Monumental Problems: Freedom and Unity Come to Berlin – Daniela Blei

On April 13, 2011, Bernd Neumann, Germany’s Minister of Culture and a member of Angela Merkel’s ruling center-right party, made an announcement. After two rounds of competition that garnered 532 proposals from around the world, officials had approved a design for a new memorial in Berlin. The Monument to Freedom and Unity (Freiheits und Einheitsdenkmal) was to commemorate the peaceful revolution that brought down the Berlin Wall in 1989, national reunification in 1990, and a “century-long German struggle for freedom and unity.” Neumann hailed the project as “a reminder of the positive events of recent German history.” The winning design, called Citizens in Motion, was the work of Johannes Milla, an architect in Stuttgart, and Sasha Waltz, the star choreographer based in Berlin. An expression of collective experience, their 55-meter-long steel structure resembled a giant bowl that would seesaw when visitors climbed in, requiring a group of at least 20 to get it moving. Emblazoned on the memorial’s asphalt bed would be the slogans of the 1989 revolution: “We are the people” and “We are one people.” The date for the unveiling was set: November 9, 2014, when Germans were to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Wall’s demise.

Today, almost five years after Neumann’s message, and eight years after the project was authorized by a parliamentary vote, Berlin’s Schlossplatz (Castle Square), where the monument is slated for construction, stands empty. Mired in bureaucratic and budgetary red tape, the project and its planners have faced unexpected challenges: how to handle a colony of rare bats roosting underground; what to do with imperial-era mosaics discovered in the damp cellar vaults of the site; and how to weatherproof the memorial’s surfaces and make it wheelchair-accessible. Estimated costs continue to escalate from the initial 10 million Euro price-tag, and Sasha Waltz has withdrawn from the project, citing irreconcilable differences over proposed revisions to the design. Niklas Maak, a critic and editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, recently called on Berlin to abandon a “foreseeable disaster” that will satisfy only “its planners, a pair of skaters, and perhaps the Federal Association of German Fruit Bowl Manufacturers.” But German lawmakers, having made it through a regulatory morass, are committed to finishing the project. The Ministry of Culture has promised to break ground next year, anticipating that the memorial will be completed by November 9, 2017. What lies behind this Monument to Freedom and Unity, its origins and intentions?

In a city crowded with historical landmarks, where the politics and aesthetics of remembrance have shaped the built environment, the tradition is for new memorials to set off minor civil wars. Berlin, the stage for the drama of German history, is where historians, artists, political leaders, and the public have negotiated which narratives of the past should prevail in the present. It took 17 years of wrenching debate before the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe opened to visitors in 2005. The cemetery-like structure, solemn but nonrepresentational, has been faulted for appearing too vague, leaving the memorial’s message open to interpretation. For the Central Council of Jews in Germany, among others, the abstract design by the American architect Peter Eisenman elides the historical specificity of the Holocaust. The passive voice of its title poses a semantic problem for critics: murdered by whom? Some, objecting to the exclusion of Nazism’s non-Jewish victims from Germany’s most important commemorative project, proposed new monuments to homosexuals and Sinti and Roma. The bitter back-and-forth, which flared years before shovels hit the dirt, showed how controversies over memorials become part of the building process. Memory is collective, but far from monolithic.

Remarkably, the Monument to Freedom and Unity – an imposing structure that will take up residence in central Berlin – hasn’t generated controversy or even attracted the attention of scholars or the general public, aside from a few media reports of construction delays. “When I discuss the monument during lectures on German memory politics,” says Cornelia Siebeck, an expert on memory and Berlin’s representative spaces, “most people haven’t even heard of it, and hardly anyone has occupied themselves with the initiators’ ideological intentions.” While presented as a “citizen’s initiative,” a grassroots effort to celebrate the “people power” that defeated a detested regime, the monument is the work of a coterie of politicians and public intellectuals who have lobbied, strategically and effectively, to win parliamentary approval. Memorial practices in Germany are democratized and decentralized, but the Monument to Freedom and Unity tells a different story. The project’s genesis – four men prominent in the political and cultural arenas – distinguishes it from initiatives “from below,” by artists and activists commemorating Germany’s Nazi and GDR pasts. Rather than seeking to build public support for the project, explains Siebeck, the monument’s planners dedicated themselves to “convincing influential politicians and later parliament to adopt the project and integrate it into representative German memory politics.” Backing from the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship helped persuade lawmakers. The organization, created in 1998 by the Bundestag to shape the public memory of the GDR and address the legacies of state socialism, today supports research and the commemorative politics of “dictatorships in the twentieth century.” Charged with distributing government funds to grassroots organizations, such as the Union of Organizations for the Victims of Communist Dictatorship (UOKG), the foundation has become a powerful memory agenda-setter in the Federal Republic. Victims’ groups under its aegis have “regularly challenged the established memory consensus,” writes Jenny Wüstenberg, a scholar of German commemorative politics, “sometimes by competing directly with victims of Nazism for (what they regard as limited amounts of) recognition and resources.”

