A Self-Serving Admission of Guilt: An Examination of the Intentions and Effects of Germany's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

In 2011, Humanity in Action published its first book, Reflections on the Holocaust. The essays collected in this volume were written by Humanity in Action Fellows, Senior Fellows, board members and lecturers who participated in Humanity in Action's educational programs from 1997 to 2010.


“We all recognize that a Holocaust memorial in Berlin is fundamentally different…the memorial can only be understood and accepted if it is the result of a fundamentally German initiative” - Moshe Safadie (1) 

Between the intersections of Hannah-Arendt Strasse, Cora-Berliner Strasse, and Behren-strasse in Berlin, 2,711 gray concrete stelae of varying heights rise above the ground. This site is the Field of Stelae, otherwise known to the world as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The Memorial commemorates the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and etches the event in the permanent memory of Germany’s history and landscape. However, the abstract monument invites a series of questions since it bears no marker indicating the title or even the purpose of this massive memorial. Thus, although the Memorial was heralded to the world on May 10, 2005, an approaching visitor, unaware of the existence of such a monument, could remain bewildered about its purpose, meaning, and intended commemoration of the victims.

Peter Eisenman purposefully designed an abstract monument. Since “the enormity and scale of the horror of the Holocaust is such that any attempt to repre- sent it by traditional means is inevitably inadequate,” Eisenman deliberately broke from established concepts of memorialization and adopted a radical approach of avoiding all symbolism (Japan Times 2005). The number of slabs, differing heights, and grid-like structure do not have any representational significance (Fleishman 2005) and interpretation is left up to the viewer. The only concrete description of the site is in its nomen- clature, which is not represented at the site itself.

The permanent nature of the structure productively challenges its audience to take ownership of the Holocaust in a new manner. Whereas guilt is an emotion that people attempt to absolve their minds of, this memorial allows for a sense of “collective responsibility,” which “can- not be neatly ignored or packed away” (Ouroussoff 2005). The transformation of guilt into collective responsibility suggests that action must be taken to ensure that the negative events of the past do not happen again in the future. Germans have been incorporating this social conviction of “never again” into their national identity, a counterpoint to the argument that “a finished monument would, in effect, finish memory itself…this would not be a place where Germans would come to unshoulder their memorial burden” (Young 2000).

The Controversy Behind the Memorial

Though not physically represented on the site, the memorial’s title poses a semantic problem. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe connotes that the Memorial’s purpose serves as an apology to the Jews for the atrocities Germany committed during the Holocaust. The title is misleading since it focuses on the recipients of the apology and ignores those apologizing, who in this case dominate the other. This apology serves as a means through which Germany attempts to reconcile with its past. When one separates the effects of the Memorial from its intended purposes, one discovers that this memorial was not created for the murdered Jews, but rather on behalf of the murdered Jews and to the Germans.

Stephan Kramer, the General Secretary of the Central Council of the Jews, claims that the words “We did not ask for it. We do not need it” represent the Jewish community’s adamant rejection of the Memorial proposal (Kramer 2005). Germany’s choice in determining how it wishes to commemorate the Jewish victims of the Holocaust does not reflect the sentiments of its Jewish population. The community objected on the grounds that the memorial was conceived by Lea Rosh, a non-Jewish German. The Council, represented by President Paul Spiegel, suggested that promoting visits to actual, relevant Holocaust sites would bring about a more authentic form of remembrance than a Memorial. Other members of the Jewish community felt that more attention should be given to living Jews rather than highlighting their plight during World  War II.

However, when one considers the purpose of the Memorial, as officially stated by the German parliament, the reaction of Germany’s  current  Jewish  population  becomes  largely irrelevant to the discourse on the Memorial’s existence. The German parliament intended “to honor the murdered victims, keep alive the memory of…inconceivable events in German history and admonish all future generations never again to violate human rights, to defend the democratic constitutional state at all times, to secure equality before the law for all people and to resist all forms of dictatorship and regimes based on violence” (Bundestag Resolution 1999). There is no reference to a specific portion of Germany’s living population, Jewish or otherwise.

