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The Other Side –
German post-WW2 Culture
of Memorials

Review of the talk by Angela Findlay
on February 28th 2018

Angela began by telling us of when she travelled across Europe in 2009 with her 75-year-old mother.  They were following in the footsteps of her Grandfather who had been a General in the German Army.  He had been actively involved in setting up war memorial sites across Germany where, unlike in England, there would be no soaring structures for the dead.

Germany’s loss of the war was replaced with the devastation they had inflicted on others and a feeling of guilt for the destruction they had caused.

She mentioned two prominent artists who made direct references to post War Germany, they were Gerard Richter and Anselm Kiefer.
Richter was born in Germany in 1932 and is known for his blurred paintings of photographs.
“Uncle Rudi”, 1965, is one of those paintings and shows his Uncle dressed in SS military uniform.
Anselm Kiefer was someone who I had admired as an art student and had been drawn towards his dark and moody mixed media work, but to be honest I didn’t know the inspiration behind his work until this lecture.  He was brought up in the rubble of Germany and started as a photographer who would dress in a Nazi Officer’s uniform posing in different European cities.  This proved to be controversial but evoked a reaction, which was what Kiefer wanted.

Angela asked “How should a nation deal with a past as horrific as the Third Reich?”

Well, in 1970, after laying down a wreath to remember the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Willy Brandt surprised everyone by spontaneously kneeling down in an act of remembrance.  This in Germany is known as “Kniefall von Warschau”.

There was also the release of a TV mini-series called “Holocaust” in 1978, starring Meryl Streep and this would have been one of the first accounts of the suffering of Jews that many German people would have seen.

In the 1980s, the “counter memorial” culture rose in popularity and this is where it gave artists the opportunity to challenge the traditional form of a monument.  The counter memorials often disappeared over time instead of being built to last and were also constructed into the ground rather than above it.  Angela showed us quite a few examples of counter memorials and these included the Hamburg Monument, 1986-93 which was a tall square metal tower that was lowered (10 times in total) until it has been completely removed.  It was made of a soft metal which could be written on and achieved all the aims of a counter memorial.
The Memorial in Neukolln, Berlin 1989-94 was created by Norbert Radermacher, nothing could be seen until a light beam was triggered by a passer-by and projected text onto the trees and grass.  A satellite department of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was located here and if it wasn’t for this counter memorial, you probably wouldn’t have known.
Aschrott Fountain was condemned by the Nazis as a “Jew’s fountain” and destroyed.  However, in 1987 the fountain was reinstated upside down so that the water flowed from street level downwards.  Although a simple idea, I think this created a very strong and important message on the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

Many memorials are wrapped in controversy, except Micha Ullman’s Bibliotek Memorial, 1995 which is placed at the site where the Nazi book burnings began in 1933.  The underground library can be seen through a window in the pavement and contains visible vacant bookshelves.  On a plaque reads the quote “Where books are burned in the end people will burn”.

I think the simplest of ideas creates the greatest impact and included in that is Gunter Demnig’s “Stumbling Stones”.  These stolpersteins are 10cm by 10cm concrete cubes (like cobble stones) with a brass plate on top inscribed with the names, dates and whether the victims suffered persecution or death by the Nazis.  They are placed at the location of the victim’s home or place of work and humanises the people connected with that location.  You almost need to kneel down to look at these stones and that in itself can be seen as a humiliating gesture.

The counter memorials are there to remind people of Germany’s history to ensure that nothing like that ever happens again.

Angela finished by telling us about Karl Von Graffen, her Grandfather, who had fought in the trenches of WWI, was a skilled artillery man, never joined the Nazi party and instead fought for his country.  He became a prisoner of war during WWII and once released, ended up selling yo-yos and growing tomatoes.  He smoked himself to death in 1964.

A very touching and emotional lecture on an important subject of Germany’s passive and active ways of apology and atonement.

Out of the darkness Germany is coming into the light by remembering.

Louise Taylor

Related Link (opens in new windows):

Angela Findlay's website