home Deep view The Memorial’s Vernacular Arc Between Berlin’s Denkmal and New York City’s 9/11 Memorial. By James E. Young

The Memorial’s Vernacular Arc Between Berlin’s Denkmal and New York City’s 9/11 Memorial. By James E. Young

James E. Young

Ph.D., Emeritus Distinguished Professor of English and Judaic and Near Eastern Studies
Founding Director, Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies (UMass Amherst)


Adapted from The Stages of Memory:  Reflections on Memorial Art, Loss, and the Spaces Between (University of Massachusetts Press, 2016)


In April 2003, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation called a press conference at the just-repaired Winter Garden of the World Financial Center in lower-Manhattan, located across the street from the gaping pit of Ground Zero. Here the LMDC announced an open international design competition for a World Trade Center Site Memorial, and I was one of 13 members of the design-jury introduced that day.  Together with jurors Maya Lin (designer of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, D.C.) and Paula Grant Berry (whose husband David died in the South Tower on 9/11), among others, we implored potential entrants to this blind competition to “break the conventional rules of the monument,” to explore every possible memorial medium in their expressions of grief, mourning, and remembrance for what would become the National September 11th Memorial (Wyatt, B-1).

Within two months, we received some 13,800 registrations from around the world, and by the August 2003 deadline, we had received 5,201 official submissions from 62 nations, and from 49 American states (only Alaska was missing from the list).  In January 2004, after six months of exhausting, occasionally tortured debate and discussion, we announced our winning selection at Federal Hall on Wall Street, where George Washington took his oath as America’s first president.

The winning design, “Reflecting Absence,” by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, proposed two deeply recessed voids in the footprints of the former World Trade Center towers, each 200 square feet, with thin veils of water cascading into reflecting pools some 35 feet below, each with a further deep void in its middle.  The pools were to be surrounded by an abacus grid of  trees (even rows replicating the city-grid when viewed west to east, seemingly natural, random groves when viewed north to south), which would deepen the volumes of the voids as they grew, even as they softened the hard, square edges of the pools.  This memorial would indeed “reflect absence,” even as it commemorated the lives lost with living, regenerating flora.

Until that day in January 2004, the 9/11 Memorial jurors were not allowed to speak to the press.  Now for the first time since our appointment nine months earlier, we could take questions.  The first question I took from a reporter caught me off-balance.  “Knowing that you have written much about Holocaust negative-form monuments in Germany and that you were also on the jury that chose Peter Eisenman’s design for the Berlin Denkmal (for Europe’s Murdered Jews), it seems that you’ve basically chosen just another Holocaust memorial.  Is this true?”  Surprised and somewhat offended, I replied that obviously this design had nothing to do with Holocaust memorials.

A park within a park: Maya Lin conceived her project as a quiet protected place unto itself

Here the same reporter pressed me further: “But is it possible that Jewish architects are somehow predisposed toward articulating the memory of catastrophe in their work?  Would this explain how Daniel Libeskind (original site-designer of the new World Trade Center complex), Santiago Calatrava (designer of the new Fulton Street Transit Center abutting “Ground Zero” in lower-Manhattan), and now Michael Arad (designer of the memorial at “Ground Zero”) have become the architects of record in post-9/11 downtown Manhattan?”  I had to concede that while I saw no direct references to Jewish catastrophe in these designs for the reconstruction of lower-Manhattan, it could also be true that the forms of post-war architecture have been inflected by an entire generation’s knowledge of the Holocaust.   Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s “Reflecting Absence” is not a Holocaust memorial, I said, but its formal preoccupation with loss, absence, and regeneration may well be informed by Holocaust memorial vernaculars. This was also a preoccupation they shared with poets and philosophers, artists and composers:  how to articulate a void without filling it in?  How to formalize irreparable loss without seeming to repair it?

As I continued to mull my answer, I began to imagine an arc of memorial forms over the last eighty years or so and how, in fact, post-World War I and World War II memorials had evolved along a very discernible path, all with visual and conceptual echoes of their predecessors.  Here I recalled that counter-memorial artists and architects such as Horst Hoheisel, Jochen Gerz, Esther Shalev, and Daniel Libeskind (among many others) all told me that Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial (1982) broke the mold that made their own counter-memorial work possible. And here I remembered that Maya Lin had also openly acknowledged her own debt to both Sir Edwin Lutyens’s “Memorial to the Missing of the Somme” (1924) in Thiepval, France; and later to George-Henri Pingusson’s “Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation” (1962) on the Ile de la Cite in Paris.  Both are precursors to the “negative-form” realized so brilliantly by Maya Lin, both preoccupied with and articulations of uncompensated loss and absence, represented by carved-out pieces of landscape, as well as by the visitor’s descent downward (and inward) into memory (Lin, 4:09).

