Germany unveils monument to its national shame

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The Independent Online

After nearly two decades of bitter controversy, Germany's first national Holocaust memorial has opened in the centre of Berlin, metres from the site of the bunker where Adolf Hitler shot himself at the end of the Second World War.

After nearly two decades of bitter controversy, Germany's first national Holocaust memorial has opened in the centre of Berlin, metres from the site of the bunker where Adolf Hitler shot himself at the end of the Second World War.

The €27m (£18m) monument to the murdered Jews of Europe by the American Jewish architect Peter Eisenmann is made up of 2,711 gently undulating rectangular concrete blocks covering an area the size of two football pitches. It includes an underground information centre on the history of the Holocaust.

The German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, and Jewish community leaders were among 1,500 guests who attended the heavily policed opening yesterday, close to the Brandenburg Gate. The event was the last in a series of ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the war.

Wolfgang Thierse, the German parliamentary president, said: "The Nazi regime's systematic murder of Europe's Jews remains something difficult to comprehend. For this reason, we chose an abstract monument."

But Paul Spiegel, the president of Germany's Central Council of Jews, said the memorial failed to answer key questions about the reasons for the Holocaust. "It says nothing about the perpetrators and nothing about the causes and background to this catastrophe," he said.

The memorial has been beset by controversy since plans for its construction were mooted 17 years ago Numerous Jewish community leaders and German conservatives opposed the idea, claiming the memorial would be taken as a politically correct "badge of atonement". Others said it would be a monument to national shame.

Representatives of Germany's Jewish community such as the author Rafael Seligmann criticised the monument for commemorating only Jewish victims of the Nazis. "What about the Gypsies, the mentally ill and homosexuals ?" he said. "They too were sent to the gas chambers. By selecting only Jews, the monument is doing what SS guards did at Auschwitz."

Plans for the monument were finally approved by the German parliament in 1999 after years of campaigning by Lea Rosch, a non-Jewish German journalist who said it was essential that Germans should have a monument to remind them of past crimes. "It is a reminder for the country of aggressors," she said.

Even then, the project was criticised after revelations that the German firm employed to coat the monument's concrete blocks with anti-graffiti material supplied Nazi concentration camps with the Zyklon B gas used to murder Jews.

Dagmar von Wilcken, the designer of the monument's information centre where the names and biographies of the dead are flashed on a video screen every minute, said the memorial's main task was to keep alive discussion about German history. "It is not a thing that says we have apologised and now it's over," she said.

Despite the monument's graffiti-proof coating and a 24-hour guard, Mr Eisenmann said he was not worried about it being defaced. "I want it to become part of everyday life in Berlin and it's a great place for skateboarding," he said. "I don't care if people scratch its surface; at least it will show that they feel something. That's what it's all about."

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