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As Site of Nazi Terror Is Repurposed, Some Reflections on Memory and Public Art in Germany Today

In Germany, two vastly different approaches to public and memorial art are underscoring some of the tensions currently unfolding in the country today.

View looking toward the Stadthöfe complex in Hamburg (image by the author)

HAMBURG/MUNICH, Germany — In Germany, two vastly different approaches to public and memorial art are underscoring some of the tensions currently unfolding in the country today, from gentrification, to dealing with the country’s Nazi past, to its Cold War legacy.

Earlier this year, controversy erupted in Hamburg after a planned memorial to victims of the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, was repurposed by high-end real-estate developers. Alternatively, in Munich, a city-wide public art exhibition demonstrated the multifaceted ways in which artists can act as a healing force by activating new forms of civic consciousness in the public domain. The two approaches could not be more different and, as such, warrant some comparison.

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The City Courtyards, also known as the Stadthöfe complex in German, is prime real-estate in the center of Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city. The complex hosts eight buildings connected by four courtyards, which between 1933–43 served as the secret police’s torture chamber for Jews, homosexuals, Roma, and Sinti people. Of the thousands of prisoners who entered this complex, few would escape to tell their stories.

After 1945, city administrators took possession of the complex. In 2009, it was sold to its current owners, Quantum Immobilien, under the expressed intention that they would turn over a significant portion of the building to become a memorial. However, in contrivance to their initial agreement with the City Council, Quantum scrapped plans for what would have been a 10,000 square foot memorial to the victims of Gestapo terror.

Earlier this year, locals discovered that Quantum had severely reduced the planned memorial to a mere 750 square feet (less than 10 percent of the original 10,000 square feet promised), prompting calls that developers were gentrifying terror.

Under the title “Hommage to Life,” Quantum rebranded the complex and promoted it as a luxury high-end development, sanitizing what was meant to be a site of permanent witness to the unspeakable horror of Nazi crimes.

Wrought iron lettering above the City Courtyards entrance that bore similarity to Auschwitz’s “Arbeit macht frei” sign (image by the author)

Adding insult to injury, signage welcoming visitors to the City Courtyards complex bore a tone-deaf resemblance to the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work sets you free”) sign that greeted genocide victims as they entered the Auschwitz concentration camp. After public outcry earlier this year, developers agreed to remove and replace the sign, but many locals remain concerned that not enough is being done to memorialize the terror that took place there.

The move to gentrify the former Gestapo torture chamber is causing consternation among locals who have voiced concerns that the complex’s dark history is being erased. “Nobody who was brought here for interrogation came out unhurt,” said Detlef Baade, whose father was tortured by Hamburg’s Gestapo. “We have a societal obligation to do this. We owe it to the dead,” he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung, clearly disappointed at the lack of public consultation that led to the severely diminished memorial.

Detlef’s father, Herbert Baade, was an active member of the Communist Party in Hamburg, arrested for carrying leaflets critical of the Nazis in 1933. “They tied him to a wooden trestle and beat him bloody, causing him to collapse, puncturing the bayonet and causing facial injuries,” he told a group of reporters assembled outside the complex, clutching a photo of his deceased father after news of Quantum’s plans hit the local Hamburg press.

This tragic sentiment is echoed by others whose family members were former victims of Nazi crimes. Earlier this year, they rallied together in opposition under the slogan: “Consumption instead of commemoration? Never!” In response, Quantum Immobilien has gone on a PR offensive, promoting the luxury development as a sign of Hamburg’s urban transformation.

The kerfuffle led to state intervention from the Senator of the Hamburg Authority for Culture and Media, Carsten Brosda. He said:

We want this to be a real place of remembrance and a place where critical exchange arises. We invite all cultural and research institutions, historical workshops, associations, and initiatives, in close collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and Media and the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial, to meaningfully contribute to the cruel history of the building to ensure that it is adequately presented.

Brosda emphasized that commemoration should adequately portray the horrendous nature of the crimes that took place within the complex.

