Contested Public Space Memories and History Research Paper

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Contested Public Space: Memories and History

Das Denkmal fur Die Ermordeten Juden Europas

The Memory Landscape.

Mary's is a large old-style brick church belonging to the council of the Hanseatic city of Lubeck. On the floor at the rear of the church, broken pieces of two large bells remain where they fell during an air raid in World War II. The third largest church in Germany, it took 100 years to construct St. Mary's but just one Palm Sunday night in March of 1942 to nearly destroy it. As with so many churches ruined by bombing during the war, parishioners debated about restoration. Citizens living on war-torn homeland are caught: There is a lingering desire to preserve physical destruction as a message or signal to subsequent generations, or as an effort to share the horror of war time experience. If the physical evidence of war is wiped away, then memory lives only in that intangible, solo world of the mind. No one can ever quite understand war who has not endured it. And there is also a defiant need to return everything to the way it was, or to an even more glorious state, to wipe out the ugliness, and hopefully, the ugly memories along with it. Often the desire to preserve the memories dominates the wish to forget.

The study of how the public engages with the past through built space encompasses the fields of history, cultural and critical theory, and memory studies. This paper will explore a contested space through an examination of the dynamics that shaped the actual physicality, beliefs about how the contested space informs history, or deliberately decouples from it, and how stakeholders express their perceptions of the cultural memory. "Identifying the use of space in any given moment -- the occupation of space in any given moment -- provides the opportunity to reveal contrasting, contradictory uses of space, to identify the ideological struggles that look to inscribe meaning."[footnoteRef:1] [1: Dobrin, Sidney I. (2007). The Occupation of Composition. In Christopher J. Keller and Christian R. Weissner. The Locations of Composition. New York, NY: Suny Press.]

Vergangenheitsbewaltigung is one of those extraordinary compound words that baffle first by their sheer length and ability to stump a tongue not schooled in classic German, and baffle again in the struggle to interpret an exact meaning. In English, the closest translation is "struggle to come to terms with the past." Vergangenheit means "past" in German, and means Bewaltigung "coming to terms with or mastering." Although the reader could fairly assume that the past that is referred to means history, that interpretation would be too broad. For contemporary Germans, the word conveys a very explicit meaning. Vergangenheitsbewaltigung refers to the process of digesting, analyzing, and finally learning to live with the Holocaust as part of Germany's history.

One of the ways Germany has come to terms with its past is to create a "memory landscape"[footnoteRef:2] in its cities and across the countryside, wherever Nazis and World War II left terrible traces. Journalist Lea Rosh worked dedicated 17 years of her life to an addition of the memory landscape that many Germans -- Jews and non-Jews -- did not believe necessary. Rosh first proposed the idea of a central memorial to Jews murdered by the Nazis in 1988. She set up a foundation and began to collect donations toward its construction. One year later, Berlin citizens turned their attention to the fall of the Berlin Wall. An intense focus on the present -- not the past -- occupied German citizenry. The tasks of rebuilding and reorganizing Berlin, the challenges of unifying two states, were at the forefront. But in 1998, the idea of locating a Holocaust memorial in Berlin appealed to the Bundestag and a resolution to erect the memorial was passed. Rosh insisted, as she had all along, that the memorial had to be built for the Germans and not for the Jews. That the memorial is referred in several ways by Germans underscores this issue. [2: (n.a.) (2008, January 3).Germany's Jews:latkes and vodka, he Economist. Retrieved]

The Siting of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.

The formal name for the memorial is Das Denkmal fur Die Ermordeten Juden Europas, which translates to "The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe." Significantly, the memorial is commonly referred to as Holocaust-Mahnmal. Mahnmal translates to the English memorial, while Denkmal refers to a large structure -- a monument. But to German, the word Mahnmal carries more meaning than just that of a remembrance memorial -- it conveys a sense of admonition and warning, an urging and an appeal. This quotidian phrase used to refer to the memorial indicates that Germans received Rosh's message. The memorial is not a cenotaph, or empty tomb, necessarily. In fact, designer / architect Peter Eisenman specifically stated he did not want names on the slabs because then the memorial would just be a cemetery.

In what apparently has been a tangible and practical way to address Vergangenheitsbewaltigung, Germany has established many memorials, museums, and monuments to mark the Holocaust on German soil and in German memories. In addition to the concentration camps and transit camps -- most of which are frozen in time -- many towns and some villages have plaques on buildings or brass bricks in paved areas that link to specific atrocities or record the names of murdered or Jews. "Opposition to the building of the memorial feared it would trivialize memory and encourage its misuses in adding yet another site to the already saturated ?eld of Holocaust Memory" (Young, 2003).[footnoteRef:3] [3: Young, J. (2003) "Germany's Holocaust Memorial Problem and Mine." In Gabriel R. Ricci, "Justice and the Politics of Memory," Religion and Public Life, 33: 55 -- 70. ]

In 1999, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the seat of government shifted from Bonn to Berlin. An idea ripened: To some, it was logical and right that the Holocaust memorial become part of the expansive new development of official buildings with the district of Berlin-Mitte. Mitte means middle or center in German, but this is more than just a geographic or cartographic designation. The Mitte area is the heart of Alt-Berlin, or old Berlin. Separated from the Brandenberg district in 1920, it became the first official district in the city. The Mitte, literally in the center of Alt-Berlin, was the hardest hit of all districts of Berlin, and it was nearly enclosed by the Berlin Wall. Reclaiming the Mitte was a matter of significant civic pride to Berliners.

Seventeen years of dispute surrounded the design, construction, and location of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. A fundamental objection was that of the location -- the site of the memorial itself. It was considered by many to be a built memorial that was not authentic.[footnoteRef:4] Many Germans felt that the Holocaust Memorial should not be located in the heart of Berlin -- just a short walk from the Brandenburg Tor, Potsdamer Platz, Tiergarten, the office of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, and the site of Adolf Hitler's Chancellery and bunker -- in the middle of the tourist's Berlin bulls-eye. A 20,000 square meter plot was designated as the construction site, right in the middle of unified Berlin's new governmental city center. The site itself prevents the memorial from being considered authentic, in the narrow sense of the word. However, significance is derived from the sighting of the memorial, with its obvious centrality. [4: Dekel, Irit. Ways of looking: Observation and transformation at the Holocaust Memorial, Berlin, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem Mount Scopus, Jerusalem]

The memorial's direct proximity to the most important institutions of the nation, including the Reichstag, serves as effective shorthand to convey the centrality the German state accords the Holocaust in the nation's history and contemporary political life.[footnoteRef:5] [5: Thakkar, Sonali. Transnational memory and culture and the counter-monument today. Memory and Politics Workshop,, New York, NY: Columbia University.]

What was surprising is that most of the debate occurred after the decision had formally been made by the Bundestag to erect the memorial. The nature of the debate was much different in Berlin than it would have been today in a different city in a different country. It is a legitimate question to ask how much Vergangenheitsbewaltigung paved the way.[footnoteRef:6] The ways of Berlin are not necessarily those of other large urban areas. As Thakkar pointed out, [6: Jordan, Jennifer. "Blank Slates and Authentic Traces: Memorial Culture in Berlin After 1945." In Structures of Memory: Understanding Urban Change in Berlin and Beyond. Stanford University Press, 2006, pp. 23-58.]

While the site of the Berlin memorial may indeed be prime real estate, there is no question that building such an expansive memorial in Berlin (with its sprawling urban geography, relative sparse population, and underused and under-occupied urban infrastructure) is on a different order, economically and politically speaking, than building similarly "empty spaces" in New York. One need only compare the nature of the political squabbles in New York (where…

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