Among the gifts I received for Christmas was Neil MacGregor’s hefty Germany: Memories of a Nation. Having listened to the radio series and visited the accompanying exhibition at the British Museum, it was a welcome one.  So far, I’ve only had time to read the opening chapter, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that the text does not consist simply of a transcript of the radio scripts.

Instead, the book – though it closely follows the pattern of the thirty radio episodes – has provided MacGregor with the opportunity to extend and enhance both previous versions of the material.  It’s a handsome book, lavishly illustrated – whereas the BBC website accompanying the radio broadcasts was not. Compared to the 100 Objects website, this time the BBC did not even illustrate all thirty ‘objects’ that were the main subject of the radio episodes, let alone the many other objects, buildings, etc, to which he referred during his talks.  Moreover, the text is prefaced by some excellent maps, illustrating the shifting boundaries of the ‘German lands’ – one of MacGregor’s main themes.

The book differs from the radio series in at least one respect: it opens with an introduction, entitled ‘Monuments and Memories’ in which MacGregor brilliantly crystallises the overarching theme of both series and exhibition – the way that Germans now remember their past.  MacGregor begins:

Monuments in Germany are different from monuments in other countries.

He goes on to draw contrasts between three triumphal arches in the grand Roman style that, since the 19th century, have stood in Paris, London and Munich.  Each one commemorates national triumph in the wars that shook Europe between 1792 and 1815. In London, at Hyde Park Corner, ‘in front of the house of the victor of Waterloo himself’, the British erected the Wellington Memorial Arch, topping it with the largest bronze statue in Europe.

Wellington Arch, Hyde Park Corner

The Wellington Arch, Hyde Park Corner

In Paris, the French erected the Arc de Triomphe, ‘colossal and over-scaled, carrying scenes of soldiers setting off to battle’, at the centre of a star of broad avenues, three of them named after great Napoleonic victories over the Prussians and Austrians.

Arc de Triomphe

The Arc de Triomphe

In Munich, the Siegestor, or Victory Gate, was built in the 1840s to celebrate the valour of Bavarian soldiers in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

The Siegestor or Victory Gate, Munich

The Siegestor or Victory Gate, Munich

The three triumphal arches each look similar. Like its Roman model the Arch of Constantine, the Victory Gate in Munich is richly decorated. On top stands the bronze figure of Bavaria in a chariot drawn by lions, proudly facing north, the direction from which most visitors enter the city. Below is the inscription ‘Dem Bayrischen Heere’ – ‘To the Bavarian Army’ – in honour of those whose feats the arch celebrated.

So far, continues MacGregor, so completely conventional:

At first sight you might think that the Wellington Arch, the Arc de Triomphe and the Siegestor’ are all doing exactly the same thing in exactly the same way. But what makes the Munich arch so interesting is its other side, which tells quite a different story. It was badly damaged in the Second World War, but its restoration makes no attempt to reconstruct the sculpted classical details that were destroyed by bombs. The top register on this side of the arch is merely a blank expanse of stone. Underneath this uncompromisingly empty space are the words ‘Dem Sieg geweiht, vom Krieg zerstort, zum Frieden mahnend’ – ‘Dedicated to victory, destroyed by war, urging peace’.

Siegestor reverse

The reverse of the Siegestor or Victory Gate, Munich

Neil MacGregor draws this conclusion:

Where the London and Paris arches look back only to moments of high success, presenting a comfortable, if selective, narrative of national triumph, the Munich arch speaks both of the glorious cause of its making and the circumstances of its later destruction. Unlike the other two, its original celebratory purpose is undercut by a very uncomfortable reminder of failure and guilt. It proclaims a moral message: that the past offers lessons which must be used to shape the future. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the role of history in Germany today is that, like this arch, it not only articulates a view of the past, but directs the past resolutely and admonishingly forward.

The point is that German monuments are different from those in other countries because German history is different: for one thing there’s the long history of fragmentation that MacGregor so brilliantly outlined in the radio series.  But then, of course, there is the uncomfortable and uncompromising fact that the story of Germany in the 20th century makes any coherent historical narrative impossible:

All major countries try to construct a reading of their history that leads them, reassured and confident, to their current place in the world. The United States, strong in its view of itself as a ‘city on a hill’, was long able to affirm its manifest destiny. Britain and France in different ways saw their political evolution as a model for the world, which they generously shared through imperial expansion. After Bismarck had welded the different constituent states into the German Empire in 1871 and then into the leading industrial and economic power of the continent, Germany might have been able to devise some similar national myth. But defeat in the First World War, the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the murderous criminality of the Third Reich have made any such coherent narrative impossible. German scholars have
struggled in vain to piece the different parts of the jigsaw together, but none has been able, convincingly, to fit the great intellectual and cultural achievements of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany and the moral abyss of the Nazis into a comprehensible pattern. This is in a profound sense a history so damaged that it cannot be repaired but, rather, must be constantly revisited – an idea powerfully visualized by Georg Baselitz’s tattered and confusedly inverted national flag.

Georg Baselitz, Inverted Eagle with the Colours of the German Flag, 1977

Georg Baselitz, Inverted Eagle with the Colours of the German Flag, 1977

Despite the diversity of historical experience of the various regions and states of Germany, they have all been marked, says MacGregor, by four great traumas that live in the national memory – the Thirty Years War in the 17th century, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the Third Reich, and the division of Germany in the Cold War.

In the 25 years since the Wall came down and today’s reunified Germany was born, MacGregor argues that Germans ‘have  made enormous efforts to to think clearly and courageously about their national history’. He concludes:

The re-unification of Germany coincided with a more clear-eyed historical investigation into the complicity of much of the German population in crimes long simply ascribed to ‘the Nazis’. As Berlin has been rebuilt there has been a conscious attempt to make public the most painful memories, the supreme example being the Holocaust Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. In this also it can be said that German monuments are not like those in other lands.

