The architecture of murder and memorial

By Chris Barton

The eerie 'Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe' reflects the insanity of Nazi brutality in its alienating architecture, with a vast arrangement of monoliths marking the disgrace of an era in which Germans united to slaughter millions.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikimedia user Chaosdna
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikimedia user Chaosdna

The field of ash grey rectangular slabs at the heart of Berlin is baffling, blended with the cityscape, strangely inviting and yet so alien it demands a response. What the...?

The vast expanse - 2,711 concrete monoliths covering 13,000sq
metres, bounded by streets facing the Grosser Tiergarten park - is a block away from the Brandenburg Gate.

Built in 1788, the ceremonial portal is the embodiment of Germany and a symbol of both division and reunification of the city. This field of stones, however, is the embodiment of something incomprehensible - how German people once united to murder millions.

At the outer edges of the field a few visitors sit in the sun on the flatter blocks. Teenagers ignore the signs, unable to resist the challenge of stepping from stone to stone. People enter the field from anywhere on the perimeter, choosing their own track and disappearing from view, swallowed by the stelae.

Stele: "standing stone," slab or pillar, usually inscribed or painted, used as commemorative markers in ancient Greece. These sentinels, with no inscriptions and unpainted, except for their anti-graffiti coating, stand silent, betraying nothing.

This is the "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe". You wouldn't know it. There are no obvious signs - no Stars of David or other symbols of commemoration and nothing that overtly says Holocaust - just a field of slabs. A memorial in the abstract, yet very much concrete.

Ninety-five centimetre wide paths force single file through the stones.
No holding hands, no mass mourning, no rallies here. A monument against assembly.

Inside, a dance of light and dark plays on the stone faces and shadows fall across the paths. Sound is muffled, as if submerged. The ground is an uneven, undulating pavement. The way out is easily seen - a maze without a centre - but where to go?

Many of the stelae, more than 4 metres high, tower overhead. Some lean at an unsettling 0.5 to 2 degrees.

A monument to fascist order and yet an orderliness deliberately disintegrated throughout. The slabs are all the same width (0.95 metres) and length (2.38 metres) and arranged on the same axis, but they vary in height so the tops of the stones bob up and down. Off-kilter stones and the wave-like pathways further undermine the rationality of the grid.

The site has dark history. In 1937, it housed the office of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

Not far away was Hitler's Reich Chancellery and the bunker where he died by suicide.

From 1961 onwards, the area was part of "death strip" alongside the Berlin wall, booby-trapped with tripwires, monitored by cameras and patrolled by guards instructed to shoot on sight.

The idea for the memorial was realised on June 25, 1999, when, after a decade of hand wringing, and controversy, the German Bundestag passed a resolution to:

* honour the murdered victims,

* keep alive the memory of these inconceivable events in German history,

* admonish all future generations never again to violate human rights, to defend the democratic constitutional state at all times, to secure equality before the law for all people and to resist all forms of dictatorship and regimes based on violence.

Making the decision was a tortuous process. First proposed in 1988 by the journalist Lea Rosh, aided by the lobby group Perspective Berlin and the historian Eberhard Jäckel, the notion rapidly gained support from prominent figures including former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt and the writer Günter Grass.

Perspective Berlin's advertisements in German newspapers on 30 January, 1989 said:
"A half a century has passed since the Nazis came to power and since the murder of the Jews of Europe. But on German soil, in the country of the perpetrator, there is still no central site of remembrance to recall this singular genocide, and no memorial that remembers the victims. This is shameful."

A decade later the design chosen from a competition to achieve the purpose was that of New York architect Peter Eisenman - albeit modified by the inclusion of an information centre. Work began in 2003 and was completed in May 2005 at a cost of €27.6 million.

In June 1998 American sculptor Richard Serra, who collaborated with Eisenman on the original design, abruptly quit the project.

Officially, it was for personal reasons, but design changes demanded by Chancellor Helmut Kohl are a more likely explanation.

The original design was a much denser field - 4000 rather than 2711 stelae and without trees. Some 41 trees are planted on the north-western side of the site, apparently to soften it for visitors.

