Art Through Time: A Global View
History and Memory Art: Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
In 1999, a decade after the Berlin Wall had come down, Berlin was re-established as the capital of a unified Germany.
That same year, the German legislature approved Jewish American architect Peter Eisenman’s design for a Holocaust memorial to be installed in the capital city. Known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the completed work was opened to the public in 2005.
Eisenman’s memorial is a complex arrangement consisting of 2,711 concrete pillars of varying heights. The slabs are kept to a human scale, and visitors are able to walk among them. The experience, however, is intentionally disorienting. Despite the fact that the pillars are laid out in a regular grid, they are oriented slightly off the vertical. As a result, they appear to lean over the narrow walkways. In addition, the ground on which the memorial sits is uneven. Thus, visitors can find their view blocked or their bodies completely enveloped by the columns rising above their heads in certain areas.
Although the monument has been likened to a cemetery, Eisenman resists this interpretation. Unlike a cemetery, the memorial, he insists, is not a sacred space. Nor is the memorial intended as a sentimental place. The abstract nature of the work, moreover, does not offer resolution to the horrors of the past; rather, it facilitates reflection on those events. In the same vein, the location of the memorial—lying along the former path of the Berlin Wall and in proximity to the Reichstag, as well as the site of Hitler’s now-demolished Chancellery—represents a self-conscious acknowledgement of Berlin’s painful history.
Lisa Saltzman, Professor of History of Art, Bryn Mawr College
“In many ways, Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial in Berlin follows on the sculptural logic of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, although it’s vast in scale—it covers five acres in Central Berlin, right by the Brandenburg Gate. It follows on that refusal of figuration. It follows on a logic of what some scholars have termed sort of ‘counter-monuments.’ These aren’t heroic monuments, they are not figurative monuments, and these are forms that are somehow appropriate to commemorating that which in some sense we can’t commemorate. That losses that are not commensurate with some kind of simple sculptural architectural form.
So if one thinks about that Eisenman memorial in Berlin and thinks about that vast field of what look, from a distance, like grave markers—in some sense, they look like funerary monuments, but funerary monuments arranged in this undulating grid, an undulating grid that takes us into a space, but gives us no center, gives us no point of focus, gives us no representation—one could certainly point to the vastness of it and start to think about the scale of genocide, but there is nothing that’s explicitly figurative, even as it loosely conjures up something of a vast graveyard, something of that memorial form that is the tombstone or the gravestone or the mausoleum. And that refusal of figuration, the fact that these are just obdurately abstract pillars, sculptural forms, monoliths, that force us to encounter space, voids, they force us to encounter, in some sense, the impossibility of encountering that history. That’s a history that we can’t know, that we don’t know, even as we have reams of memoirs, of historical records, of documents, of archives.
But what does it mean to be able to know that history? What does it mean to be able to represent the loss of six million? What kinds of forms can we use to depict? Can we depict that? And certainly there are forms of culture that have tried. We have everything from Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, which attempts to represent that history, to forms of documentary cinema like Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah that absolutely refuse to figure, it’s composed entirely of interviews in the present.
So one could say that Eisenman’s memorial, in some sense, participates in that refusal to figure, even as it gives us a kind of space of memory, of lieux de mémoire, as the historian Pierre Nora referred to these spaces of memory. It gives us a massive space—it interrupts Berlin, so one could say it interrupts the topography, the urban space of the city forces us to contemplate something without depicting it.
But that said, one goes underground and then there’s an information center beneath this monument that refuses figuration, is something like an archive. A museum space—a museum space that offers up documents, objects, names, places—gives us that kind of historical narrative that one could say isn’t possible. And that this monument refuses, even as it figures the monumentality of that loss in its sheer scale, it doesn’t actually depict that history and it leaves to the archives, it leaves to the space of historical museum something of that task.”
Achinger, Christine. “Evoking and Revoking Auschwitz.” In Re-presenting the Shoah for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Ronit Lentin, 237-242. Oxford and New York: Berghahn Books, 2004.
Davies, Marion. Absence and Loss: Holocaust Memorials in Berlin and Beyond. London: David Paul, 2007.
Rauterberg, Hanno, Hélène Binet, and Lukas Wassmann. Holocaust Memorial Berlin: Eisenman Architects. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2005.
Young, James E. “Peter Eisenman’s Design for Berlin’s Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe: A Juror’s Report in Three Parts.” In (Re)visualizing National History: Museums and National Identities in Europe in the New Millennium, edited by Robin Ostow, 200-214. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.
Young, James. The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.