As the well-known German political commentator Hendrik M. Broder states, the Memorial is “not meant to commemorate the Jews,” but rather“is meant to flatter the Germans” (Santana 2005). This opinion is representative of the overall argument that the Memorial serves as a convenient opportunity for the German public to “wash its hands clean” of the negative events that mar its past. The slabs of “dull grey concrete blocks that jut up irregularly like an other-worldly graveyard” (Prince-Gibson 2005) are permanent, implying that the memory of the Holocaust will become frozen, buried – never to be unearthed again. Having designated an impressive 27.6 million Euros for the project, a “millstone that the republic has demonstratively bound to its leg” (FAZ 2005), German government officials showed that this memorial was high on their agenda. In the words of Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit, “the way for the Germans to re-establish themselves as an ethical community is to turn their cruelty, which is what tied them to the Jews, into repentance” (Schofield 2005).

Practical Functions of Abstract Art

The location of the memorial site makes it a monument that Germans cannot ignore. In fact, many Germans feel that it enhances the aesthetics of their city, and appreciate the fact that it is a public space (Memorial Site Surveys 2005). The location could not be more central, politically speaking: both the Reichstag, Germany’s seat of the lower house of parliament, and the Bundesrat, the upper house, are just a few meters away. Other historically renowned sites nearby include the Brandenburg Gate, Embassy Way, and the Potsdamer Platz. Most significantly, the memorial is located in the core where political planning of the Jewish extermination took place: Goebbels’ bunker, unchanged to this day, lies directly beneath the Field of Stelae.

For Germans, the political significance of the location extends beyond the physical landmarks surrounding the site. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, a new Germany was envisioned. The reunification process overwhelmed and preoccupied the German public during the ensuing years, culminating in the transfer of the capital from Bonn to Berlin. The shift served to reconcile the old with the new, the East with the West. However, Lea Rosh, the most prominent and infamous impetus of the “initiative of civilians” (Quack 2005) for the Memorial, saw a growing danger that her country was looking into the future of a reunified Germany at the cost of remembering its past (Apthorp 2005). Therefore, in order for Germany not to forget the past amidst its transformation, she took it upon herself to create a central, physical place of remembrance in the heart of the nation’s new capital.

On the international level, the Memorial serves as a way to improve Germany’s image in the eyes of outsiders. The Memorial was the first of its kind to serve as an implicit apology to governments of other countries for its actions during World War II (Leinemann 2005). Nations throughout the world are responding positively to Germany’s decision to create a memorial and are broadly sympathetic to the challenges of erecting a memorial involving such difficult subject matter.

Commemoration Without Education?

When one considers that this memorial is categorized as a “Mahnmal,” a memorial that is designed, beyond commemoration, to warn and admonish, the principle of education becomes one of its key goals (Berg, 2005). No argument reflects more strongly that this memorial was created for the German people, and not for the Jews, than the potential that such a memorial offers for keeping alive the memory, education, and potential lessons of- fered by the Holocaust. According to Sandra Anusiewicz, an education curator at the Jewish Museum, the Jews “know about the Holocaust. We don’t need a memorial to help us remember. We remember. The Holocaust memorial is for the Germans.” (Sawyer 2005) The Memorial, to accommodate this desire for German Holocaust education, houses an underground Information Center. The Center seeks to provide the educational counterpart to the abstract Field of Stelae above it. Although Eisenman did not wish to include this Information Center, many argued that such an abstract design needed to be placed in context in order for it to have meaning. After much debate as to the proper scope of this memorial, a political compromise was made and the Information Center was added to the memorial’s plans. As Quack stated,“One should not build a memorial without providing a formal, historically sound, and appropriately comprehensive explanation for it” (Quack 2005).

The Information Center seeks to provide a context for the Memorial through five rooms. These five rooms each present a different function: providing a brief overview of the events between 1933-1945; featuring fifteen excerpts from personal accounts written by Jewish men and women during the time of persecution; crafting an overview of Jewish family life in various countries; presenting an auditory reading of the names and short biographies of the six million victims; (2) offering a repository of victims’ names from Yad Vashem; and supplying a database of Holocaust museums throughout Europe and Holocaust memorials and places where Jews were persecuted. This Information Center takes the abstract nature of the Field of Stelae above it and breaks it down to the level of the individual victim, thereby providing a bridge between the openness of the abstract architecture and the concrete reality of the Holocaust.

