image of the divided city, the wall has unsettled the otherwise simplistic chronological narrative of the exhibit space. Its towering presence in effect forces visitors to rethink Berlin’s communist past as both distinct from the period of fascism and yet strangely familiar. Risking the obliviousness of visitors regarding the difference of these histories only proves how crucial it is to investigate them in the present.

The included portion of the wall raises another question in terms of how the exhibit acknowledges the experience of living in the divided city. Pairing images of the border is a reminder that circumstances today are directly anticipated by their pasts—and that such circumstances in turn become part of a greater sense of anticipation regarding the future. In that sense, at least, the curators of this site have abided to the mandate that was first suggested by the activists: to dig the soils for remainders of the past by exposing the uncertainty to come.

Monumental Seduction

Histories of German counter-monuments tend to begin around 1980, from the period of their growing influence throughout the post-Wende era into the present day.[42] Negative-form sculpture is often a point of reference in these conversations. Though a category of artmaking, it is often situated as an aesthetic practice that can be described as having the kind of memorial function I refer to above.[43] However, competing perspectives have been voiced in discussions of the counter-monument’s genealogy. Andreas Huyssen (1996), for instance, has challenged the apparent uniqueness of this genealogy by situating the obsession of contemporary culture with the negative directly within the history of the monument, implying that counter-monuments merely extend the former’s negative desire.

To substantiate his claim, Huyssen draws up a brief history of monumental art, and returns in particular to the apocalyptic varieties that were popular late in the nineteenth century. This particular genre of the monument suggests that all relationships with the past must ultimately lead to self-destruction. If the conventions of this genre include any criterion of redemption, therefore, it is one that can be resolved only by appeals to a revolution in the form of art, a Gesamtkunstwerk.[44]

Huyssen brings our attention to the continuation of nineteenth-century German aesthetics through motifs of negativity in the twentieth. My claim, however, is that Huyssen relies on the very same reciprocal exchange between destruction and creation to make his own point. In a way similar to Haacke’s Germania and Kiefer’s Sternenfall, Huyssen is himself obsessed by monumental ruination, and indeed his observations are useful in terms of providing a context for the actions of the Nazi state. His observations are less useful, however, when it comes to representing the desire of contemporary Germans to acknowledge the destructive potential of ideas from their past in a new aesthetic paradigm. Huyssen’s work is therefore unable to account for Ullman’s experiment with negative-form sculpture in Bibliothek, in which ruination itself is held in abeyance and destruction paused.

One of Huyssen’s main points of reference for this argument is Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s veiling of the German parliament building in 1995—Wrapped Reichstag. This stunning project brought international attention to a fraught symbol of German national culture, and it may have also contributed to hopes of celebrating a half-decade of reunification. Huyssen himself describes the veiling as ‘uncannily beautiful…its spatial monumentality both dissolved and accentuated by a lightness of being that was in stark contrast with the visual memory of the heavy-set, now veiled architecture.’[45] However, communicated as it was through repetition, as it were, I argue that Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Reichstag is perhaps less useful for appreciating the kind of unsettling provocation that we might associate with a counter-monument.

To put it another way, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s veiling of the Reichstag represents a playful engagement with monumental aesthetics pure and simple. Through the veiling’s conspicuous presentation of ‘transitoriness,’ the work communicates this aesthetic together with an obdurate challenge to notions of permanence.[46] But this challenge is intrinsic to the aesthetics of the monument. The enveloping fabric is an awe-inspiring visualization that highlights ‘the temporality and historicity of built space, the tenuous relationship between remembering and forgetting.’[47] Yet by visualizing permanence as destruction, the wrapping also serves to restage the familiar features of German national identity by means of heroic, figurative, and sublime ruination.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Reichstag, 1971-95. Berlin, Germany. © Christo 1995. Photo: Wolfgang Volz.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Reichstag, 1971-95. © Christo 1995. Photo: Wolfgang Volz.

The ghostly demarcations of this work are indeed seductive. However, what the veiling ultimately spectralizes are the redemptive narratives of the nation’s past, developed on the basis of a history in which the German national identity is inscribed into conditions that are superficially illustrated as unstable, uprooted, and cosmopolitan. As Huyssen confirms, the emphasis here is on transitory themes developed from conventions of the nineteenth century, in which total destruction was often paired and mitigated by regeneration. From this perspective, the ruin aesthetic that Christo and Jeanne-Claude approximate might be more accurately characterized as ‘a monumentalism of destruction.’[48]

Huyssen proceeds to further historicize images of destruction from the nineteenth-century by turning to the philosophical works of Wilhelm Wagner. These works are especially notable because of Wagner’s spirited rejection of monuments. Now, Wagner’s aesthetic derives in large part from a search for the origins of modern times in a universe of myth. Yet the journey he makes toward this origin is one that predictably ends in a grand destruction of appearances. Indeed it is through acts of total destruction that Wagner faithfully reconstructs the groundwork for an image of ‘ruin before time itself.’[49] In this sense, the only solution to Wagner’s attempt at resolving modernity’s tensions is by means of a Gesamkunstwerk.