But perhaps the biggest compromise Eisenman had to swallow was the inclusion of an "Ort der Information" (Place of Information). Created by Berlin-based exhibition designer Dagmar von Wilcken, it is underground at the south-eastern corner of the field with three entrances - two flights of stairs and a lift.

On opening day, Eisenman had come to terms with the modifications.

"I was wrong about the inclusion of the Ort," he told the audience, rationalising each part as a different form of memory.

"One is the unforgettable, which is the silence of the field; the other is the memorable, which is recorded in the archives, in the Ort."

On the same day, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany Paul Spiegel was critical: "The monument itself eludes the question of 'why?', avoiding any pronouncement about the guilty or the causes and reasons behind the catastrophe of the war."

For Spiegel, the memorial's message was incomplete and had cast the Jews as victims in the form of 2,711 concrete stelae.

Spiegel reads the memorial literally, seeing the stelae as an array of tombstones. It's easy to see why. When the scheme made a shortlist of four in the design competition, it was described as Graberfeld (Field of Graves).

Its creator, Eisenman, also supports the tombstone reading.

"It's to bring the Jewish cemetery into the everyday experience of the German, in the middle of the city," he tells Holocaust survivor and filmmaker Marian Marzynski, prior to construction.

But he also gives some alternative readings.

"They're foundation stones for a new society." Or: "They're all lined up in rows, like the Nazis."

The idea of the field, says Eisenman, is "rationality gone mad, entropy entering rationality".

Eisenman expects an emotional response: "You go and walk in it, and you will feel uncertain, you know? These things are tilting. I don't know where I'm going. Am I going to get lost? I'm alone. I can't hold anybody's hand. And that, when they get done, was what it felt like to be a Jew in Germany in the '30s."

If the memorial represents a Jewish cemetery, those who jump from pillar to pillar would be dancing on graves. If the stelae reflect the insanity of regimented brutality, they might equally be a phalanx of goose-stepping Nazis. Or the row upon row of prisoner barracks in the colossal killing field of Birkenau. Or the lines of railway sleepers leading to Treblinka.

Eisenman doesn't care.

"People are going to picnic in the field. Children will play tag in the field. There will be fashion models modelling there and films will be shot there," he said in a Spiegel interview.

"I can easily imagine some spy shoot 'em ups ending in the field. What can I say? It's not a sacred place."

Not sacred, yet so similar to tombstones. A depiction of absence.

In countries such as Poland, the absence is acute. Ancient graveyards give testimony to a once thriving population of 3.25 million Jews living there before the Second World War.

Walking through the 16th century Remuh cemetery in the Kazimierz district of Kraków, it's hard not see a source of inspiration for Eisenman's design. Worn sandstone stelae inscribed in Hebrew stand in rows - sentries to a past presence.

Some, moved with time, sit askew. Others, broken, lie fallen in the overgrown grass. Small stones on the headstones, some weighing down scraps of paper mark a moment of memory - words to loved ones gone that someone has not forgotten.

It's hard not to see inspiration too, when you visit Treblinka in Poland, about two hours east of Warsaw, where there is indeed a symbolic field of graves.

Some 17,000 jagged granite shards are set into concrete, in a vast clearing encircled by forest. The serenity of the stones amidst surrounding pine trees and the silent sky is eerie. An enormous silence demanding a response, but also making it impossible to speak.

These are not real gravestones, but markers to some 800,000 dead - their remains ploughed under the soil here to conceal the crime.

When the Nazis destroyed the extermination camp in 1943, previously buried bodies were dug up and burned on cremation grids. As late as 1957 sun-bleached bones and skulls could be seen poking through the ground.

Designed by Polish architect Adam Haupt with sculptors Franciszek Duszenko and Franciszek Strynkiewicz, and built in 1964, the memorial marks the perimeter of the camp with tall, evenly spaced standing stones.

Oversized concrete railway sleepers symbolise the railway track. Seven hundred of the stones are inscribed with the names of Jewish communities obliterated by the Holocaust.

Unlike the Berlin field, the Treblinka stelae are random, rough, and jumbled. There is no grid, but there is a centre - a 7.8 metre anvil-like monolith with a fissure running through the middle and a menorah carved in its top.

"Never again" is inscribed at the base of the obelisk in Yiddish, Polish, Russian, English, German, and French.

