Berlin and its Holocaust memorials

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„Other countries envy us for this memorial.“

Prof. Dr. Eberhard Jäckel, German Historian, 2010
in his speech on occasion of the memorial's fifth anniversary

So how is Germany today?

How different is it?

And what should we make of all of these memorials?

These are questions I'm often asked by my guests, often overwhelmed by Berlin's many memorials. Indeed, you might be wondering why this page is about Berlin's “Holocaust memorials", in the plural - even though you've probably heard of Germany's one famous “Holocaust memorial". But the truth is, that Berlin has many different memorials about the Holocaust, not just the famous one.

Actually, the famous one isn't called the Holocaust memorial at all, despite this very common nickname. Officially, it's titled as the “Memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe". When we get there on our tour, I'll explain why the term “Holocaust" is deliberately avoided at Germany's most important memorial.

But what about the others memorials? With so many of them, it's easy to lose track, especially as a tourist. Some do not have “official" titles, many are nicknamed by tourists with different names, thus making it even harder for foreigners to get everywhere. In fact, hardly anybody can make it to all Jewish memorials during a short vacation - there are just “too many" of them, scattered all over the city. Here are some examples of what we can include in a tour (depending naturally on your personal preferences):

As long as this list seems, it's incomplete. I didn't include here, for example, any memorials that aren't specifically about the persecution of Jews. I also didn't mention any of the places that aren't artworks, such as exhibitions or museums. And I also excluded the almost countless educational plaques in the city. I'm often asked if we could “do it all" on one day, but that's impossible. So when we prepare your tailor-made tour, I'll work out a meaningful selection, also considering the other things you'd like to see in Berlin. After all, Berlin has many topics, the Holocaust being an important one, but definitely not the only one.

Berlin's culture of commemoration, both about Jews and other victims, plays a substantial role in my tours. Not just because of the art in itself and the events it represents, but also because of the questions these artworks can encourage us to raise. In the text below, I wish to explain some of these questions. It's a relatively long text, but if you'd allow me, I could give you some perspectives to think about on your way to Berlin and in the city - with or without me as your guide. You can just print it and read it during your flight.

And yet I can't promise you any definite answers. That would be unprofessional on my behalf as an academic historian. Sometimes, dealing with critical questions is more important than finding that one answer that seems “right". Raising awareness of different, often contradicting perspectives helps us, as I believe, become aware of how difficult it is to look at these dilemmas as if they were “black or white" questions. Nevertheless, I will propose a possible answer at the end. Not a definite one, just an optional answer, a possible explanation that you could accept or reject after visiting Berlin and experiencing it for yourselves, as much as one can as a tourist.

* * *

Although it's a financial and industrial underdog, Berlin is the German capital not just in terms of politics, but also in terms of commemoration. No other city in Germany - and possibly in Europe - has so many memorials dealing with the persecution of Jews during the Nazi regime. It's an intriguing phenomenon, especially because that persecution wasn't limited to Berlin in any way. Although much of the planning was done in Berlin, the actual atrocities took place elsewhere.

So what do these memorials represent? And more importantly, whom are they meant for?

Indeed, they are expressions of memory in contemporary Germany. But are they an honest representation of an introvert, internal process among Germans? As obvious as this might seem, one can also look at it from a different perspective, interpreting the memorials as addressing foreign visitors, specifically Jews.

Artistically, these memorials are very impressive, and on our tour we'll deal with their historical references and philosophical concepts as well. And yet our appreciation for the artworks as such shouldn't cause us to avoid raising some difficult questions: Why are there so few of them elsewhere, outside of Berlin? Why wasn't this done to a similar extent in so many other German cities and towns, whose Jewish communities don't exist anymore, but where Germans still live? Indeed, these towns are much less frequented by tourists. But shouldn't this commemoration be about the Germans? Should it be for the Germans wherever they live? In other words: Why Berlin?

I often ask myself to what extent Berlin's memorials really reflect “the Germans", as far as one could generalize. And I can't avoid the feeling that they might actually be meant primarily for the (Jewish) world to see and appreciate. Could it be that Berlin's abundance of memorials is not coincidental, but has much to do with its emerging as a tourist destination, as Germany's new showcase? I'd like to raise the possibility that these are not just manifestations of an inner process, but also products of an ongoing (yet not necessarily conscious) “Public Relations" project, pursuing a goal: to re-brand Germany and change its image in the world.

