Prof. Harold Marcuse homepage > Presentations page > GSA 1997 Neue Wache presentation (edited for clarity & updated 5/4/2020)
at the German Studies Association Conference,
let the author know if you cite or reprint this paper.
My talk today is divided into four parts:
GERMAN NATIONAL MONUMENTS AND THE 1931 BERLIN NATIONAL MEMORIAL
After 1871, when the Prussian capital Berlin became the capital of the new Reich, the Brandenburg Gate became a kind of de facto national monument, where national victories such as Sedan Day were celebrated with military marches. But these were national celebrations; there was no need yet for more solemn memorialization: for reflection or mourning on a national scale. After World War I there was ample cause for national mourning, and many nations erected national memorials and catafalques to that end. Germany, however, had more pressing problems. Not until 1929, when Prussia's SPD Minister President Otto Braun read a newspaper article about the deteriorating New Guardhouse, the Neue Wache in Berlin, and suggested that it be converted into a memorial for the fallen soldiers of the World War.
This "new Guardhouse" had been commissioned by the Hohenzollern king Frederick William III in 1815 to house the company that guarded his Berlin city residence across the street. It was designed and built by the Prussian state architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Back then soldiers had been quartered in civilian residences, and needed central locations where they could report each day. After 1871 guard duty at the castle became purely ceremonial, and the guardhouse became a kind of living museum to drill and display historic uniforms. The massive building was well suited to represent the power of the Prussian state. It served as the focal point of state ceremonies such as William I's 100th birthday in 1897, and visits by foreign dignitaries such as Austrian Kaiser Franz-Josef in 1900, or British king Edward VII in 1909. On 1 August 1914 the mobilization order for World War I was proclaimed there, as was the demobilization order on 11 November 1918. The building fell into disuse until Otto Braun commissioned 6 architects to draw up plans for a WWI soldiers' memorial in 1929 [Peter Behrens, Hans Poelzig, Ludwig Mies v.d. Rohe]. Heinrich Tessenow's design was selected: an austere, dim interior with a 2 meter high altar-like block of black granite in the center. Below a circular opening in the roof to let in light, the black block was crowned by a wreath of gold and silver oak leaves.
At the dedication of this "Memorial Site for the Fallen of the World War," as it was officially titled, in 1931, Otto Braun gave it a pacificist mission. He said that it was for those who had "sacrificed their blood in a way never before imagined in world history, and in a way, as we hope and as we will try to ensure, that the course of history will never call for again." In less than a decade, his hopes were dashed. In contrast, Reich Minister of Defense Groener spoke of "heroic greatness," the "holy fire of patriotic devotion," and the "spirit of duty and readiness to sacrifice." Reichpresident Hindenburg expressed his hope that "This memorial site is to contribute to the development of inner unity."
The dedication ceremony was anything but an expression of unanimity. Only three of Germany's generals attended, because they felt Braun was "antinational, antipatriotic, and vaterlandslos." The Völkischer Beobachter, the Nazi newspaper, called their absence a "well-earned slap" for Braun. The KPD did not attend either, because the Communists had just broken with the Social Democrats over the funding of the "Panzerkreuzer A." In 1933 the Nazis actually had nothing against the memorial, which was often referred to as an Ehrenmal. They simply renamed it Reichsehrenmal, and marched there on Heldengedenktag every year in March. [They added a crucifix, too, but that is another story.-see Hoffmann-Curtius] Whenever a German general was killed, his funeral procession stopped there, and Reich Marshal Göring called out "Feldherr du, geh ein in Walhall!"
