Against Tidy Memory: Anti-Fascist Memorials and the Horror of Kitsch

Esther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz, "The Monument Against Fascism," 1986. Hamburg-Harburg, Germany. Permanent Installation. Image courtesy of Studio Shalev-Gerz

Like a catchy Schlager tune, rightwing populism in Germany has matured into a countrywide plague. Historical guilt, which had until recently stalled the nationalism gaining ground in surrounding countries, appears to have lost its hold; following September’s election, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has become the third-largest party in parliament. But how, you might ask, in a country where the material repercussions of Nazi rule seem too immense to overlook? How in a country where entirely modernist centers of bombed medieval cities and lost historical buildings resurrected as eerily-pristine stage sets serve as constant reminders of the destruction of war? Also pitted against collective amnesia are the Mahnmale: every city, big or small, has at least a couple of these material markers of guilt and grief. Mahnmal means “memorial,” but they are distinctly different from an ordinary monument: a Denkmal. “Mahn” names a type of warning: a frightful reminder not to repeat. It comes as no surprise that this is a particularly German concept.

As ninety-four Alternative für Deutschland representatives make themselves comfortable in the Bundestag, I wonder what role these memorials can actually play in aiding our collective memory against the swelling of nationalism and other fascist tendencies: can objects remember for us, and if so, how do we mobilize this memory politically? Are monuments best understood as spaces for broadcasting historical information, as art objects for critical contemplation, or as sacred sites of mourning?

Daniel Libeskind designed the deconstructivist-style Jewish Museum in Berlin.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin sits somewhat awkwardly between these three models. Daniel Libeskind’s extension houses a permanent exhibition about Jewish life, while the architecture itself works as a material analogy of Jewish history: a garden symbolizes the disorientation of exile, empty shafts in the building represent the historical absence caused by oppression, and a tower transubstantiates the horrors of the holocaust. For the latter, you exit the museum-proper through a heavy basement door, which leads into a cold, dark, concrete room. I visited during the evening, and through a small opening at the top of the tower shone only a slither of moonlight. The effect is intense, like falling or despair. When a group of teenagers on a school trip entered behind me, they spontaneously started banging on the walls, like one would a toy, seeming to ask: “yes, but what does it do?”

In Under Blue Cup (2011), a book about the relationship of medium to memory in art, Rosalind Krauss discusses Libeskind’s designs for the reconstruction of Ground Zero in unambiguously damning terms. In New York, he envisioned a “Freedom Tower” and a “Wedge of Light.” Krauss also recalls a rejected proposal for the memorial at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp forty kilometers from Berlin, where Libeskind had intended a “Hope Incision” (“a new channel of water that would rhetorically purify the polluted earth”). “No one thinks about how kitsch such rhetoric is,” she writes, “as the cheerful declaration works to submerge it in the ‘shit’ of fake emotions and disingenuous consolation. Kitsch, it seems, is a faded notion, wholly disarmed by the sentimentality of our present culture.”

Krauss actually argues against installation art, or what she calls the “post-medium condition.” She likens working outside the history of a specific material tradition to a kind of memory-loss: an ignorance of how particular forms produce meaning, not just internally, but socially. This is clearly what short-circuits when visitors drum the solemn walls of the Jewish Museum: the building is a tectonic substitute for language, which offers readymade sadness and pity to a public that is never actively engaged. As a result, affect is confined within the walls of the museum for people to leave behind when they go home.

The term “kitsch” is a loaded one: it was ardently discussed by post-war thinkers like Theodor Adorno, and characterized as a manipulative style used to stir up dangerously simplistic populist sentiments. As the philosopher Jacques Rancière would remind us much later, “fear and pity” – or even sadness or shame – “are not political affects.”

As a counterpoint, Oscar Hansen’s (also-rejected) 1958 proposal for a memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau is wiser to the pitfalls of kitsch. Hansen was a Finnish architect working in Poland, and a proponent of “Open Form Pedagogy,” a creative method that emphasizes the social and intuitive aspects of architecture, rather than the symbolic ones of postmodern practitioners like Libeskind. For Auschwitz, Hansen’s team envisioned a kilometer-long, seventy-meter wide tarmac road that would cut diagonally across the grounds. Every other structure on the site was to be left untouched, and slowly overtaken by nature. As such, the monument would insist on the present as an unbroken perpetuation of the past, resisting what Susan Sontag has termed “turning the past into pastness” – into an object for easy, sentimental consumption.