3.Memorial to the missing of the somme - Thiepval
Sir Edwin Lutyens’s “Memorial to the Missing of the Somme” (1924) in Thiepval, France


George-Henri Pingusson’s “Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation” (1962), Paris.


Unlike the utopian, revolutionary forms with which modernists hoped to redeem art and literature after World War I, the post-Holocaust memory artist, in particular, would say, “Not only is art not the answer, but  after the Holocaust, there can be no more final solutions.”


Carved into the ground, a black wound in the landscape and an explicit counter-point to Washington’s prevailing white, neo-classical obelisks and statuary, Maya Lin’s design articulated loss without redemption, and formalized a national ambivalence surrounding the memory of American soldiers sent to fight and die in a war the country now abhorred.  In Maya Lin’s words, she “imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up, an initial violence and pain that in time would heal” (Lin, 4:10).  That is, she opened a space in the landscape that would open a space within us for memory.  “I never looked at the memorial as a wall, an object,” Maya Lin has said, “but as an edge to the earth, an opened side.”  Instead of a positive V-form (like a jutting elbow, or a spear-tip, or a flying-wedge military formation), she opened up the V’s obverse space, a negative-space to be filled by those who come to remember within its embrace.  Moreover, as Maya Lin described it in her original proposal, “The memorial is composed not as an unchanging monument, but as a moving composition, to be understood as we move into and out of it” (Lin, 4:05).  That is, as a “monument” is fixed and static, her memorial would be defined by our movement through its space, memory by means of perambulation and walking through.

The New England Holocaust Memorial, by Stanley Saitowitz, is designed around six luminous glass towers, each reaching 54 feet high, and each lit internally from top to bottom
The New England Holocaust Memorial, by Stanley Saitowitz

After the dedication of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in 1982, it was as if German artists had also found their own uniquely contrarian memorial vernacular for the expression of their own national shame, for their revulsion against traditionally authoritarian, complacent, and self-certain national shrines.  Preoccupied with absence and irredeemable loss, and with an irreparably broken world, German artists and architects would now arrive at their own, counter-memorial architectural vernacular that could express the breach in their faith in civilization without mending it that might articulate the void of Europe’s lost Jews without filling it in.

With Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in mind, these German artists would set out on their own quest to express their nation’s paralyzing Holocaust memorial conundrum:  How to commemorate the mass murder of Jews perpetrated in the national name without redeeming this destruction in any way?  How to formally articulate this terrible loss without filling it with consoling meaning?  The resulting counter-monuments and negative-form designs of the 1980’s and 1990’s in Germany commemorating the Holocaust may have taken their initial cue from the Vietnam Veterans’ Monument, but they also extended Maya Lin’s implicit critique of the conventional monument’s static fixedness, bombast, self-certainty, and authoritarian didacticism.

Of all the dilemmas facing post-Holocaust memorial artists and designers, perhaps none is more difficult, or more paralyzing, than the potential for redemption in any representation of the Holocaust. Some, like Adorno, have warned against the ways poetry and art after Auschwitz risk redeeming events with aesthetic beauty or mimetic pleasure (Adorno, 125-27).  Others like Saul Friedlander, have asked whether the very act of history-writing potentially redeems the Holocaust with the kinds of meaning and significance reflexively generated in all narrative (Friedlander, 61).  Unlike the utopian, revolutionary forms with which modernists hoped to redeem art and literature after World War I, the post-Holocaust memory artist, in particular, would say, “Not only is art not the answer, but  after the Holocaust, there can be no more final solutions.” 

