Forget Me Not – Berlin and the Battle of Memory

Merete Røstad

A Critical Look at Berlin's Reconstruction, Collective Memory Practices and Thanotourism.

In this text, I argue that monuments and memorials often fail in their function as memory carriers since their agenda is unclear. Today more memorials to human suffering are built than ever before in human history. But does this mean that we care more than before? Does our involvement in traumatic events and cruel human actions, monument the underlying narrative, a recurrence less likely?


Collage: Merete Røstad

Berlin's unique history makes the city interesting and attractive for the thousands of tourists who visit it each year. Many of the visitors are pulled to the city to experience an alternative history that can be characterized as a form of dark tourism. One could get the impression that Berlin is itself a manifestation and a role model for other capital cities by crystallizing itself through a significant shift in its reconstruction. The ongoing reconstruction is a symptom of the city's growing prosperity. Abandoned buildings are gradually removed or rebuilt to recreate a representation that can fill the tourists' constant hunger for new stories.

One of the most controversial examples of this phenomenon was the decision to destroy the Palast der Republik: a magnificent work of DDR-time at Unter den Linden, a structure that was both loved and hated. As this article is going to press, work on the reconstruction of the former Berlin Palace, in Baroque style ,which was destroyed during World War II, is well under way. This huge monument to amnesia seems inconsiderate just as the citys cape in general seems so coherent. Berlin has its own twisted timeline. One can hardly throw a stone without getting an echo of the city's checkered history. As the foundation for the new old castle began with the excavation of the site, archaeologists found a collection of modernist art that the Nazis had confiscated. The works presented in the exhibition, organized by Adolf Ziegler and the Nazi Party in Munich from 19 July to 30 November 1937, are an example of Degenerate Art. One thought that this collection was lost until the remains of the works of art appeared as fragments during excavation. Degenerate Art, as it then was called, is now a term that I think may characterize a particular type of memorials: in memory of a time that is still not past, when art may be confiscated and censored when it does not reflect a nation's image of itself.

History's political dimension is reflected in the choice of monuments and memorials which have been bulit. The city becomes a parody of itself with all the confessions of a bygone era. Berlin is the capital city of constant change, where the ambiguous past does not in itself give any cause for celebration. Behind the goal to come to terms with the past, as Berlin's monuments and memorials apparently give the impression, one can also sense a more cynical aim to come to terms with the past's more obscure pages: its fascism, fanaticism and false visions of the future.

The Italian writer Primo Levi wrote: "It happened, therefore it can happen again." That is the core of what a memorial can encourage––reflection.

As in all major European capitals, Berlin is a chaos of traces of battles fought and won with colonial ambitions. To begin with an example: in the center of Tiergarten Park, Victory Column rises up, towering over the traffic island. The huge pillar depicts a winged victory, perhaps best known to many from the film Der Himmel über Berlin by Wim Wenders. Around the Victory Column roundabout several large bronze figures of Prussian generals are placed. Their names are removed and their body language expressing victory is close to pathetic. Nearby you will find a large statue of Otto von Bismarck, the founder and the first Chancellor of the German Empire. He is posing boldly, flanked by allegorical figures, among many other statues that celebrate German industrial and military power. These ostentatious symbols seem absurd today in terms of how the twentieth century unfolded.

In his work on public memory and national identity, writes the French historian Pierre Nora, our obsession with monuments has come to dominate all modern societies that see themselves as historical. Nora argues that monuments such as the Bismarck statue were designed to adjust the history to a sanctioned version, to increase the national ego and to ensure that current and future generations would attempt to live up to a victorious past. But such dominant nineteenth-century monuments were to be caricatured in the following generations.

The Nazis used the power of symbolism in their political agenda to portray the vision of a totalitarian world; their desire to represent this worldview in every aesthetic detail is well documented.

The Victory Column and the Bismarck Monument were moved from their original locations in front of the Reichstag to their current location by Hitler in 1938, in order to make room for his vision of Germania, which never was completed. The Nazis used the power of symbolism in their political agenda to portray the vision of a totalitarian world; their desire to represent this worldview in every aesthetic detail is well documented. There is nothing more representative of this ideological and aesthetic control in Hitler's plans than Germania.

The architectural legacy that the Nazis bequeathed to today's Berlin is reflected in all of the gaps that have arisen in the remains of the city's past. No other capital in Europe is characterized by the emptiness that characterizes Berlin's city center, especially around the Reichstag building, where Hitler and architect Albert Speer planned a large signature building for Germania, which turned out to be impossible to realize. The plan included the construction of a triumphal arch based on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but nearly a hundred feet high, so high that Napoleon's monument would have been able to be placed inside the opening. The challenge was that Berlin was built on sandy ground and would have never been able to carry such a construction. As a demonstration of the place where the arch was planned, an experiment was staged. Hidden behind some trees outside Dudenstrasse, on the border between Kreuzberg and Schöneberg, is today Schwerbelastungskörper––a large concrete cylinder designed to test the resistance in the city due to soft ground. Only 20cm of the cylinder was built in the first three years, but it still stands to this day. It is impossible to tear down due to the solidity of the construction, and remains as a solid monument to failure.