The day I visit a group of Israeli armed forces in uniform make a circle in front of the monument. They carry flags, say prayers, stand to attention, salute, and lay a Star of David wreath. Behind the monument is a rectangular pit filled with black, molten basalt - depicting the camp's cremation pyres. Many place small stones on the deformed rocks.

There is no place in the Berlin field for stones or wreaths. It's a
defiantly secular, public space - so much so that Eisenman was against using a graffiti coating to protect the slabs.

"If a swastika is painted on it, it is a reflection of how people feel. And if it remains there, it is a reflection of how the German government feels about people painting swastikas on the monument."

The anti-graffiti product used - Protectosil made by Degussa - created a controversy.

The firm had been involved in the National-Socialist persecution of the Jews and a subsidiary company, Degesch, had produced the Zyklon B chemical used in the gas chambers.

Despite the protective coating, swastikas have been drawn on the stelae, most recently in 2008.

Australian philosopher Andrew Benjamin says the abstract quality of the stelae - "their refusal to provide an image" - is their power.

"The pillars recall gravestones and yet they are not gravestones. What they stand for is a sense of loss and therefore they insist as forms of remembrance... How and what they represent remains open."

Multiple interpretations and responses are OK, indeed encouraged.

Anything goes when Eisenman is speaking.

"One person says it looks like a graveyard and the next says it looks like a ruined city and then someone says it looks like it is from Mars - everybody needs to make it look like something they know," he says in an interview. Contrary to previous descriptions, he also says: "I have never seen a graveyard that looks like that. And when you walk in, it certainly doesn't feel like one."

Eisenman compares the "movement" of the pillars with "a billowy field of grain".

Other times he will veer off into the deeply personal.

Walking into the field is to leave the city behind and to experience sudden alienation and disorientation as "the darkness and walls descend" and the narrowness of the passages make one walk alone - "the same my mother felt when Mengele took her mother from her".

Architectural critic, Heinrich Wefing is unconvinced by Eisenman's view the memorial creates a "feeling of being torn apart", resembling the trauma of Auschwitz, "where many children were torn from their parents".

On one occasion, Eisenman went as far to suggest a Japanese tourist "would perhaps feel what it is like to go into a gas chamber".

Wefing: "It might be a lot of things, but one thing it is certainly not: a Holocaust simulator... To claim that here one can experience the feelings of the victims (and then afterwards go have a cup of coffee) - that would not only be obscene, it would also be denying the actual qualities of the memorial."

Polish born New York architect Daniel Libeskind, who designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin, also provokes emotional response with his buildings.

"I find myself drawn to explore what I call the void - the presence of an overwhelming emptiness created when a community is wiped out," he says in Breaking Ground. The idea is incorporated into the Jewish Museum's "Holocaust Void" - a long, inaccessible empty space cut through the length of the zigzagging building and crossed by bridges.

Like the field it's an architecture designed to create unease. The building, which opened, in 1999, has no front door. Its zinc cladding, angularity and narrow windows slashed into the façade provide a deliberate difference from the surroundings.

Entry is through the baroque Berlin Museum next door and by descending below street level. One passage leads up a set of stairs to a dead end white wall. Another to a tall, empty concrete shaft called the Holocaust Tower, where the door clanks shut into darkness, the only light filtering down from an acutely angled slit in the roof.

Outside, in the Garden of Exile and Emigration, vegetation grows from the top of 49, six-metre pillars which, like the field's stelae, are oddly tilted - "making visitors feel disoriented, even seasick".

The garden, like the museum's void, tower and slashed windows, manipulate by metaphor.

"I wanted visitors to be reminded of the shipwreck of German Jewish history, reminded too of what it's like to arrive, totally without bearings, in a strange, new land," says Libeskind.

That's not all.

The building's shape resembles a broken Star of David. Forty-eight of the columns in the Garden are filled with dirt from Berlin and one with earth from Jerusalem - apparently to signify 1948, the year Israel was founded.

The tower could represent the cold, dark and claustrophobia of a gas chamber, although the light falling from the top apparently indicates hope.

Libeskind based the design on a story of a woman catching a glimpse of sky and a white line through the slats of a boxcar en route to the Stutthof concentration camp.

