Remembering the Holocaust: Munich and Berlin

By Max Blore

‘Hitler’s birthplace may be torn down to stop it becoming neo-Nazi shrine’, read a headline in a local German newspaper. Whilst authorities in Austria have defended the decision, citing various museums alongside Mauthausen concentration camp as examples of Austria’s functioning culture of memory, critics are likely to read this as an attempt to rid the country of an uncomfortable episode in its history.

The article went on to claim that Germany has confronted the past much more directly than its smaller neighbour, which ‘maintained for decades’ that its people were the first victims of Nazism. Certainly since Germany’s reunification in 1989, attempts to establish monuments and memorials to those who suffered between 1933 and 1945 have intensified across the country.

Despite this broad trend, approaches to memorialisation have differed greatly from city to city in Germany. This is perhaps unsurprising given the decision to ascribe responsibility for overseeing the sites to each federal state as opposed to the central federal government. Nowhere is this more evident than in Munich and Berlin. Having been to Berlin several times, most recently this Summer, and currently on my year abroad in Munich, I was struck by how differently each city confronted its turbulent past and commemorated its victims.

In Munich, memorials are actually few and far between; just three can be found in and around the city center. One possible explanation for Munich’s seeming lack of memorials is that the city’s policy on memorialisation has hitherto been characterised by caution, as demonstrated by its rejection of the Stolpersteine initiative: stolpersteine are small bronze blocks which commemorate individuals persecuted and killed during the Second World War. From 1996 onwards, these were commissioned across Europe by family and friends of the victims; the whole concept is based around stumbling upon them in unexpected locations, in so doing making people remember an everyday life.

However, just days after the first blocks were laid their installation was declared illegal in Munich because the Mayor had not granted the project permission, a decision upheld by the local council. Despite the efforts of the initiative “Stolpersteine für München” (Stumbling blocks for Munich), the blocks were subsequently removed from the pavement. The council gave several reasons for its decision: impropriety that a victim’s name could be dirtied or trodden on, dread of a surfeit of memorials competing with each other for attention and the desire to commemorate all victims instead of a number of individuals.

Nevertheless, despite an apparent wish to centralise memorials in Munich, those that can be found are remarkably understated. Take, for example, the series of bronze cobbles laid out along Viscardigasse, a small alleyway that runs behind the Feldherrnhalle. This memorial requires context in order to make sense of it: when Hitler came to power, a memorial plaque was erected at the Feldherrnhalle to commemorate those who died in the failed attempt to take over the city during the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. The plaque was constantly guarded by soldiers, who ensured that passers-by performed a Nazi salute at the site. Opponents of the regime would take the street Viscardigasse to avoid passing the site; if caught they were arrested. The bronze path thus commemorates the bravery of those who took this alleyway as an act of passive resistance.

However, no such context is provided. This, combined with its positioning on the floor of a small side-street, mean that it can easily be overlooked by passers-by.

Another floor memorial in Munich is the bronze flyers on the floor outside the entrance to the Ludwig-Maximilians Universität. The flyers are intended to resemble those dropped by the White-Rose resistance group during World War II, who produced and distributed flyers denouncing Hitler and his regime and were subsequently caught and sentenced to death in 1943. Although situated in an aptly named place (Geschwister-Scholl Platz), dedicated to two key members of the White-Rose group Hans and Sophie Scholl, the flyers are placed somewhere where it is difficult to stop, read and contemplate one’s relationship with the past. Why Munich has adopted this approach is perhaps best understood in the context of Berlin’s memorial culture.

In Berlin, memorialisation is everywhere. Today, six different memorials lie within a 250m radius of the Brandenburg Gate. Two more can be found around a kilometer east along Unter den Linden. Several more lie south-west in the Tiergarten. In total, the city boasts over sixty memorials, a significant number of which relate in some way to the Holocaust. The development of memorial culture in Berlin has not, like in Munich, been an exclusively state-led process. In the early 1990s, then chancellor Helmut Kohl gave the go ahead for the construction of a Central Memorial in Berlin. Although he had intended to concentrate the culture of remembrance in a single location, he in fact opened the floodgates for a number of memorials to be erected in the following years.