Huyssen’s historical argument repeats itself in the present. In fact similar motifs of destruction and creation have been compulsively represented in recent popular culture and media. One recent example is Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). The plot of the movie is centered on news of a fatal meteor approaching the planet Earth. Lovers grow distant on the night of their ceremonial union as time slows and grinds to a halt. The Wagnerian score from Tristan und Isolde (1859) provides musical accompaniment for this narrative, which is eventually eclipsed by the onset of a total disaster. Now, compelling though this representation of disaster might be, I argue that the continuation of these motifs in the realm of popular culture is more or less distinct from trends within German memorial art in the contemporary period. Though the counter-monument relies upon narratives of destruction, I also insist that it abides to a sense of hesitation before the realization of disaster as such.

Destruction and the Counter-monument: Gerz and Hoeheisel

An accurate genealogy of counter-monumental art requires a different conception of negative-form sculpture. The negative in sculpture has been used repeatedly in efforts to restage, parallax and otherwise alter assumptions concerning the struggle between destruction and creation that I mentioned earlier. For example, the counter-monument for James E. Young is a structure that ‘redeems itself in its eventual self-destruction,’[50] showing little apparent difference from Huyssen’s analysis of the Wagnerian legacy, or, indeed, from the latter’s extension into popular culture. My argument, however, is that Young places specific limits on this redemption. In other words, the graphic representation of spatial emptiness—the formal presentation of the void—serves to challenge the redemption that can be accrued from the transitory.

On this basis, the counter-monument enjoins us to decide between the terms of redemption through destruction or through hesitation. Against Huyssen’s argument, Young suggests that postwar Germans of the second generation in particular shared an unequivocal ‘distrust of monumental forms in light of their systematic exploitation by the Nazis,’[51] and therefore also ‘a profound desire to distinguish their generation from that of the killers.’[52] If there were any sense of redemption in all this for Germany’s status as a wartime perpetrator, it would have to take place through the medium of a very specific distrust for signs of fascism. Indeed, that is what self-destructive art did for Germany’s memorial problem: it made death much less monumental.

The distrust of fascism is nowhere more evident than in Esther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz’s Monument Against Fascism (1986-1993), which is located in Harburg-Hamburg and is considered to be the most prominent German counter-monument besides the Topography of Terror. Unveiled in 1986 in an unremarkable working-class residential district, this gegendenkmal initially featured a phallic 12-metre structure of brutalist design, coupled with a plaque inviting visitors to leave impressions along its surface.[53] Though the artist’s suggestion was that visitors participate in marking up the structure, with the understanding that such activity would provide a forum for Nazi sympathizers, the Gerz’s greater intention was to expose the hypocrisy of the convention whereby names are inscribed on the surface of monuments in a show of patriotism. This provocation, however, was only the most visible.

Over a period of several years, the Monument Against Fascism began to disappear. It was lowered into the ground over several intervals, sinking completely below the surface in 1993. Today resembling a gravesite, the structure in its absence embodies a powerful refusal to comply with the expectations of collective mourning. Against the appropriation of faint longings for an imagined past as nourishment for projections of the future, the site merely offers a rote and utterly plain interlude with death. And yet while burying fascism is undoubtedly symbolic, I argue that remembering fascism in this manner requires a further shift in perspective in terms of how memory can become a mechanism for social change—a mechanism, I will argue, for imaginaries of the postnational.

A precedent for this site was made by Jochen Gerz’s groundbreaking critique of the memorial museum at the former Dachau concentration camp.[54] In his exhibit EXIT/Dachau (1971), Gerz reveals that the museum participates in a curatorial imperative in which the museum itself represents the prison perhaps all too well. Young writes, ‘Gerz was the first artist to critique the Holocaust memorial museum as a formal, if ironic extension of the authoritarian regime it would commemorate.’[55] As for Gerz himself, the very concept of the memorial museum challenges a ‘sublime repression of the past,’[56] in which redemption from the past itself is the only solution.

Gerz’s work on the Dachau site is important to my study in a further sense because it clearly illustrates an elliptical narrative that later became canonical. As Young reiterates throughout his work, the counter-monument visualizes an epistemological crisis that makes it impossible to sustain narratives that are driven by causal connections—in which recollection, for example, precedes expiation or redemption.[57] EXIT/Dachau rather shows how counter-monuments have been made to ‘ethically represent the memory-act, [the] difficult attempt to know vicariously.’[58] Indeed, the very tribute to vicarious knowing alters the memorial site and its potential as one that ‘ceases to be testimony.’[59]

Gerz’s early work also brings our attention to the question or questionability of site-specificity in a time when Berlin is overwrought with palimpsests of urban ruins.[60] Young’s claim, however, is that site-specificity resulted from challenging the inherent modernism that conceives monuments and memorials as fundamentally different. According to Young, modernism insists upon a distinction between the psychic and emotional labour of remembrance and that of the ‘material objects, sculptures, and installations used to memorialize a person or thing.’[61] Counter-monuments, on the other hand, derive from a ‘tension between site and memorial,’[62] a tension that serves to alter the composition of space with the inclusion of affective voids at the sites of atrocity.