Down the road from the concrete colossus is architect Albert Speer's masterpiece: Tempelhof Airport. There is something about the proportions of this building that suggests an association with terror. Everywhere one sees gates and flag poles that were built to show waving flags with swastikas, and the shape of the courtyard is perfect for nationalist demonstrations. The Nazis understood the effect of creating dramatic spaces––Tempelhof will never be able to shake off what the twisted characteristics entail, although the landing strip is today a triumph for the Berlin population. After the citizens voted in the summer of 2014 that it should not be built upon, more of Tempelhof continues to be a recreational area for all. Here you can always find interesting temporary art projects, since initiators can use the site to experiment in social project forms. Berlin can be described as a confused cityscape that marks both the victors and victims, both Germans and others. Numerous structures have been renovated and renamed as the city's history is rewritten by each political power shift.

I'll mention one of the city's anti-monuments. I always return to Stumbling Stones, an art project by Gunter Demnig. The stones are the size of a standard Berlin-coblestone where the surface is cast in bronze. The names of the city's Jewish population are inscribed on the gilt cobbles and placed outside the homes they were torn away from. The bronzed cobblestones are slightly raised above street level, only so much that your feet subtly touch them when you walk. Consistently polishing the stones that are the commemoration of the Jewish people's loss become part of the everyday experience of the city.

It may be relevant to distinguish between the different definitions of a monument and a memorial, since both words are loaded. In German, the word Denkmal is used for both, allusive since the German language has a definition that can describe everything in detail. The verb to think is Denken, which means that in a direct translation from German to Norwegian, you can say Denkmal or object-of-thinking or markers-of-thought. After World War II there was a need for both monument and memorials, and both variations were defined as separate genres. Monuments are by definition grand structures built on a monumental scale, usually to commemorate military victories. Memorials are generally smaller and more modest structures, built to create a place to form a collective memory. They have a specific compassionate function in this sense, while the monuments, for the most part, largely serve politicians and power brokers. Berlin is a landscape of monuments and memorials.

Forgetting is not a malfunction or failure of memory; it enables people to continue to live.

Commemorative art in public space is intended to help people recall an important event or person. It is also important to remember that the idea of the infinite is contrary to the normal functions of the human psyche. Sigmund Freud wrote that forgetting is an important part of the grieving process, and one has to work through the painful process of remembering. When you get to a point where the memories can be put away and retrieved using the will, it is finally possible to forget. Forgetting is not a malfunction or failure of memory; it enables people to continue to live. The memorial, which is a concrete manifestation of memory, can facilitate this gradual grieving process by providing a means to cover the experience of loss in a manageable form, so that the memorial thus can serve as a container of memory.

There were two different approaches to building monuments and memorials in the post-war, pre-wall era in Germany. In the East the Russians took control where the Nazis left off. East Berlin was a Soviet state. The Russians built what was at the time the largest and most ambitious war memorial in Europe. The Soviet War Memorial in Treptow Park was built over the bodies of 7 000 Russian soldiers. It was collectively built by 12 000 German workers to commemorate some twenty-five million Russians who died during World War II. Walking up to the memorial feels like being on the set of a Stalinist science fiction film. Again, here is the future vision out of date, the last monument in the old style of memorials in Berlin. The Stalinist rhetoric is so dominant and the scope so superhuman that one feel powerless. It is an outrageous form of political theater, with intentions and effects so distant from the human costs of war, both victors and victims. From a historical perspective, everyone is victims of this war in one way or another, but the Russian war monument recognizes only the price of victory. It is a structure motivated by a cruel mixture of grief and revenge. The size suggests that no one will suffer a loss as the Russians did. This monument also sinks under in the Berlin's sandy ground, which bothered Albert Speer.


Collage: Merete Røstad

The structure Berlin is best known for, as the city is the victim of it and it is what made Berlin into the strange place it is, is the Berlin Wall. This is a structure, neither monument or memorial, which was erected in the middle of the night in 1961 without aesthetic consideration. It was part of the history that the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill named the Iron Curtain. It was actually just a concrete wall with no sharp edges to make it more difficult to climb over. It is not surprising that something as simple as a concrete wall can be as effective as it was. Walls of this type are designed to create an enclosure. It is very potent and it remains in the mind of those who experienced it at the time, living in the shadow of the Wall. Although the Berlin Wall was taken down almost 25 years ago, the scar is left, both physically and mentally in those who experienced it. We talk about the eastern and western parts of the city without any connection to the geographic east and west neighborhoods that have avoided the tourism that totalitarianism has given rise to and which today is the city's largest source of income.

The pieces of the wall that remain were turned into memorials of those who died in the attempt to climb over it, and of the life that was twice taken away: once when the wall was built up, and again when it came down again.