* * *

Germany's image has undoubtedly changed in last two decades. If this really was a PR project, if this is indeed less about an inner process among Germans and more about their image, then the influx of tourists seems to be an evident proof of their success in re-branding Germany. The numbers are unprecedented and grow every year. This is especially true with regard to Jewish visitors: Who would have thought that Germany and particularly Berlin would become a Jewish tourist attraction so quickly?

This is probably not a coincidence. Just a generation ago, Germany wasn't considered “okay". Visiting Germany, let alone living in Germany, wasn't like visiting France or living in England. Moreover, Germany didn't become an “okay" country all of a sudden - in my opinion, this change resulted from their attempts to impress “the Jews" and then, by extension, the rest of the world. After all, if Germany has become “okay" for Jews, why should it be any less “okay" for others?

Looking back at this process, it seems quite obvious that Germany has been very successful in achieving this re-branding. In my interpretation, Berlin plays a central role as the national showcase for this incredibly fast, yet extensive commemoration. Indeed, after decades of silence (and silencing!), so many memorials have been created in such a short time - basically just a generation. Undeniably, this was a remarkable outburst of desire. But the important question is: What do the Germans desire with these memorials?

It could be an honest desire to remember, never to forget, to perpetuate in a way this nation's shame, as absurd as this might sound. Perhaps it was rather the desire to impress, to be appreciated for having done so much in Berlin (but not necessarily elsewhere), to be known for having dealt with the past, whether it's true or not. And perhaps it's the desire to be “done with it" already, to “move on" after reunification as quickly as possible into a bright future. In other words: To do whatever it takes (whether it's really wanted or not), to make Germany “kosher" again.

Like I said above, I can't give you that “ultimate" answer you might be looking for. Very probably it's a mixture of many different motives. When we speak about a nation of more than 80,000,000 people, it's quite impossible to generalize. There are just no definite answers.

Nobody can deny that the new memorials have become an important aspect of Berlin's changing landscape, making the Holocaust almost omnipresent in the city. Many foreign visitors are so impressed by this phenomenon and tell me: “The Germans have really dealt with their past". This is definitely one way of looking at it. Personally, after living here for so many years, I tend to have a more critical perspective about this process that basically only started with reunification. And as it seems to me, this late and almost sudden start can also be the key for understanding the phenomenon as a whole.

* * *

Before Germany's reunification, hardly anything was done here, in both East and West, to commemorate specifically the Jewish victims. On our tour, we can see some exceptions, but there are very few of them. In my opinion, this wasn't just a coincidence. What made Germany's reunification so important for this process to begin? What effects did it have and of what nature? These are important questions we could and should discuss during our tour, but to put it shortly, I believe this wasn't a merely political change.

In my understanding, the change of 1989/1990 was also, and probably just as much, an emotional one: The belated, but true end of the war for the Germans. For most of us, the war indeed ended in 1945, as did the fighting of the soldiers. But for Germany, the war only ended in 1990. Finally reborn as one sovereign nation after so many decades, this Germany was and still is eager to be perceived as a new Germany, to get rid of the Nazi burden. But in order to detach itself from the Nazi shame, Germany had to turn its reunified capital, the symbol of its surrender and subsequent division, into a showcase of that very shame. In my opinion (and this really is just an opinion), they had to commemorate, in order to be done with it and move on; to make, eventually, the world's largest single memorial to the Holocaust, in order to put an end to it.

It might sound absurd, but human psychology tends to work this way. And eventually, this process will be over and done. In fact, it already seems to be coming to an end. Most of the memorials I listed above were done in the 1990s, meaning: after reunification, but before the famous “Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe", inaugurated in 2005. Looking back, it all lead up to that “ultimate", if not “final" memorial to the “final solution". Once it was done, this nation, as it seems to me, felt it could finally “move on".

So is this omnipresent commemoration “honest"? In a way it is, though probably, as I was trying to explain here, not for the right reasons - at least in my perspective.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin - The Holocaust Memorial

Germany's world famous “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe":

The German way to cope with the past - or to be done with it?