Dithering in response to architectural ambiguity - whether at the Field of Stelae, the Jewish Museum, or the Treblinka memorial - may not be a bad thing.

"The surest engagement with Holocaust memory in Germany may actually lie in its perpetual irresolution," says author James E. Young.

"Better a thousand years of Holocaust memorial competitions in Germany than any single 'final solution' to Germany's memorial problem."

Young advocates for "counter-monuments" - memorial spaces that challenge the premise of the monument.

Artist Horst Hoheisel proposed to blow up the Brandenburg Gate, grind its stone into dust, sprinkle the remains over its former site, and then cover the entire Memorial site with granite plates.

"How better to remember a destroyed people than by a destroyed monument?" says Young.

The counter monument is also a reaction to Hitler's exploitation of national monuments and symbols to mobilise the German people.

As a counter monument, the Field of Stelae puts most of the remembering back on the spectator. With no inscriptions, symbols or gathering place, it certainly disrupts what monuments normally do. But it is also exceedingly monumental.

The sheer scale of the field is its power - so big it can't be ignored, capturing the enormity of the crime, and confronting visitors in much the same way as the seemingly boundless bleakness of the Birkenau ruins.

Also known as Auschwitz II, the Birkenau death camp is immense, covering almost 200 hectares. It once comprised 300 buildings, including over 174 horse-stable barracks.

Today, only a few mouldering buildings remain, but the grid of barracks is still visible in the rows of crumbling brick chimney stacks, forlorn in the long grass. The retreating Nazis in 1945 destroyed much of the camp. The ravages of time have done the rest - entropy engulfing fascistic rationality at a place that once again has you gasping. What the...? Why?

Berlin's Field of Stelae provides some answers - buried in the Information Centre beneath the field. The subterranean chamber resonates with allusions: the way the Nazis concealed their "Final Solution" to the "Jewish Problem"; and the external staircases to Crematoria II and III at Auschwitz, which descended to an underground undressing room and gas chamber.

Spiegel laments that "only a fraction of visitors will ever take the trouble to deepen the impressions they have gained in the Field of Stelae by means of additional facts". In 2010 the Information Centre attracted 461,000 visitors.

Wefing points out, the Information Centre runs against every intention of the open memorial. He says the entrances disrupt the filigree net of paths so that "instead of straying directionlessly through the field, the visitors are channelled in one direction, toward the bathrooms and the coat check and the displays."

Yet the entrances to the Centre are well camouflaged among the stones, meagrely signposted, if at all, and a visitor choosing any number of paths could easily "stray directionlessly" and miss them entirely. Which would be a shame. It's a knockout.

Wefing agrees: "Admittedly, all objections against this pedagogical extra fall silent when one has descended the stair... There is nothing else like this in Berlin, nothing like what is imparted about the Holocaust in this small space, through carefully chosen examples in a sparing, yet suggestive display."

Underground, you go through a security bag check. (Note to visitors to Berlin: Do not go into a museum with a souvenir gas mask from Check Point Charlie in your bag.)

In the foyer, visitors are greeted by a text-and-image strip showing a timeline of events from 1933 to 1945 that created the Holocaust. It includes a quote by Italian Auschwitz survivor and writer Primo Levi: "It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say."

The undulating ground and the grid of the field above are exposed in the coffered ceiling vault in each of the four rooms comprising the exhibition. In the first room glass panes on the floor, a mirror of the stones above, carry quotations from victims.

Fela writes on 27 January 1942: "My dear ones! I have already written a card to you on the fate that has befallen us. They are taking us to Chelmno and gassing us. 25,000 Jews are lying there already. The slaughter goes on. Have you no pity for us? Natan, the child, mother and I have escaped, no one else. I don't know what will become of us. I have no strength to live any more. If Aunt Bronia writes, write to her about everything. I send you warmest greetings."

In the second room, hanging slates display life histories of Jewish families in Europe. The Room of Names, the third room, is dark and empty except for three slab-like benches where visitors can sit to hear the reading of short biographies of Jews murdered or lost.

The fourth room has historical footage and witness accounts of the horrors of the Holocaust.

In his project text, Eisenman outlines the enormity of the memorial's task - that where once an individual human life could be commemorated by a single stone, slab, cross, or star, the Holocaust and Hiroshima and the mechanisms of mass death changed everything.

