Berlin: The Art of Reunification

The failed competition to create a German reunification memorial raises thorny questions of national memory and identity.

Berlin Wall, November 1989.

Now grows together that which belongs together.
— Willy Brandt, November 10, 1989

Until not so long ago, victory was easy to memorialize. Battlefield successes were a measure of national pride, and in the west the constructions that celebrated them were borrowed from the Romans: the grand arch, the giant column. Whether a struggle of liberation or expansion, revolution or defense, the successful military campaign could be heralded, and made legible, in monumental form. Berlin is full of testaments to the transformative exercise of power. The Brandenburg Gate, the Siegessäule, the statue of Frederick the Great: these mark the emergence, in the 19th century, of Prussia as a major European state. In the 20th century, of course, what the Germans experienced was wartime defeat, and more, evil and shame — which requires an altogether different sort of memorial. But then, in 1989, victory returned, and in a new and unexpected form: a peaceful, internal revolution. In Germany, today, the urge to celebrate the good is felt as strongly as the obligation to remember the bad; but it seems that both these efforts have gotten yet more complicated for the memorialists.

On November 9th, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, the city of Berlin threw itself an all-embracing Volksfest. Thousands of Germans and foreign tourists joined key figures from the old era (Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa, Helmut Kohl) and world leaders (Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, Gordon Brown, Dimitri Medvedev, Hillary Clinton) at the Brandenburg Gate. One thousand painted, large-scale dominoes laid along the former boundary of the Wall, between Potsdamer Platz and the Reichstag, were symbolically tipped over. Classical music and hip-hop played in the open air. Jon Bon Jovi premiered a new song (20 years ago it was Leonard Bernstein, conducting Beethoven’s Ninth with musicians from east and west — but never mind). The perennial awkwardness of the fact that November 9th is also the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nazi-led pogrom against German-Jewish institutions in 1938, this year went largely unremarked.

Berlin Wall, under construction, August 1961. [Image credit: via University of Utah]

The fall of the Wall took me as much by surprise as anyone else. I visited Berlin for the first time in the summer of 1988. I crossed through Checkpoint Charlie with my father to spend a day in East Berlin, as we Americans were required to do, and the barrier seemed as daunting and depressing as I’d imagined — and indestructible too. The next year, then living in Boston, I returned late one night from my architecture studio, turned on the television, and stared incredulously at a live picture of people dancing on top of the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate. Shortly afterward I moved to Berlin, eager to participate in the rebuilding of a city at an historic crossroads. I am still here, and will be at the Brandenburg Gate to mark the 20th anniversary with the natives and all honorary Berliners.

But one aspect of the celebration did not proceed as planned. The winner of a federally sponsored design competition for a German National Unification Memorial — Einheitsdenkmal — was meant to be announced on November 9th. The competition was held, but no winner was anointed; instead the result has been — not for the first time in such proceedings in Germany — controversy and soul-searching. The snafu says a great deal not only about German identity politics, but also about the general health of the memorial trope in our time.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

About a dozen years ago, a quiet initiative began in Germany to establish a permanent, central monument to the transformation of 1989. Museums, memorials and documentation centers about the Wall and the German Democratic Republic — the old East Germany — exist in several cities, but these are specialized and disparate. The idea was to create a single memorial in the reunified capital, an embodiment of national gratitude and aspiration. In 2007 the Bundestag, the German parliament, set aside €10 million for the project and designated a site on an existing stone platform projecting into the Spree River from the south bank of Museum Island, at the historic center of Berlin.

The Unification Memorial was burdened with a complicated brief. It was meant to evoke the “peaceful revolution of 1989 and reunification,” but also the more abstract principles of “unity, freedom, and democracy.” It was also expected “to recall and honor the peaceful movements and efforts towards unity of past centuries,” which entailed specific references to the (failed and often violent) revolutions of 1848 and 1918. Lastly, it was supposed to nod toward Leipzig, where the mass protests of October 1989 sounded the true death knell for the GDR. It was as if over the years every politician-advocate had gained access to the memorial’s to-do list and tried to make sure no lessons or ideals were forgotten.

The competition was anonymous and democratically thrown open to the world. In March of this year, 532 entries were submitted, and a month later a jury of nineteen German historians, architects, artists and politicians convened to assess the designs and choose 20 that would go on to a second round, to be whittled down to one winner by November 9th. But on April 30th the word came out: not a single one of the designs had been considered worthy of a second round. The jury would award no prizes.