This tension is further reflected in Horst Hoheisel’s Ashcroft-Brunnendenkmal, located in Kassel, Germany and unveiled in 1995. Hoheisel’s concept for the space adds another dimension to the counter-monument because it highlights the way that void space can be used strategically to interrupt the visitor’s experience. This particular use of void space has also been represented in Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum Berlin.[63] Hoheisel’s project, however, has a more specific purpose. It was commissioned by the city in an effort to acknowledge a Jewish member of the business community, Mr. Sigmund Ashcroft, who in the 1890s became the exclusive donor for a centrally located fountain.[64] Built in 1908, the fountain was later destroyed by the Nazis during a reign of terror, in a period of destruction that was followed by the deportation of Kassel Jews into Polish and German concentration camps. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the site’s connection with the Ashcroft family became widely known, though even by that time and until Hoheisel’s initiative, Young explains, the site was covered in soil and simply called ‘Ashcroft’s grave.’[65]

Hoheisel’s Ashcroft-Brunnendenkmal sinks the original design into the ground only to rebuild the structure ‘as a hollow concrete form.’[66] The fountain lies flat along the surface while its depth is accentuated by the sound of water falling to the bottom of the structure. Through this presentation, the design appears to insist that visitors should vicariously witness the Ashcroft memory despite its represented absence. By an act of meticulous preservation, Hoheisel thus successfully visualizes empty space in a way that serves to challenge heroic interpretations, whether those of Ashcroft, the fountain, or the Nazi attempt to erase the presence of Jews from the city. Indeed, we as visitors are forced to remember but silently, and we are therefore confronted, as it were, by the absence of a body, a life, and its commemoration.

The narrative subtleties that are present at this site might be criticized for over-intellectualizing the visitor experience, lacking as they do the kind of explanatory power that belongs to linear history. But these ambivalences are not only directed by the conventions of self-destructive art. They become crucial in a further sense through the negotiation between memorial space and the changing attitude among Germans toward their perpetrator past. Indeed as I have demonstrated, the counter-monument engages a specific mode of destruction that is utterly different from that explored by Huyssen and others. If the counter-monument destroys itself, it is never by means of the certainty associated with totalization.

Bookishness: Whiteread and Ullman

Rachel Whiteread, Holocaust Memorial, Vienna. © Wikicommons.

Rachel Whiteread, Holocaust Memorial, 2000. © Wikicommons.

The escape from totalization has come to define the German counter-monument together with its established and yet ambivalent relationship to minimalism. As such, the effort to visualize this escape is not limited to structures that are found in Germany alone. Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial is a case in point. Unveiled in 2000 after years of controversy over the use of space in Vienna’s Judenplatz, Whiteread has designed a memorial that may at first seem rather austere in comparison with its surroundings. This design carefully appropriates the specific conjuncture between holocaust memory and the aesthetics of minimalism through a deceptive engagement with the negative. As Rebecca Comay suggests, for instance, Whiteread’s contribution is stunningly uniform and therefore minimal, composed from ‘evenly mounted rows of tightly stacked modules, each containing the casts of twenty neatly aligned books, every book positioned with its spine turned inward, each nearly identical in height and thickness.’[67]

Now, if we follow Comay’s argument, the very minimalism of the display is what foregrounds the imprint of absence as a central, but hidden, component of the work. It represents a bookcase in which the books themselves are turned inward, inviting associations about their status as inaccessible and unreadable. In this, the structure reveals a larger aim of Whiteread’s to reconstruct ‘an archive impenetrable in its own self-display.’[68] Indeed, the particular archive represented here embodies a forceful allegory of the impact Jews have made on Austrian history, and the continuing impact of the attempted destruction of Jews on the European collective imaginary. This specific function is even more explicitly reinforced by the presence of ruins from a medieval synagogue, which are situated beneath the structure.[69]

What, then, is the cosmology of absence that Whitehead is driving at? To be sure the structure enacts or performs a very deliberate escape from totalization, away from the dominant tropes of monumental art and its self-evidentiary modes of display. But it also propels us into a space where the absence itself must remain concealed. Indeed, the revelation of absence in its absence is entirely conspicuous here. It might be useful, then, to attempt a further line of questioning about Whiteread’s attempt to render the space of memory vulnerable, escaping totalization as she does by the gesture of an absence that remains concealed.

For Comay, Whiteread illustrates ‘the eerie presence of a medium which in its very obduracy and opacity evoked the persistence of a loss as intangible as it was insistent.’[70] The palimpsestic square in which the memorial is housed thus performs an intricate doubling or repetition, in which the Whiteread structure itself becomes accountable for the site-specific memory of the ruins for which it provides a home. As Comay writes, the deliberate librariness of Whiteread’s memorial serves to inscribe ‘the essential relapse of culture from a site of openness and emancipation to one of simultaneous exclusion and confinement.’[71] By inviting us to traverse history, as it were, the structure presents us with an absence that must be circumscribed, and later confronted, by its opposite. The presencing of absence and its impossibility for Comay is therefore ‘the essential obstacle which needs to be posited in order to be overcome.’[72]

Returning to Germany and specifically Ullman’s memorial in the Bebelplatz, we find similar attempts of using the void strategically as an essential obstacle to remembering. Ullman’s introduction to the German memorial scene began with his proposal for a ‘nonsculptural solution’[73] at the site of the book burning, in a competition that was very much attentive to the locational turn in German cultural memory. Around the time of its unveiling, Ullman described the work as a memorial site composed of ‘a subterranean, hermetically sealed room in the middle of Bebelplatz.’[74] As with Whiteread it represents a library, but in this case the ‘walls are covered in shelves of white-plastered concrete.’[75] Indeed, ‘twenty thousand books would fit here’[76] had Ullman not emptied the shelves leaving only a pit for burning.