Some of this skepticism has been a direct response to the enormity of the Holocaust—which seemed to exhaust not only the forms of modernist experimentation and innovation, but also the traditional meanings still reified in such innovations. Mostly, however, this skepticism has stemmed from post-Holocaust artists’ contempt for the religious, political or aesthetic linking of redemption and destruction that seemed to justify such terror in the first place. In Germany, in particular, once the land of what Saul Friedlander has called “redemptory anti-Semitism,” the possibility that public art might now compensate mass murder with beauty (or with ugliness), or that memorials might somehow redeem this past with the instrumentalization of its memory, continues to haunt a postwar generation of memory artists (Friedlander, 3).  For this generation, the shattered vessel of European Jewry cannot be put back together again; the rupture in human civilization represented by the Shoah cannot be mended. The traditional religious dialectic of “from destruction to redemption” would come to be regarded not as an answer to the history of the 20th century, but as an extension of the redemptory cast of mind that made such destruction possible in the first place.

Here I recall being asked in several cases to help revive memorial processes in Boston, Berlin, and Buenos Aires that had gotten bogged down in what their organizers perceived as a morass of dispute, bickering, competing agendas, and politics.  With the impertinence that only an academic bystander can afford, I always replied, Yes, it’s true.  You thought you were bringing a community together around common memory, and you found instead that the process is fraught with argument, division, and competing agendas. In Boston in 1988, I gently suggested that the New England Holocaust Memorial Committee stop hiding the issues that divided them and instead make them the centerpiece of a public forum on their proposed memorial.  Let debate drive the memorial process forward, I advised.  Let the memorial’s “memory-work” begin with the committee’s own heated discussions, public symposia and community education, even in public challenges to the very idea of such a memorial in Boston.

Aktion T4 memorial at 4 Tiedrgartenstraße, Berlin, to victims of Nazi ‘euthanasia’ | EUROM

In Berlin, when asked by the Bundestag in 1997 to explain why I thought Germany’s 1995 international design competition for a national “memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe” had failed, I answered that even if they had failed to produce a monument, the debate itself had produced a profound search for such memory and that it had actually begun to constitute the memorial they so desired.  Instead of a fixed sculptural or architectural icon for Holocaust memory in Germany, the debate itself—perpetually unresolved amid ever-changing conditions—might now be enshrined.  And then just to make sure they grasped my own polemic, I offered the reassuring words, “Better a thousand years of Holocaust memorial competitions in Germany than a final solution to your Holocaust memorial question.” A day later, I was invited by the Speaker of the Berlin Senate, Peter Radunski, to join a five-member Findungskommission whose mandate would be to run yet another competition for a suitable design for the Denkmal.  When I asked, “Why me?  I don’t think it can be done,” Herr Sprecher Radunski answered with an Hegelian glint in his eye, “Because you don’t think it can be done, we think you can do it.”  Thus hoisted on the petard of my own polemic, I agreed to serve–but only on two conditions: First, that we could make the process itself publicly transparent, so that it might be regarded as part of the memorial design for which we searched; and second, that we invite artists and architects not to solve Germany’s paralyzing memorial conundrum in their submissions, but rather to articulate the problem formally in their designs.

With this precis in hand, we invited 25 artists and architects, of whom 19 submitted designs. From these 19, we culled a short-list of two, proposals by Gesine Weinmiller and Peter Eisenman, and recommended them to then Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who favored Eisenman’s design for a waving field of stelae.  A lively public debate ensued, with the two finalists making public presentations to packed audiences, who eventually formed a consensus around Peter Eisenman’s “Field of Stelae.”  With this public mandate in hand, our Findungskommission made an explicit, three-part recommendation to the Bundestag: 1) select Peter Eisenman’s revised design for a field of waving stelae;  2) build underneath it a “place of information” (or historical documentation); and 3) establish a permanent “memorial foundation” to support the memorial’s building and maintenance. Where the “monumental” had traditionally used its size to humiliate or cow viewers into submission, we believed this memorial—in its humanly-proportioned forms—would put people on an even-footing with memory.  Visitors and the role they play as they wade knee-, or chest-, or shoulder-deep into this waving field of stones would not be diminished by the monumental but would be made integral parts of the memorial itself. Visitors, we hoped, would not be defeated by their memorial obligation here, nor dwarfed by the memory-forms themselves, but rather enjoined by them to come face to face with memory, able to remember together and alone.

Able to see over and around these pillars, visitors would have to find their way through this field of stelae, on the one hand, even as they would never actually get lost in or overcome by the memorial act.  In effect, they will make and choose their own individual spaces for memory, even as they do so collectively.  The implied sense of motion in the gently undulating field also formalizes a kind of memory that is neither frozen in time, nor static in space.  In their multiple and variegated sizes, the pillars would be both individuated and collected:  the very idea of “collective memory” would be broken down here and replaced with the collected memories of individuals murdered, the terrible meanings of their deaths now multiplied and not merely unified.  The land sways and moves beneath these pillars so that each one is some 3 degrees off vertical:  we would not be reassured by such memory, but now disoriented by it.