This central national German World War I memorial took a beating in
World War II. In 1948 the wreath was stolen, and in 1950 the tympanum
and porch collapsed. It was repaired in 1951-52. At that time six suggestions
for its fate were discussed by the Berlin city government:
In 1968-69, while the GDR was giving itself a new constitution, the
memorial was redesigned with 5 new aspects "which were better suited
to the self-conception of socialist society":
A NATIONAL MEMORIAL FOR BONN
That ceremony was discontinued on 3 October 1990, unification day. That almost brings us up to the present. But now we have to move to Bonn and go back in time. In 1961 Bundespresident Lübke convened a committee to design a national memorial in Bonn, a project proposed by the FDP in 1955, the year Adenauer brought home the last German war criminals home from the Soviet Union. It came up with a very simple solution, which was dedicated in 1964: A plain bronze plaque in the castle garden near downtown Bonn. Its inscription read "To the Victims of Wars and of the Rule of Violence"-"Den Opfern der Kriege und der Gewaltherrschaft."
16 years later, in 1980, Bundespresident Carstens told the Bonn city director to come up with an improved memorial because it was difficult to perform official ceremonies at the plaque. The plaque was moved to the Bonn cemetery and placed in front of its war memorial: a tall cross erected in August 1933 to commemorate the German soldiers of World War I. Nearby were graves of military and civilian World War II casualties, and slave laborers from the Soviet Union. This solution was seen as provisional, since neither the cemetery nor the roads to it were "representative" enough.
Enter Helmut Kohl, who was elected Chancellor in 1982. It was his personal desire to find a permanent solution. He passed the development of this project on to (West) Germany's official but private association for the care of Germany's soldiers' graves throughout the world, the Volksbund deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge. On the 8th of May 1983 the Volksbund released its "Aide Mémoire."
According to this proposal, the new national memorial would be in the
political center of West Germany, Bonn, and it would serve four purposes,
"That is why the national memorial site unites the commemoration
of all war-dead of our people"-Kriegstoten unseres Volks-it continued,
listing those "Kriegstote:" namely
To top it all off, inside the proposed memorial hall, in a park the size of 10 [6?] football fields, the "central, unitary symbol" it proposed was to be a, I quote, "overdimensional crown of thorns, floating or near the floor" -- "Als verbindliches Zeichen wäre eine maßstäblich überzogene Dornenkrone, schwebend oder bodennahe, denkbar." The inspiration surely came from the memorial in Kassel, the seat of the Volksbund: its 1953 memorial to "The Annihilated, 1933-1945"-"Den Vernichteten." Needless to say, when this proposal was published, the metaphorical shit hit the fan. Hearings were held, many groups shot it down-it was an easy target. Kohl's government, however, accepted it. Not until over a year later did the government express openness to other proposals. In the meantime, several relevant events had taken place.
Kohl was not invited to the NATO ceremony on the 40th anniversary of the Allied landing in Normandy in June 1984. However he was invited to the 70th anniversary commemoration at Verdun in September. 1985 began with the fiasco of Kohl inviting Ronald Reagan to the Bitburg World War II soldiers cemetery for a symbolic handclasp, which was patched up by throwing in a visit to a concentration camp right before. Days later, on 8 May 1985, Bundespresident Weiszäcker held his highly acclaimed speech.
A compromise suggestion, to take a passage from that speech as the central text of the new memorial, failed to achieve a consensus. After a rancorous debate in the Bundestag in April 1986, the momentum behind the initiative did not revive. As an indication why, I'll just point out that the so-called Historians' Debate was unleashed by an article by Jürgen Habermas in Die Zeit on 11 July 1986, three months after the Bundestag debate. Another of Kohl's pet projects, a museum for the history of West Germany, was an explicit issue in that debate. And in November 1988 the President of the Bundestag, Philipp Jenninger, a relatively progressive man, was forced to resign, basically because he didn't keep the symbolic values of the different types of victims-the seduced Germans and the slaughtered Jews-straight. In such a charged atmosphere, there was little desire to pursue something as controversial as a national victims memorial.