While political compromise brought about the existence of an Information Center, the compromise failed to integrate fully the principle of education into the Memorial. Since the Information Center lies under ground and is not immediately visible to the passer-by, many visitors do not take advantage of this resource. In fact, several interviewed visitors were unaware of the existence of the underground education facility (Memorial Site Survey 2005). This ignorance is particularly problematic since it prevents those visiting the site from attaining the desired effect. Initially, Markus Wachter, a photographer for the Berliner Zeitung newspaper, was not moved by the monument: “I can’t find the special emotion related to the real Holocaust in this concrete field,” he said. “You could think it’s just a place for children to play hide-and-seek.” However, a visit to the Information Center changed his response:“if you initially go to the museum and then view the memorial, it becomes very moving” (The Nation 2005).

In addition to providing a context for the Stelae, the center connects the visitor to the actual authentic places of the Holocaust and inspires a desire to self-educate. The last room of the Information Center, the Holocaust Memorials Database, lists existing sites and Holocaust research institu- tions throughout Europe and reinforces Paul Spiegel’s desire to inspire visits to “former concentration and death camps, the mass graves, the places of execution, shooting and torture, the platforms from which people were carted away in cattle wagons.”

Discriminating Among Victims

Commemorating only the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, as reflected in its title, the Memorial deliberately distinguishes the murdered Jews from other victimized groups, including homosexuals, Sinti (Roma), and mentally disabled individuals. The decision to focus only on Jews is a result of the sheer volume of Jewish victims and the consideration that “when Germany murdered half of its Jewish population, and sent the rest into exile, and set about murdering another 5.5 million European Jews, it deliberately,” and perhaps permanently, “cut the Jewish lobe of its culture from its brain. [It created a] Germany [that] suffers from a self-inflicted Jewish aphasia”(Young 2000). The result of the policy of Jewish extermination exposed the loss of the Jewish part of German culture, creating a “palpable and gaping wound in the German psyche… that must appear as such in Berlin’s otherwise reunified cityscape” (Young 2000). Additionally, “the murder of European Jewry was the most crucial topic within Nazi policy and ideology. It was THE symbol of Nazi atrocities” (Quack 2005). These factors, therefore, placed the murdered Jews in the first position of the hierarchy of those groups to be commemorated, although,  among some, this remains contentious belief.

The need to distinguish among persecuted groups was also recognized and fueled by the failure of memorials “that tended to remember all victims of war” (Quack 2005). Memorials such as Die Neue Wache sought to pay tribute to all victims of war, and in this process, ho- mologated all the victims; these “were memorials for everybody, as expressed through the symbol of a mater dolo- rosa” (Quack 2005). The commemorated populations in Neue Wache problematically include, alongside the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, all Germans who suffered through the bombings.

For the Federal Republic of Germany, a memorial designed to provide a place of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust could not conflate these victims with the perpetrators; to avoid this danger, Germany chose to specify (Brinkman 2005).

The seemingly simple choice to limit the Memorial’s scope to the murdered Jews, however, had divisive and politically relevant consequences. Kurt Julius Goldstein, a German Jew who survived 18 months of slave labor in Auschwitz, for example, states that he “lived through [the Holocaust], and [the Nazis] didn’t begin and end with the Jews.” He questions, “How can we focus on our own suffering and ignore that of the physically and mentally handicapped, the gays, the Gypsies, the communists, those who opposed them? This should be a place to unite us. Instead, just like before, it divides” (Schofield 2005).  Others worry that this memorial will contribute to the ignorance regarding the full history of the Holocaust; many visitors fear that the focus on the Jewish population will perpetuate the erroneous belief that the only victims of the Holocaust were the Jewish people (Memorial Site Survey 2005). The Memorial, in public discourse, is often referred to as the “Holocaust Memorial” (Quack 2005). One can only speculate whether this name, often replacing the memorial’s true title, is indicative of the perpetuation of the belief that Jews alone were victimized. Sergey Lagodinsky of the American-Jewish Committee, however, rejects these two fears with the following: “The memorial is improving the discourse for the specific victims being memorialized and for all groups in general. As each group works towards having its own future memorial…we can see the differences and similarities in the ‘how’s and ‘why’s of each persecuted group. The discussion furthermore shows the singularity of the victimization that occurred for the Jewish people. We can see that this tragedy was unparalleled” (Lagodinsky 2005).