Oscar Hansen’s unrealized project of a monument, 1958.

Oscar Hansen’s memorial, although favored by the jury, was rejected; it had failed to impress the community of Auschwitz survivors. Libeskind’s proposal, on the other hand, was disqualified simply because it did not meet the practical requirements of the commission, but enjoyed immense popular support. And here lies the problem: kitsch is popular, and these memorials, unlike conventional artworks, respond to a need to reconcile the still-too-vivid pain of the past. That is, they need to be popular, too. This is where the Mahnmal/Denkmal distinction must become sharper. We can accept a Denkmal as simply a tombstone: functionally sentimental in its materiality, because this is exactly what we require. But might a Mahnmal be better conceived as a counter-monument – a site not of remembrance, but of a kind of deliberate resistance to memory’s too-neat functioning?

Following this logic, scholar Jack Halberstam proposes the term “suspect memorialization.” In the book The Queer Art of Failure (2011), he advocates “for certain forms of erasure over memory precisely because memorialization has the tendency to tidy up disorderly histories (of slavery, the Holocaust, wars etc.) … [Memory] reads a continuous narrative into one full of ruptures and contradictions.” He suggests instead forgetting as “a way of resisting the heroic and grand logics of recall.” It’s easy to see why for many – given the ongoing madness of Holocaust-denial, for instance – this argument feels offensively obscure and academic. But it’s precisely because of enduring problems like this that “tidying up,” as Halberstam puts it, should be viewed as dangerous. This, too, is why Krauss refers to Libeskind as a “master of dissimulation.” There’s something suspect, or even dishonest (in effect if not intention), about any monument that remains oblivious to Walter Benjamin’s famous assertion that, when it comes to history: “the state of emergency is not the exception but the rule.” A memorial that obscures the fault-lines of the past in our present already performs the most harmful work of forgetting.

“Tidying up” became something of a hot topic when, during the construction of Peter Eisenman’s enormous “Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe” in Berlin, it came to light that the anti-graffiti chemical applied to the 2711 concrete slabs was produced by the same manufacturer as the Zyklon B gas used to murder people in the Third Reich’s camps. Whether as chemical or vandalism, anti-Semitism inevitably marks the surface of Eisenman’s monument, because, as Wolfgang Thierse, then-president of the Bundestag, put it: “the past intrudes into our society.” If, however, that “intrusion” had not been made so invisible, the sudden rise of the AfD, too, would perhaps have come as less of a surprise. If we need Eisenman’s memorial to stay visually clean, it’s because it functions only as Denkmal. And where, then, should we turn for more critical conversation?

Between 1986 and 1993, the Monument Against Fascism in Harburg, a suburb of Hamburg in northern Germany, disappeared from sight. Esther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz designed the 12-meter-tall lead column to be gradually lowered into the ground, allowing visitors to etch into its entire surface as it sunk within reach. While most people wrote their names or drew hearts, this monument, like any other of its kind, also attracted animosity and hateful defacement. But where other Mahnmale are fervently purified – much as Libeskind planned to purify the soil at Sachsenhausen – no such attempt was made to save the Harburg column from disgrace. A history as ugly and ambivalent as the present moment scars its surface, now conserved for posterity underground. Today the column is a flat square, an insistent Mahnmal that refuses to console or celebrate imagined progress. A sign reads: “In the end, it is only we ourselves who can rise up against injustice.”


  • Andy Patton says:

    Thank you for something genuinely thoughtful. I still, unfortunately, don’t see a way forward, by which I mean, something that recalls (or allows forgetting) and that also can be a bulwark against the worst of our past returning. Speaking only for myself, the memorials that have touched me most are those tiny brass (?) plaques in Rome which take the place of a paving stone at the entrance to an apartment block, engraved with the name of a person or family who once lived there, and the name of the camp to which they were sent to be extinguished.
    Perhaps it’s the small scale, the tiny gesture, or perhaps it’s that it’s so specific and so quotidian: here at the gate to the apartment where I’m staying, a family was taken to Auschwitz, good morning, thank you for holding the gate for me.

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