Before I continue, let me summarize. We have two projects: a Weimar-Nazi-DDR German national soldiers'-and resistance fighters'-memorial in Berlin, and a projected West German national memorial for Germany's "victims of wars and violent rule" for Bonn, the West German capital city. The Mauer falls. The government decides to blow its budget and move the capital to Berlin as fast as it can. In a May 1993 Bundestag debate consensus is reached, namely that the Neue Wache will become the new central national memorial, and that a small sculpture by the socialist sculptor Käthe Kollwitz would be enlarged as the central motif in the interior. Let me read you a brief statement by Helmut Kohl in the May 1993 Bundestag debate, first in English, then German. Please note that Kohl is addressing Peter Conradi of the SPD, one of the most trenchant critics of the project in the mid-1980s. Kohl said that he explicitly agreed with the text of the SPD's position, namely that this memorial was, and he quoted:
Recollecting, mourning, warning. This is a triad with which, I think, many critics of the project would agree-if they accepted the need for a memorial at all. That is indeed a crucial, debatable point, but I hear few voices calling for the demolition of the Washington monument, or the Lincoln or Roosevelt memorials here in Washington. We are not yet beyond the point of "needing" national symbols, not in the US, and not in Germany.
When the Berlin project was dedicated on 14 November 1993-that was Volkstrauertag, the German memorial day-it was attended by representatives of the Central Councils of Jews and of Gypsies in Germany, the Protestant bishop of Berlin, and of course the three major West German parties CDU, SPD and FDP. The organizations of various groups of victims of Stalinism and Communism wrote to Helmut Kohl in advance to tell him that their members unconditionally accepted this national memorial as their own. Historian Reinhart Koselleck, one of the most active and outspoken critics, predicted that its dedication would have "an effect similar to Bitburg, even though it is more subtle." That expectation certainly did not come true: the Neue Wache is now relatively ignored if not forgotten. Germany has far hotter irons in the fire, especially the national Holocaust memorial project.
This was the "consensus" I meant when I chose the title of this presentation. Of course there were invited groups who did not attend the ceremony, and grass-roots groups which boycotted it and protested outside. The arrest of an infuriated Holocaust survivor by the some of the 800 police on hand outside to keep the peace was pictured in several foreign newspapers. Who did not come? The Berlin Jewish community, the VVN-the association of political persecutees of the Nazi regime-, some members of the SPD, the Bündnis 90/Greens, the East German socialist party PDS. Members of the academic community, most notably Koselleck, remained trenchant critics of the new national memorial. There were, however, differences among the opponents as to whether any national memorial at all was necessary. Some approved of a national memorial in principle, but not one that homogenized victims and used false symbolism.
Among the fundamental critics were the Protestant youth organization Aktion Sühnezeichen/Friedensdienste and the association for an "Active Museum" at the former Gestapo Headquarters-you'll hear more about them in my co-panelists' talks. They sponsored a counter-event, a "commemorative walk" to some of the decentralized sites of victimization in Berlin. Nonetheless the consensus stretching from representatives of Hitler's Jewish victims to Stalin's Nazi victims and including the West German political mainstream, especially when compared to the mid-1980s debate, was nothing less than astounding.
Before I continue, I would like to add a personal note, to situate my own position. In the mid-1980s I had become an expert of sorts on post-1945 German memorials and monuments commemorating the "victims"-civilian, military, and Holocaust-of the Nazi era. I compiled a traveling photographic exhibition of my research for the History museum in Hamburg, where I was studying, in early 1985, just as Bitburg was breaking into the headlines. The exhibition was timely and successful. It was shown in over 30 West German cities, including Bonn, where it was the background of a public hearing in July 1985. After that hearing the government finally abandoned the Aide Mémoire. I testified there on the use, actually abuse, of the term "victim" in German memorials. I spoke of "Opferbrei," a kind of "victim soup" of indistinct and indistinguishable victims. All of the Bonn projects under discussion were ill-conceived, and I was very much against them. When the Neue Wache project was proposed, I was against it as well, on principle. But then I started to examine it in detail, and to my own surprise, I came to the following result: it is quite acceptable. Let me explain why.
