A monument refers to the past and is yet constructed as contemporary memory, regardless of whether it represents a new form of architecture or a historical place. Especially in the context of political upheaval and change in Berlin, members of the nGbK debated the question of how monuments could appropriately commemorate and enlighten, for example with regard to National Socialism or communist East Germany.
In the 1980s, under the leadership of Sabine Weißler, the exhibition Der umschwiegene Ort was created, about how to address the former Gestapo grounds around the Martin-Gropius-Bau, which was used as the headquarters of the Secret State Police (Gestapo). After the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the urban landscape was characterized in particular by the side-by-side existence of the visible legacies of the different political systems. One could even say that the cultural dynamic was marked by the sudden accessibility of the diverse art and cultural institutions, universities and libraries. The project Erhalten Zerstören Verändern? documented the GDR monuments in East Berlin with an exhibition in 1990, which also compared memorial practice in East and West.
One aspect of the work of the nGbK that stands out were the publications that emerged as a reaction to the competitions for the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas and the Denkmal zum 17. Juni 1953. Both books document polemic arguments and unrealised blueprints and once again emphasise the role of the nGbK members as active players in urban politics.
It is striking that support within the nGbK came especially for blueprints which proposed alternative concepts of reflection and remembrance. The draft by the artists Renata Stih and Frieder Schnocke for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe consciously did not conform to the condition in the call for bids that a monumental building be constructed. Instead of a new construction, the artists planned bus lines which took visitors from the location of the competition near the Brandenburg Gate to places where different groups of victims had actually been imprisoned and murdered and which actually continue to exist in and around Berlin. The ‘Fahrplan’ [a bus schedule] published in 1996 by the nGbK hence reads “The busses, painted red in accordance with the instructions of the artist, will be present right on the streets of everyday life, like driving, mobile monuments.”1 The project was entitled Bus Stop and was partly realised with the support of the nGbK.
As Leonie Baumann writes, the demand that the visible representation of history be connected with concrete everyday uses came in for special criticism.2 There were also concerns regarding the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas, which was completed in 2005, about how the floods of tourists, souvenir shops and food stalls might break up the narrative of dismay. Decentral concepts like the project Bus Stop escape such unwitting breaches in the urban context. In fact, through their structure they connect and illustrate the logistics, organisation and brutality of fascist terror by showing how ramified and minutely planned the incarcerating and murdering was. “Furthermore, the information in this bus schedule gives an impression of the ubiquitous interconnectedness of the machinery of extermination with everyday life in Germany […].“3
The project Stolpersteine, initiated in 2002 at the nGbK by Guenter Demnig, is a decentralised monument. The stones, set in the pavement outside the front doors of houses, commemorate deported people who once lived there. Small in appearance and large in number, they are easily overlooked. Some people may have walked over them several times before noticing these golden, inscribed paving stones on which the victim’s name, date of birth and sometimes, their story of horror, are engraved. In contrast to monumentally designed architecture, whose effect always develops a gravitation of superiority over the city and transmits representative aesthetics more than symbolic endings of history, monuments which can also be overlooked play with our economy of attention and draw attention to exactly the question of which processes history and remembrance are subject to in the creation of continuity.
Sara Hillnhütter, 2015, revised 2019
Translation: Don Mac Coitir