Meanwhile, new national elections were called, a new government coalition was formed between the SPD and Green Party, and the Denkmal itself had become a political flashpoint. Eventually, Joshka Fischer (head of the Green Party and eventual Foreign Minister for Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s new government) agreed to join the coalition on condition that the Denkmal be built, after all. Beginning at 9:00 in the morning and running until after 2:00 in the afternoon on June 25th, 1999, a full session of the German Bundestag met in public view to debate and finally vote on Berlin’s “Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe.”  Both opponents and proponents were given time to make their cases, each presentation followed by noisy but civil debate.  Finally, by a vote of 314 to 209, with 14 abstentions, the Bundestag approved the memorial in four separate parts:  1) the Federal Republic of Germany will erect in Berlin a memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe on the site of the former Ministerial Gardens in the middle of Berlin;  2) the design of Peter Eisenman’s field of pillars (Eisenman-II) will be realized;  3) an information center will be added to the memorial site;  and 4) a public foundation composed of representatives from the Bundestag, the city of Berlin, and the citizens’ initiative for the establishment of the memorial, as well as the directors of other memorial museums, members of the Central Committee for the Jews of Germany, and other victim groups will be established by the Bundestag to oversee both the building of the memorial and its information center in the year 2000.  Five years later, in May 2005, Germany’s national “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” was dedicated.

Was this the end of Germany’s Holocaust memory-work, as I had initially feared?  No, debate and controversy continued unabated.  Memorials to other victims of the Nazi Reich were proposed and built nearby, with the Denkmal becoming one node in a memorial matrix that would now include memorials to the Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, and the handicapped and disabled murdered by Hitler’s regime.  Moreover, once the parliament decided to give Holocaust memory a central place in Berlin, an even more difficult job awaited the organizers:  Defining exactly what it is to be remembered here in Peter Eisenman’s waving field of pillars.  What will Germany’s national Holocaust narrative be?  The question of the memorial’s historical content began at precisely the moment the question of memorial design ended.  Memory, which had followed history, would now be followed by still further historical debate.

Information Center of the Memorial of the Muredered Jews of Europe, designed by Dagmar von Wilcken

Today, on entering into the waving field of stelae, one is accompanied by light and sky, but the city’s other sights and sounds are gradually occluded, blocked out. From deep in the midst of the pillars, the thrum of traffic is muffled and all but disappears.  Looking up and down the pitching rows of stelae, one catches glimpses of other mourners and beyond them, one can even see to edges of the memorial itself.  At the same time, however, one feels very much alone, almost desolate, even in the company of hundreds of other visitors nearby. Depending on where one stands, along the edges or deep inside the field, the experience of the memorial varies—from the reassurance one feels on the sidewalk by remembering in the company of others, invigorated by life of the city hurtling by; to the feelings of existential aloneness from deep inside this dark forest, oppressed and depleted by the memory of mass murder, not reconciled to it.

Where does memory end and history begin here?  As so brilliantly conceived by Dagmar von Wilcken, the exhibition-designer for the “Orte der Information”, this site’s commemorative and historical dimensions interpenetrate to suggest an interdependent whole, in which neither history nor memory can stand without the other.  As one descends the stairs from the midst of the field into the “Place of Information,” it becomes clear just how crucial a complement the underground “information center” is to the field of pillars above.  It neither duplicates the field’s commemorative function, nor is it arbitrarily tacked onto the memorial site as an historical after-thought. But rather, in tandem with the field of stelae above it, the place of information reminds us of the memorial’s dual-mandate as both commemorative and informational, a site of both memory and of history, each as shaped by the other. While remaining distinct in their respective functions, however, these two sides of the memorial are also formally linked and interpenetrating.

By seeming to allow the above-ground stelae to sink into and thereby impose themselves physically into the underground space of information, the underground Information Center audaciously illustrates both that commemoration is “rooted” in historical information and that the historical presentation is necessarily “shaped” formally by the commemorative space above it.  Here we have a “place of memory” literally undergirded by a “place of history,” which is in turn inversely shaped by commemoration, and we are asked to navigate the spaces in between memory and history for our knowledge of events.  Such a design makes palpable the Yin and Yang of history and memory, their mutual interdependence and their distinct virtues.