A FORMAL ANALYSIS OF THE 1993 NEUE WACHE MEMORIAL
This panel is entitled "Symbols and Silences." What does the Neue Wache symbolize, and what does it keep silent about? The Prussian militarist tradition, as continued under the Nazis and in the GDR was one of the most criticized symbolic aspects. And especially Koselleck has criticized Christian and realistic elements of the central sculpture, which depicts a mother mourning her dead son. It is essentially (but not quite) silent, most notably, on the victims of the Holocaust. Nor does it name the cause or causes of all the suffering and loss. And it especially does not take a stand on prioritizing the various kinds of "Victims of War and Violent Rule"-"Opfer von Krieg und Gewaltherrschaft" named in the main inscription on the back wall.
I think I've said enough about the military tradition behind the memorial
to analyze this aspect without further ado. Yes, it represented repressive
military might for over a century before Otto Braun turned it into a soldiers memorial. I didn't even mention that it was fortified after 1848
in order to be better defensible in case of civilian unrest. And since
1969 the goose-stepping, bayonet-toting guards of the East German NVA
didn't look very much like the citizens' friends.
In fact, if one peers through the smoke of the controversy surrounding the rededication of the Neue Wache, one of the central criticisms that emerges is the amalgamation of "victims" and "perpetrators."
[Give two examples from debate here: Freisler and ?
But what is integration if it does not mediate between the two groups
in some way? Let me ask: what would be an appropriate way to commemorate
all German victims? I will show you some tongue-in-cheek suggestions published
in the satirical magazine Titanic at the height of the 1985 post-Bitburg
Well, I think one of the few appropriate responses to victimization
to express that you are sad, that you regret having made a sacrifice for
a bad cause. And I think it is OK to regret one's own losses, that is,
to feel that one is a victim. What is not OK is to put one's own self-pitying
victimhood above that of victims of a very different order, of ethically
much greater significance. But it is a lot to ask of normal mortals that
they recognize the victimization of others without any prospect that their
own suffering and loss will ever be recognized. I think this is much of
what is behind the German clamoring for the status of victimhood. This
clamoring is loudest among older generations of Germans, but is also audible
among Ossis and disgruntled neonazis and xenophobes, while younger generations
positively revel in the limelight of perpetratorhood, as Danny Goldhagen's
popularity and the recent crowd-drawing power of the Wehrmachtsausstellung
have demonstrated. As I write these line the two sides are pummeling each
other in Marburg, where that exhibition is currently on display. Might
one not accept the Neue Wache as a lowest common denominator between
Whether I have convinced you or not, let me move on to an analysis of
the sculpture, a 1.5 meter tall enlargement of a 38 centimeter-1 1/3 foot-tall
bronze by Käthe Kollwitz. In the enlargement it is coarse.
Let us look at these questions. Kollwitz was a socialist artist, close to the proletariat. She was ridiculed by the Nazis. These are good, democratic credentials. And she is unquestionably one of Germany's greatest artists. How did she respond to World War I, what was her position at that time. She allowed and supported her 18 year old son Peter's wish to go to war in 1914, although his father disapproved. In her diary on 6 August 1914 she reflected on why she let him volunteer. Then in October 1914 she wrote in her diary:
A few days later he was fatally wounded. He died that same month in a hospital in Kollwitz' arms. Her husband Karl then tried to get their elder son Hans out of front line duty in November. But Käthe still held up the example of the younger brother for the elder to emulate. Only very slowly did her views on the heroism of dying begin to change.
She created this sculpture in 1937, twenty years later. In her diary
she wrote: "The mother sits and has the dead son lying between
her knees. It is no longer pain, but reflection." Later she added: it is "a kind of Pietà.
But the mother is not religious. ... She is an old, lonely and darkly
reflecting woman." [diary reprinted in Jäschke] I think
Koselleck's Christian iconographic interpretation is exaggerated. This
mother is not displaying the martyred body of her dead son, but is enveloping
it, taking it back into her womb. She is not merely mourning, she
is filled with regret, with the wish to be able to do it over again
differently. I will show you some examples of Christian memorialization,
so one can see how manifestly unchristian this sculpture is, even if it
is typologically Christian.