The Monument to Freedom and Unity was conceived in 1998 – when East and West Germany still seemed worlds apart – by Florian Mausbach, an urban planner and the president of the German Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning. Mausbach found allies: Günther Nooke, a former civil rights activist in the GDR; Lothar de Maizière, the last Prime Minister of the bygone republic; and Jürgen Engert, a well known journalist. Their proposal, rejected by Parliament in 2000, was revised and finally endorsed in 2007. The plan was to create a monument to honor “all movements for freedom and unity in German history,” from the revolutions of 1848 to 1989. What did this mean? Was it an attempt to create a new master narrative of German history? Mausbach has described Berlin’s official memoryscape as “too negative” and missing a “positive” counterpoint. But the first competition to select a design, failing to produce a winner, confirmed that no architect could translate the sweep of 1848-1989 into a coherent public monument. Günter Nooke helped reformulate the proposal, suggesting that a monument focusing on 1989/1990 could bring about a paradigm shift in German memory politics.

Mausbach’s 2008 booklet “On the Meaning and Location of a National Freedom and Unity Monument” is a testament to the planners’ ambitions to change Berlin’s memorial terrain, not just add to it. Invoking the Hegelian notion of Aufhebung, a slippery concept that suggests the synthesis, or mediation of opposites, Mausbach describes the Monument to Freedom and Unity as “sublating” the negative aspects of German history. The monument, his argument goes, will shift collective memory away from a dark chapter and toward a broader “more positive” view of German history. “This is not a historical, but actually a metaphysical narrative,” notes Siebeck. “There have always been good and evil struggling against each other, but ultimately, good has triumphed.” In Mausbach’s formulation, 1989/1990 figures as the final destination in German history, the triumphant finish; the telos in a century-and-a-half-long march to national freedom and unity. In the final passages of Mausbach’s treatise, he imagines a stroll from Berlin’s Bundestag to the Monument to Freedom and Unity at Schlossplatz. “It becomes evident,” says Siebeck, “that the idea is to ‘complete’ the national memoryscape by ‘closing’ it with a monument that embodies the happy ending of German history, thereby transcending the ‘negative’ parts.”

Schlossplatz, Berlin. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Schlossplatz, Berlin. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Monument to Freedom and Unity, now awaiting construction, will stand just one mile from the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, allowing visitors to read it as a counterweight to Holocaust commemoration. Its location at Schlossplatz, once the site of a grandiose memorial to Kaiser Wilhelm I, razed by GDR officials in 1950 and repurposed as a socialist parade ground called Marx-Engels Square, prompts more questions than answers. “Why Schlossplatz?” asked Franziska Eichstädt-Bohlig, a Green Party politician in 2008, addressing Mausbach at one of the few public meetings held to discuss the project. “Who sees a connection between Schlossplatz and the revolution of 1989? No one!” Unlike Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, the square played no part in the 1989 demonstrations that precipitated the fall of the Wall. Politicians in Leipzig have argued that it makes more sense for a tribute to the popular protests that led to the end of GDR to be built in their city, East Germany’s second largest. It was in Leipzig, not Berlin, where tens of thousands of citizens first took to the streets, putting pressure on the regime and forcing the resignation of its leaders.

But even more noteworthy than the proposed Monument to Freedom and Unity is the silence that has surrounded it. “Twenty years ago, it would have been impossible to realize a ‘positive national monument,’” says Siebeck, “without encountering strong resistance on the part of leftist and leftist liberal intellectuals, who always reacted with great sensitivity to any attempt to ‘normalize’ German history.” So what happened? Has the Nazi past been sufficiently institutionalized; visibly and successfully integrated into Berlin’s – and Germany’s – official self-image? German conservatives used to speak of “healing” and “redeeming” a vanquished nation from the burdens of history. That discourse, while extant in some corners, has been banished from conventional politics. “One could say that leftist and leftist-liberal intellectuals have simply lost their classical target,” concludes Siebeck, “it is hardly possible anymore to claim that the memory of the Nazi past is ‘suppressed’ or warded off by mainstream society and politics.” If that is the case, then is the Monument to Freedom and Unity such a bad idea? While its initiators can be accused of updating old efforts by conservatives to diminish the Nazi past, by undertaking the more sophisticated approach of “sublating” it, does it even matter if reminders of the Holocaust appear at every turn in central Berlin?

Like all monuments, the Einheitsdenkmal will come to have a life of its own apart from the intentions of its creators. The monument’s success will depend on the broader political and cultural context, and visitors will relate to it in different ways. “Neither the monument nor its meaning are really everlasting,” writes James Young, an expert on representations of the Holocaust. Will freedom and unity, appearing in material form, change Berlin’s famous memoryscape? The monument, offering more myth than historical understanding, and even reminiscent of the GDR’s pseudo-Hegelian determinism, might undermine its own message. Finally, any commemorative structure, as scholars from Pierra Nora to Andreas Huyssen have argued, can displace rather than preserve public memory, by signaling to society that there is no longer an obligation to remember; its memory-work already done.

More pressing, is that the men behind the Monument to Freedom and Unity did not anticipate the dramatic events of 2015/2016, when approximately one million refugees from Syria and other countries in turmoil arrived in Germany. How their monument’s message – a Francis Fukuyama-like ending to German history – will be received in a society experiencing what some have called a second Wende, bringing far-reaching political and economic restructuring, remains a mystery. The Monument to Freedom and Unity might fade into irrelevance, unable to commemorate anything but itself. If so, it will quite unintentionally serve as an enduring reminder that German history is far from over and unity is hardly complete.

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