Historical memory is not about victims – it’s about us

 

640px Person jumping at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of EuropeMemorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin. Wikimedia/Alphamouse. Creative commons.

by Eric Heinze

Berlin’s Holocaust memorial – at the heart of the city from which the extermination of Europe’s Jews was plotted and managed – will remain forever controversial. That’s its job.

No adjective is more abused in the endorsement of contemporary art than ‘radical’, but this is the rare creation to which the word applies. The Berlin memorial has raised eyebrows from the day of its inauguration in 2005.

Its site houses 2711 concrete rectangles, identical in depth (2.38m) and width (.95m), creating a criss-cross of public walkways. We find a field of nameless, faceless, industrially manufactured coffins – funerary sites for victims who were denied burials because they were denied existence as humans. The blocks also recall the vacuously modernist rank and file of barracks housing inmates systematically worked, beaten, starved, and gassed to death.

The blocks differ in one respect only – in height, ranging from 0.2 to 4.7m. That meek residue of non-conformity allows each slab to heave its own, perpetually futile, gasp of individuality.

The Berlin memorial is not a museum, but an open space. It draws in visitors from around the world. The only people barred are those who bar themselves by deliberately avoiding it, studiously avoiding its pauses and its silences.

Many unsuspecting tourists drift in altogether clueless about what the space is. They at first assume it to be just another spectacle of zany modern art.

But plenty of others know exactly where they are.

‘Are these the most tasteless selfies yet?’ demanded a 2014 Daily Mail headline, portraying what you’ll easily see there yourself: passers-by gleefully hopping, skipping and jumping among the tombstones of genocide.

We witness the same scenes amidst memorial landmarks in Auschwitz or Sachsenhausen. This, the visitors apparently surmise, counts as irony. We can only shudder imagining a survivor returning to these sites to witness groups of tourists yawning, giggling and texting away.

Perhaps the entire monument is a monumental mistake? Perhaps it stands more as an insult than as a tribute to the Nazis’ ravenously devoured victims?  

Yet the designers anticipated those responses from the outset. The memorial offers not a glimpse of facts, but a glimpse of ourselves. It rejects the mode of the conventional museum display. It rejects the assumption of the visitor as a passive spectator. If there’s one thing the message of the Holocaust can never easily abide, it’s the passive spectator. The memorial interrogates the visitor. Only one ‘fact’ about the Holocaust is ever on display: your secret responses.

As time passes, some of those tourists may glance back at their jolly mementos. If that time should come, they may ask themselves: ‘What were we doing? Why did we allow ourselves to behave that way?’

Those are the only questions a genocide memorial can put to us. What were we doing? Why did we allow ourselves to behave that way?

The memorial’s architect Peter Eisenman knew, of course, that the less dignified responses, starting with sheer frivolity, would soon stray into bleaker terrain. For years the shrine, although altogether repelling some antisemites, has magnetically attracted others. And their cleverness is breathtaking: ‘This place honours Jews. So let’s do just the opposite.’

Enter a prize specimen, Alain Soral, erstwhile leftist filmmaker turned far-right antisemite. No sooner had we discovered the quenelle, that infamous Nazi salute oh-so ingeniously repackaged as ‘anti-establishment rather than anti-Semitic’, than do we find Soral duly shuffling off to Berlin to perform it.

Guess where?

Soral beams with that fatuous self-seriousness matched only by a Heinrich Himmler surveying the masses of nameless, faceless sheep ecstatically braying at Nuremberg rallies. The quenelle first achieved global fame with Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, another one-time leftist entertainer, later Soral’s partner in a French political group that calls itself the ‘Anti-Zionist Party’. As long as it’s ‘only’ about Zionism, so the mantra goes, then it has ‘nothing at all’ to do with Jews. Disturbing numbers of Jews themselves believe that fairy tale. We like the story that keeps the world simple.

Footballer Nicolas Anelka later publicly enacted the quenelle. Anelka defended the gesture even after being loudly advised of its antisemitic meaning. (We generously assume here that Anelka had been, errrm, unaware of that meaning beforehand). Anelka later apologised – out of concern for a comfortable career and reputation, and not because the tedious memory of a bunch of Jewish Holocaust victims was haunting his good night’s rest.

Soral has since faced penalties and has been condemned by organisations fighting anti-Semitism, including Licra in France and Get the Trolls Out in Europe. As it happens, I do not favour such penalties as a legal matter. But that’s a separate debate. The question for now is: How comfortable are we with a memorial that ends up supplying the perfect backdrop for every piddling antisemite with the brains to operate a mobile phone?

In the end, however, such a question has little to do with the Berlin memorial. That site is no more vulnerable to acts of desecration than any other monument. It’s the risk we run when we build them. The Berlin monument was conceived to embrace desacralising acts as part of its universe, as part of our universe. It avoids idealising the act of collective memory by wishing those acts away. It’s all too easy to freeze our Holocaust memory into an eternal yesterday. It’s less convenient to confront Judeophobia today.

By including acts of defilement into its self-conception, the Berlin monument remains the most resilient in repelling them. After all, it had never promised to symbolise anything – except us. 

Eric Heinze is Professor of Law at Queen Mary, University of London and advisor to “Get the Trolls Out” project. Heinze’s most recent book, Hate Speech and Democratic Citizenship, will be published by Oxford University Press early next year.

This article was originally published on Open Democracy