Architecture: The impossible monument

As decisions about Berlin's Holocaust monument are again postponed, what chance is there that Germany's tragic past can be dealt with once and for all?
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The Independent Culture
The differences between cultures are often best exemplified by their use of certain untranslatable words or phrases. One such is Vergangenheitsbewaltigung, a key term that underlies the debate that has raged through the otherwise quiet German political and cultural landscape this summer. Literally it means something like "getting over/coping with the past", and since the Second World War has been the central concern of the country's remembrance industry. It has a final ring to it: We've done that; now we can move on.

The problems of this process are illustrated by Chancellor Kohl's current pet project. In an attempt to leave a strong visual legacy to the new German capital, he is supporting a plan to build a gigantic memorial to the Jewish victims of National Socialist terror, on a site next to the Brandenburg Gate. Initially the project was welcomed by the great and the good: the former chancellor Willy Brandt and the writer Gunther Grass spoke in its favour, and Kohl personally pledged its construction to the leader of the Central Council of German Jews.

No expense was spared in preparing the gargantuan project. Once part of Hitler's Reich Chancellery, the pounds 200m site was given to the project by the city of Berlin. A competition for designs was held and then declared void, and finally the star American architect Peter Eisenman was asked to provide a suitable design, in collaboration with the sculptor Richard Serra. Known for his contempt for beauty and his aesthetic interest in ugliness and terror, Eisenman proposed a regular grid of 2,700 vertical stone slabs of varying heights, each 92cm from its neighbour, with the whole site bordered by trees. A place without a beginning or end, designed to embody abandonment, he said.

Kohl was anxious to secure the future of the monument before it could be dragged into the campaigning for September's elections, but it proved too hot a topic to settle. On 24 August Kohl decided with Berlin's mayor Eberhard Diepgen, who, incidentally opposes the memorial, not to make any decision before the election. The Berlin Senate met and talked, and the project is again in limbo, despite Kohl's assurances that the building of the memorial is "indispensable".

Meanwhile, everyone, both informed and ignorant, has had something to say about the project. Why should only Jews be commemorated here? Were gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally ill, Poles, Russian prisoners-of-war and other groups Nazi victims of a second order? If this monument is part of the new seat of Government, should not parliament have the last word? Who, in any case, can decide how such an atrocity is to be commemorated? And are there not already enough monuments throughout Germany? The ruins of the concentration camps are far more chilling and uncomfortable than any official gesture. Might such a petrified symbol of national guilt at the heart of the state only serve to foster resentment? Or might it be seen as letting Germany off the hook of properly confronting its recent past?

Not all the earlier proposals conformed to Eisenman's vision of guilty grandeur. One of them even involved partially destroying the Brandenburg Gate, "in order to make it painful to the German people". Other submissions preferred grotesque sentimentality to vandalism, suggesting building a giant Star of David with a broken heart in the middle, or an enormous skull with the names of victims engraved around the brain.

It's a very German affair, ruled by ambiguity and unease. Germany is a country rightly terrified of seeming anti-Semitic. The campaign for this monument was started in 1988 by Lea Rosh, a television journalist who, despite not being Jewish herself, has made herself a voice of Jewish concerns. The curious alliance of a self-appointed spokeswoman and a Chancellor who once famously claimed for himself the "grace of late birth" (ie freedom from guilt), has been driving the project, with the Berlin Senate as a reluctant and undecided passenger.

Opposition to the proposal has been forcefully articulated by Michael Naumann, spokesman on culture for the Social Democrats. The proposed structure, he said, was reminiscent of the grandiose fantasies of Albert Speer, Hitler's architect. The city should rather fund an institute for Holocaust studies. The public appears to be appalled by the hornets' nest stirred up. Its mood has changed, and public opinion currently seems to have turned against the monument's ever being built.

The wasteland at the centre of Berlin's crane-studded skyline and frenzied building activity is itself symbolic of the black hole in German self- understanding. It cannot be plastered over with any amount of stone or concrete. As long as the past can be pictured as something that can be overcome, and dealt with once and for all, a memorial of this kind would do exactly that. It would stamp an official seal of "closure" on the past. In a state that was designed to be federal after its horrific experience with one all-powerful tyranny, it would be a centralisation of the nation's fictitious unified memory and understanding of the past.

There is an entire industry of historians, commentators, publishers, and the professionally conscience-smitten that caters to Germany's "culture of remembrance" with its monuments, solemn gatherings, and endless analyses in the Sunday papers and historical books. The temptation is great for everyone else to leave the thinking, the remembering and questioning to the professionals and get on with life.

The debate has already done what its participants vowed to fight: it has appropriated the dead for this interest or that, made mass murder and its aftermath into an election issue and has also spurred the small but vocal German far right to hateful polemics about a country "bowing to the Jews" and betraying its nationhood.

Increasingly it seems that the sheer intensity and length of the debate may mean that the building of the monument has become inevitable. To do nothing after so much heated discussion would inexcusable and inappropriate.

Perhaps, and paradoxically, it would be best to do what seems least appropriate, to let grass grow, not over the past, but over the square and let it be a memorial to the impossibility of adequate institutional remembrance, and to the intellectual division of the country when it comes to representing the unrepresentable. That, at least, would please Berlin's children and dogs while not allowing anyone to feel that the past has finally been buried and forgotten. Sometimes no monument is the best monument.