An overview of the 17 years of philosophical, bureaucratic and political battles surrounding the design and construction of the monument. It was officially unveiled in Berlin on May 10, 2005.
The beginning of the campaign
Decrying the lack of a central Holocaust memorial in Germany, a group of German citizens begins a decade-long campaign for a highly visible, national "Memorial to Europe's Murdered Jews." The idea for the memorial is first proposed by journalist Lea Rosh and historian Eberhard Jaeckel who together had made a documentary about the deportation and mass murder of Europe's Jews between 1933 and 1945.
The German government decides that the memorial should be devoted only to Jewish victims of the Holocaust and designates a prominent location in the center of the newly-unified city of Berlin: The five-acre site will lie due south of the Brandenburg Gate, which until 1989 had divided East and West Berlin. The site is also just a few steps from the buried remains of the bunker where Adolf Hitler committed suicide. Amidst the Berlin's tremendous construction boom (which garnered it the nickname "Europe's Hong Kong"), the monument is but one of many construction projects that anticipate the relocation of the German federal government from Bonn to Berlin by the year 2001 -- the same year that the monument is scheduled to be unveiled.
Another memorial is dedicated
Germany dedicates one of its central monuments, the "Neue Wache," or New Guard House, to "the victims of war and tyranny." Inside is a classical statue of a woman cradling her grown, slain son, an enlargement of one of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's favorite works. Critics protest that remembering Jewish victims alongside the perpetrators -- particularly in the shadow of a Christian image -- is inappropriate. Kohl allows for bronze tablets within the monument specifically commemorating Jews, homosexuals and Gypsies killed by the Nazis.
After Kohl publicly announces his support for a Holocaust memorial in Berlin, an open competition is launched by the government, the city of Berlin and Rosh's group. They all will jointly choose the winner. Some 523 proposals are submitted from mainly German artists, ranging from a series of bus tours to a Star-of-David-shaped field of yellow flowers to a giant, empty jar symbolizing the blood of the murdered.
March - June 1995
The winning design is rejected
An image of the roster of names from the winning design. The design is quickly rejected.
In March the 30-member jury, consisting of experts, government-appointees, city planners and representatives of the citizen's group, selects a proposal submitted by a group of artists headed by Christine Jackob-Marks, a Berlin painter. Her idea is for a huge concrete slab inscribed with the names of millions of Jews who died in the Holocaust -- as many names as can be found. The slab will also be dotted with boulders from Israel. The group hopes to start construction within a year.
But within hours there is an outcry of opposition.The critics say it's too big, too heavy-handed, filled with badly mixed metaphors, even "too German." The leader of Germany's Jewish community is also against it. The long list of Jewish names reminds some Jews of "Nazi death rosters." Others observe how "a generation oppressed by Holocaust memory, now in turn is oppressing succeeding generations with such a memory." Responding to the outcry, Kohl rejects the proposal, calling it "undignified." But Rosh's group vows to continue pushing for a memorial. (Read James E. Young's insider's perspective on the stormy design process.)
A new competition and winner
After months of public meetings, debates and discussions led by experts, a second design competition is launched, this time with just 25 invited participants. The jury picks two finalists: a hugely scaled shattered Star of David by Gesine Weinmiller, and a design by sculptor Richard Serra and American architect Peter Eisenman. It also presents to the public two other designs -- a broken wall by Daniel Libeskind, and Jochen Gerz's 39 steel masts inscribed "Why?" in many languages.
After a November meeting with the finalists, the jury settles on Serra's and Eisenman's design, a vast, undulating "Field of Remembrance" marked by 4,000 concrete pillars varying in height from a few inches to 15 feet and expressly intended to disorient visitors. The plan also gives the impression of a massive cemetery. Libeskind, a former pupil of Eisenman, points out what he calls suspicious similarities to his own design for the garden at Berlin's Jewish Museum, which includes 49 tall, leaning concrete columns.
The government briefly halts construction after workers discover the remains of a three-room bunker that once housed Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Some argue for the inclusion of the bunker in the memorial, but the government rejects the idea fearing the site will become a neo-Nazi shrine. It later passes a law forbidding all demonstrations on streets near the memorial.