Jury members were unapologetic. They declared that although they shared the disappointment of the public (not to mention the contributors), they could not in good faith endorse any of the entries, and that this feeling was unanimous. They did not see the result as a scandal, countering that the proceedings should be viewed as a “brave experiment.” Better no winner than an unconvincing one, ran the prevailing sentiment. Better luck next time.

The competition failure was splashed onto the front pages of the German newspapers, where some of the jurists were given a chance to explain why the process had flopped. A chorus of critics joined in. Two fundamental complaints emerged: the program was impossibly overloaded and the site was inappropriate. The competition had been doomed from the start. Several competitors smelled unethical conduct, countering that the scandal was not in the decision to reject the work, but in the fact that the jury understood the weaknesses of the brief but participated anyway. Within two weeks, the public was able to judge for itself, when all the designs were briefly exhibited in Berlin’s Kronprinzenpalais. Remarkably few people came.

Palast der Republik, April 1986. [Image credit: Peter Heinz Junge, via Bundesarchiv]

The exhibition took place just around the corner from where the Unification Memorial would have stood. Museum Island, anchored in the Spree at the end of the Unter den Linden, in the former East Berlin, is the oldest part of the city, but there is nothing medieval left to see. The museum complex, dating to the early 19th century and now a UNESCO World Heritage site, is concentrated at the northern end. Adjacent to it is the imposing fin-de-siècle Cathedral of Berlin, and just across from this bulky edifice you’ll find today a vast green lawn — the former site of the baroque Schloss, or royal city palace, the ruins of which were detonated in 1950 by the GDR to make room for the Palast der Republik, its multifunctional assembly building. The Palast der Republik was itself razed last year.

The green lawn might look innocuous but it is actually the most controversial building site in Germany. For many nostalgists it is a great vacuum, the absent heart of the city. It took two decades of debate to remove the old Palast der Republik, a blow to many east Berliners who remained sentimentally attached to the old “people’s palace” — an inescapable symbol of the communist regime, to be sure, but also one of the few places to go for entertainment during the Cold War. The (mostly western) conservatives who hated the Palast der Republik and argued for a reconstructed Schloss eventually won the day with the Bundestag, and they now expect a proto-Schloss, with neo-baroque masonry facades and modern interiors, to be finished by 2016. But given the enormous costs, legal wrangles and political ill-will still dogging the project, Berliners are not holding their breath. The lawn may be around for a while, appreciated by footballers and sunbathers.

Kaiser Wilhelm National Memorial, color lithograph, circa 1890–1905. [Image credit: via U.S. Library of Congress]

It is where this open space meets the river on the south bank of the Museum Island that the new Unification Memorial is meant to stand one day. It won’t be the first memorial on the site. An unruly row of slender 17th century dwellings once stood here, blocking the main facade of the Schloss for nearly two centuries. In 1894 these houses were removed to make way for a monument to Germany’s first Kaiser, who died in 1888. 1 The Kaiser Wilhelm National Memorial was a typical Wilhelmine display of preening excess. The old Kaiser sat high on a bronze horse guided by a feminine spirit of peace. Below, peppered along a stone colonnade that surrounded the statue on three sides, were hundreds of additional sculptures, most of them curiously bestial. Over 150 animals, including lions, eagles, snakes and crabs, prowled or scurried at Wilhelm’s feet. The monument never recovered from the ridicule that greeted it from the start. It survived the bombing of World War II largely unscathed, only to be dismantled and melted down in 1950 by the new communist government. Another symbol of the detested imperial era thrown on history’s scrap heap.

All that remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial (besides two salvaged bronze lion pairs, in eastern Berlin’s animal park) is the massive stone platform that once held the menagerie. The platform is now flat and barren, and mostly hollow, with an open vault big enough to accommodate riverboats. And despite all that’s happened around it in the past two decades, it’s been largely forgotten. Its revival was meant to come with the three-point landing of the new Unification Memorial on its solid shoulders. The 20th century would trump the 19th century. Keep the pedestal, change the rider.

