Present expressions of the Past, for a better future? The Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Lina Spjut

Introduction and Assignment

Memorials are built for a purpose. They are remains of their present, remembering a past, made for the future. Often they are overlast their creators and designers.1 This assignment will study The Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (The Berlin Memorial). In his book Holocaust, Memorials and Meaning, Young asks himself if memorials are made to never forget.2 To follow that question this assignment will try to find out if Memorials does that work; Does memorials make people never forget, and who shall not forget what? To be able to answer that question a discussion touching other questions will be made; Is it possible for the aesthetics to catch the aim of the memorial? How does the environment of the memorial affect experiences of visitors? What´s included in a memorial? Is there only stone or is more added; The place it stands on/in? The debate and the discussions? And, maybe most important question; Why are World War II memorials still built today?The war ended almost 70 years ago.  The questions shall be discussed in a context of Past, Present and Future.

Description of the monument

Foundation Memorial...The Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europein central Berlin covers an area of 19 000 square meters. It´s placed between Potsdamer Platz and Brandenburger Tor. Side by side lays 2 711 rectangular concrete boulders called “The Field of Stelae”. Every boulder is facing the sky with an area of 0,95 x 2,38 meter, their height differs between 20 cm and 4,5 meters3 and they have a shiny black-gray finish. The field can be described as a mix between a graveyard, a planted forest and an ocean in slow movement. The paths between the boulders are quite narrow and between the largest boulders they feel deep since the ground is not a flat surface. Walking a deep path makes you “disappear”, like when Moses walked through the Red Sea. The monument is large, solid and has a rough but stylish beauty. It is hard not to be affected by the atmosphere of the memorials´ timeless and fateful size and beauty.


During the Cold War, the area of the Memorial was a death strip of the Berlin Wall.4 The World War II Nazi regime ruled from this neighborhood, the old Reich Chancellery and Hitler’s bunker were placed near the present Memorial. Sixty years after War ended, in 2005, the Memorial was inaugurated.5 The initial proposal to build a memorial to murdered Jews was made in 1988 and when the Berlin Wall fell a year later and the rebirth of Berlin became reality it was important for Germany to avoid connections with a rebirth of old Nazi-Germany.6Germany also wanted to show the burden of guilt of the Nazi-era, therefore the memorial came to be more for Germans than to Jews.7 The taken-down wall also left a large void through Berlin and the 17-year long debate about the Memorial started.8 While building the memorial several “scandals” came up. For example the anti-graffiti chemical was traced to the old company “IG Farben”, who was the producer of Zyklon B (the gas that was used in the external camps gas chambers during World War II).9This led to some scandalous comments and a debate about the profits German companies made at the expense of Jews during the War, and therefore indirect, still are. Press spokesman of the Memorial´s building Uwe Neumärker said later, during the inauguration, that “The debate is a part of the monument”, “To discuss and to ask questions”.10

Aesthetics, environment and design

In 1995 I visited Majdanek concentration camp. Just as Young writes11, I was stunned, almost shocked, about the beauty in the area. It was hard to take in and almost surrealistic to see the beauty side by side by the remains of the terrible actions that took place there during the World War II. According to the concentration camps memorials, they are placed where the Nazis placed their camps, but while planning new memorials and monuments politicians, city planners, designers and investors are involved. How do they argue and value the aim of the memorial with the artistic design and the environment? In San Francisco, George Segal has designed a Holocaust memorial in a very beautiful area with Golden Gate and the ocean as an eye catcher.12 When describing this memorial Young writes:

(…) the glory of the sculpture´s California environment, with sunshine

and spectacular view, memory is externalized swallowed up by the vastness

of its setting.13

Maybe it might be problematic to place memorials in beautiful places if visitors get distracted from the horror the memorial represent. On the other hand, maybe the beauty itself might even make terrible worse. The beauty of life might make death more horrifying, and if that´s the case, the aim might even be enhanced. Both life and death becomes timeless and near, even if the past might be long ago. And if memorials are to never forget, memorials can usefully be placed in beautiful places.

Designs of memorials have in several occasions been a matter of competitions with different designers.14 As an example, The present Berlin Memorial, was the winning proposal of the second competition, but was changed several times before the inauguration in 2005 (to the cost of 27,6 million Euros)15. Ward means that the Memorial is a part of a commercial Holocaust industry that lures tourists to Berlin.16 As mentioned before it is built near the old Nazi-German Reich Chancellery and the old bunker. The place can be discussed – proper or improper, loved or hated, but there is a thought by placing it there. It is a clear manifestation against the past Nazi-ideology, a way of making the future to never forget the past. The design, looking as a planted forest or a graveyard, may be linked to the Jewish tradition of tree planting in Israel, as a symbol of life and roots17, but also the tradition of placing stones on graves instead of flowers. Even excluding the interpretations of the memorial, the design is interesting. The size of the area and the many boulders, the sharp lines and the organization of the boulders, very much feels like the lines of blockhouses in concentration camps. It´s like placing a trace of the pasts horrifying events (which were during World War II placed in the countryside, away from people’s eyes) in the present center of Berlin, a center which has a very specific Nazi-German history. The aesthetics of the Berlin Memorial is very symbolic, and, in my opinion, very adequate to its causes. Commercial industry or not – the graveyard-look stands out in a central urban area and forces you to remember the Nazi-part of German history.