Like the mass murder of European Jewry it commemorates, Eisenman’s memorial design provides no single vantage-point from which to view it. From above, its five-acre expanse stretches like an Escherian grid in all directions and even echoes the rolling, horizontal plane of crypts covering Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives. From its edges, the memorial is a somewhat forbidding forest of stelae, most of them between one and three meters in height, high enough to close us in, but not so high as to block out sunlight or the surrounding skyline, which includes the Brandenburger Tor and Reichstag building to the north, the renovated and bustling Potsdamer Platz to the south, and the Tiergarten across Ebertstrasse to the west.  The color and texture of the stelae change with the cast of the sky, from steely-gray on dark, cloudy days; to  sharp-edged black and white squares on sunny days;  to a softly rolling field of wheat-colored stelae, glowing almost pink in the sunset.

Only when moving back out toward the edges, toward the streets, buildings, sidewalks, and life, does hope itself come back into view. Neither memory nor one’s experience of the memorial is static here, each depending on one’s own movement into, through and out of this site.  One does not need to be up-lifted by such an experience in order to remember and even be deeply affected by it.  The result is that the memory of what Germany once did to Europe’s Jews is now forever inflected by the memory of having mourned Europe’s murdered Jews here, of having mourned the Holocaust together with others and alone, by oneself.

In post-9/11 New York, our memorial questions were very different: how to commemorate and articulate the loss of nearly 3,000 lives at the hands of terrorists and at the same time, how to create a memorial site for ongoing life and regeneration? By necessity, the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum would have to do both. This is why we chose a design that had the capacity for both remembrance and reconstruction, space for both memory of past destruction and for present life and its regeneration.  It had to be an integrative design, a complex that would mesh memory with life, embed memory in life, and balance our need for memory with the present needs of the living.  It could not be allowed to disable life or take its place, but rather inspire life, regenerate it, and provide for it.  It would have to be a design that animates and reinvigorates this site, but does not paralyze it, with memory.

In Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s design for “Reflecting Absence,” we found both the stark expressions of irreparable loss in the voids, and the consoling, regenerative forms of life in the surrounding trees and pools of water.  The cascading waterfalls simultaneously recall the source of life and the fall of the towers, even as they flow into a further unreplenishable abyss at their centers to suggest loss and absence.  The fuller and taller the trees grow, the deeper the volumes of the voids become.  The taller the surrounding skyscrapers of the World Trade Center grow, the deeper the open commemorative space at their center becomes.  In the National September 11th Memorial at Ground Zero in New York City, the memorial expressions of loss and regeneration are now built into each other, each helping to define the other.  The memorial plaza and names of the victims have been brought to grade, stitched back into the grid and fiber of the city streets of lower-Manhattan.  And finally, like the Denkmal in Berlin, the 9/11 Memorial at ground-level is anchored by the underground 9/11 Memorial Museum built beneath it, which tells the hard history of that day, as well as the life stories of those who were lost in the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001.

Underlying all of these national memorial projects, the question remains:  What do monuments and memory have to do with each other? “Every period has the impulse to create symbols in the form of monuments,” Sigmund Giedion has written, “which according to the Latin meaning are ‘things that remind,’ things to be transmitted to later generations.  This demand for monumentality cannot, in the long run, be suppressed.  It will find an outlet at all costs” (Giiedion, 28).  This may still be true, I believe, which leads me to ask just what these outlets and their costs are today.  Indeed, the forms this demand for the monumental now takes, and to what self-abnegating ends, throw the presumptive link between monuments and memory into fascinating relief.

By creating common spaces for memory, monuments propagate the illusion of common memory. Public monuments, national days of commemoration, and shared calendars thus all work to create common loci around which seemingly common national identity is forged.

Here I would like to explore the ways both the monument and our approach to it have evolved over the last 80 years or so, the ways the monument itself has been reformulated in its function as memorial, forced to confront its own limitations as a contemporary aesthetic response to recent past events such as the September 11th attacks and more distant past events such as the Holocaust.  In this somewhat contrary approach to the monument, I try to show what monuments do by what they cannot do.  Here I examine how the need for a unified vision of the past as found in the traditional monument necessarily collides with the modern conviction that neither the past nor its meanings are ever just one thing.

