Comrade Stalin would be proud

I’m no architecture critic, but as I was looking at photos of the Stiftung Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe) in Berlin, I felt that I was seeing something of the apotheosis, perhaps the climax of the grey concrete curtain wall style of architecture which just at the moment of its seeming expulsion from Eastern Europe has begun incubating with renewed frenzy in the rest of the world. Perhaps that is because the ostensible purpose of such a style finally becomes entirely explicit with its politicization.

I have lodged before my criticisms of the whole notion of Holocaust art, which generally takes its tone from Adorno’s admonition that after Auschwitz all poetry is barbaric. Holocaust art for the most part shares with the avant-garde a total contempt for bourgeois taste and comfortable aesthetic illusions, but in this case the criticism is more substantial than a mere matter of anxiety of influence. It goes something like this: accepted societal art and morality has proven callously indifferent to, if not directly responsible for, the Holocaust, as well as the slightly lesser crimes of imperialism, etc. Therefore, the role of Holocaust art is to shred the illusions and to present the naked truth to the viewer without any mediation. This tendency couldn’t be more obvious at the Berlin memorial, which consists simply of a bunch of blank, impassive concrete blocks. At least one critic has applauded this approach as evading the “facile symbolism” of, for example, the proposed 1776 ft. Freedom Tower. And yet as has been noted elsewhere, the memorial looks like nothing so much as a strip of Soviet apartment blocks. One would have thought that the resemblance of totalitarian architecture to designs which are supposed to comemorate the victims of totalitarianism would have perturbed even the designers, but one may have underestimated the passive-aggressive intellectual totalitarianism inherent in the nature of the project.

Ultimately such a memorial does not serve to comemorate unique individuals living separate distinct existences, but it rather preserves the idea of sheer number and volume, the sheer dead-weight of countless tons of flesh, just like the heaps of bodies photographed upon the opening of the concentration camps. Nobody here is any more than the number and weight they contribute to the total. That’s not to say that the opposite idea, such as the New York Times’ Portraits of Grief, which tried to present some little element of quirky individuality for every single 9/11 victim, is much better, but that is mainly because the thought process was equally superficial. The assumption that every victim was equally special, equally blandly angelic, led to an absense of real assessment, real weighing, and an ultimate moral homogenization. But those comemorated at the Berlin memorial do not even receive that little amount of recognition.

The mess of this whole thing is maybe not so surprising. Anyone totally convinced of their righteousness, in this case the special moral prerogative supposedly granted to those “bearing witness” (as if just having passively witnessed something is a heroic act of sacrifice), will eventually succumb to the temptation to tyrranize those around them. But there seems to be a particular intellectual folly in this case. It seems to be taken for granted that the boundaries and values of ordinary life were corrupted to the point that they obscured and even perpetuated the Holocaust. But was not the Holocaust itself a great rupture in society? So many today seem to assume that the Weimar Republic practically crowned Hitler itself, even that German social customs are fundamentally favorable to Nazism. Have they forgotten so quickly that Hitler ran for office in 1933 on a pledge to destroy the republic, or that his assumption of dictatorial powers in 1934 was a coup only smirkingly jutified by the “emergency” of the Reichstag fire? Germans of all ages and backgrounds who left the country in 1933, like Einstein and Thomas Mann, clearly did not perceive fundamental continuity between pre-Hitler and Nazi Germany. It was rather the signal for the beginning of barbarism, and few of the rational could mistake the difference. So while those that design Holocaust memorials may see the old concepts of truth and ethics and beauty as being discredited by their supposed complicity with Nazism, they fail to perceive the break in history that occured at that time, or that the abuses and ultimate genocide ensued precisely when the old moderate values and boundaries were discarded in favor of a conscious insanity. And so long as, and to the extent that, the memorials choose to take the legacy of those years as their tradition and foundation, I don’t see there being any hope of burying that legacy.

p.s. The new design for the Freedom Tower isn’t even curvy enough to call phallic. Suffice to say that if a truncated pharaoic obelisk (in the city with the largest Jewish population in the world!) or a kazoo symbolizes freedom, then the design is not totally meaningless.

2 Responses to “Comrade Stalin would be proud”

  1. Dave Says:

    If there is any thing I lack more than an intuitive appreciation of literature it is an appreciation of art. When I see the new Holocaust Memorial I do have an impression that it will grow on people just like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. In a way it is similar. The Vietnam Memorial is a V shaped depression extending into the ground. It is shiny and greenish black and has the names of each soldier engraved into the stone. You can go and look up your friend or friends who died. The Holocaust Memorial looks like a vast prison surrounded by grey walls. The innumerable plaques dwarf the Vietnam Memorial. I guess you can get in and walk around and go look at each plaque, which appear to be like giant grave stones, but with no names. Does anybody know the names of all the Jews exterminated in the Holocaust? The thing looks really spooky, horrendous and appropriate to me. That being said, self preservation dictates that Germans eventually moves on.

    As you say“And so long as, and to the extent that, the memorials choose to take the legacy of those years as their tradition and foundation, I don’t see there being any hope of burying that legacy.? True, but this needs to be only temporary. I saw a TV special about a Jew who survived concentration camp and now spends his time going around visiting school children in Germany as they study German history. The kids all seemed torn between feeling guilty for their parents having participated in the Nazi regime and wanting to move on. Frankly I don’t know the proper posture to take in these situations, but I do know that what ever it is it can’t be maintained for ever. There is always a vast difference between the media’s portrayals of “the way things are? and the way things really are. People’s public performances for the camera do not reflect the mundane reality that makes up real life. Hence all these public expressions and portrayals, memorials, etc are basically false. Unless Germans self destructively mimics the US where we still must publicly pretend to grovel in apology for things that happened hundreds of years ago, Hitler will one day be seen as just another Napoleon, or at worst an Attila the Hun.

  2. Curt Says:

    Unless Germans self destructively mimics the US where we still must publicly pretend to grovel in apology for things that happened hundreds of years ago, Hitler will one day be seen as just another Napoleon, or at worst an Attila the Hun.

    Well, from what I know from conversing, visiting and reading about the place, I’d say the guilt-resentment complex among Germans regarding their history is far more severe than that of Americans. Patriotism itself in Germany is commonly looked upon as right-wing and immoral, an opinion shared by only a pretty small sector of American society. I certainly don’t have much respect for nationalism per se, but the notion of hereditary guilt seems utterly perverse to me, and my impression is that German society has to some extent devolved into a weird anti-patriotism where the elements of German society and history are condemned en masse just as uncritically and irrationally as they would be celebrated by flag-wavers. Which, in essence, is the problem with the monument. The Vietnam memorial may be superficially similar, but the presence of the names is the critical element, which individualizes and humanizes it. Without the names, it would be, and the Holocaust memorial is, just an empty nothingness, where people are no longer human individuals, but undifferentiated instruments of history, saved or damned by what side they are on. In that case, Sisyphus really has been defeated by his boulder, and one may as well give up the game.

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