And a new controversy surfaces: In an open letter to Chancellor Kohl, 19 prominent intellectuals, including Germany's best known living writer, Günter Grass, argue that the memorial is "oppressively gigantic" and excludes millions of Holocaust victims who were not Jewish. They urge the government to either rethink the memorial or drop the idea entirely "on the grounds of common sense."
Scaling down the project
At Chancellor Helmut Kohl's request (first made months earlier), Eisenman trims the number of concrete blocks to 2,711, shortens the blocks' height, and adds trees. The new version pleases Kohl. But Eisenman's partner in the project, Richard Serra, backs out citing "personal and professional reasons" that have "nothing to do with the merits of the project." Some people suggest that Serra no longer feels ownership in the design because of the changes.
Kohl and Berlin's mayor, Eberhard Diepgen, decide to delay further work on the memorial plan until after the upcoming national election. A month later, Kohl is defeated by Gerhard Schroeder.
A Controversy Over Remembrance and Forgetting
In his speech accepting the Frankfurt Book Fair Peace Prize, prominent novelist Martin Walser condemns the "holocaust industry," saying Aushchwitz had been used as "a routine threat, a tool of intimidation, a moral cugel" against today's Germans: "It will be obvious later what kind of harm was done by those who, in the discussion about the Holocaust memorial, felt responsible for the conscience of others. …" Read more about the controversy over Walser's statements.
A compromise fails to please
With Kohl gone, the project starts to unwind. Mayor Diepgen calls for a third competition. Meanwhile, with Schroeder's backing, Michael Naumann, the de facto cultural czar for the Social Democrats, dubs the project a "wreath dumping ground." He also argues that the slabs alone -- "an elegant, chic statue" -- fail to adequately convey the horror of the Holocaust. Naumann favors a documentation center and better maintenance of the ruins of concentration camps.
To placate Schroeder and Naumann, Eisenman adds a million-volume library and study center under the direction of the Jewish Museum. Rosh, who is not Jewish, disagrees with this move arguing that the memorial should be built by non-Jewish Germans. Mayor Diepgen also dislikes the new plan.
June 22, 1999
Time to start all over?
The Bundestag, having taken over responsibility for deciding on the final design, decides to consider a completely new plan -- a proposal by theologian Richard Schröder for a simple monument inscribed "Thou Shalt Not Murder." However, in the end, in a 314-209 vote, the Bundestag approves Eisenman's now twice-altered model.
A fundraising controversy
Trying to raise money for the memorial, supporters design billboards headlined "The Holocaust Never Happened." Smaller text under the headline reads: "There are still many people who make this claim. In 20 years, there could be even more." Jewish leaders are infuriated. Before the billboards are even up a Holocaust survivor files suit, saying the headline could be misconstrued as Holocaust denial, a crime punishable by up to five years in jail. The billboards come down a month earlier than planned.
Six months after construction begins, another problem surfaces. Degussa, the company contracted to provide an anti-graffiti coating for the concrete slabs, partially owns Degesch, the firm that made Zyklon-B hydrogen cyanide gas pellets for Nazi concentration camps. The memorial trustees announce they will search for a new supplier. But after four weeks of public debate, the board changes its mind and decides to continue using Degussa's product.
The finished memorial
Seventeen years after the idea for the memorial was first proposed -- and two days after the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II -- the $35.7 million memorial opens to the public (read the reviews). The ceremonies include a speech from a Holocaust survivor and a concert performance of Nazi-banned music by Jewish composers who died in concentration camps or in exile. Individual stories of Holocaust victims are told at the visitors' center located underneath the memorial where thousands of names are projected onto the walls.
View video of the opening of the memorial: HIGH | LOW.
home · introduction · watch online · join the discussion · germany's memorial · germans, jews & history
FRONTLINE · wgbh · pbsi
posted may 31, 2005
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
photo of holocaust memorial courtesy of eisenman architects
web site copyright 1995-2013 WGBH educational foundation