One of the few signs dedicated to victims of Nazi terror, which reads “Wir Gedenken der Opfer (We Commemorate the Victims)” (image by the author)

However, groups supporting the protestors remain adamant that not enough is being done to memorialize victims and their families. It is disgraceful, said Cornelia Kerth, of the VVN-Bda, an Anti-Fascist association of people persecuted during the Nazi regime. “The point is that it will not be a memorial, but merely a 70-square meter exhibition in a retail space, in a commercial bookstore and a cafe,” she lamented. “The memorial site has shrunk. This is where the Nazi terror in Hamburg was organized.”

In response, the Cultural Authority of Hamburg invited opponents and representatives from Quantum to attend a meeting on what exactly the memorial should contain. The meeting bore literal fruit. Of the planned 10,000 square feet initially promised for the memorial only 750 square feet ended up being designated as such by the time the building completed its renovation earlier this summer.

Despite the modest concession on the removal of the signage that protestors had won after the meeting, Quantum and city officials, or that it was being compromised by the addition of a bookshop, café, and luxury shops.

“It will be the first time the atrocities of the Nazis will be made visible at this place — more than 70 years after the end of the Second World War and decades of authoritarian usage,” said a Quantum spokesperson quoted earlier this year in Dezeen.  

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Germany’s struggle in coming to terms with its Nazi legacy has not been easy. From museums to former concentration camps, artists have played a critical role in helping to bear witness to Nazi crimes. According to James Young, author of The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials in History:

Contemporary German memory-artists are heirs to a double-edged post-war legacy: a deep distrust of monumental forms in light of their systematic exploitation by the Nazis, and a profound desire to distinguish their generation from that of the killers through memory.

Young points out that after World War II, Germany memory artists attempted to counter “the demagogical rigidity and certainty of history — [which] continues to recall too closely traits associated with fascism itself.” In other words, German artists in the post-WWII era decided that creating large-scale monuments was too closely aligned to the style favored by fascists and authoritarians, and so sought to develop a new style that would reflect anti-fascist values.

After WWII, a “Counter-Monument” movement emerged in West Germany that is still in use today. The movement sought to displace the grandiosity of stoic, towering, phallic monuments (a style frequently used by authoritarians), with a form of memorialization that focuses more on archival and exhibitionist elements, on public art that activates public discourse, rather than immovable objects plopped in public space.

Jochen Gerz and Esther Shaleve’s “Monument against Fascism” in Hamburg, 1986 (courtesy the artists)

In 1979, amidst the troubling rise of neo-fascism in Hamburg, the City initiated a public dialogue about the construction of a monument to remember the victims of Nazi crimes. In response, Jochen Gerz and Esther Shaleve proposed what they called a “Monument against Fascism,” consisting of a 12-meter-high (~40 feet), lead-clad aluminum column that was intentionally constructed to eventually sink into the ground entirely. The counter-monument contained the names of victims who had died at the hands of the Gestapo. By 1994, it had disappeared, having sunk completely into the ground as per its original plan. The disappearance, according to the artists, was intended to function as a metaphor for the invisibility of those whose lives tragically ended as a result of the Nazi crimes.

Jochen Gerz and Esther Shaleve’s “Monument against Fascism,” completely sunken, in 2004 (courtesy the artists)

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Interestingly, the counter-monument movement remains alive and well in Germany today. An example of which can be found in Public Art Munich, or “PAM” for short, a city-wide exhibition curated earlier this year by Joanna Warsza.

Over an ambitious three month program, PAM broadened approaches to public art and counter-monuments in ways that challenged existing sensibilities of what public art is and what public art should be.