Debates and discussions as a part of a Memorial

In the public space, where most of the Worlds memorials are placed, public has the right to their own interpretation of their experience. That means that all visitors have their own memory after seeing it, depending on former experiences and expectations.18 At the same time, when visiting a memorial, you cannot avoid being a part of it.19 This adds up in a public discussion and debate about our public space, how to use it, who is it for, how using it, and so on. The Berlin Memorial took 17 years of debate from decision to inauguration. In that context, debate does become a part of the memorial. These debates had been underlying since the war, but hadn´t been properly discussed. The debate about IG Farben and German companies was a debate that was hurtful to both parts (Jews and Germans), but necessary to make up with the past to be able to start facing the future. There are a lot more to be said in that debate, but at least it has started.

New Memorial constructions

It is today 68 years since the war was ended, and still memorials are built all over the world. Young mentions thousands monuments and memorials and millions of Holocaust pilgrims every year.20 Almost every major American city has some kind of memorial to the Holocaust,21 although the war took place in Europe, not in America. In Europe some of the concentration camps are preserved, and memorials were built in both past and present. The Berlin Memorial was finished in 2005. Ward writes that Germany might not have been ready until now and she compares it with USA, who has a lot of holocaust memorials, but no Hiroshima-Nagasaki memorial.22 Young means that survivors wanted the memorials to make sure that other people knew what happened to Jews during the war, and their children want Memorials to remember the world they never knew.23 The wish to manifest the rejection of Nazi-Germany and to show the burden of that heritage24, have made the Berlin Memorial not only a place for Jews to never forget, but also as a restoration of Germans´ broken identity. Since the World War II Germans have struggled with their national identity, as a consequence of Nazi history.25 When survivors of the World War II, both victims and perpetrators, are gone, when the voices of the past are silent, how can we in the present make sure we never forget? How can we prevent Wars, mass murder and national traumas in the future? Maybe by walking through The Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in central Berlin.


Memorials forces people to never forget, but what they shouldn´t forget is the big issue. The combination of statement to avoid a mix-up between a united Berlin and the Third Reich, and the will to show the guilt-burden Germans are carrying because of the war26 overshadows the aim to never forget the victims. Maybe The Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin is not for Jews, nor for Germans to remember the War, maybe it´s more for the rest of the World to see Germany’s wounds, both the victims suffer and the perpetrators burden. The Memorial can be seen upon as a physical statement that the past’s actions affect the future. And maybe that’s an explanation for why memorials are still built, there are still things to say about the war, the mourning isn´t over yet, and maybe it can never be. Maybe we still need reminders. In this very present, the pasts human voices fall silent, which can be fatal to the future if we don’t learn from our past history.

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View over The Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, The Berlin Memorial, January 24th, 2013.


Ladd, Brian. The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1997

Ward, Janet. Post-Wall Berlin. Borders, Space and Identity. Palgrave Macmillan 2011.

Young, James E. Holocaust, Memorials and Meaning. The texture of Memory. Yale University Press. New Haven and London.  1993.

Internet-sources   Date: 2013-01-30   (SVD is  one of the largest newspapers in Sweden, Svenska Dagbladet)    Date: 2013-02-05  (Sveriges radio is the national public service radio in Sweden)    Date: 2013-02-05  (“arkitekt” is homepage for Swedish architects)

1 Ladd, Brian. The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Page 2.

2 Young , James E. Holocaust, Memorials and Meaning. The texture of Memory. Yale University Press. New Haven and London.  1993. Introduction, page 3-4

4 Ward, Janet. Post-Wall Berlin. Borders, Space and Identity. Palgrave Macmillan 2011. Page 231.

5 Ladd. Page 170.

6 Ward, Janet. Page 231.

7 Ward, Janet. Page 232.

8 Ward, Janet. Page 232.

9 Ward. Page 252-253.


11 Young. Page 120.

12 Young. Page 309-319

13 Young. Page 317

14 Young. Several examples the whole book through

15 Ward. Page 245.

16 Ward, Page 252-253

17 Young. Page 219

18 Young. page 347.

19 Young. Preface, page xii.

20 Young. Preface, page ix-x.

21 Young. Page 294.

22 Ward. Page 240.

23 Young. Page 302, 285.

24 Ward. Page 231-232.

25 Ladd. Page 3-5.

26 Ward. Page 232.