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Commemorative Culture
Avoiding the Pathos

German cities are full of memorial sites. However, memorial culture has undergone fundamental changes in western Germany since the Second World War, and even more since the reunification.


It all started in the 14th century through to the 17th century, with statues of the hero Roland symbolizing city and town privileges, equestrian statues of generals and princes oriented on Roman models, followed by all the Goethes and Schillers of German classicism. In the wake of the founding of the German Reich in 1871 and the Franco-German War, the nation congratulated itself with a multitude of patriotic victors’ monuments. In particular, the Bismarck cult found expression in 146 Bismarck towers and columns, plus an additional 550 monuments.

German cities are full of memorial sites. Nonetheless, their character changed following the First World War. In place of bombastic victors’ monuments, sites arose in honour of heroically fallen soldiers. After the devastating Second World War, no one felt any further need for hero worship, and in many places, additional plaques with the names of fallen fellow citizens were simply added to those of the First World War.

Memorial instead of monument

Since then, monuments celebrating national pride or outstanding personalities from politics, culture or science are no longer expedient. Instead of monuments, memorials arise that warn against war, displacement and exile, and genocide. Since the initiation of the process of coming to terms with the persecution of the Jews in the mid-‘Seventies, more and more memorials have been erected, culminating in Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial. Omnipresent are “Stolpersteine”, literally “stumbling stones”, small cobblestones with gleaming brass plates in front of houses and buildings where the persecuted had lived. To an extent, that would be practically unthinkable in other countries, Germans are thematising their own political and moral failure by means of memorials and monuments.
  • Holocaust memorial | Berlin Photo: Marko Priske
    1. Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin 2005. The Holocaust memorial designed by American architect Peter Eisenman, as the central remembrance site next to the Brandenburg Gate, has become a major public attraction. It consists of a field of 2711 concrete pillars of differing heights, some standing aslant, and a below-ground information point where the history of persecution of the Jews is exemplified and illustrated.
  • Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under the National Socialist Regime Photo: Marko Priske
    2. Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered under the National Socialist Regime, Berlin 2012. Israeli artist Dani Karavan designed the remembrance site in Berlin’s Tiergarten as a circular, deep-black pool of water with a triangular island on which a fresh flower is continually laid. Glass panels with an inscribed chronology of the genocide enclose the grounds.
  • Memorial and Information Point for the Victims of National Socialist “Euthanasia” Killings Photo: Marko Priske
    3. Memorial and Information Point for the Victims of National Socialist “Euthanasia” Killings, Berlin 2014. Initially, a monumental sculpture by American artist Richard Serra from 1986, consisting of two rusting steel plates placed near the Philharmonic, was rededicated as a memorial. In 2014, a light-blue glass wall following a design by Ursula Wilms and Heinz W. Hallmann was added, as well as a long concrete reading pult with informative texts and video stations.
  • Stumbling Stones Photo: Karin Richert
    4. Stolpersteine (Stumbling Stones). The “Stolpersteine” with which artist Gunter Demnig evokes the memory of those persecuted and murdered during the National Socialist era are to be found set into the sidewalks in front of victims’ former homes. Beginning in 1992, 60,000 square brass plaques with hand-engraved inscriptions have been installed in Germany and 20 other European countries.
  • Memorial to the victims of political persecution in the Soviet Occupation Zone (SBZ) and the GDR from 1945-1989 Photo: Kristian Philler
    5. Memorial to the victims of political persecution in the Soviet Occupation Zone (SBZ) and the GDR from 1945-1989, Jena 2010. The memorial was placed before the former Jena district headquarters of the GDR Ministry of State Security. Following the design by artists Sibylle Mania and Martin Neubert, 285 document boxes made of coloured concrete were stacked on a steel plate, referencing the soullessly administrative perfection of the persecution of regime opponents.
  • Monument to Freedom and Unity © Milla & Partner
    6. Monument to Freedom and Unity, Berlin. The design “Bürger in Bewegung” (i.e. citizens on the move) by event agency Milla & Partner and choreographer Sasha Waltz is planned for the site of the former Kaiser Wilhelm National Monument in front of the City Palace. An enterable bowl will move up and down, following visitors’ actions. The construction, dubbed the “Unity See-Saw,” remains controversial.
  • Marienborn Memorial of German Division Photo: Gedenkstätte Deutsche Teilung Marienborn
    7. Marienborn Memorial of German Division. On the 7.5 hectare grounds by the A2, at one time the most important border crossing to the GDR, former transit travellers can now take a look behind the scenes and view passport processing, vehicle checks and internal offices. In the former staff building a permanent exhibition offers information on the history of this checkpoint.
  • Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial © Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen/Gvoon
    8. Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, Berlin 1994, 2013. The central remand prison of the Ministry of State Security was the most notorious place in the illegitimate GDR state. The interrogation rooms and cells where prisoners were psychologically broken by means of traceless “white torture” have been preserved in all their oppressive banality into an impressive memorial site.
  • Bundeswehr Memorial Photo: Bundeswehr/Bienert
    9. Bundeswehr Memorial, Berlin 2009. On the grounds of the German Federal Ministry of Defence, architect Andreas Meck erected this externally enterable memorial in the form of a concrete cube with perforated bronze side walls. Inside, the names of 3100 Bundeswehr members who lost their lives are projected at 5-second intervals onto the wall of the “Room of Stillness”.
  • Forest of Remembrance Photo: Bundeswehr/Hannemann
    10. Forest of Remembrance, Potsdam 2016. The complex designed by Rüthnick Architekten as a memorial to Bundeswehr soldiers who have died in the course of deployment abroad is embedded within the trees surrounding the Operations Command barracks. A 150-meter long path with an exhibition centre at the beginning and a Room of Stillness at the end is lined with seven stelae with commemorative plaques and memorial groves brought back from the Bundeswehr’s overseas operations zones.

