Collective Memory and the Holocaust

Collective Memory and the Holocaust

An interview with Peter Eisenman, architect of Berlin’s new Holocaust memorial.


On May 10 New York architect Peter Eisenman officially unveiled his Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin: 2,711 concrete pillars, ranging in height from three to sixteen feet, rise up at subtly varying angles in a vast field in the city center. A grid of narrow alleys weaves through the pillars, undulating at times gently, at times steeply. Ever since the space was first chosen for a Holocaust memorial in 1992–when it was a vacant expanse between the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, part of the no-man’s-land once occupied by Hitler’s bunker and traversed by the Berlin wall–it has served as a kind of projection screen or free-fire zone for German controversies about the politics of collective memory: Should there be a reminder of Nazi atrocities in the center of the German capital? What about the memorial’s gargantuan scale: Is it apt given the magnitude of the crime or is it reminiscent of the gigantism of National Socialist urban planning? Doesn’t such a huge symbolic gesture risk a kind of monumental closure–“We built a memorial, now let’s stop mourning and move on”–of a discussion of unimaginable inhumanity that must remain perpetually open? Could it–as Paul Spiegel, President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, fears–“monopolize” memorialization by overshadowing concentration camps and other authentic sites of memory? During the construction of the memorial, Eisenman did not always avoid becoming embroiled in German public debates, and it was not always pretty. Upon his return to the US after a tour of Europe, he talked to The Nation about the memorial and the reactions it has inspired.

In an article in the German newspaper Die Zeit called “Two Kinds of Memory,” the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben offers an interpretation of the memorial as a “book of memory” in which there is “nothing to read.” He says that the visitor who enters the memorial “leaves behind the memory that can be recorded and archived in order to enter the unforgettable.” According to his article, the memorial’s underground information center [which documents the Holocaust and its Jewish victims] embodies the “memorable,” whereas the pillars above manifest the “unforgettable.” Do you find this way of looking at it compelling?

I think it’s the most compelling piece that I’ve found. He caught what the monument does in a very poetic way. He said there are two kinds of memory. There’s the unforgettable, and the unforgettable can never be catalogued, archived. It can only be silent. Then there is the memorable, which must be catalogued and archived. And he said the memorial does both, and it is the edge between both that makes this monument so important.

In other words, the true memorial space is between the pillars and the information center.

I think that’s a really beautiful reading of it. It’s not just the columns and it’s not just the archive–it’s the fact that they stand together, and you have to see them apart and together and understand that edge between the two.

You have spoken about the openness of the memorial as a public space. How do you feel about young Germans who are climbing the pillars and springing from one to the other, using it more like a playground than a space of mournful contemplation?

I think it’s great. There’s a great photograph on the Internet that has four columns and a person in flight with their arms akimbo and their legs out between the four columns.

Speaking of the openness of public space and its quandaries, there have been lots of concerns and debates about graffiti and vandalism. When the issue comes up that a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust unintentionally but perhaps inevitably provides anti-Semites with a space to spray hateful graffiti or pro-Nazi slogans, I always think about the East Side Gallery [a former section of the Berlin wall covered with murals by a group of international artists commissioned after the reunification]. The first panel of it is an image of the Israeli flag in German national colors with an inscription about German-Jewish reconciliation vowing to combat all forms of fascism and anti-Semitism. But this panel is constantly covered with graffiti that is usually anti-Semitic. To me there is an irony there: The image invokes a resolution, and yet the graffiti incessantly reminds you of persisting anti-Semitism.

I recently got a really violent anti-Semitic e-mail from Oregon. These people are coming out of the closet. This memorial has really stirred things up. There was a big debate between Gianni Vattimo and someone in Italy about anti-Semitism concerning this project. Martin Walser has spoken about this in Germany. This is going to focus the debate onto the memorial. Anti-Semitic feelings are going to come out, being projected on this memorial.

The blankness of the pillars that Agamben talks about–the openness of the memorial to whatever the visitors bring to it–also allows for this danger.

But I think it’s a danger worth taking, because it’s there.

So you are saying the memorial would serve as a kind of palimpsest or witness to the present in which free speech and expression reign. In Germany, this debate is often argued from the other side: There is a lot of controversy about what is permissible and impermissible expression. In Germany there are prohibitions of certain forms of anti-Semitic or National Socialist expression.

Look, in certain conditions you have to prohibit. I was with Joschka Fischer the other night, and he said, “We can’t just have the same situation as you have in America. Certain things are not allowed. That’s it.”

For instance, the prohibition that was recently ratified of neo-Nazi demonstrations in the vicinity of the memorial: Do you feel that that restricts the sort of absolute openness that you intended for the space?

There’s no such thing as an absolute openness. Openness is relative, I think, in all societies. We are a society of law. They passed a law. The intentions of demonstrating at a certain point go beyond the intentions of a memorial. Look, there’s no reason to send me an anti-Semitic letter. But there it was. These guys are coming out of the closet. No question. And it is going to be really interesting to see what happens with this memorial.