[show Ryvangen] In this Danish national cemetery for resistance fighters a prototypical
mother holds her son on her lap. She is proud, not sad, with her head
held high, looking out unemotionally.
I also think one can convincingly argue that Kollwitz' sculpture does not limit itself to the realistic type "mother-son." (Koselleck has written that it cannot symbolize the father who lost his daughter in the aerial war, for instance, nor the millions of murdered Jewish women and annihilated families.) Koselleck has also said that a World War I era sculpture simply cannot be appropriate for the "mass death and mass murder for which the Germans are responsible." But it was in World War I that this mass death had its beginnings: both in Hitler's personal biography and in the genesis of radical nationalist movements such as Nazism in Germany. No Verdun, no Auschwitz? Or no Versailles no Auschwitz? Perhaps. Why not go back to the origins to commemorate a history that is so horrifying that many claim it is unique, unimaginable, and inexplicable? I think of Günther Anders' famous 1963 speech "to the dead of the three world wars," in which he calls upon every one of us to individualize, personalize the victims we commemorate, a kind of Amnesty International strategy for commemoration.
Koselleck proposes more avant garde solutions: split columns, negative or open forms for missing people, or abstract forms. This may symbolize history, but it does not make memory concrete. And: monuments do not symbolize history, none of them. They all symbolize our relationship to that history. The only appropriate relationship for Germans to the Nazi past, I think, is sadness and regret. That is well expressed by Kollwitz's sculpture.
Next, the site. This is no artificial Valhalla on the bluffs overlooking the Rhine in Bonn. One critic of the project has written: "Von Tatorten ist zu reden, nicht von Opferhallen"-"We must focus on scenes of crimes, not on hallowed halls for victims." (Hoffmann-Axthelm). Well, the Neue Wache may be a hallowed hall, but it is also a Tatort, a historical site, as well. And it has a rich, and in its inversion and perversion appropriate tradition to boot. I've already named some of the functions it has served. It exists, what should be done with it? Restore it as a guardhouse, for off-duty soldiers to play cards in? Tear it down? Turn it into a museum of German uniforms, a memorial for Goethe, a monument of the German will to peace? Please, I would rather have it as an Opferhalle, and one that approximates the form of 1931 is not a bad idea. The "mother with her dead son" is an appropriate, personalizing substitution for the oversized gilded wreath. Let us not pretend that this is the central German memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. It is not. There are many far more appropriate sites for that in Germany, even in Berlin.
Finally, what about the Opfer, the "victims and sacrifices" the Germans have brought to the altar of the fatherland. This is problematic. At the last minute a modified version of the text of Weiszäcker's May 1985 speech was cast in bronze and mounted on the outside of the Neue Wache. [I have printed the two versions on the handout, the actual text in translation, the speech in the original German. I won't go into it in detail, but do note how unspecific the additions and subtractions have made it.]
This additional text was demanded by Ignaz Bubis, the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. The speech had been accepted as the basis of the-failed-compromise attempt of 1986. But the modified version is much more tame, bland, even cowardly. Missing are most of the taboo elements that electrified the nation in 1985: putting the Jews first, mentioning the Soviets victims, using the word unsäglich-unspeakable.
In the blandness of this compromise the Neue Wache is a relic, as it has been since the 1870s. Now it is a relic of the early 1990s, of how, in dealing with the world wars and genocide on the national conscience, German politicians have only reached the insight of Kollwitz in the 1930s. The bold advance of Richard von Weiszäcker in the 1980s remains a pipe dream.
The symbolic amalgamation of victims reflects the reality of the West German collective psyche from 1945 until the early 1990s. Will it permanently cripple national moral development? I doubt it. Will Israeli Premier Netanyahu lay a wreath at the Neue Wache? I hope not, at least not before Helmut Kohl or his successor kisses the ground at Yad Vashem, as Brandt knelt in Warsaw in 1970. If Netanyahu came to the Neue Wache afterwards, I would have a more positive assessment of the role of symbolic politics in forging a more peaceful world.