Another of Spiegel's objections to the Memorial is that it's not an authentic site like the former concentration and extermination camps, the mass graves and the sites of shooting and torture.

His concerns is such places may "pay a price" for the creation of the Holocaust Memorial.

"Without the authentic places of annihilation, every abstract memorial will, in the long run, lose its effect as a sign against forgetting."

But a visit to Auschwitz, the most significant site of the Shoah, shows that what's authentic depends very much on your point of view. Auschwitz I, the Stammlager, at the edge of the town of Oswiecim, is also the most significant site of Polish suffering under German rule. Auschwitz I appears to be intact.

"The presentation of the buildings does not convey a sense of abstract history, but of tangible actuality," write Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt in their seminal Auschwitz.

But sightseers may not realise the camp today is very different from the one liberated by the Soviet army in 1945.

"A misconstruction of history," begins in the parking lot where visitors arrive, say Dwork and van Pelt.

Most would be unaware that the stucco buildings to the north of where the tour buses park, now used by the Polish army and as low income housing, were once part of the camp. Many wouldn't know either that few of the Jews deported to Auschwitz ever saw the iconic Arbeit Macht Frei inscribed steel gate, as most went directly to Birkenau a couple of kilometres away.

For many the gate is the threshold between humanity and insanity, the entry to the "unimaginable universe" described by Primo Levi. But from 1942 it wasn't the entrance to the camp. Visitors taking tea in the cafeteria next to the car park, are unlikely to know they are sitting beside the prisoner reception building designed by Karl Bischoff, who produced the expansion plan for Auschwitz.

The missing spaces, now devoted to tourist facilities, are where prisoners were stripped, robbed, shaved, tattooed, disinfected and degraded - a step-by-step metamorphosis from Mensch to Untermensch (human to sub-human)."

It's difficult to reconcile why this authentic architecture of ritual humiliation has been removed from the Auschwitz visitors' experience, but it highlights a disconnect between the two camps and which history is being maintained.

"The main camp first and foremost preserved Polish - not Jewish - history," say Dwork and van Pelt, who argue the decision to relegate Birkenau to a position of secondary importance reflects a neutralising of remembrance.

Canadian sociologist Iwona Irwin-Zarecka describes it as an "Auschwitz without Jews" - allowing one to think of genocide as a fate shared by Jews, Poles, Russians and so on.

"At the least, it allows one to think of Poles as the 'next in line' on the extermination list. At the most it makes their experience during the war identical to that of the Jews.
Both Jews and Poles become victims of a murderous regime."

The perception, says Irwin-Zarecka, is of course historically correct, but hides the historical reality - "the difference between living in terror and being sentenced to death".

Historian and author Tony Judt makes a similar point: "For Poles, it was difficult to survive under German occupation but in principle you could. For Jews it was possible to survive under German occupation - but in principle you could not."

To appreciate the architecture of Auschwitz, it's necessary to find where it transformed from a collection of utilitarian buildings - used as a labour exchange, then a Polish army base, then a German concentration camp - into a machine for murder. When did it become architecture?

Perhaps the clearest sign is seen in what the retreating Nazis destroyed - the dynamited remains of Crematoria II and III, the last stop on the Birkenau railway.

The identical buildings were designed by architects Georg Werkmann, Karl Bischoff and Walther Dejaco and the furnaces by Topf and Sons, under the guidance of chief engineer Kurt Prufer.

Blueprints left behind in the archive of the Central Construction Office show all the details of the Badeanstalten für Sonderaktionen (Bathhouses for Special Actions): the power of the forced-air system (over four million cubic feet per hour) to fan the flames; the official cremation capacity (32 corpses) per muffle per day; how the mortuary was modified into a death chamber; the size of the gas-tight doors; and the specifications of the ventilation system required to extract the Zyklon-B from the gas chamber in 20 minutes.

Other elements revived from eye-witness accounts also indicate deceit by design. Zyklon-B gas crystals were dropped from the roof of the underground gas chamber through hollow sheet metal columns, perforated at regular intervals. Mounted on the ceiling were dummy shower heads to create the illusion of a shower-room.

