Every city and town in Germany has memorials. Some are hundreds of years old; others are new. There are statues of the poet-philosopher Goethe and the Iron Chancellor Bismark; eagle-topped stone columns that proclaim German victories in Imperial wars. Near cemeteries or town halls, tall moss-covered stones are engraved with the names of soldiers who died in Wars. The horrors of National Socialism and World War Two are memorialized more than any other events of German history. In many German towns and cities the victims are remembered – I’ve seen memorials to Jews, to Social Democrats and Communists, to Roma and Sinti, and to homosexuals who were persecuted and murdered.
These memorials are supposed to keep Germans from forgetting the atrocities their parents and grandparents allowed and committed. Imagine if victims of state-orchestrated and condoned violence were widely commemorated in the United States –throughout the country, we would need memorials to Native Americans, African Americans and Chinese laborers. In Germany, I’ve seen memorials to Soviet and Americans soldiers and I wonder if Deutschland is the only country that honors those who defeated them: the victorious Allies who won WWII.
The German language has more than one way of saying memorial. Denkmal is the generic word. Literally translated, it means “thinking mark” – an image or symbol that makes the viewer stop and think. When you separate the word into its components, the meaning changes slightly: denk – think, mal - once is a suggestion to take a moment to contemplate. There is also the word Mahnmal. Mahnen is an exhortation to people not to forget something and it carries a sense of urgency and a note of reprimand.
The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin is a Mahnmal, urging visitors to remember the European Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Every year, thousands of tourists visit this five acre sloping site covered with a grid of almost three thousand concrete slabs. Public figures gather here to pay their respects. Some Germans refer to centralized memorials like this one as Kranzabwurfstellen – drop-off sites for commemorative wreaths – implying that official commemoration has become a routine, an obligatory gesture for politicians with packed appointment calendars.
When I’m in Germany, I pay special attention to the memorials I pass. I stop to read the inscription and I consider the historical events that are marked. I wonder if passersby actually see any of that. Does the Denkmal seem abandoned and ignored or is it tended? In other words, is it dead or is it alive? If people stop and engage with a memorial, it’s alive. The woman who places a bouquet at the bronze statue of a man with bounds hands is paying her respects to the German Resistance fighters who opposed Hitler. What about the children who break away from their parents to play hide and seek among the slabs of the Holocaust Memorial– are they disgracing the site or filling it with life?
Sometimes I see a Denkmal that moves me deeply. It pulls me into a web of facts and experiences that cannot be easily summarized or put into order. It opens up layers of feelings, reminding me that life is complex and people’s actions can be disturbing as well as uplifting. A moving memorial drops me into history and makes me want to know more about the past. At the same time, it makes me very aware of the present. I pause to think about the events going on now, all over the world. How will these shape the future? And how will they be remembered?