The pieces of the wall that remain were turned into memorials of those who died in the attempt to climb over it, and of the life that was twice taken away: once when the wall was built up, and again when it came down again. The east side was absorbed and dissolved in Western Europe––a loss that many East Berliners mourn, but which has not yet received a memorial of its own.

The Wall's structure seems to influence many other structures in the city with its symbolic aesthetic. There is currently a lot of art in public spaces throughout the city to commemorate the separation in many ways. Perhaps the wall is still everywhere. It is there in every way, invisible.

Berlin has no memorials for the millions of Germans who died in the two great wars that were fought on this continent in the last century. To believe that the Germans both started these wars and lost these wars does not explain the absence of memorials. It makes me think about the role of a monument––monuments to the victors, yes, but also memorials for those who lost their lives. Regardless of the outcome, memorials present to the bereaved something they can fix their grief against. How should this form of loss be expressed without monuments?

Tucked away in a cemetery in the Wedding is a park where there are plaques dedicated to three hundred unnamed German soldiers. Some memorials of World War I exist, but they are well hidden outside the city center, ambiguously dedicated to those who lost someone im jeden krieg - in every war.

It is 100 years since the Austrian historian Robert Musil noted that "there is nothing in this world that as invisible as a monument." Despite the intended rhetorical feature, memorials and monuments have a relatively short life and the importance and relevance decreases when there is a switch in power. Often monuments are reduced to anonymous landmarks or removable ornaments in the urban landscape.

A key feature of monuments are that they invite the viewer to remember. Often the effect is fleeting and as time passes their function is impaired. They are forgotten, or worse––they are rendered invisible. There are many arguments for why the monuments often lose the ability to engage the viewer for some time: competing agendas, collective decisions by the commissioner of the work and compromised artistic vision. One must not forget that there is actually a built-in expiration date for commissioned art. Other remnants of the Cold War, like those from the Nazis, have become memorials by virtue of being ruins: monuments to the memory of a broken future. No matter how you portray it, the story somehow ironizes our efforts to be remembered. Vilém Flusser wrote so pointedly that "we will survive in the memory of others", but not in the monuments and memorials we build.

Memorials and monuments will inevitably decay. Everything has its time. And we will disintegrate along with all our monuments and memorials. If there is anything we can learn from the past is that there is nothing so unreliable as the future. The city is a palimpsest that writes its own history.



Anti-monument is a philosophy in art that denies the existence of anything that takes over in the form of power of public authority. It developed as an opposition to monumentalism where the government (usually the state or a dictatorship) builds monuments in the public space to symbolize themselves or their ideology, and influences the historical narrative of the story.

Gunter Demnig is a German artist who in 1993 conceived of the idea to mark the places where the victims of the Holocaust lived by laying down paving stones with their names and personal details. In Europe, there are about 30 000 Stumbling Stones (Stolpersteine in German) in memory of the Holocoust and World War II. The first stumbling stones in Norway was laid down in Oslo in 2010. One hundred and two new memorial stones for Holocaust victims were laid across Norway in June 2014.

Memorial is (usually) in remembrance of a person (who has died) or an event. Common forms of memorials include landmarks or sculptures, statues or fountains, and parks.

Monument is a structure built to commemorate a person or event that has become important to a social group as a part of their remembrance of historic times, cultural heritage or as an example of historic architecture. The term monument is often used for buildings or structures which are considered to be examples of important architectural and/or cultural heritage.

Palimpsest is a manuscript page from either a roll or a book where the text can be scraped or washed off so that the page can be reused for another document.

Pierre Nora is a French historian. He is known for his work on French identity and memory.

Primo Levi was an Italian Jewish chemist and writer and Holocaust survivor. He wrote several books, including novels, collections of short stories, essays and poems.

Robert Musil was an Austrian writer. His work has received more attention recently, especially the philosophical aspects of his novels.

Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist and psychologist. He is best known as the founder of modern psychoanalysis.

Thanatourism derives from the ancient Greek word thanatos––the personification of death––and refers more specifically to the violent death; the word is used less frequently than the terms dark tourism and grief tourism.

Vilém Flusser was a Czech-born philosopher, author and journalist. He was concerned with phenomenology, communication and artistic production.



Robert Musil, Monuments, Selected writings, Burton Pike (ed.), London and New York: Continuum, 1998, p.320 (original published in German in 1936).

Pierre Nora, Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire, Representations26, 1989, p. 7–25.

Jan Assmann, Das Kulturelle Gedächtnis: Schrift, Erinnerung und Politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, 1992, Munich: Verlag C.H. Beck

Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts: Media, Politics, Amnesia, Public Culture12:1, 2000, p. 21–38.

Maurice Halbwachs, La Mémoire Collective.1950, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Vilém Flusser, We Shall Survivein the Memory of Others, Flusser Lectures (DVD) 2010, Walther König.


Kunstjournalen B-post #1_15: Battle & Consensus