But even the act of burning the books—or, more specifically, the act of representing this act—is contained here by Ullman’s hesitation in the face of a premonition of genocidal violence in the future. In this sense, Ullman’s metaphor of the fire clearly invites visitors to recall, remember, and interrogate the corpus of die Deutsche kultur as it was measured by the Nazi fantasy of racial purity. But on another level it brings our attention to the onset of total destruction that later occurred in its name, and in doing so it makes a prescription regarding the future. I argue it is through this juxtaposition that the linear time of the monument gives way to forewarning, while absence itself remains concealed.

The vertigo of Ullman’s pit insists upon a response from its visitors in a way that serves to acknowledge the unfolded atrocity, and through it, the impossibility of recuperation. A visit to Bibliothek is thus deemed successful if the experience has confronted our readiness and capability to examine the insistence of ideas deemed unpopular, not to mention their untimely fate in the roaring fire. In this sense, the absence of books leaves an invisible remainder. They are, in effect, strangely emptied of matter, beyond ash, imprint, or record. For Ullman what is of utmost concern is less the mere fact of the emptiness as its magnitude. He explains, ‘Einstein formulated that energy is matter times the square of the speed of light, or the opposite—matter (books) in connection with light (fire) is transformed into energy…Only the spirit of the books and the people remains; they meet each other in the heavens.’[77]

Ullman’s mention of light and energy counters his visualization of a deepening and ‘more palpable’[78] emptiness with a sense of buoyancy. The emptiness that Ullman struggles to describe is contained in a hermeneutic operation that ‘begins with the void that exists in every pit and will not disappear.’[79] The void, in other words, is a presencing of containment that stages articulations of a desire to go beyond recuperation. For Ullman, therefore, emptiness is ‘a state, a situation formed by the sides of the pit: The deeper it is, the more sky there will be and the greater the void.’[80] But what can be the potential for this ever-deepening void if not that of reimagining the book, the archive and the title of its letter?

Perhaps more than any other, the Bibliothek memorial confronts its visitors with what Comay describes as ‘a frozen possibility,’ in the sense that ‘it exposes the very promise of transcendence as idealism.’[81] With the image of absence reflected upon the surface of a memorial that is ‘at once ceiling, floor, and window,’[82] we are once again confronted by a demand for the impossible, for something new. According to Jacques Derrida in Archive Fever (1998), the materiality of the remainder thus poses ‘a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow…’[83] In my conclusion of this chapter I examine how counter-monuments have a tendency to pair an insistent if obdurate presencing of the void together with such demands.

Critical Publics and the Architecture of Grief

Micha Ullman, Bibliothek, 1995, Berlin, Germany. Photo courtesy of the author.

Micha Ullman, Bibliothek, 1995. Courtesy Joshua Synenko.

Counter-monuments have been instrumental for attempts to broaden the Holocaust memorial agenda. As Young writes, traditional memorial spaces tend to ‘ignore the essentially public dimension of their performance, remaining either aestheticist or piously historical.’[84] In fact Young appears to raise this point again in an earlier conversation about the modes of temporality that are best exemplified by the memorial function of counter-monuments in general. Beyond aestheticism or piousness, the counter-monuments are distinguished precisely the challenge they make to endless gestures of the past that result in ‘a commemoration of its essence as dislocated sign.’[85] Through the staging of particular aesthetic motifs from diverse resources but particularly from the conjuncture between architecture and landscape, the counter-monuments return to earthly themes through a reflection on demands that it harness future action.

By shifting the discussion over to debates surrounding the architectural themes of German counter-monuments, I want to conclude by asking about the impact these forms have made in terms of harnessing the negative for imaginaries of a postnational German culture. I then question whether the resulting imaginary holds any potential for getting beyond the global imperatives that led Berlin to construct a memorial district in the first place. I raise these issues now because of the sense of urgency behind making the practices of memory a distinctive feature of Berlin’s newly acquired status as a ‘global city.’[86] Koepnick, for instance, has suggested that ‘Berlin city planners today explore images of locality and historicity in order to increase the city’s competitive advantages’[87] But the growing awareness of these advantages creates conflict with those who would rather emphasize the sheer complexity that is involved in sustaining a perpetrator memory in this place and time. It may be important to limit our acknowledgement that global capital and its circulation plays a role in maintaining a memory district for this particular urban environment.

As Thomas Elsaesser suggests, for example, Berlin’s memorial landscape should be described in a much more implicative and affective manner. For Elsaesser, Berlin is ‘a city of multiple temporalities and of diverse modalities: virtual and actual, divided and united, built and destroyed, repaired and rebuilt, living in a perpetual mise en scene of its own history, a history it both needs and fears, both invests and disowns.’[88]

Beyond the mere insistence of global capital and its influence, Elsaesser describes the memorial culture in Berlin as propelled almost exclusively by a sense of ambivalence regarding the past. This ambivalence has mobilized the desire to use memorial objects as a way of reflecting upon and even constructing an image of public space. Establishing discursive relationships between the two has been attempted, in fact, in debates about memorial aesthetics. As Young writes, the German counter-monuments unequivocally assert that ‘the social function of art is its aesthetic performance’[89]—a performance of the negative in conjunction with specific economic conditions. Andrew Benjamin follows this claim by writing that such gestures of performance have implicated memorialization in ‘the complex and cosmopolitan nature of the public’[90] as a subset of architecture. Indeed, ‘neither the public let alone public architecture can be defined in ways that conflate or identify the public with an essentialist sense of national identity.’[91] The public galvanizes elemental forces in a way that for Benjamin creates ‘a strong sense of disorder.’[92] This disorder provides us with answers for the continuing desire to remember.