Massimo Furlan, “Game Changers,” 2018; a reenactment of an infamous 1974 soccer match between East and West Germany (© David Ulrichs)

Entitled “Game Changers,” PAM kicked off with a rather unusual opening event, a re-enactment of a famous soccer match between East and West Germany in 1974, “directed” by Massimo Furlan. Set in the Munich Olympic Stadium, the match pitted Jürgen Sparwasser, played by actor Franz Beil, against the goalkeeper Sepp Maier, played by Furlan himself. According to Furlan, the project was intended to explore the “collective memory” often shaped in the national consciousness after historic matches such as this. During the match, fans were given radios with original commentary from both the East and West German side. The 90-minute re-enactment set the stage for other projects presented in the context of PAM, exploring what Warsza calls the “economy of experience.”

In another project by artist Cana Bilir-Meier, for example, the artist used film, performance, and text to offer a critical perspective on immigration and individual biographies in an attempt to provide visibility for migrant-situated knowledge. Set in the Freimann Mosque, built between 1967-73, the project aimed to examine how the construction of the mosque was historically plagued by the political instrumentalization of religion in Germany. By placing a ceremonial foundation stone at the mosque, Bilir-Meier’s project began as a form of social research using interviews she made with members of the mosque and the local community. Her research, in turn, became about uncovering how the latent history of the mosque shaped East/West relations in Munich during the Cold War, in which she discovered that the CIA partially funded construction of the mosque as part of a plan to radicalize the Muslim Brotherhood against communist ideology.

Franz Wanner, “The Interrogation,” 2018 (© Julian Baumann)

Another project presented at PAM by multimedia artist Franz Wanner, unveiled for the first time secret interrogation sites used by the German intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), in Munich. The  BND maintains roughly 200 such locations around the world, approximately half of which are in Germany. For PAM, Wanner worked together with a whistleblower to reveal sites used by the BND for rendition, in what I saw as unveiling of the collective memory of those caught up within the German intelligence apparatus.

In addition, Wanner also collaborated with a theater in Munich to stage a work called The Interrogation, which brought to light actual intelligence gathering procedures used by the BND. In anticipation of the project, the BND and several large mainstream German newspapers were chasing Wanner for the information.

In a sobering and thoughtful reflection on notions of public and archival openness, the artist Michaela Melián’s project “Music From a Frontier Town” examined the legacy of records left over by the US government at the Munich Amerikahaus, an institution that was part of a much larger plan by the US to “re-educate” the German populace during the Cold War. Places like the Munich Amerikanhaus served as an important place for establishing Western music as a cultural export, leading to the eventual establishment of Radio Free Europe, whose initial headquarters were also located in Munich.

The anti-monumental nature of the projects presented at PAM provides an important and visionary anecdote to the gentrification of terror and the art-washing of Germany’s problematic history in Hamburg.  Given the ever-growing array of monuments dedicated to Germany’s Nazi past, it’s becoming increasingly important to consider the ways in which public art can illuminate and activate new forms of social and archival consciousness.

Indeed, if the controversy surrounding the City Courtyards in Hamburg has taught us anything, it’s that art and memory go hand in hand, but often they are instrumentalized by real-estate developers only interested in profit, rather than in raising social consciousness. For many of the victims and their families in Hamburg, replacing an intended memorial to Nazi crimes with luxury shops and condos is not just “development,” it’s part of a devious, insidious, and more sinister subtext: the gentrification of terror.

Alternatively, PAM provides a roadmap that, while visionary, is the very embodiment of its own absence. There are no easy answers or large-scale phallic monuments to be found here. Instead, PAM directly attempts to confront the oppressive burden of silence by liberating the symbolic potential of art to an inverted anti-monumental form. Using techniques mutually informed by social research and engagement with concrete political and historical issues, Warsza’s commissioning premise seemed to be on challenging the edifice of public art itself, which all too often is used by real-estate speculators and city officials, often amounting to nothing more than plop art, phallic monuments, and decorative design for the rich.

“I’ve always been interested in thinking about art not in square meters, but in minutes,” Warsza said to me earlier this year in an interview published in Spike Art Magazine. “In moments of politicization, which usually involves an emotional encounter, art can be great, sublime, and extraordinary […] I’m interested in art that can be experienced in public moments rather than simply consumed by people living within a city,” she said.

Well, here’s to hoping she moves onto Hamburg next.

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