You have sometimes become caught up in the heated German debates about what is and is not appropriate to say and express regarding the Holocaust.

That’s true. And I made some mistakes.

Do you mean your comments in the midst of the Degussa debate? [In 2003 construction of the memorial was temporarily stalled when controversy flared up over whether the chemical company Degussa AG, the one-time manufacturer of the poison gas Zyklon-B used in the extermination camps, should be allowed to provide the graffiti-proofing chemicals for the memorial. The ultimate decision was to permit Degussa’s participation but to include a documentation of the company’s history in the information center. Eisenman’s gaffe and the ensuing uproar in the German Jewish community occurred when he told the memorial’s board of trustees that his New York dentist, after putting a gold filling in, “said he had just put a Degussa product in my tooth and asked if he should take it out again.” Many accused Eisenman of joking about the grisly fact that Degussa had profited from gold and silver extracted from the fillings of Jews.]

I didn’t know about Degussa and the teeth. I didn’t know that Degussa stood for Deutsche Gold und Silber Anstalt. And I apologized for it. I said I didn’t know.

How do you feel about that kind of public reaction in Germany? Is that a necessary counterpart to the culture of ongoing debate that there are often storms of outrage and ultrasensitivity brought on by a single misstep?

Look, I’m a Larry David fan, right? And it seems to me that Jewish history from the Talmud on has been a self-deprecating, self-critical kind of humor. He once had a program on survivors and he got confused between survivors from one of these reality shows and from the Holocaust. I roared. He says to his wife: “What do you suppose survivors talk about? Do they have reunions? Do they have reunion picnics?” You couldn’t do this in Germany–absolutely not that kind of humor.

There’s much more contention about what is permissible or appropriate to say, and you came into that head-on.

And I will never do it again. My speech the other day was vetted by everybody. They said, “Look, let’s leave Larry David back in the United States.”

You once said in an interview that when you travel to Germany you go as a New Yorker and you return as a Jew. What did you mean by that?

I think that’s really part of the problem. The Germans treat me with so much deference, and that makes me feel Jewish, right? They step all over themselves to be nice. Nobody treats you this way in New York. In New York a Jew is a Jew, an Italian is an Italian, a Muslim is a Muslim: Nobody’s going out of his way to treat you in a special way. I really don’t even think of myself as being Jewish except when I’m in Germany. And that’s what we’re trying to get over. The Germans should stop pretending that they love all Jews.

Paul Spiegel, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has raised some reservations about the memorial that have to do with exactly that issue, of a German attitude of overcompensation toward Jews. He was worried the memorial could contribute to what he called “fixation on the victims,” which seems similar to what you’re talking about with an excessive identification with Jewish victims instead of confrontation with the German role as perpetrator. And so people have been asking: Is there a sufficient account of the perpetrators in the memorial?

This was brought up on a television show I was on with Willy Brandt’s wife. She said, “What about the perpetrators?” I said, “Well, there’s no confrontation with the perpetrators. That’s not what it was about. It was about the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. What can you say about the perpetrators? What are we going to do–a memorial to the perpetrators? It’s tough enough to do one to the murdered Jews, which is an unusual memorial, a memorial to the victims. Suppose I said to you this was done to remember the perpetrators. Wouldn’t this be a Nazi icon?”

I think what Spiegel and others mean is the need for an account of the perpetrators, not a tribute to them, of course. The concern comes not so much from your memorial itself as from the attitudes of Germans who might, by going to such a memorial, overly identify with the victims and forget the German history of perpetration of the Holocaust.

Let me ask you: Can architecture do that? I don’t know. This one guy who was a concentration camp victim said he’d been in several concentration camps and he said he thought the appropriate thing would be Goya’s drawings of torture. And I said you can do that in a drawing, but it would be grotesque to do it in architecture. It would be kitsch to try to do that kind of symbolism in architecture. What’s tough about it for me is, very few people really look at the architecture. They look at the nonsymbolism, and they don’t ask if it works architecturally. That’s what I’m interested in: Does it work architecturally? And the controversy so far has not been about the architecture but about the perpetrators–where are the iconic references and so on.

Some people have questioned the very idea of a central Holocaust memorial for the Jewish victims in Germany’s capital.

I love it. It had to be in the center. Somebody said it’s the first point in time that the Jews had a place in a capital city. They wanted to put it on Alexanderplatz, and I said absolutely not. They wanted to put it in Kreuzberg, and I said it has to be right here, in your face. That I wouldn’t back down from. And having done all my reading for seven years, I must say that gypsies, Sinti, Roma, gays, cripples, mental people, Jehovah’s witnesses, etc., were never marked for extinction. The Jewish race was marked for extermination and therefore different. They didn’t go after 100 percent of the Poles. They were going to get every last Jew. And to me, that’s why it’s there.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy