Germans seek atonement, but final solution eludes them

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GERMAN efforts to find a fitting display of atonement for the Holocaust are in danger of degenerating into a farce. Not for the first time, the designs of the monument to be erected in Berlin in memory of the victims of the Final Solution have united politicians and the chattering classes in opposition.

Only weeks away from the decision, Berlin's mayor, Eberhard Diepgen, yesterday threw his weight behind those urging a pause for thought. In an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine, Mr Diepgen complained that not one of the four shortlisted designs had convinced him that it was "possible to deal with this horror artistically".

The mayor, who heads a Christian Democrat-led coalition in the city in partnership with the Social Democrats, was scathing about the version closest to the heart of the Chancellor, Helmut Kohl. After vetoing the giant tombstone that had won the first artistic competition, Mr Kohl is backing an equally vast labyrinth of 4,000 concrete pillars devised by two Americans, Richard Serra and Peter Eisenman. Those walking through the narrow passages, to be erected on the site of Hitler's devastated chancellery, are supposed to feel overwhelmed and disorientated. But Mr Diepgen said all he could see in this design was "monumentality", and virtually no reference to the Holocaust.

"It could be a memorial for a lot of things," he said. All four entries lying in front of the panel of independent judges had more to say "about the inner conflicts of today's generation in relation to their parents" than about Nazi crimes.

The other options are a plan by Jochen Gerz to install 39 poles inscribed with the word "Why" in different languages; a broken wall designed by Daniel Libeskind; and 18 massive sandstone blocks, by Gesien Weinmiller, which, viewed from a certain angle, will coalesce into an abstract image of the Star of David.

Mr Kohl is urging a quick solution so that after 10 years of debate work can begin. The ground-breaking ceremony, on former no-man's land between the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, is set for January 1999, the 54th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

If there is a further twist to this long-running saga, it could rob the city of the central monument it allegedly needs when the government returns to the capital in 1999. But that might not be a bad thing, argue the project's opponents, pointing to the numerous statues, museums and cemeteries already honouring Nazi victims. Intellectuals who started the campaign for the mother of all memorials, "the final solution to the Final Solution", have turned against the project, recoiling at the "monumental cliches" that have sprung from the fertile minds of fellow artists.

The writer Gunter Grass, self-appointed conscience of the nation and former leading monumentalist, press-ganged 18 other intellectuals earlier this year into an "open letter" declaring war on the latest outbursts of architectural pathos.

Mayor Diepgen has travelled to Israel to canvass opinions, only to find indifference. The Jewish community in Germany is divided. Berlin's Jews cannot decide whether they should be flattered or repelled by such a grandiose scheme, not dissimilar in scale to the art of the Third Reich.

"I don't need this monument," says Ignatz Bubis, leader of the Jewish community in Germany. Whether Jews were able live without it was never in doubt. The real question is: can Germans?