A monument 17 years in the making officially opened Tuesday in the heart of Berlin. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe — a city block of blank gray concrete slabs or pillars erected near the German Parliament building — drew predictably mixed responses. Yet, by all accounts, its American architect, Peter Eisenman, has come as close as is humanly possible to hitting the right note, with a design that is stark, startling and, most impressively, wordless.
All memorial builders face the challenge of trying to offend as few and to placate as many people as possible. But the task is twice as hard when the event being remembered still causes feelings to run high.
To grasp the delicacy of Mr. Eisenman’s assignment, try to imagine being commissioned to design a memorial in Tokyo to Asian victims of Imperial Japan. It would be like navigating a mine field, as it was in Berlin. Objections to the memorial project were voiced at every stage and from every possible angle, almost derailing it several times. At least two earlier designs were rejected.
Some opponents, particularly those on the right, questioned whether a Holocaust memorial was needed at all, casting the project as just one more expression of Germany’s postwar “cult of guilt.” Others criticized it only slightly less harshly than the neo-Nazis and skinheads, calling it an exercise in political correctness. Even some members of Berlin’s Jewish community were skeptical, simultaneously questioning whether any memorial, no matter how eloquent, could ever be adequate, and worrying that it might fuel public impatience with the whole idea of the Holocaust.
Partly in response to the barrage of anger and doubt — and partly, no doubt, because he realized how many different audiences the memorial had to address — Mr. Eisenman came up with a design that was deliberately abstract and open-ended. “The enormity and scale of the horror of the Holocaust is such that any attempt to represent it by traditional means is inevitably inadequate,” he said back in 1998. “Our memorial attempts to present a new idea of memory as distinct from nostalgia.”
What he proposed was an enormous field of gravestone-like slabs, laid out in a grid on undulating ground so that they tipped and leaned, disorienting people walking on the cobblestone paths between them (a device also used at Daniel Libeskind’s haunting Jewish Museum, which opened in 2001 in a Berlin suburb). There were to be no names on the slabs, no dates, no statistics, no photographs, nothing to tell people what to think or feel. The number of slabs — 2,711 — had no symbolic significance. Interpretation would be left to the viewer.
The architect even had to be talked into accepting a visitors’ center that was ultimately built under the field, thus providing the missing historical context. But there would be no formal entrance; people could enter and exit the grid at any point and never see the visitors’ center.
If the memorial means anything, observers say, it is something very simple: One leaves the everyday world and enters an eerie, dreamlike field that prompts reflection but not sadness or sentimentality — feelings that Mr. Eisenman summed up as nostalgia. “I don’t want people to weep and then walk away with a clear conscience,” he has said. By the same token, of course, his memorial notably does not assign blame or elicit guilt.
Critics were not completely silenced when this idea-driven project was completed. In fact, a few more came out of the woodwork. Some now objected on aesthetic grounds, among them German author Hannes Stein, who described the new memorial as “monstrous kitsch” and mocked its symbolism as “the German people give the Jews a graveyard.” Some complained that it ignored the Nazis’ non-Jewish victims. Others advanced the usual argument that the money could have been put to better use alleviating social ills. But on the whole, doubts seemed to have faded last week, with the memorial attracting many more tributes than denunciations.
The resolution passed by the German Bundestag authorizing the memorial’s final design in June 1999 was actually very straightforward. With the memorial, it said, the nation intended to do three things: “honor the murdered victims; keep alive the memory of these inconceivable events in German history; and admonish all future generations to resist all forms of dictatorship and regimes based on violence.”
Honor, remember and admonish: important aspirations, but hard to realize without using words whose misuse and misinterpretation lead to so much bitterness. Last week it appeared that Mr. Eisenman may have accomplished it. Memorial builders of the world, take note: Sometimes, less is more.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5