For the latest time in its 15-year history, controversy over the planning and construction of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin has brought to the fore Germany’s tormented efforts to come to terms with the enormity of the Holocaust and other crimes perpetrated under the Nazi regime. On 13 November, the 22 members of the Board of Trustees of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation decided, without a vote, to resume work on the great field of 2,751 concrete stelae designed by American architect Peter Eisenman with the early collaboration of artist Richard Serra, and located beside the Brandenburg Gate in the heart of the city.
The decision reversed an earlier one made on 25 October, when work on the project was halted after it was revealed that the monument’s concrete blocks were being coated with an anti-graffiti paint made by Degussa AG, a company which once owned a 42.5% stake in Degesch, manufacturers of Zyklon B, the hydrogen cyanide gas pellets used in the death chambers at Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. The halt in construction was ordered by the Board of Trustees, which includes representatives from German political parties and Jewish groups.
After a fractious meeting and vote, the board issued a statement condemning Degussa’s participation in the project as an insult to the victims of the Holocaust.
The move instantly ignited a roaring public debate, highlighting the diverse and divided opinions on Holocaust issues, not only within the Board of Trustees, but also in Germany and among Jewish groups worldwide.
Journalist and talk show host Lea Rosh, an original instigator of the Memorial project and one the most vocal participants in the ongoing debate, led the calls to remove Degussa. “This is not an easy decision to make,” said Ms Rosh. “While the Memorial Committee would have no problem working with a company that produced buttons for SS uniforms, working with a company connected to Zyklon B oversteps the mark.”
Supporting her in this stance was Alexander Brenner, President of the Berlin Jewish Community, who argued that, while current Degussa directors clearly had no connection to the actions of the Nazi period, participation of the company in the building of the memorial was akin to “rubbing salt in the wound.” Mr Brenner further expressed the contentious opinion that the approximately 40 stelae already in place should be allowed to remain as a symbol of the debate, an idea shared by Salomon Korn, vice-president of the Central Council of German Jews.
Defence of Degussa’s involvement in the project was, if anything, even more vociferous. Many pointed out that the company had done much to atone for its actions in the Nazi era, particularly in their endowment of a fund for the victims of National Socialist forced labour. Former Israeli ambassador to Berlin, Avi Primor, described the decision as “irrational and emotional.” Günter Nooke of the Christian Democratic Union said there was no other option but to work with companies which had existed before 1945, while Wolfgang Huber, president of the Council of the Protestant Church in Germany also argued for including Degussa in view of their efforts to atone and make reparations. He even suggested that a history of the debates surrounding the memorial should be presented on a nearby panel.
In announcing that the project would continue with the involvement of Degussa, the chairman of the Board of Trustees, Bundestag president Wolfgang Thierse said that they had come to “a difficult decision”, with many emotional positions represented among the trustees. Replacing Degussa would greatly add to the cost of the monument, so concerns were both practical and moral and as a compromise it was agreed that a reminder of the company’s participation in the Holocaust would be included in the memorial area. The Board’s move immediately attracted criticism. “I consider the decision wrong,” said Munich-based historian Michael Wolffshon. “The symbolism of the memorial is being led ad absurdum.”
Since the memorial project was first introduced in 1988, it has been mired in disputes over design, location, materials and costs. In 1995 the results of an initial competition for the design were vetoed. A second competition was launched by the Berlin senate in 1997. A jury subsequently chose Eisenman and Serra’s plan from a shortlist of four that also included submissions by Daniel Libeskind and Gesine Weinmiller. In 1998 preparations for construction were put on hold when a bunker believed to have belonged to Josef Goebbels was discovered on the site. (The Art Newspaper, No. 79, March 1998, p.10)
The problem of memory has been a key issue, and some commentators have expressed the opinion that a monument should not suggest closure for an event that must never be forgotten. One of the more extreme exponents of this view is author Melvin Jules Bukiet, who has proposed that to prevent such “closure,” “a symbolic recreation of the Shoah (Holocaust) be enacted, perhaps something along the lines of the Passion Play at Oberammergau, or call it performance art. Each year the enactment of the sacrifice of a Jew should be staged on the altar of Mr Eisenman’s elegant plaza.”
Arguments have also been raised over the dedication of the monument exclusively to the murdered Jews of Europe, with the implicit exclusion of gypsies, gays, and other persecuted minorities. Proposals for a memorial to the gay victims of Nazism have recently been passed by the Lower House Culture Committee of the German Parliament, but are still opposed by the conservative Christian Democrats. Plans for a “Centre Against Expulsions” honouring the 15 million ethnic Germans expelled or forced to flee from Central Europe in the wake of World War II, to be sited near the Berlin Memorial, have also excited a lively debate in Germany.
On 25 June 1999, the German Bundestag finally passed a resolution to build the monument designed by Eisenman and Serra, which was at this stage to have consisted of a sea of over 4,000 concrete stelae on the 20,000 square-metre site. Opposition then emerged in the form of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s Minister of Culture, journalist Michael Naumann, now editor of the leading German weekly, Die Zeit, who would later become one of Eisenman’s greatest allies.
Mr Naumann then convinced Eisenman to make certain compromises, reducing the design to around 2,700 stelae and including an underground exhibition space and library. In 2000 the Bundestag approved a sum of around e27.6 million to finance the construction. Preliminary work began in October 2001 and last August, the first of the 2,700 stelae was put in place. Completion is expected towards the end of 2004 and the monument is scheduled to be officially opened on 8 May 2005, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.
For all the hurdles Eisenman has faced in seeing his plans realised, he believes that the building of the monument and the debate it has generated in Germany is healthy. He has stated that he would have “publicly resigned” if he had been subjected to the stilted debate and commercial deals that he believes have compromised Daniel Libeskind’s World Trade Center Memorial in New York. Germany is in many ways a model for the process of a nation confronting past crimes against humanity. “It would be unimaginable” he told The Art Newspaper, “for a memorial to the victims of slavery to be built in the centre of Washington, DC.”
• Peter Eisenman’s argument that work should continue on the memorial, despite the involvement of Degussa AG, can be found here
• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper with the headline "The wound that never heals"