Germany's culture of commemoration
- Published: 10 June 2010 10 June 2010
- Last Updated: 07 April 2012 07 April 2012
Over the past three years I have travelled extensively in Germany and Austria (and also Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia). I have visited most of the main sites of commemoration of the Third Reich and World War II periods in those countries, including 13 German concentration and/or extermination camps. I have been particularly interested in how modern Germany has chosen to commemorate these events, acting as it does under constant scrutiny and criticism, both domestic and international.
No country – except possibly Russia – carries such a burden of recent history as does Germany, and no country has, in my opinion, been more honest and thorough in documenting the crimes committed by its government and citizens, within living memory, against both domestic minorities and against its neighbours – certainly far more than either Russia or Japan.
A particularly interesting question is how far Germany is permitted to commemorate its own war dead, both civilian and military. The largest memorials in Berlin are those commemorating Soviet war dead and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Berlin has no memorial explicitly commemorating either the 5.5 million German military dead or to the 1.6 million civilian dead (including 600,000 killed in Allied air-raids). More than 60 years after the war, it is striking that the Germans still feel inhibited about mourning their dead in the way all other countries are able to do.
I have deliberately presented these photos in a random order, so as not to create a hierarchy of importance.
East German memorial at the Mauthausen concentration camp, Austria. The inscription is from Berthold Brecht: “O Deutschland, bleiche Mutter! / Wie haben deine Söhne dich zugerichtet / Dass du unter den Völkern sitzest / Ein Gespott oder eine Furcht!” (O Germany, pale mother! How have your sons treated you, that you sit among the nations, a mockery or a terror!). Although these lines were written in 1933, they have become widely quoted as a piece of German postwar reflection.
Memorial to the 96 members of the Weimar Reichstag (mainly Communists or Social-Democrats) murdered by the Nazis, outside the renovated Reichstag building, Berlin.
German school students tour the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp site. The inscription on the stone they are looking at reads “Here lie 2,500 dead.” Today, even the grandparents of these students are probably too young to have been among the perpetrators of the crimes of the Nazis, but it still cannot be an easy experience for young Germans to visit these sites.
Nuremberg’s Stasse der Menschenrechte (Human Rights Street), in which sections of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights are inscribed on pillars in 30 languages, starting with Yiddish. The street is in the area of Nuremberg completely destroyed by Allied bombs.
Memorial to Walther Rathenau, Jewish foreign minister in the Weimar Republic murdered by right-wing extremists. Although this is not strictly a Third Reich memorial, its erection in 1946 was obviously part of Germany’s coming to terms with the events that led to Hitler’s rise.
The spot at the Army headquarters in the Bendlerblock where Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and his colleagues were shot on 20 July 1944 after the failure of the attempt to assassinate Hitler. The street, which still houses the German Defence Ministry, is now called Stauffenbergstrasse. The plaque says they “died for Germany.” Thus a group of officers who violated their oath of allegiance and tried to assassinate their commander-in-chief in wartime have assumed a central place in German patriotic commemoration.
Memorial marker at the site of the Peendmünde rocket test facility, where the V-2 rocket was developed by Wehrner von Braun. The stone says “In memory of the victims.” There is thus a memorial in Germany to those killed by German rockets in other countries - as there should be - but none to the 600,000 Germans killed by Allied bombs.
Memorial on the site of the Leipzig synagogue, destroyed on Kristallnacht in November 1938. German thoroughness in memorialising the sites of destroyed synagogues compares with Polish indifference. I visited several synagogue sites in Poland which were completely unmarked.
Germans get a lecture on the Nuremberg Trials in the courtroom where they took place. The lecturer was very hardline, saying that the defendants were all criminals who deserved to hang, as did many others who were never brought to trial. The German listeners did not seem to demur.
The House of Memory at Neuengamme concentration camp, where the names of all the 55,000 people who died in the camp are recorded.
Memorial at the home of Rudolf Breitscheid, a Social-Democratic politician who died in Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944. There are markers like this all over Berlin and other cities.
Tourists outside the ruins of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church) in western Berlin, which was destroyed by Allied bombs in 1943. Although the church was preserved in its ruined state as a memorial to the 25,000 victims of the bombing of Berlin, this is nowhere actually stated.
