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Will a seesaw upset the balance of Germany’s memorial culture?

3 July 2017

The profusion of commemorative landmarks across Berlin renders it Europe’s unofficial city of memory: from Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe to the more than 7000 Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) embedded into the city’s pavements which mark the former homes of deported Jews (the ongoing project of artist Gunter Demnig). Berlin’s memorials are not only visitor attractions but constant interruptions in the daily lives of tourists and locals alike. Germany’s track record in coming to terms with its National Socialist past is so thorough in many parts of the country that the Germans have a unique compound word to describe the process, vergangenheitsbewältigung.

Vergangenheitsbewältigung shapes not only the landscape but the very fabric of German society and culture. The most recently approved addition to this landscape, Monument to Freedom and Unity (Freiheits und Einheitsdenkmal, already referred to locally as the Unity Seesaw), constitutes a significant moment in Berlin’s commemorative history, characterised not by Vergangenheitsbewältigung but by celebration; 30 years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall, the monument (due to be inaugurated in 2019) commemorates the peaceful revolution that led to the reunification of East and West.

This may be a new phase in German memory politics. But what does it mean? The Unity Seesaw raises a number of difficult questions. The design itself, a 50-metre steel dish onto which visitors are invited to climb (a group of 20 or more will make it sway), fits within an established tradition of interactive memorial structures. An important precedent is Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz’s ‘counter-monument’ against fascism in Hamburg-Harburg (1986), a pillar designed to sink into the ground as visitors’ names were added to its surfaces, ultimately disappearing completely.

Explicitly countering the traditional monumentality of lasting structures, the inauguration of the Monument Against Fascism was a watershed moment for commemorative aesthetics. Its capacity to critique its own formal legitimacy spoke directly to the need for collective reflexivity and self-scrutiny. But where the counter-monument succeeds, the playful Unity Seesaw may well fail, on a conceptual level, to say anything about the reality of the relationship between East and West Germany today.

The design competition for the monument was as fraught, and nearly as protracted, as the 20-year process that eventually saw the inauguration of Eisenman’s Holocaust memorial, although it has not received nearly as much scrutiny from academics and the international media. Practical difficulties such as an expanding budget and the discoveries of a colony of rare bats and imperial-era mosaics were compounded by a lack of consensus about the design itself. Perhaps reservations were, quite rightly, premised on the fact that the seesaw implies an existing balance and equality between East and West which is not borne out in regional economic statistics. The politics of the two areas is also markedly different, with far-right and neo-Nazi sympathisers gaining more traction in the East. Such views are reflected in the fact that formerly East German areas have taken in fewer refugees that their Western counterparts, but have also seen a rise in xenophobic violence. The roots of these differences are deeply embedded in regional history and politics.

What does the very existence of this memorial actually mean for Germany? Is the period of Vergangenheitsbewältigung that characterised German public memory through the post-war period to the early 21st century coming to an end? The term was used in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the wall, marking an expansion beyond coming to terms with National Socialism to include the legacy of eastern communism. The Monument to Freedom and Unity seems to imply the end of a distinctive chapter in German memory culture which is not in fact over for everyone. Coming to terms with the past should involve not only a recognition of past struggle, but of the impact of those struggles on current socio-economic and racial landscapes.

It also remains to be seen how Berlin citizens, Germans, and international visitors will engage with this monument. Interaction with the Unity Seesaw may see it topple first one way and then the other, echoing ongoing geopolitical change. In this sense, it has the capacity to represent one version of reality. But it is destined to return, always, to a stable balance, suggestive of an ultimate equilibrium which may, in actual fact, remain a long way off; its slogan, originating from the words of demonstrators in the 1980s, which translates to ‘We are the people, we are one people’, appropriately honours its forebears, but simultaneously forgets that, in the words of William Faulkner: ‘The past is not dead. It is not even past.’