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Berlin picks Holocaust memorial

IN A powerful gesture of atonement, Germany is to erect a giant memorial to Nazi victims in the centre of Berlin. After a decade of anguished debate, the Bundestag yesterday approved the designs of the American architect Peter Eisenman, featuring a vast field of more than 2,000 columns, flanked by a documentation centre, a stone's throw from the Brandenburg Gate.

In a series of votes, MPs first backed the Holocaust monument in principle by an overwhelming majority, and decided it should be dedicated exclusively to Jewish victims. Finally, they chose between the various proposals on offer, including a single column inscribed with the words "Thou Shalt Not Kill" in Hebrew and several other languages.

Reflecting the discussions over the last 10 years, yesterday's parliamentary debate cut across party political lines, dividing victims as well as the perpetrators' descendants. Jewish groups had argued over the various monumental designs, and questioned whether Germans should perpetually be punished by a spectacle that would for ever remain a bleeding wound in the heart of their capital.

There was also concern about the motives of a memorial once dubbed "the final solution to the Final Solution". The voices of those German intellectuals urging for a line to be drawn under the country's murderous history have been growing louder. Jewish groups feared that the new "central monument" would serve this purpose.

Most of the speakers addressing yesterday's debate, however, insisted that this would not happen. "We are not building this memorial for the Jews or other victims," said Wolfgang Thierse, the Bundestag's chairman. "We are building it for ourselves. With this memorial, there can be no more denial or indifference."

Others would have preferred a subtler - not to say more ambiguous - statement. Berlin's governing mayor, Eberhard Diepgen, said that the Eisenman monument would turn Berlin into a "city of mourning", and was too abstract. "A memorial must be comprehensible," he said. Mr Diepgen was backing the single pillar with the Fifth Commandment, which Jewish groups said was too vague and did not specifically address the Holocaust.

Mr Eisenman's design was the second to have been chosen by an international jury. The first, favoured by Helmut Kohl, the former German chancellor, had opted for a slanting tombstone the size of two football pitches. It was deemed so tasteless, however, that after years of controversy a new competition had to be held.

But that was still not the end of the story. Mr Eisenman's winning creation also resembled a cemetery: a monumental cliche in the eyes of some Jewish groups who prefer to be depicted by symbols of their vibrant culture. The architect went back to the drawing board, and returned with a slightly smaller field of pillars and an adjacent documentation centre, where visitors can learn about the Holocaust.

This is the design which won the backing of Gerhard Schroder's government. Construction will begin on the site early next year, by which time the government hopes that it will have reached an agreement to compensate all victims of Nazism, so it can then turn its attention to contemporary problems.