The counter-monument is intrinsically public as Benjamin suggests because of its confrontational stance towards its own facticity as an object. Beyond the prophylactic effect of remembering, the counter-monument takes us ‘into’ memory by means of forcing. As objects, memorials confuse the boundaries between inside and outside in a way that constantly throws into question the very existence of the public. Pits, indeed, are the residual element of this confusion. For, when memorials engage with the outside by means of the pit, they draw less from metaphors of ascendency and verticality as from those of sinking.  Benjamin’s work is a prime example in this regard because it aims to show that sinking, like forcing, takes shape as it were by ‘working from the outside in,’[93] and thus by questioning the stablizations and reinforcements of their equilibrium.

By understanding the public as a dynamic and complex force in contemporary culture, we might also consider the potential held by memorial art in terms of further developing a theory of private experience. Returning briefly to Elsaesser, I want to suggest that the memorial function in art hardly appeals to the construction of a public sphere, but that it is rather composed from private and individual connections to the world. Elsaesser’s claim in this regard is a direct challenge to the melancholic reimaginings of Pierre Nora’s otherwise groundbreaking work on the lieux des mémoire, in which the functioning of societal relations is what prevents access to collective forms of remembering.[94]

Elsaesser proposes a more productive alternative in which memory and its excrescent forms come together to produce île de mémoire—‘memory islands.’[95] This concept is useful because it draws the melancholic and individual realm toward ‘a certain extraterritoriality…an element of the private and personal rather than common or communal.’[96] By doing so, the private domain as Elsaesser describes turns to rituals of remembrance in which the individual is brought to a place of speculation, a place that by definition goes beyond the obdurate images of grief and loss.

Elsaesser’s strategic use of the île is especially pertinent to my discussion because it focuses on the spatial dimension of site-specific remembrance, defining ‘space’ in its broadest terms as encompassing the natural, cultural, and spiritual realms. Each of these realms goes ‘in’ and ‘beyond’ the determinations of physical space or extension. In other words, a holistic combination draws from memorial topographies that ‘remind us of the permanence of geographical formations, as they absorb both the longue durée of history and the short memory of human generations, gathering energy and entropy around built spaces, even when in ruins or apparently built.’[97]

This description of Elsaesser’s accords with Young’s insistence that counter-monuments by and large ‘suggest themselves as indigenous, even geological outcroppings in a national landscape.’[98] He writes, ‘such idealized memory grows as natural to the eye as the landscape in which it stands.’[99] Even counter-memory, therefore, is susceptible to forgetting.

Deterritorializing Trauma

Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe[100] has been widely regarded as one such geological outcropping, boasting an architectural design composed from 2,711 columns that are grouped in austere formation across unstable ground. For some of Eisenman’s abiding critics, including Young, the memorial represents a divergence from the aesthetic norm in postwall Berlin. In other words, beyond Huyssen’s capitulation of total destruction, the site embodies the regressive assertion of a monumentalism that has successfully internalized the postnational aspirations of cosmopolitan Europe. Distinguished by its breathtaking expansion across a city block in the center of town, the Eisenman site appears to reject the insistence of counter-monumental design to represent material absence in conjunction with site specificity.

As Young explains, the location of Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial was the subject of a decade-long contestation that was eventually resolved by a decision to locate the work on the most available of public land.[101] For Koepnick, the pragmatism of this decision further validates the vulnerability of Berlin to the facilitation of ‘highly choreographed environments enhancing local prestige and gratifying desires for historical continuity, livability and territorialization.’[102] Present-day Berlin represents a sacralization of ground that in some cases lacks the historical significance or affective meaning that counter-monuments strive to create. Sacralization, then, results in a particular kind of memorial expression that drives at the heart of what should be involved when it comes to remembering traumatic pasts in the contemporary moment.

For Young, the design of Eisenman’s site is plainly ostentatious, derived from a modernist architecture in which recuperation and amnesia are clearly enforced. Young’s observation of this enforcement stems from the collaboration between Eisenman and the artist Richard Serra to design the site, which ended abruptly when Serra took issue with directives to scale down and modify his artistic vision.[103] The conflict between them reveals a polarity between art and architecture as competing traditions in memorial art, and it therefore provides significant clues about a larger problematic within Berlin’s memorial culture, in which the counter-monument has become acclimatized. Young writes:
Where contemporary art invites viewers and critics to contemplate its own materiality, or its relationship to other works before and after itself, the aim of memorials is not to call attention to their own presence so much as to past events because they are no longer present.[104]
Young’s demand for greater attention to the subtlety of time in relation to the visualization of absence is missing in the Holocaust Memorial because of Eisenmann’s exclusively architectural vision and his resulting obsession with the ground. For Adrian Parr, on the other hand, this debt to architectural form represents an innovation of memorial space. Above all, because Parr claims that architecture is subject to a field of intensities, the Holocaust Memorial for her will be less implicated in the history of conflict that preceded its construction.

