National Post

Germany grows tired of its burden of shame


Li ke Iv anka Trump visiting on Tuesday, everyone who goes to Berlin has to see Germany’s Holocaust museum, titled Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It’s an impressive and ambitious monument, 2,711 big concrete slabs arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field.

It was designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman, at a cost of 25- million euros. The slabs evoke memories of graveyards and are arranged to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, as if an ordered system had lost touch with human reason.

Sited in the city centre, just a block from the 18thcentur­y neoclassic­al Brandenbur­g Gate, it won’t let anyone ever forget that the greatest crime of the 20th century began here, at the core of Nazi Germany.

When the Memorial was finished and dedicated in 2005 it was applauded for its power. But in recent years opinion has shifted. Many Germans think it may be altogether too powerful. They have begun to believe they have been shamed enough by Germany’s horrendous genocide. They want to move on.

The most articulate and early statement of this belief came from Martin Walser, a leading German author and frequent commentato­r on public issues. “Everybody knows our historical burden,” Walser said, “the never- ending shame, not a day on which the shame is not presented to us.” He said the Memorial turned “the centre of the capital into concrete with a nightmare the size of a football pitch. Turning shame into monument.”

He was answered by Jürgen Habermas, at age 87 Germany’s most revered philosophe­r ( and one- time member of the Hitler Youth). In the 1950s and 1960s Habermas ( like his mentor, Theodor Adorno) was one of those intellectu­als who believed the Holocaust was a titanic, unique event and must be acknowledg­ed as a central phenomenon in modern Germany and world history. Many Germans then seemed eager to forget the killing of the Jews, but Habermas and others insisted that it should be taught in the schools and remembered elsewhere.

The developmen­t of democracy, in the Habermas theory, requires national self- criticism. Replying to Walser, he remarked that “Anyone who views Auschwitz as ‘our shame’ is more interested in the image others have of us than in the image German citizens retrospect­ive ly form of themselves ... in order to be able to look each other in the face and show each other respect.”

But today “shame” and its meanings remain prominent in the conversati­on of Germany.

Björn Uwe Höcke, a member since 2014 of the Thuringia provincial assembly, said recently that “We Germans are the only people in the world who have planted a memorial of shame in the heart of their capital.” Höcke is a founder of AfD ( Alternativ­e for Germany), a right- wing, Euroscepti­c, anti- immigrant party, started in 2013 and now steadily gaining popularity. Many in the AfD say they are no longer prepared to accept Germany’s “self-imposed low self-esteem.”

Fellow AfD members were embarrasse­d by Höcke’s speech. Many considered it anti- Semitic and wanted him ejected from the party. But he’s still a member and still has supporters. Like Höcke, they are convinced that Germans need a 180-degree change in “their politics of commemorat­ion.” Thinking about the past, they want to consider more than the 12 years of Hitler.

Among AfD members it’s not hard to find people who say they shouldn’t be responsibl­e for what Germans did three generation­s ago. Or “We are a different generation, we haven’t committed any crimes.” They want a Germany that feels like a normal country. “Everyone else is proud of their country, but we’re not,” they sometimes say.

The saddest summary of the controvers­y over the Memorial came from the architect, Peter Eisenman. In an interview with the weekly Die Zeit he said that it couldn’t be built today. In his view the currents of xenophobia and anti- Semitism now flowing through the German body politic would not allow him to erect such a monument in the nation’s capital.

The principle that the Habe r mas generation spread, that victims of the Holocaust deserved permanent commemorat­ion, has faded. “The social climate has changed,” Eisenman said. “Much of what was long considered to be accepted is now being questioned.”

 ?? ODD ANDERSEN / AFP / GETTY IMAGES FILES ?? Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stands amid the concrete steles of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin in February on his visit to the German capital.
ODD ANDERSEN / AFP / GETTY IMAGES FILES Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stands amid the concrete steles of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin in February on his visit to the German capital.
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