Evaluating the Memorial's Success

There is no universal definition for a “successful memorial,” as each memorial is measured against a unique context. One way to assess the memorial’s success is to measure it against the purpose stated by its creators. With this memorial, Germany expressed the desire to honor, to remember, and to admonish. However, to achieve these three aspirations, Germany adopted a radical approach which some believe has compromised its success.

On all three counts, the Memorial failed to realize its full potential. Too many interviewees left the memorial site confused or merely fascinated by the aesthetic impression of the structure. Some even reacted adversely, with revulsion, refusing to explore the site beyond the surface (Memorial Site Survey 2005), which leads to a superficial understanding of the monument. On a practical level, the Memorial needs signs pointing directly to the Information Center and needs to ensure that school visits include a mandatory visit center.

Before the design of the Memorial  had been selected, there was a fear that the German public would not accept it and, by its re- jection, prove to the world that it remains an anti-Semitic country. However, “the public is accepting it very well, in the first month alone, as over 60,000 people visited the Information Center” (Keller 2005).

The most visible sign of this Memorial’s success is the dialogue spurred by the memorial-building process and continued by the Memorial’s physical presence. James Young noted that the Germans “may have failed to produce a monument [that satisfies everyone], but if you count the sheer number of design hours that 528 teams of artists and architects have already devoted to the memorial, it’s clear that your process has already generated more individual memory-work than a finished monument will inspire in its first ten years” (Young 2000). Individuals who visit the site often discover new facts or are exposed to personal stories that result in their leaving the site with “extraordinary experiences” that prompt further dialogue and thinking about the Holocaust (Keller 2005).

This Memorial is also valuable for its ability to bring the lessons of the Holocaust into the public’s mind and to keep social action in the forefront of current national interest. The Memorial marks the acceptance of the Holocaust into Germany’s permanent national identity in a manner that fuses German identity with a dedication to never forget the past in order to prevent such acts from happening again. It is a reminder of the German phrase,“Wehret den Anfängen,” or “Beware the Beginnings,” signifying that this Memorial is a reflection of the German’s public consciousness and physical promise to stop human rights violations before they become acts of magnitude.
One might argue that this memorial came too late, sixty years after the end of World War II. After all, the firsthand witnesses would inevitably have had more extreme responses than their descendants. On the contrary, the Memorial did not come too late; it is designed for a specific subset of the pop-ulation: the young Germans who call themselves the “Third Generation” (Marzynski 2005). These young Germans, the grandchildren of those who took part in World War II, are the ones who will live with the Memorial in spite of Eisenman’s desire to keep the Memorial free from symbolism. It is their Memorial.
For the past sixty years, Germany dealt with the Holocaust primarily through guilt. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe now presents the opportunity for catharsis, both through debate and by virtue of its presence; the memorial offers a path toward a more positive sense of national identity and provides a template that other countries may follow.
 •     •     • 

About the Authors

Sharon M. Chin is a Senior Fellow from the Humanity in Action 2005 program in Berlin, Germany. She is a graduate of Columbia University, where she studied political science, English, and human rights. Sharon currently works in consulting, moving between private and social sector engagements. She is based in New York City.
Fabian Franke was a HIA fellow in 2005. Born in Dresden, he studied politics and management in Konstanz (Germany). Since 2006, Fabian has been working as a business consultant in Berlin.
Sheri Halpern, from the Washington, DC area, has had a lifelong interest in social justice. Before beginning her JD/MPH dual degree at Emory University in 2008, Sheri attended the University of Pennsylvania (C'06) and taught middle school special education for two years in the South Bronx through Teach for America.


Chin, Sharon M., Fabian Franke, and Sheri Halpern. "A Self-Serving Admission of Guilt: An Examination of the Intentions and Effects of Germany's  Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe." In Reflections on the Holocaustedited by Julia Zarankin, 13-21. New York: Humanity in Action, Inc. and authors, 2011.


 1. Moshe Safadie is an Israeli-born architect whose design proposal for this memorial was rejected  (Wollheim 2005].

2. As of this date, the database only contains the names and stories of 800 Jewish victims. The ultimate goal of the room is to obtain a biography for every victim.