With their typology and design, more recent memorials attempt to convey feelings of menace, deracination and despair, calling to mind – sometimes symbolically, and sometimes concretely – deportation and annihilation through scenarios with railway wagons, luggage and similar imagery. Here, in the past decade, perspectives have been expanded and further differentiated. Following the numerous memorial sites to the fates of their Jewish fellow citizens, Germans have recently erected memorials to persecuted Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, euthanasia victims and others.

Keep memory alive

German reunification provided a new occasion for memorialisation. However, to date unity has not been achieved with respect to the site of the Monday Demonstrations in Leipzig in 1989, nor in the now-unified German capital of Berlin on the subject of monuments commemorating unification in general. It seemed simpler to keep alive the memory of the “illegitimate” GDR. The Wall Museum in Berlin seeks to lend visibility to the inhuman border fortifications, although these were almost completely eliminated following reunification.  The border checkpoint on the A2 between Braunschweig and Magdeburg, since 1996 "Gedenkstätte Deutsche Teilung Marienborn“ /Memorial to the Division of Germany, became a site of remembrance and historical and political education. Former facilities and prisons of the GDR’s Ministry of State Security (StaSi) from Rostock to Erfurt have been opened as documentation and remembrance centres, above all the notorious Stasiuntersuchungsgefängnis (StaSi remand prison) in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen and the Stasi Museum in the former Ministry of State Security.
Coming to terms with National Socialist iniquity and the SED dictatorship is included in the German federal government’s funding objectives. Other political themes and more recent political history such as European unification are receding into the background and are only seldom thematised by memorials or centres of remembrance.
Two current “war memorials” exist in a new form. The central Bundeswehr memorial to army members who died serving their country stands on the grounds of the Ministry of Defence in Berlin since 2009. A memorial site near Potsdam dedicated to soldiers who lost their lives in Bundeswehr deployments abroad bears the title “Forest of Remembrance (Wald der Erinnerung)“.
More recent memorials have an architecture in common that avoids emotional pathos of any sort by means of restraint and simple design. They do not flaunt national pride or pretensions to power and are not directed against other peoples, but possess an moral and ethical educational mission. They are meant to impart insight and humility and appeal to tolerance and humanity.