E Pluribus

The members of the Unification Memorial jury — it was later calculated to the chagrin of the participants — spent an average of 90 seconds each on the 532 projects considered during their two-day deliberation. Such a concentrated barrage of images must have provoked strange dreams. The variety of the entries was fascinating, a dizzying parade of banality and audacity, grave seriousness and flippant irony, fantasy and convention. A full spectrum of attitudes toward the aesthetic of remembrance was on view. 2 The knotty contemporary question — what is the memorial, now? — was answered with hundreds of independent, dissonant voices — all, indeed, failing to make their case.

I found the urge to categorize archetypes irresistible. There were familiar motifs, both realistic and abstract, from the realm of popular sentiment: rainbows; flowers; flags; trees of life; parents and children; hands holding hands, clocks or balls; dancing children; doves of peace; people carrying keys; torches; maps of Germany; broken walls. There were essays in simple geometry: rings; cubes; spheres; pyramids; obelisks; stelae; Möbius strips; labyrinths. There were architectural elements, often cueing the Wilhelm monument: columns; plinths; towers; arches; colonnades; stairs. There were German national colors in every combination of gold, glass, metal, and stone. There were meta-text installations, usually employing the words “Einheit” and “Freiheit” or “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the people,” an important rallying cry of the protest movement in East Germany), in projected or solid form. There were patently silly entries, often cloaking a more pointed social commentary: a golden banana; a lone giraffe; a spiked helmet; a company of Smurfs; a giant figure pushing a shopping cart. There were mysteries: shards; piles of sticks; blobs; turds.

The authors were all listed, and it was striking how few prominent names appeared. Most of these were architects known to Berliners (Rob Krier, Zvi Hecker, Axel Schultes, Graft, Gottfried Böhm), but there were few familiar artists. The usual suspects stayed away. What did the poor result say about German feelings toward reunification or about the larger problem of memorial design? There was no real opposition to the idea of the memorial while it was being developed. It seemed that most Germans, east and west, approved, because most Germans feel reunification was a good, or at least necessary thing. A small minority probably doesn’t care, or may feel a memorial is superfluous. 3 But on the whole, the politicians could count on support. So where was the problem?

Certainly, the freighted program and difficult site hobbled the competition from the beginning. It was enough of a challenge to find a symbolic language to represent national reconciliation in the modern era without having the added burden of evoking additional (and profoundly different) social movements up to 150 years old, or of acknowledging parallel events that took place in Leipzig. Placing a contemporary memorial on supercharged ground — the fossilized foundation of the old Wilhelm Memorial next to a once-and-future Schloss fantasia — on a site that in fact has nothing to do with the actual events of November 1989 (unlike the Alexanderplatz or the Brandenburg Gate), only compounded an already daunting design problem. No wonder one Berlin newspaper’s headline resorted to sarcasm: “Germany seeks the super-memorial.” 4

But the inability of more than 500 entrants to produce a winner, or of a major, open competition to attract illustrious participants or to as yet capture the public imagination, must have deeper causes. Bound up within a sticky nexus of symbols and semantics, the memorial was expected to embody the common virtues and principles of unity, peace, freedom, democracy, faith, and joy — all at once. It was inevitable that most designers would pick and choose among these, rather than attempt an amalgam. For some, this meant emphasizing national pride with popular elements (emblems, pillars, statuary), or resorting to conventional signifiers (pure forms, sarcophagi), or to conceptual art (slogans, ephemeralities, “counter-monuments”), or to satire (self-deprecating, in the German tradition). Those few with ambitions to provide a one-size-fits-all memorial offered little more than curious abstractions that resisted interpretation and thus neutralized themselves. At best, these strategies produced an insightful or amusing — but not usable — critical examination of German feelings towards the country (patriotic, cynical, ecstatic); at worst, an embarrassing exercise in what modern Germans are most allergic to with regard to their memorial culture: kitsch and pathos.

How unified is Germany today? The incomplete rings, stairways to heaven, and Möbius strips would suggest unification is a perpetual process, a work in progress. Perhaps this symbolism comes most naturally. But what of freedom and democracy? With respect to 1989 and the German context, it is already problematic to link “unity” with “freedom” because those fighting for freedom within the Eastern bloc were not also fighting for German reunification — such a possibility was only considered later, after the collapse of the communist regime. Western capitalist democracy was not necessarily the goal of the East German protesters, most of whom sought a more tolerant form of socialism. In a similar vein, even though the events of 1989-90 are now commonly referred to by Germans as the “peaceful revolution,” there are still those who dispute that it was a “revolution” in the strict sense because political change occurred more by fortuitous accident than intent, without an organized leadership driving it to a premeditated coup d’état. These are subtleties no memorial can embody.