By dedicating the site to ‘the victims of war and violent rule’, Kohl incited Berlin’s Jewish community to call for a specific memorial aimed at commemorating Jewish losses, feeling that the central memorial was too general to provide a meaningful place for Jewish memory. Representatives of other groups in turn warned against creating a hierarchy of victims’ groups by building a purely Jewish memorial. Thus, in reaction to the Holocaust Memorial, the desire of many of the persecuted groups to get their own memorial site was accommodated.

Instinctively, one might assume that the regularisation of Holocaust memory as in Berlin should be more beneficial to perpetuating memory than the more conservative approach of Munich. Jeffrey Alexander, for example, has argued that the intensifying momentum to memorialise the Holocaust indicates ‘a deepening institutionalisation of its moral lessons and the continued recalling of its dramatic experiences’. Moreover, by allowing individual social groups to establish their own memorials, the city has shown an awareness of the diversity of victims affected by the Holocaust. However, an abundance of memorials can easily lead to routinisation and forgetting, acting as a source of comfort and stability when in reality the past is one of rupture and loss. The disinclination of several groups recently to construct a site for fear it would become ‘just another memorial’ is perhaps telling.

Nevertheless, whereas in Munich authorities have sought to avoid a devaluation of its memorials by limiting the number that are constructed, architects in Berlin have taken increasingly radical approaches to the traditional concept of a memorial in an effort to inspire meaningful reflection. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is one such example. The monument invites the visitor to walk along the undulating floor of the long, straight and narrow alleyways between its 2,711 grey concrete slabs, arranged in a precise rectilinear array over 4.7 acres. Each slab is identical in its horizontal dimensions, differing only vertically (from eight inches to more than fifteen feet tall).

The memorial is intended to inspire interaction and interpretation. The undulating floor and uneven block heights produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere. The slabs themselves are reminiscent of coffins. The whole sculpture is intended to evoke the sense of claustrophobia and entrapment experienced by Jews living in Germany under National Socialist rule. The memorial has been widely criticised. Its abstract design and lack of content relating to the Holocaust have led to criticism that the memorial does not perform a definitive educative purpose. Its official name, ‘The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’, is criticised for its vagueness, failing to situate the context and designate the perpetrators of those murders. Fears that the memorial has become just another tourist attraction are perpetuated by reports of adults lying on the slabs sunbathing and children using them for games of hide and seek.

However, it is this continuing discussion of what form a memorial should take that, for me, marks one of the successes of Berlin’s memorial culture. In the case of the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, the absence of a definitive narrative has forced people to reflect on the historical legacy of the Holocaust. How we deal collectively with such a historical legacy is a crucial question that should perpetually be reflected upon. Making people react, either for or against it, is a constant trigger of that reflection.

The demands of memorialising the Holocaust are great, not least because of the number of different groups of victims that must be represented. In Munich, fear of trivialising Holocaust memory through over-memorialisation has resulted in the city’s modest approach. The desire for memorials not to become tourist attractions, as is often said of Berlin, has seen Munich’s memorials become incorporated into daily life. Whereas in Munich, the burden of memory is thus only returned to those who seek it, in Berlin the presence of the past is all-pervasive. Unlike the bronze cobbles on Viscardigasse and the flyers outside Ludwig-Maximilians Universität, memorials such as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe cannot be ignored. Perhaps Berlin’s memorials do not always serve a pedagogical purpose. Perhaps they do not always perform a commemorative function. Nevertheless, by attempting to articulate Holocaust memory through innovative methods, Berlin has cultivated a self-reflexive mindset that helps us better articulate how it is that 1933-1945 should be remembered.

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