The real problem with monumentality, Lewis Mumford once suggested, may not be intrinsic to the monument itself so much as it is to our new age, “which has not merely abandoned a great many historic symbols, but has likewise made an effort to deflate the symbol itself by denying the values which it represents . . .” (Mumford, 179).  In an age that denies universal values, he found, there can also be no universal symbols, the kind that monuments once represented. Or as put even more succinctly by Sert, Leger, and Giedion in their revelatory 1943 essay, “Nine Points on Monumentality,” “Monuments are, therefore, only possible in periods in which a unifying consciousness and unifying culture exist” (Sert, Giedion, 48).

Where the ancients used monumentality to express the absolute faith they had in the common ideals and values that bound them together, however, the moderns (from the early 19th century onward) have replicated only the rhetoric of monumentality, in the words of Giedion, “to compensate for their own lack of expressive force.” “In this way,” according to Giedion, “the great monumental heritages of mankind became poisonous to everybody who touched them” (Giedion, 25).  For those in the modern age who insist on such forms, the result can only be a “psuedomonumentality,” what Giedion called the use of “routine shapes from bygone periods . . .  [But] because they had lost their inner significance they had become devaluated;  mere cliches without emotional justification” (25).  To some extent, we might even see such psuedomonumentality as a sign of modern longing for common values and ideals.

Ironically, in fact, these same good reasons for the modern skepticism of the monument may also begin to explain the monument’s surprising revival in late modern, or so-called postmodern societies.  Because these societies often perceive themselves as no longer bound together by universally shared myths or ideals, monuments extolling such universal values are derided as anachronistic at best, reductive mythifications of history, at worst.  How to explain, then, the monument and museums boom of the late 20th and early 21st centuries?  The more fragmented and heterogeneous societies become, it seems, the stronger their need to unify wholly disparate experiences and memories with the common meaning seemingly created in common spaces.  But rather than presuming that a common set of ideals underpins its form, the contemporary monument attempts to assign a singular architectonic form to unify disparate and competing memories.  In the absence of shared beliefs or common interests, memorial-art in public spaces asks an otherwise fragmented populace to frame diverse pasts and experiences in common spaces.  By creating common spaces for memory, monuments propagate the illusion of common memory. Public monuments, national days of commemoration, and shared calendars thus all work to create common loci around which seemingly common national identity is forged.

In an increasingly democratic age, in which the stories of nations are being told in the multiple voices of its everyday historians–i.e., its individual citizens–monolithic meaning and national narratives are as difficult to pin down as they may be nostalgically longed for.  The result has been a shift away from the notion of a national “collective memory” to what I would call a nation’s “collected memory.”

Part of our contemporary culture’s hunger for the monumental, I believe, is its nostalgia for the universal values and ethos by which it once knew itself as a unified culture.  But this reminds us of that quality of monuments that strikes the modern sensibility as so archaic, even somewhat quaint: the imposition of a single cultural icon or symbol onto a host of disparate and competing experiences, as a way to impose common meaning and value on disparate memories–all for the good of a commonwealth.  When it was done high-handedly by government regimes, and gigantic monuments were commissioned to represent gigantic self-idealizations, there was often little protest.  The masses had, in fact, grown accustomed to being subjugated by governmental monumentality, dwarfed and defeated by a regime’s over-weaning sense of itself and its importance, made to feel insignificant by an entire nation’s reason for being. But in an increasingly democratic age, in which the stories of nations are being told in the multiple voices of its everyday historians–i.e., its individual citizens–monolithic meaning and national narratives are as difficult to pin down as they may be nostalgically longed for.  The result has been a shift away from the notion of a national “collective memory” to what I would call a nation’s “collected memory.”  Here we recognize that we never really shared each other’s actual memory of past or even recent events, but that in sharing common spaces in which we collect our disparate and competing memories, we find common (perhaps even a national) understanding of widely disparate experiences and our very reasons for recalling them.