Richard Serra’s original design of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Courtesy of Frank Dinger.

Richard Serra’s original design of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Courtesy Frank Dinger.

Indeed, Parr’s recent (2008) effort to disentangle the uncertain terrain of time, landscape and the architecture of grief in Berlin is premised on the notion that memorial culture should include efforts to disrupt its long held association with traumatic events and experience. The memory of such events should not be prevented, she claims, but instead should be approached in a way that is sensitive to the production of narratives that foreclose or conceal the libidinal economy that contains them. By acknowledging the source of energy or movement that drives traumatic memory in the first instance, Parr insists that memorial aesthetics should provide an opportunity in which to reconnect the practices of memory with those of social change.

Parr’s more specific claim is that Berlin’s memorial landscape expresses the force of ‘an intensive topography.’[105] In other words, because Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial represents a groundless architecture for Parr, she defines cultural memory in the same gesture as a movement of internal differentiation that lies beneath the territorial and excrescent forms of memorial space. She thus situates the design initiatives for these spaces within a presentist ontology whereby the traumatic memory is understood as providing virtual content for the imagination. In this sense, Parr distinguishes her claims from Kenneth Foote’s typology of landscape as that which oscillates between functions of ‘sanctification’ and ‘rectification,’ and that of Bernard Tschumi’s description of architectural design as providing a condition for the articulation of spaces and events.[106]

Though Parr’s characterization of topography goes beyond the limits of objective physical space, it is used in this frame to disrupt assumptions regarding the significance of ‘shadowed ground’[107] in regard to memorial expression. Intensities precede the objective space, Parr writes, because they express imaginative potential, in other words, ‘a becoming-milieu in unpredictable depth.’[108] Materialized in Eisenman’s askew grid, the distribution of columns unfolds a spatium, in which the potential for something new becomes imperceptibly certain during the course of engaging with the site, usually by walking down the pathways of the grid. In this sense, Parr maintains that Eisenman has accounted for a measure of unpredictability that effaces its own criteria of measurement.

Indeed, Parr’s insights are provocative because they appear to go against the grain of conventional interpretations regarding the meaning and significance of these memorials. The Eisenman site, for instance, is one that is often described closer to Young’s interpretation as being continuous with funereal themes as an imprint of the sublime. For Karen Wilson Baptist, ‘the sublime traditionally contrasts the beautiful; it is associated with the unrepresentable, a masculine monumental scale, which is beyond human comprehension.’[109] According to Baptist, the Holocaust Memorial affords an experience that is ‘deliberately disorienting,’ as ‘the banality of form and lack of material reflectivity bury the visitor in shades of grey. One could lose all sense of self within the disordered blocks,’ Baptist writes. ‘I imagine it feels like death.’[110]

Parr’s attempt to connect a philosophy of intensities derived from the work of Gilles Deleuze is a thus a highly provocative gesture that is aimed precisely at challenging interpretations of the memorial with that of death, which the counter-monument has inherited. Through engagement with established conversations regarding Berlin’s memory problems, however, Parr asserts that ‘memorial culture is utopian memory thinking.’[111] Memorialization, in other words, ‘compels us to think the break utopia announces,’[112] and it thereby restores to sites of memory the potential to issue a specific ‘demand.’[113] Parr’s aim is therefore to re-establish the association of memorial culture with efforts to facilitate productive social change, with life. An important aspect of this project is Parr’s own demand for us to recognize the libidinal economy of the traumatic event, while further recognizing the specificity of their desire for a world that moves beyond or beneath its perpetuation.

Conclusion

Parr’s forceful entry into the debates of memorial culture encourages us to reassess the counter-monument some twenty-five years after the fall of the wall. Parr helps us to ask whether these sites continue to express or frame intensities that lie hidden beneath the built environment as depths of unpredictable measure, or whether they have exchanged their engagement with the political for a strategy of obfuscation or spectacle. On the basis of Parr’s claims, I argue that we need to investigate the means by which something new can be devised from the very situated histories that counter-monuments reacted against. These include the discourse of fascism and the rise of Communism, the postwar renewal project, and the ongoing attempt at revisioning, or reimagining, Berlin’s urban palimpsest.

It may indeed be time to consider the rearticulation of Germany’s memorial culture amid changing political circumstances. The premise for my investigation has been that post-Wende Germany has come to pass in an era of profound uncertainty. The legacy of those jubilant celebrations of Western dominance in 1989 appears to have been defined retrospectively by a punishing fiscal emergency at home, and conflict abroad. I therefore challenge the notion that memorials are no longer significant for articulations of the political in light of new geopolitical pressures. In fact, the changing circumstances around the world have created unrelenting demands on all forms of cultural expression, particularly memorialization, both in terms of the accountability and continued legitimacy of such expression. How, then, does the memorial culture in Germany interact with the social, economic, political and affective conditions of austerity (or post-austerity) in the present? Does the counter-monument still represent and ineed resist the past with the same force of intention?

