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Skip to 0 minutes and 13 seconds The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a massive site in the heart of Berlin, and is sometimes simply referred to as the ‘Holocaust Memorial’. As an academic, I am fascinated by it as a symbol of how Germany chooses to remember the exceptionally difficult parts of its national past. The monument consists of around 19,000 square metres of land covered with concrete columns of varying heights, and it was finally opened after long and sometimes bitter debates in 2005. Of course, there had been many earlier memorials all over Germany to honour victims of the Holocaust.

Skip to 0 minutes and 49 seconds But the Berlin memorial was the first central, national memorial to the Jewish victims in a country that had only celebrated its reunification in 1990, and so it was particularly significant as a statement about the whole nation’s past.

Skip to 1 minute and 8 seconds So why was planning this memorial so difficult? First, there was the controversy about whom precisely the memorial should commemorate. The Jews were certainly the largest group to be persecuted on racial grounds in Hitler’s Germany,

Skip to 1 minute and 21 seconds but they were not the only such victims: the Sinti and Roma people suffered the same fate, but like the homosexual and disabled victims

Skip to 1 minute and 29 seconds of Hitler’s policies, they were excluded from this memorial: these groups would have to wait for their own separate memorials in Berlin. Secondly, even with this exclusive focus on Jewish victims, there was still the question of how any single memorial could convey the magnitude of the Holocaust and the resulting sense of loss. Thirdly, concerns were raised that such a grandiose gesture might suggest that Germany was attempting finally to ‘draw a line’ under its past. It was felt that whatever form the memorial took, it should not be something that would simply blend into the background like so many monuments; rather it should continue to provoke debate.

Skip to 2 minutes and 6 seconds And finally there were concerns arising from the unusual situation of a ‘perpetrator nation’ erecting a monument to its victims. Some German politicians and public intellectuals suggested that whereas ‘normal’ nations erect monuments to commemorate their positive achievements, Germany risked reducing its own history to the Holocaust and thus creating a negative national identity. The design finally chosen in 1997 is highly abstract. Unlike a traditional memorial, there is minimal information at the site to tell you what its function is. And if you do not know what the site commemorates before you visit it, you won’t get any real clues just from its form.

Skip to 2 minutes and 45 seconds Eisenman emphasised that his work had no ‘message’ and there was no ‘right’ way to engage with it - there is no obvious entrance or exit, and visitors have to find their own way through the site, putting the responsibility for what they experience or learn from it firmly onto each individual. Certainly the site’s open form is an invitation to engage with it quite differently from the way you might behave at a more traditional memorial; people frequently sit on the lower stelae eating lunch, chatting, making phone calls and even sunbathing; teenagers enjoy the (strictly forbidden!) challenge of leaping between columns, and younger children love playing hide and seek in what looks to them like a giant maze.

Skip to 3 minutes and 26 seconds Others however walk among the taller columns at the centre, deep in thought. The further you go into the memorial, the more unsettling

Skip to 3 minutes and 34 seconds it is: the ground undulates beneath your feet, the stelae tower above you, you have to walk the paths in single file, and though you are always aware of bustling Berlin at the fringes of the memorial, you feel strangely cut off from it. All this is physically disorientating, echoing the disorientation felt by German Jews during the Nazi period. However, critics of Eisenman’s original design felt that this visceral, emotional visitor response was not sufficient to convey the full meaning of the Holocaust and needed to be supplemented by some historical context, hence the addition of an Information Centre beneath the site.

Skip to 4 minutes and 11 seconds This provides extensive documentary material about the events of the Holocaust, but especially about the fates of many named individuals, which encourages the visitor to engage with the memorial quite differently when they reemerge. The seriousness with which German politicians and public debated the need for this memorial and the form it should take over many years was perhaps the best evidence of just how far Germany had come in dealing with this dark chapter in its national past. Indeed, some academics felt that the debate itself - which is documented in this massive tome! - was actually the best possible memorial. But Eisenman’s creation has marked an important watershed.

Skip to 4 minutes and 52 seconds Its location in the heart of Berlin, where it functions as a site of remembrance and mourning, a tourist site, and even a short cut to work, suggests that an awareness of this past is now securely integrated in the national consciousness, not to make Germans who had nothing to do with these events feel eternally guilty, but as a marker of what was lost from both Germany and Europe in the Holocaust, an invitation to reflect on the meaning of that loss, and a warning to generations - not just German generations - to come.

The 'Holocaust Memorial' with Dr Debbie Pinfold

This video will tell you about the ‘Holocaust Memorial’.

It’s OK to pause the video or to watch it as many times as you like. The video subtitles do not show the accented characters, unfortunately. To see them you might like to refer to the transcript that is available below in the section ‘downloads’ - click ‘English Transcript pdf’.

(After you watch the video and click the pink circle ‘mark as complete’, move on to the next step and read the article ‘More about the monument’.)

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This video is from the free online course:

Cultural Studies and Modern Languages: an Introduction

University of Bristol