Books and articles cited:

APTHORP, SHIRLEY "Memorial to All of Europe's Slain Jews in Germany's First." The Vancouver Sun, British Columbia, May 7, 2005. p. A12.

CRAMER, ERNST "German Daily Says Berlin Holocaust Memorial is Insuficient." Die Welt, Berlin, May 10. 2005. p. 8.

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG "Das neue Holocaust Mahnmal," Frankfurt, May 10, 2005.

FLEISHMAN, JEFFREY "Permanent Memory of Holocaust' Opens in Berlin." The Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, May 11, 2005. p. 3.

JAPAN TIMES EDITORIAL "A Holocaust Memorial." Japan Times. Japan, May 14, 2005.

KRAMER, STEPHAN "Jewish Life after the Shoa in Germany, HiA Lecture by Secretary General of the Central Council of the Jews in Germany." Berlin, June 20, 2005.

MARZYNSKI, MARIAN "Good Guilt in Germany." The Washington Post. Washington, D.C, May 28, 2005. p.A25.

THE NATION STAFF WRITER "A Song for Six Million." The Nation. Thailand, June 11, 2005.

OUROUSSOFF, NICOLAI "A Forest of Pillars, Recalling the Unimaginable." The New York Times. New York, May 9, 2005. p.1.

PRINCE-GIBSON, EETTA "Memorial to Murdered Jews to be Unveiled." The Jerusalem Post. Jerusalem, May 10, 2005. p.6.

SANTANA, REBECCA "Holocaust Memorial No Balm for Berlin; City Split Over Size, Design, Intent." The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta, November 6, 2003. p.2B.

SAWYER, JON "Holocaust Leaves Long Shadow Across Culture, Speech." St.-Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc., St. Louis, May 22, 2005. p.B1.

SCHOFIELD, MATTHEW "Critics say Holocaust Memorial Forgets Some." Chattanooga Times Free Press, Chattanooga, May 8, 2005. p.A10.

WOLLHEIM, CORINNA DA FONSECA "Sacred Ground, Sullied Ground." The New York Sun, New York, May 10, 2005. p.13.

YOUNG, JAMES E. "At Memory's Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture." New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Interviews cited:

BERG, NICOLAS "Interview with Professor Nicolas Berg, Simon-Dubow Institute for Jewish History and Culture." Conducted June 30, 2005.

BRINKMANN, TOBIAS "Interview with Historian on Jewish History in Germany, Tobias Brinkmann." June 26, 2005.

BOMMARIUS, CHRISTIAN "Interview with Berliner Zeitung Journalist Christian Bommarius." Conducted June 27, 2005.

KELLER, CLAUDIA "Interview with Der Tagesspiegel Journalist Claudia Keller." Conducted June 29, 2005.

LAGODINSKY, SERGEY "Interview with Program Director of the American Jewish Committee, Sergey Lagodinsky." Conducted June 24, 2005.

LEINEMANN, DANIELLE "Interview with Jewish-German Lawyer Danielle Leinemann." Conducted June 22, 2005.

MEMORIAL SITE SURVEYS "30 Memorial Site Surveys and Interviews at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe." Conducted by Authors. June 24, 2005.

QUACK, SYBILLE "Interview with the irst Executive Director of the Foundation for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Sybille Quack." Conducted June 26, 2005.

Websites cited:

Bundestag Resolution on the Memorial. June 25, 1999. <https://wwww.stiftung- denkmal.de/en/fromideatorealisation/ resolution> June 22, 2005.

HAWLEY, CHARLES AND NATALIE TENBERG "How Long Does One Feel Guilty?, Spiegel Interview with Holocaust Monument Architect Peter Eisenman." Spiegel Online. May 9, 2005. <http:www.Spiegel. de/international/0,1518,355252,00.html> June 28, 2005.

Additional sites consulted:

MARZYNSKI, MARIAN "A Jew Among the Germans: Germany's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe." Frontline. May 31, 2005. <www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/ frontline/shows/germans/memorial> June 23, 2005.

EISENMAN, PETER "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin." May 31, 2005. Eisenman Architects. <www. pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/ germans/memorial.html> June 23, 2005.

Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Foundation Site. <http:// www.stiftung-denkmal.de> June 22, 2005.

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