Karen Till has addressed some of these questions by reflecting upon the situation in which die Wende first arose in Germany, suggesting that there are in fact two separate meanings of the term. The first, she writes, refers concretely to the election of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) under Helmut Kohl in the 1980s, and the subsequent West German initiative for European integration that in many ways came to define his long tenure as Chancellor.[114] The second, she continues, has a more speculative meaning that refers to the exquisitely crafted image of democratic action that has become retrospectively associated with German reunification, and which arguably persists in debates around the future of the European Union in the present day. This distinction is pertinent for my own argument because the meaning of the latter appears to be directly inspired by the unique position that Germany found itself in 1990, once again symbolizing an important shift in the geopolitical world system.

Indeed, the engineers of West German cultural memory were not immune to alterations and new demands. They were, by and large, enjoined to produce traditions of memory that were founded upon ideas of democratic action similar to their own, but in a way that further corresponded to images of a unified Germany triumphant over Communism. Indeed, the dominant perception is that German memory culture has yielded to polyvocal demands that were long established in the former West. I argue, on the other hand, that German memory culture became something entirely different after 1990. Though it did represent a continuation of debates originating in the West concerning matters of ‘belonging and citizenship,’ [115] the triumphant attitude that is often associated with the West German perspective underwent its own changes, which in turn have been reflected in the aesthetics of the memorials.

Cultural memory in the surviving city did not mirror the Western variant as perfectly as it may at first appear. Most notable in this regard are the concerted efforts that were made to preserve the Communist past in the formerly Eastern districts of Berlin and throughout East Germany. Structures depicting heroic antifascist imagery were ‘abandoned, but not removed,’[116] thus marking a strange coincidence between German political history and the grammar of authenticity that by this time had become a defining feature of memorialization the world over. Jordan reminds us, however, that ‘authenticity does not guarantee memorialization,’[117] as the development of these sites must always negotiate with issues of ‘land use, landownership, the resonance of the site’s meaning with a broader (often international) public,’[118] and other factors. On the other hand, despite these ongoing setbacks and negotiations, a resistance to leveling the past has gained considerable footholds, even in fields like architecture and urban planning that were so resistant to these changes in the past.[119]

Given the history of these developments and with an eye towards future memorialization, it might be useful to revisit a foundational question that James E. Young posed in 2002: ‘Under what aegis, whose rules, does a nation remember its own barbarity?’[120] Above all, I suggest that we should perhaps consider this question with sensitivity to the way demands from the global economy have been accounted for by memorial aesthetics. Understanding the way memorials can be positioned in response to such demands invariably puts the ongoing transformation of the West German narratives into further perspective. Whether through images of destruction or ruin, these particular narratives were determined from the outset by the logic of excavation, and by a cultural value in which the past exposed and overturned is preferable to the alternative in all cases. It may be significant to ask whether the strategic use of empty space and narrative eclipses in the counter-monument have been appropriated for another history, in which the model German citizen upholds the idealization of the postnational state as unquestionably democratic, pluralist, and prosperous (or capitalist). We may indeed have to question if the radical engagements with memory culture from the past have been compromised by the abiding relationship between counter-monuments and a German state that is once again regionally hegemonic.

Given their uneven reverberations in time and space, their reversals and over-determined representations of failure, the counter-monuments of the future will have to be designed according to the given circumstances that once led to their urgent creation. Yet the designers of these future memorials may also have to articulate the content of their work differently given unforeseen conditions of possibility and erasure. Certainly, counter-monuments are unique in the way they mobilize collective affects together with a sense of mystery and foreboding. Indeed they were instrumental in the 1980s precisely because of the nascent if naïve desire they represented for rediscovery and exposure. Confronting the past, or, in some cases, having the past become confrontational, was an essential component for being capable of imagining a future without measure. Counter-monuments thus drew attention to the perpetrator crimes of the Nazis at a time when exploring that history in Germany was unprecedented. That time has passed.