This relatively newfound sense of public ownership of national memory, that this memory may actually be ours somehow and not on vicarious loan to us for the sake of common identity, has been embraced by a new generation of memorial-makers who also harbor a deep distrust for traditionally static forms of the monument, which in their eyes have been wholly discredited by their consort with the last century’s most egregiously dictatorial regimes.  Seventy years after the defeat of the Nazi regime, contemporary artists in Germany still have difficulty separating the monument there from its fascist past.  In their eyes, the didactic logic of monuments—their demagogical rigidity and certainty of history—continues to recall too closely traits associated with fascism itself.  How else would totalitarian regimes commemorate themselves except through totalitarian art like the monument?  Conversely, how better to celebrate the fall of totalitarian regimes than by celebrating the fall of their monuments?  Monuments against fascism, or against the totalitarian regime of the former Soviet Union, therefore, would have to be monuments against themselves:  against the traditionally didactic function of monuments, against their tendency to displace the past they would have us contemplate—and finally, against the authoritarian propensity in monumental spaces that reduces viewers to passive spectators.

Monuments against fascism, or against the totalitarian regime of the former Soviet Union, therefore, would have to be monuments against themselves:  against the traditionally didactic function of monuments, against their tendency to displace the past they would have us contemplate—and finally, against the authoritarian propensity in monumental spaces that reduces viewers to passive spectators.

Rather than continuing to insist that the monument do what modern societies, by dint of their vastly heterogeneous populations and competing memorial agendas, will not permit them to do, I’ve long believed that the best way to save the monument, if it’s worth saving at all, is to enlarge its life and texture to include its genesis in historical time, the activity that brings a monument into being, the debates surrounding its origins, its production, its reception, its life in the mind.  That is to say, rather than seeing polemics as a by-product of the monument, I would make the polemics surrounding a monument’s existence one of its central, animating features. For I believe that in our age of heteroglossia (Bakhtin’s term), the monument succeeds only insofar as it allows itself full expression of the debates, arguments, and tensions generated in the noisy give and take among competing constituencies driving its very creation.  In this view, memory as represented in the monument might also be regarded as a never-to-be-completed process, animated (not disabled) by the forces of history bringing it into being.

In his concluding chapter of Oblivion (entitled “A Duty to Forget),” ethnographer and social theorist Marc Augé echoes Nietzsche’s case against the kinds of fixed memory that disable life.  But here he extends this critique by reminding us that because memory and oblivion “stand together, both [ ] necessary for the full use of time,” only together can they enable life (Auge, 89).  Even survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, who do not need to be reminded of their duty to remember, may have the additional duty to survive memory itself.  And to do this may mean to begin forgetting, according to Augé, “in order to find faith in the everyday again and mastery over their time” (88).  In this view, the value of life in its quotidian unfolding and the meaning we find in such life are animated by a constant, fragile calculus of remembering and forgetting, a constant tug and pull between memory and oblivion, each an inverted trace of the other. “We must forget in order to remain present, forget in order not to die, forget in order to remain faithful,” Augé concludes.  “Faithful to what?” we ask.  Faithful to life in its present, quotidian moment, I say.

In my new book, The Stages of Memory (from which this lecture was adapted), I recount a handful of memorials, memory-themed exhibitions, and museum-debates that took place between 1991 and 2014, which when regarded together, might trace what I call “the arc of memorial vernacular” connecting the dots between Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans’ Monument, Berlin’s “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” and the “National 9/11 Memorial” located on the site of the former Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.  The “stages of memory” here refer both to the public staging of these memorial projects and to the incremental sequence (or stages) of these memorial processes as they unfold.  In every case, the emphasis here is on the process and work of memory over what we might call its end result.  With this in mind, I would even suggest that as great and brilliant as Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s realized design for the National 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero may be, its true foundation is the process that brought it into being, which includes the hundreds of thousands of hours spent by the other 5,200 teams in their offices and studios, at their families’ kitchen tables.  The “stages of memory” at Ground Zero necessarily include both the built memorial and the unbuilt proposals, which deserve and will surely have their own public showing one day.


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– – – – – .  At Memory’s Edge:  After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture.  New Haven and London:  Yale University Press, 2000.

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– – – – – . “The Stages of Memory at Ground Zero,” in Oren Baruch Stier and J. Shawn Landres, Eds. Religion,Violence, Memory, and Place. Bloomington and Indianapolis:  Indiana University Press, 2006.

– – – – – .  “Die Gedenkstatte des World Trade Center:  Bericht Eines Jurymitglieds uber die Stadien der Erinnerung.” In Gunter Schlusche, Ed. Architektur der Erinnerung:  NS-Verbrechen in der europaischen Gedenkkultur.  Berlin:  Nicolai/Akademie der Kunste, 2006.


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