“Memory Loops” – An Overdue Art Work against Forgetting
In 2008 Michaela Melián won the city of Munich’s competition “Victims of National Socialism – New Forms of Remembrance and Commemoration” with her concept for a virtual monument. Here too a controversy soon broke out in autumn 2008 when the Süddeutsche Zeitung, having received advance information thanks to an indiscretion, ran the headline: “Holocaust Commemoration per Mobile Phone”. Critical voices were soon heard all across the party spectrum. Yet hardly any of the critics had at this stage come to grips with the artist’s concept. The specifications of the competition were clear, but no concrete place was designated. The plan was rather conceived of as a supplement to, not as a substitute for, a central memorial at the Square of the Victims of National Socialism. The square itself is to be re-designed in autumn 2011 so as to give more attention and a more dignified form to the memorial.
Audio documents on call
In extensive archival research and through their own interviews, Melián and her assistants collected documents for two years. The selection was then the most difficult part, she says; there could be only examples. There is now nearly nineteen hours of audio material available. Sources include the Archive of the Bavarian Radio (which also helped with the realisation) and the Archives of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial. The core of the art work is the website MemoryLoops.net, where the audio documents can be assigned to their places on a virtual city map. Among the 300 audio tracks (including 175 in English) are statements and memories of victims – of Jews, homosexuals, Sinti and those who were subjected to forced sterilisation – but also of neighbours and colleagues. There are regulations, press reports and other official announcements. Five longer audio sequences focus on particular themes. The audio documents can be listened individually or fully downloaded in MP3 format and transferred to mobile devices. At 60 places in Munich there are signs that direct one, via a telephone number, to the audio documents.
Actors made fresh recordings of the statements, not only for reasons of clarity. The younger voices also remove the historical distance. The official documents are read by children, who make an audible effort to pronounce correctly the pompous bureaucratic German in which the terrible orders are couched. In this way the virtual work achieves above all the goal of conveying an impression of the everyday life of the time. Anti-Semitism was already running rampant in the 1920s and sowing the seeds of 1933: people were beaten and humiliated, and no one intervened. The terrorizing took place in people’s own building, in their own street; the friendly neighbour remained silent, looked the other way or even became an informer.
“Fold your hands, lower your eyes, and always think of the Führer”
There were acts of civil courage, but they were rare. Appalling examples of servile obedience may be heard on the sound tracks, such as when a kindergarten teacher assures her charges that their “kindergarten will become the racial home of healthy German children” and recites the following daily prayer with them: “Fold your hands, lower your eyes, and always think of the Führer”. The mechanisms with which people deal with the menacing disaster become clear. Some persuade themselves that it will not get too bad. After the Kristallnacht, there were some, among them even Jews, who thought the worst was now over. Or there were those who explained away the horror with “If only Hitler knew what is going on”. People shut their eyes to the most terrible events, refused to see them. The significance of joining the Nazi Party was played down: “Not for career reasons, but only so as to suffer no professional disadvantage”, says one new member, explaining his decision. One hears of greater and lesser humiliations, of increasing brutality. But one also experiences the fascination for the “new age” and its demagogues that many young people then felt.
The statements have the effect of flash photographs and are all the more impressive for it. Contradictions are not ironed out, for the events were sometimes perceived and evaluated very differently. The individual fates behind the regulations and the numbers surface at identifiable places in Munich. One loses the distance to them and makes the time present to oneself, for “it is people in a present that produce a Holocaust” (Aleida Assmann). This is a new and appropriate form of remembrance. The website has up to 1,000 hits per day and responses come from all over the world – that too is an advantage of a virtual art work.
This is an important project against forgetting in a contemporary and artistic form. Soon the Documentation Centre on National Socialism will be built in Munich. It is step long overdue for the former “capital city of the Movement”.
The author is an Islam and Cultural Studies scholar and works for the Goethe-Institut.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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