Grave-marker of two brothers, both Gebirgsjäger (mountain troops), killed in the Caucasus in 1942, Berchtesgaden cemetery. It is unlikely that they are actually buried here – few bodies were brought back from Russia.
Memorial in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, to “resistance fighters killed by the fascists.” This was the usual wording used on memorials in the German Democratic Republic – all those killed by the Nazis were “anti-fascists” and “resistance fighters” and, by implication, communists. This is reinforced by the red triangle motif: communists in Nazi concentration camps wore a red triangle.
Plaque on the Nibelungen Bridge in Linz, Austria, noting that this was the path taken by the Sudeten Germans when they were expelled from Czechoslovakia in 1945. This is the only memorial I saw anywhere to the millions of Germans expelled from their homes by the Soviets, Poles and Czechs at the end of the war. Note that left-wingers have tried to blot out the word “Sudetendeutsche.”
The new memorial to the estimated 50,000 homosexual men killed by the Nazi regime. The memorial is in the Tiergarten in Berlin, opposite the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and obviously designed to echo the grey concrete slabs of that memorial. It's hard to conceive that gay men designed such a boring and unaesthetic memorial. There is no indication of what the memorial is except a marker some distance away.
The old platform at Grunewald railway station in suburban Berlin, from which the Jews of the capital were deported to their deaths. Inscriptions on the metal plates record the dates and destinations of every deportation train that left the station. The collaboration of the Reichsbahn, Germany’s largest civilian employer in the 1940s, in the deportation of Jews has recently been the subject of a major exhibition.
The Neue Synagoge (New Synagogue) in Berlin. The East German period plaque notes that the synagogue was “set on fire” on Kristallnacht. In fact it was saved from destruction, only to be bombed out in 1943. It has now been partly restored. Like all German synagogues, it is under constant police protection. (Note how Berlin police uniforms have been designed to look as un-Prussian as possible.)
German school students read about Anne Frank in the museum at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Memorial in Nordhausen commemorating the air-raid which killed 8,000 people. The memorial, like many in the former East Germany, specifies that it was a British air-raid. East German propaganda routinely condemned the western Allies for bombing German cities, not mentioning that this was done at the urging of the Soviets and in an attempt to relieve pressure on the Soviets on the eastern front.
The entrance to the Memorial to the German Resistance, an excellent museum in the Bendlerblock, the former Army headquarters in Berlin. The German resistance, weak and ineffective as it was, serves a vital purpose in modern Germany, as evidence that at least some Germans behaved honourably during the Nazi years.
Memorial in Ohlsdorf cemetery, Hamburg, to the 36,000 civilians killed in the Allied air-raids of July 1943 and buried here in mass graves. The statuary depicts the souls of the dead being ferried across the Styx into the underworld – a strikingly pagan image in a Christian country. At the time of its construction, the memorial had no inscription at all, as if the Germans did not dare acknowledge what they were commemorating. Today there is a small marker outside the memorial.
The room where the Wannsee Conference was held in January 1942, in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. The villa now houses a very graphic display about the Holocaust and the anti-Semitic tradition in Germany which led to it. As elsewhere, the museum is used to educate German school students.
This plaque on a commercial building in Hamburg records that it was the headquarters of Tesch & Stabenow, the firm which made the insecticide Zyklon B, used to gas millions of Jews in the extermination camps. It’s hard to imagine any other country taking commemoration to such lengths.
Memorial outside the Gebirgsjäger barracks in Berchtesgaden, commemorating “our fallen and missing Gebirgsjäger” from World War II. This was one of only two memorials I saw in Germany explicitly commemorating Germany’s dead soldiers. Most German war memorials are dedicated to “the victims of war and dictatorship.”
Memorial to the “White Rose” student resistance group, Ludwig-Maximilian-University, Munich. The White Rose group, a small and very unrepresentative group of German students, have assumed enormous symbolic importance in modern Germany, particularly for young people, as examples of “good Germans” who resisted the Nazis at the risk, and the cost, of their lives. Their graves in a Munich cemetery are heaped with flowers.
