Can remembering past atrocities prevent future ones?Roundup
tags: memorials, Berlin, historical memory
Jennifer Evans is professor of history at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada where she teaches courses in the history of Germany, sexuality, visual culture and social media.
Paula-Irene Villa Braslavsky is professor of sociology & gender studies at the University of Munich (LMU), Germany.
For the better part of 70 years, Germany has been in a pitched battle to remember the lessons of its genocidal past. Across the country and in Berlin in particular, public spaces are filled with sites of memory. Yet the active project of trying to remember hasn’t stopped the rise of the far right, anti-Semitism and hate. A recent project by activist artists reminded Germans that previous efforts to remember and atone for past crimes and atrocities have not gone nearly far enough, which has helped to fuel the resurgence of fascism.
“How should a nation of former perpetrators mourn its victims?” asked historian James Young, after serving on a commission to build Berlin’s memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. In the early postwar period, the answer had been clear — if divided.
In East Germany, Germans were remembered as resisters and victims of a ravenous National Socialism, while Jews struggled for official recognition as targets of mass killing. A 1952 memorial plaque in East Berlin recalled two boy soldiers hanged by the SS in the war’s final hours, but forgot the legions of Jews who had been marched through the same street en route to death camps. When Jewish Germans were remembered, it was for their communist activism.
In West Berlin, small abstract memorials could be found, yet the trauma of the city’s division overshadowed the memory of the Holocaust. It wasn’t until the 1970s and ’80s that citizens’ groups on both sides of the Wall demanded that German public memory make a space for victims of racial hatred and, especially, of the anti-Semitism that fueled the genocide.
And still, the specter of German suffering continued to quell a complete reckoning with the scope and scale of Nazi crimes. Even after unification, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s efforts to honor victims of war and tyranny on Unter den Linden sparked protests because sculptor Käthe Kollwitz’s pieta at the spot evoked mostly Christian victims. Citizens and historians alike pushed for what would ultimately, in 2005, become Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which opened the door to related memorials for gays and lesbians and Roma and Sinti.
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