[1] Young, James E., The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 43.
[2] Heine, Heinrich, Almansor: Eine Tragödie (Scotts Valley: CreateSpace Publishing, 2013/1822).
[3] Till, Karen, The New Berlin: Memory, Politics, Place (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 149.
[4] Koepnick, Lutz, ‘Forget Berlin’, The German Quarterly, 74:4, 2001, 344.
[5] Fishburn, Michael, Burning Books (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 38.
[6] Ibid., 31.
[7] Ibid., 42.
[8] The stunning correspondence between the two was symbolized by the presence of Joseph Goebbels at the pyre.
[9] Ibid., 38.
[10] Ibid., 17.
[11] Baptist, Karen Wilson, ‘Shades of Grey: The Role of the Sublime in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,’ Landscape Review 14:2, 2012, 80.
[12] A particularly striking though much earlier version of this theme is Zweistromland (‘Land of Two Rivers/The High Priestess), 1986-89.
[13] Young, James E., At Memory's Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 7.
[14] Cf. Huyssen, Andreas, Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia (London: Routledge, 1994).
[15] Young, 2002, 7-8.
[16] This notion originates from the ‘museum function’ that is discussed at length in McIsaac, Peter, Museums of the Mind: German Modernity and the Dynamics of Collecting (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2007) 3-29.
[17] Cf. Ladd, Brian, The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
[18] Sites of survival were eventually used as mapping devices in the search for the precise location of war crimes.
[19] Ward, Janet, ‘Sacralized Spaces and the Urban Remembrance of War.’ in Uta Staiger, Henriette Steiner and Andrew Webber (eds.). Memory Culture and the Contemporary City (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) 152.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Jordan, Jennifer, Structures of Memory: Understanding Urban Change in Berlin and Beyond (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2006), 23.
[22] Till, 39.
[23] Jordan, 28.
[24] Cf. Herf, Jeffrey. Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).
[25] Jordan, 33.
[26] Though several important initiatives were launched in later years by authorities within the GDR, including the renovation of Neue Synagogue in the late 1980s, there was never any sustained institutional recognition of the fascist calamity experienced by its racialized victims.
[27] Jordan, 43.
[28] Till, 20.
[29] Young 1994, 81.
[30] Till, 72.
[31] Ibid., 96.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Ibid., 89.
[35] Ibid., 90.
[36] Ibid., 88.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Ibid., 103. This quotation is from Stephen Daniels.
[39] Webb-Dickin Georgina, ‘Topographies of Terror: Reading Remnants and Traces on the Gestapo Gelände.’ HARTS & Minds: The Journal of Humanities and Arts. 1:2, 2013, 14.
[40] Ibid.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Cf. Young, 1994; Young, 2002; Jordan, 2006. [43] See footnote 16.
[44] Huyssen, Andreas, ‘Monumental Seduction,’ New German Critique, 69, 1996, 186.
[45] Ibid.
[46] Ibid., 187.
[47] Ibid.
[48] Ibid., 189.
[49] Ibid., 197.
[50] Young, 1994, 37.
[51] Ibid., 27.
[52] Ibid.
[53] Young, 2002, 28.
[54] For a comprehensive interpretation of global memorial museums, see Williams, Paul, Memorial Museums: The Global Rush to Commemorate Atrocities (London: Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2008).
[55] Young, 1994, 124.
[56] Ibid., 120.
[57] See Young, 1994, 2, 10, 94; Young, 2002, 46.
[58] Young 1994, 9.
[59] Ibid., 1. This quotation is from Alice Yeager Kaplan.
[60] Cf. Huyssen, Andreas, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2003).
[61] Young, 2002, 4.
[62] Ibid., 7.
[63] Cf. Libeskind, Daniel, ‘Trauma,’ in Hornstein, Shelley, and Florence Jacobowitz (eds.).  Image and Remembrance: Representation and the Holocaust (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002) 43-59.
[64] Young, 1994, 40-43. The fountain was designed by artist Karl Roth.
[65] Ibid., 43.
[66] Ibid., 45.
[67] Comay, Rebecca, ‘Memory Block: Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial in Vienna,” in Hornstein, Shelley, and Florence Jacobowitz (eds.). Image and Remembrance: Representation and the Holocaust (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002) 252.
[68] Ibid., 261.
[69] Ibid., 261.
[70] Ibid., 254.
[71] Ibid., 258.
[72] Ibid., 261.
[73] Jordan, 103. Bibliothek was Ullman’s first German sculpture though by no means his last. He was also commissioned for sculptural works at the former site of Berlin’s Lindenstraße synagogue (Nobody, 1997), and another near the Werra River (Flood, 1999).
[74] Jordan, f23.
[75] Ibid.
[76] Ibid.
[77] Ibid.
[78] ‘Creating the Underground Library,’ Arts and Culture Resources for Yom Ha'shoah, Web.
[79] Ibid.
[80] Ibid.
[81] Comay, 261.
[82] Ibid.
[83] Derrida, Jacques, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 36.
[84] Young, 2002, 11.
[85] Ibid., 5.
[86] Cf. Sassen, Saskia, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
[87] Koepnick, 347.
[88] Elsaesser, Thomas, ‘Sonnen-Insulaner: On a Berlin Island of Memory,’ in Uta Staiger, Henriette Steiner and Andrew Webber (eds.). Memory Culture and the Contemporary City (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 37.
[89] Young, 2002, 13.
[90] Benjamin, 13.
[91] Ibid., 19.
[92] Elsaesser, 37.
[93] Benjamin, 13.
[94] Nora, Pierre, ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire’ Representations 26, 1984, 7-25.
[95] Elsaesser, 33.
[96] Ibid.
[97] Ibid., 34.
[98] Young 2002, 2.
[99] Ibid.
[100] This name is used interchangeably with Holocaust Memorial. [101] Young, 2002, 208.
[102] Koepnick, 347.
[103] Young, 2002, 209. The image above represents Serra’s original design. [104] Ibid., 12.
[105] Parr, Adrian, Deleuze and Memorial Culture: Desire, Singular Memory and the Politics of Trauma (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 158.
[106] Ibid., 149.
[107] Ibid., 151.
[108] Ibid., 155.
[109] Baptist, 77-8.
[110] Baptist, 78.
[111] Parr, 3.
[112] Ibid., 4.
[113] Ibid.
[114] Till, 20. See also Young 1994, 186.
[115] Till, 20.
[116] Jordan, 54.
[117] Ibid., 35.
[118] Ibid., 2.
[119] Ward, 48. This foothold is described at length in relation to the Architects Debate in 1993.
[120] Young, 2002, 7.


Joshua Synenko is nearing completion of his PhD dissertation, entitled “Memory Activism in Contemporary Europe and Diverse Media” at York University in the Department of Humanities. A part-time Instructor at Wilfrid Laurier University, Synenko broadly studies in European social and political thought, memory studies, visual culture, and urban aesthetics.