Memorial statue, Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp. All the German concentration camps feature many statues of this type, of varying artistic quality. In the camps which lay in the former East Germany, they have a “heroic” style quite at variance with what concentration camp inmates actually looked like. In the west they are portrayed more as victims.
German school students are shown the enormous shell of the unfinished Nazi Congress Hall at the Nuremberg Rally parade ground site. The Germans debated for years what to do with this ugly relic. Now part of it houses a very good museum, part of which deals with the corruption of German youth by the Nazis. The shell is also used for rock concerts.
The room at Plötzensee Prison in Berlin where hundreds of people, most notably those convicted of involvement in the July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler, were hanged from the meat-hooks which can still be seen hanging from the rail fixed to the walls. There was also a guillotine in this room. This was probably the single most distressing place I saw in Germany, worse even than the concentration camps (though not as bad as Auschwitz).
This plaque on the Kreuzkirche in Dresden records the “shame and grief” of Dresden Christians that they did nothing to prevent the murder or expulsion of nearly all of Dresden’s 4,600 Jews and the burning of their synagogues in 1938. Given that both the Kreuzkirche and the better known Frauenkirche in Dresden were burned in the Allied air-raid of February 1945, this is a powerful recognition of guilt and due punishment.
A reproduction of Käthe Kollwitz’s “Mother and her Dead Son” forms the central image of the Central Memorial of the German Federal Republic for the Victims of War and Dictatorship, housed in the Neue Wache on Unter den Linden in Berlin. This, housed in one of Germany’s most revered buildings, is the nearest thing Germany has to a national war memorial, but it is not a memorial to Germany’s military dead, as the explicitly civilian image of the statue shows.
Memorial to Germany’s war dead in the military section of the Ohlsdorf cemetery in Hamburg. Along with the memorial outside the Gebirgsjäger barracks in Berchtesgaden, this was one of only two memorials I saw in Germany explicitly commemorating Germany’s dead soldiers. (There are others, but none of a comparable scale or prominence to those in most other countries.)
Memorial to the Communist resistance activist Harro Schulze-Boysen, who along with his wife was executed in December 1942 as part of the “Red Orchestra” espionage ring. After reunification there was much debate about the preservation of the many memorials in East Berlin to Communist “martyrs.” Many were removed – this one survived.
This plaque set in the pavement in front of the Berlin Philharmonie records the site of the villa at Tiergartenstrasse 4, centre of the “T4” programme for killing people with mental and physical disabilities, under the guise of “euthanasia,” in which 200,000 people died.
The Topography of Terror museum, located at the site of the former SS and Gestapo headquarters in Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse (now Niederkirchnerstrasse). Original intended as a temporary display when some of the cellars of the Gestapo building were excavated after the demolition of the Berlin Wall, it has now become a permanent fixture.
Edith Breckwoldt’s statue, “Prüfung” (Ordeal) in the ruins of the Nikolaikirche in Hamburg, which was bombed out in the British air-raid of July 1943. The church is preserved as a memorial – but a memorial to “the victims of war and persecution,” not specifically to the victims of the bombing.
Marker at the entrance to Rosenstrasse, in central Berlin, where hundreds of (non-Jewish) German women protested in 1943 at the arrest and threatened deportation of their Jewish husbands, the only public protest in Nazi Germany against the persecution of the Jews. Like the July 20 plot and the White Rose group, the Rosenstrasse protest has become a central part of the recent construction of a narrative of "good Germans."
The markers known as “tripping stones” (Stolpersteinen) set into the pavements of Berlin (I also saw them in Nordhausen) to show where Jewish families killed in Holocaust once lived.
The Austrians are frequently accused of not taking their share of the blame for the crimes of the Nazis. This is the main memorial in Vienna. It is on the site of the Philipphof, an apartment block which collapsed during an air-raid in March 1945, killing 200 people. The crouching figure in the centre is apparently a representation of the Vienna Jews who were forced to scrub the pavements following the Anschluss of 1938.
Visitors in the display area under the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which occupies an entire city block in the centre of Berlin. This highly controversial memorial, deliberately designed to be obtrusive and aesthetically jarring, points a constant finger of guilt at the Germans in the centre of their own capital. I can’t imagine any other country allowing such a thing – but then no other country in modern times has attempted a crime of the magnitude of the Holocaust.