Holocaust Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe

The Holocaust Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin

I know of no other country in the world that at the heart of its national capital erects monuments to its own shame. Like the Siegestor in Munich, they are there not only to remember the past but – and perhaps even more importantly – to ensure that the future be different. As Michael Sturmer, a distinguished political commentator, observes: ‘In Germany for a long time the purpose of history was to ensure that it could never happen again.’

MacGregor finishes his introduction with the photograph that appears at the top of this post.  It shows three great monuments at the centre of modern Berlin. In the middle distance is the Brandenburg Gate, and behind it is the Reichstag. In the foreground is the Holocaust Memorial. These three monuments and their meanings, states MacGregor, ‘together convey modern Germany’s unique attempt to wrestle with its historical inheritance and its complex and changing memories’.

Holocaust Memorial with Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate



11.1.15: Will Hutton, in an interesting article in the Observer, writes that Germany’s relationship to history compels it never to look back:

Germany can only face its otherwise unintelligible historical crimes, genocide and futile millions of war dead with a resolve to never again make the same mistakes. Its capital city, Berlin, forces its citizens every day to confront the fact that it exterminated six million Jews in its striking Holocaust memorial; no other world capital so uncompromisingly has built monuments at its heart to force it constantly to confront past disasters.

7 thoughts on “Germany: monuments and memories

    1. Thanks for the link to the New Yorker article, which I read with interest. I must say, though, that I found Brody’s criticisms puzzling. He writes, ‘Without [its] title, it would be impossible to know what the structure is meant to commemorate’. Well, it’s signposted, and is in all the Berlin city guides, so I can’t imagine any of the visitors to the site being lost for a moment about what it signifies. He writes, ‘The title doesn’t say “Holocaust” or “Shoah”; in other words, it doesn’t say anything about who did the murdering or why—there’s nothing along the lines of “by Germany under Hitler’s regime,” and the vagueness is disturbing.’ But the memorial (which is clearly a major intrusion into the cityscape) spreads across nearly 5 acres in the heart of Germany’s capital city. One doesn’t need to have a degree in politics to make the connection. He writes that it ‘separates the victims from their killers and leaches the moral element from the historical event, shunting it to the category of a natural catastrophe’ and complains that the names of the Jews who died in the Holocaust are not engraved on the stelae. But this, I think, misunderstands the purpose of Peter Eisenman’s design, which is surely to provoke meditation of the deepest kind (as far as is possible in an often crowded tourist attraction) rather than disseminating information in a didactic way. Brody’s assertion that ‘The passive voice of the title—“murdered Jews”—elides the question that wafts through the exhibit like an odour: murdered by whom?’ does, of course, raise a serious historical question about the extent of support for the escalating anti-Jewish measures after 1933 among the German populace, and about the undoubted involvement of hundreds of thousands of Germans in the machinery that accomplished the final solution, both inside and beyond the extermination camps. But those are questions that can only be explored through documentation and historical study, whereas this is, simply, a memorial to those who lost their lives. Brody’s rhetorical question, ‘How fucking dare they?’ does not seem worthy: you only have to enter the rooms of the attached information centre ( to see, hear and read the evidence, as well as being able to read the names of all the Jews murdered in the Holocaust (made available by Yad Vashem). All of that said, I understand those who have aesthetic reservations about the design (I seem to recall thinking one design submitted in the competition in the 1990s was better). In the end, though, the memorial covers a huge area of the city centre – and is not the only such memorial in the vicinity. Within walking distance there’s Kathe Kollwitz’s superb ‘Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship’ in the Neue Wache (that I have written about on this blog ( and the excellent Topography of Terror museum on the site of buildings which during the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945 were the headquarters of the Gestapo and the SS. Visit all three and you couldn’t fail to come away with an informed understanding of the nature of German culpability for the Holocaust – or of the determination of today’s Germany to confront the shame of its past.

      1. Thank you for that thoughtful reply.

        I was interested to know how the monument struck you when you visited it. I haven’t been to that part of Berlin myself and Richard Brody’s piece struck me as a thought-provoking personal response to the monument. I don’t think he has any particular axe to grind as far as Germany goes. I suppose all monuments, like all works of art, elicit different responses from different visitors and his response, as a visitor to the city, will be different from that of a resident who passes the memorial on the way to work or school each day.

        Thanks again.

  1. What a fascinating piece, thank you. Ive been keen to visit Berlin and see the holocaust museum for a number of years having studies holocaust literature at university. So thank you for this post, its opened my eyes to much more than just the museum but also the way countries remember their past and how it enables them to go forward.
    I’ve recently returned from Cambodia where they are still healing their wounds from genocide and the starkness of their museum in Phnom Penh is chilling and says more than words ever could. I’m keen to see if the plans for their new museum takes learning from holocaust museums in Europe as a way of remembering the dead but healing the living.
    Their current approach to memorials is more about grieving the dead than confronting their past, culturally it seems to be something they’d prefer to forget ever happened between their glorious kingdoms past and their desire for a new capitalist future. I wonder though how forgetting such a moment of history, however terrible, affects a country’s potential for success in the future and its people sense of self.

    1. It’s a complex issue, but I think you’re right to say that memorials to the atrocities perpetrated in the name of a nation need to be not only about grieving for the dead, but also about confronting the past, not hiding or conveniently forgetting. What interests me about the German case is, on the one hand, what it reveals about Germany and Germans’ attempts – however flawed – to confront the past, and on the other, faced with the conundrum of how could such things happen in a nation with such a rich and contrasting cultural heritage, how it begs the question, could it have happened here? Might we have done the same?

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