Complementing the architecture of murder at Birkenau is the architecture of Untermensch designed, in part, by Bauhaus graduate Fritz Ertl, who organised the camp in repeating units of 12 barracks, each with one latrine, kitchen and wash barrack.

The shoddy horse stable barracks at Birkenau demonstrate the Nazis' contempt for concentration camp inmates. It's difficult to imagine how 744 people could be crammed into one shed.

Originally designed for 550 inmates, capacity was increased with a stroke of pen by Bischoff to increase the camp's labour force from 97,000 to 125,000.

Each barrack was subdivided into 62 bays, each bay with three "roosts" originally designed for three prisoners to sleep.

Bischoff's design change increased capacity to four - "a space that amounted to the surface dimensions of a large coffin or the volume of a shallow grave".

Visitors can also see an example of a latrine barrack designed to serve 7000 inmates - a shed with three open sewer drains, each with two rows of holes for toilet seats formed into the concrete slab bridging them.

Author Terrence Des Pres described the conditions as an "excremental assault" designed to destroy the last vestiges of prisoners self worth and dignity. Seeing these grimly austere barracks and how they fit in the vast orderly grid of the camp brings a terrible realisation of the Nazis' monumental design. Architects created these holding pens for slave labour, a temporary living purgatory before death.

Visitors seeking comprehension of the machinery of murder might be advised to begin their tour at Birkenau - following the railway track beside the rudimentary wooden watchtowers alongside the barbed wire fences, past the selection point to the ruins of Crematoria II and III.

From there, skirting the periphery of the camp there is the Central Sauna, used for Disinfektion und Entwesungsanlage (disinfection and decontamination); the ruins of other Birkenau crematoria including the earlier Bunkers I and II; the pond with ashes and the open air burning pits. Plus the foundation remains of the 29 warehouses known as Kanada where the Nazis stored the plundered possessions of the Jews - a stockpile of spectacles, shoes, scissors, shaving brushes and bales of human hair.

Such a tour in reverse might provide better understanding of where the exhibits - suitcases, spectacles, crutches, prayer shawls and hair - displayed in Blocks 4 and 5 at Auschwitz I, came from.

As Dwork and van Pelt point out, the displays, including an "almost pornographic" model of people entering, undressing and dying in Crematorium II, wrongly "endow the commemorative camp with the history of the nearby murder machinery".

Guides will tell visitors Crematorium I, the finale to the Auschwitz I tour, is a reconstruction of a building the SS had ultimately converted into an air raid shelter. Little is said about the extent of the reconstruction - that the chimney has been rebuilt, openings in the roof for pouring Zyklon B into the gas chamber have been re-cut, and two of the three furnaces have been rebuilt from original parts.

The crematorium morgue was transformed into a killing room (initially prisoners were shot there) and then gas chamber, inaugurated in September 1941 with the murder of 900 Soviet prisoners.

What isn't made clear is that the building had a design problem - disposal. With three double muffle (openings for corpses) ovens, six bodies could be burned every 20 minutes giving a maximum capacity of 18 bodies an hour.

"The rate-limiting step of their murder machinery was the disposal of bodies. This was the horror of Auschwitz 1."

What's missing from the tour at this point is the grand, insane design of Birkenau, where the machinery of genocide was refined and four incinerator chimneys smoked incessantly.

Here the larger Crematoria I and II employed five innovative triple muffles (three crucibles in a single furnace) each capable of burning 15 corpses at a time. The smaller crematoria III and IV had four double muffle furnaces each able to take eight corpses simultaneously. A carefully thought out production facility of death where more than a million Jews were murdered and incinerated.

Much of the memorial of Auschwitz I is about the German brutality inflicted on Poles and their subjugation into enslavement. The permanence of the brick and tile former Polish Army barracks is in sharp contrast to the desolate wasteland of Birkenau.

The camp is a city of the dead, a necropolis with no gravestones. A shabby monument at the end of the railway track has a series of plaques in various languages with the words: "Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and half million men, women and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe."

There is no doubt that Auschwitz-Birkenau provides a more immediate link to the horrors of the Holocaust. But to decry the Field of Stelae because it lacks authenticity is to entirely miss the point of a memorial in the heart of Berlin.

Criticism of the memorial kept coming.

