Holocaust memorial an ironic, postmodern playground

When I first came to Germany in 1993, I wondered whether I would feel safe, let alone comfortable, among people whose relatives murdered many of mine. My main impressions of the country had come from newsreels of the Nazi era and newspaper stories of neo-Nazis on the march.

I was surprised to discover how deeply anti-fascism suffuses German politics. No statement can be made, no policy adopted, without first weighing its implications in the knowledge that Hitler moved in incremental steps.

The determination to remember and be vigilant comes from within and without. For many Germans, a sense of responsibility for crimes committed in their name — if before they were born — is at the heart of their own sense of identity.

For others who long to be relieved of this burden, pressure from the United States and other sources requires them to show penitence. This combination has produced an extraordinary culture of commemoration. To be sure, some Germans would rather talk about the destruction of their cities by Allied bombing, or the fate of ethnic Germans driven from the east at the end of the war. But with hundreds of memorials, large and small, to the Holocaust, Germany may be the only nation in the world that honors its own victims. (Without equating the cases, just consider how difficult it has been for the Japanese to admit their war crimes, or for Americans to officially express regret for the destruction of Native American people or for slavery.)

Taking its central position in Germany’s complex culture of remembrance, the Peter Eisenman-designed Holocaust memorial is painfully disappointing. Rather than being the culmination of a humane, necessary, and all-too-rare ethos that fixes the lessons of the past firmly in the present, it is a nonentity. The anonymous field of stone pillars, or steles, can have meaning only for those already instructed about what they are supposed to be seeing and feeling. For the rest of humanity wandering through, it is too abstract to communicate anything to do with the murder of 6 million Jews. And so visitors from all over the world behave in complete innocence: Teens leap from stone to stone, tourists sit on the steles to rest their tired feet, children and mothers run among the taller pillars playing peekaboo. You can hardly blame them, since there is but a small sign (in German only) explaining the purpose of the memorial, and it must feel to kids like a postmodern playground.

I tripped over a broken flask of schnapps and, thankfully, saw no used condoms, but that is probably only a matter of time; since the site lies between the cinemas of Potsdamer Platz and the trendy bars of Mitte, it will no doubt soon start to smell of urine, even though, like much of Germany, it is cleaned daily.

In a cynical mood, I remarked that perhaps the German government should put up a barbed wire fence and guard-towers to enforce discipline: At least the place would then physically evoke what it is supposed to commemorate. The security guards promise to be watchful to discourage spray-painting and encourage respect, and I have seen them asking visitors not to smoke, but as a columnist for Die Zeit asked, what will happen the first time a German guard berates a teenage Israeli tourist for misbehaving? Rather than reflection, all this site can produce is irony.

There is irony in knowing that the anti-graffiti veneer protecting the stones was manufactured by Degussa, the same company that produced the chemical Zyklon-B for the gas chambers. There is irony in hearing the memorial’s most tenacious proponent, Lea Rosh, a crusading German Judeophile but not a Jew, suggest including at the site a tooth she found at Belzec concentration camp. (She was probably not thinking of Christian relics, like a saint’s knuckle or a splinter of the cross, but she also did not realize that Jewish law tells us to bury our dead.)

A site that produces irony instead of remembrance was not inevitable. People of good will disagreed over the memorial’s purpose and design. The best alternative proposal was called “Bus Stop.” It would have created a free bus line running through Berlin to take people to concentration camp sites on the city’s periphery, like Sachsenhausen, and the stops themselves would have been miniature commemorative displays. This would have combined active engagement with a direct relation to historical places.

The Eisenman memorial is somewhat redeemed by the underground documentation center. The wait can be an hour long to get into a small exhibit combining artifacts, photographs and text, in a space whose muted lighting and hushed acoustics unobtrusively encourage silence and sober reflection. The displays turn ungraspable numbers into names, and names into families, as we learn how they lived, and how they died. Some of the information will be familiar to visitors already aware of the Holocaust, or educated in the German public schools, where Holocaust education is part of the curriculum.

But as time passes, it will be new to an ever larger number of German and foreign tourists. The field of pillars on the surface above, meanwhile, will be protected by German guards trying to fulfill their responsibilities for maintaining social order without overreaching with the heavy hand of the state: the Holocaust memorial as a fulcrum for Germany’s ongoing balancing act.

Max Paul Friedman is a historian at Florida State University and the author of “Nazis and Good Neighbors.”