In 1998 Grass, who had previously been a supporter of the memorial, joined with a group of German intellectuals, historians, and authors urging Chancellor Helmut Kohl, to abandon the Eisenman plan.

They described it as an "abstract installation of oppressively gigantic proportions" that would never create a place of "quiet mourning and remembrance, of warning or enlightenment".

Their open letter was also critical that Gypsies, homosexuals, Soviet prisoners of war, disabled persons, and other victims of the Nazis were excluded.

The mayor of Berlin, Eberhard Diepgen, was another opposed to the memorial, refusing to attend its opening.

Unhappy with all four finalists in the design competition, he became convinced that it was impossible to portray an event such as the Holocaust through artistic means.

Diepgen said Eisenman's design was "too monumental", that it would be more appropriately located at one of the concentration camps, and that Berlin risked becoming "a city of memorials and repentance".

The outcome might have been very different had not Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl vetoed, in 1996, the two winning designs of an earlier competition because he believed consensus was lacking.

One, designed by Christine Jackob-Marks, was a huge tilted concrete slab covered with the names of 4.2 million known victims of the Holocaust, with spaces left empty for those victims whose names remain unknown.

The other design by architect Simon Ungers comprised an 85 metre square of steel girders supported on concrete blocks at the corners. The names of several extermination camps would be perforated into the girders, so that these would be projected onto objects or people in the area by sunlight.

In the second competition, three other designs made the shortlist along with the Eisenman and Serra entry.

Steinatem (Stonebreath) by Daniel Libeskind featured a 141 metre broken wall that would direct visitors' view to the Tiergarten park, and to a monument honouring Germany's celebrated writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Berlin architect Gesine Weinmiller proposed a memorial with eighteen blocks that would appear as a fragmented Star of David when viewed from a certain angle.

And Paris-based German artist Jochen Gerz's Warum ist es geschehen? (Why Did it Happen?) had thirty-nine light masts, each of which would feature an inscription of the word "why" in as many languages.

As well as the proposed blowing up of the Brandenburg Gate, another radical counter-monument that didn't make the shortlist was "Bus Stop-The Non-Monument" by Berlin artists Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock. Their proposal would keep the site desolate and turn it into an open-air bus terminal for coaches departing to and returning from regularly scheduled visits to several dozen concentration camps and other sites of destruction throughout Europe.

Despite Kohl's preference for the Eisenman design, he was unable to guide it through the political process before the impending federal election. In September, 1998 Gerhard Schröder of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was elected chancellor.

His top adviser on cultural affairs, Michael Naumann, was strongly against the memorial, arguing the money should be used renovate Germany's concentration camps such as Bergen-Belsen and Sachsenhausen and their museums.

Naumann compared the short-listed designs to the monumental architecture of Hitler's favourite architect Albert Speer. He scorned the memorial as a Kranzabwurfstelle - a "wreath-dumping ground".

Post-election the SPD found a compromise - the inclusion of the underground Information Centre in the Eisenman design. Even then, a last minute proposal by German theologian Richard Schröder threatened to derail the project.

Such was the level of support for the scheme - a smaller memorial inscribed with the words "Thou shalt not kill" in Hebrew and other languages - that it was included as an option in the final vote of the Bundestag.

In the final vote, 439 out 559 MPs present voted to build the monument and 325 voted for a monument dedicated solely to Jewish victims.

Eisenman's design won the day with 314 votes, the "Thou shalt not kill" proposal getting 209 votes and 14 MPs abstaining.

Most argument in the drawn out affair was about whether there should be a memorial at all, who it should be for, and how memory would be best preserved. Very little of the debate was about the form or aesthetics of the proposals.

It was German novelist Martin Walser who provided the clearest insight into what some German minds were objecting to: "Paving over the centre of our capital to create a nightmare the size of a football field.

"The monumentalisation of our disgrace," he said in a speech in October 1998.

Walser asks whether there is anywhere else in the world where there is "a memorial of national ignominy".

Perhaps not, but that one has been created to "keep alive the memory of these inconceivable events in German history" marks, in abstract concrete, atonement and admonishment for generations to come.

An architectural triumph over historical amnesia.

Chris Barton visited Berlin, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka last year as part of his Qantas Wolfson Press Fellowship at Cambridge where he researched architecture journalism.

- NZ Herald

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