It is tempting to argue that in its complexity and confusion the Einheitsdenkmal competition reveals more about German division than German unity. For some critics this is not necessarily a bad thing. Some would even argue that the best “memorial” is in fact the debate about memorials — the national soul-searching inspired by major memorial projects. It is discussion, not bronze statues, that keeps memory alive. 5 Such assertions were made as Germany’s most controversial commemorative site, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, emerged through its tortuous development process. Peter Eisenman’s stele field has succeeded as public art, but without its subterranean documentation center — chronicling Jewish life and loss — it says little if anything about the Holocaust.

Berlin Holocaust Memorial, Peter Eisenman, 2005. [Image credit: Jan Otakar Fischer]

The Einheitsdenkmal makes a compelling contrast to the Holocaust Memorial, which was finished in 2005. Both competitions were at first open, anonymous, and received almost exactly the same huge number of entries (532 and 528). Both were intended to create official, “national” memorials through democratic means. Both involved skeptical jury members. Both ended in controversial, scuttled decisions (Chancellor Kohl vetoed the winning designs for the initial Holocaust Memorial competition) and had to be redone “undemocratically,” i.e., via restricted, invited competitions. But there is a major difference: the Holocaust Memorial had an unambiguous brief and a tragic subject, the Einheitsdenkmal did not. With its silent, decentralized abstraction, cool and without a trace of plaintiveness, the Holocaust Memorial has proved equivocal enough to satisfy most interested parties. It focuses attention on a singular, incomprehensible fact of genocide with its mere presence, not its formal qualities. It extended the discussion about the Holocaust rather than ending it. It has not yet become invisible. The urge to build memorials has not abated.

Recent history suggests that memorial design in Germany will remain an inexact science, something like acoustics, an orchestration of research, calibration and luck. Because of its overwhelmingly grim modern history, Germany has had little recent experience in building memorials dedicated to national achievement, and perhaps this is another reason why the Einheitsdenkmal had an inauspicious start. The attention, especially for the leading designers, has been focused heavily on atonement. It may be hard to shift gears. Despite the impressive number of entries, which certainly indicated broad interest, for many Germans the idea of celebrating their own victories with anything other than music, beer, and an orderly assembly, may still feel impetuous, or premature. 6

In any case, as with the Holocaust Memorial, the “democratic” competition process has once again proven faulty. One juror for the Unification Memorial went so far as to say that this well-meaning procedure was an “illusion . . . that only supports mediocrity.” 7 These are inflammatory words for a nation that did not do well with the top-down approach (two dictatorships), but there may be an intrinsic hazard in creating the equal opportunity memorial. Democracy fosters debate and tolerates controversy, both healthy conditions, but like any artwork, the successful memorial ultimately needs more than just consensus — it needs a powerful, cathartic, individual vision.

This is what was missing in the Einheitsdenkmal competition (at least in those entries that had a chance of being realized), and incidentally, also what was precluded in the Berlin Schloss competition, which was decided a year ago. The latter attracted only 158 entries — even fewer brand-name architects were interested in a project that stipulated baroque façades — and its own skeptical jury was not brave enough to declare a mistrial. The winner was a hybrid clone, a Frankenstein to appease the nostalgic and timorous. (Whither the avant-garde, Berlin?) Nonetheless, the Schloss adventure has drawn far more media coverage than that of the Einheitsdenkmal. Why? Size matters? Architecture trumps art? For whatever reason, the current German zeitgeist seeks more answers to national identity in the ghost of a palace than in a synthetic gesture of communion.

Berlin City Palace, circa 1920s; inset: New City Palace, or Humboldtforum, competition winner, 2008, Franco Stella.

Reunification Redux

In July, the organizers of the Einheitsdenkmal announced that a new, revised version of the competition would occur in the indefinite future. Judiciousness and simplicity would be the guiding principles. There was now “no need to hurry,” since the November 9th deadline will have been missed. The theme of the memorial would be reduced in scope to simply, “the peaceful revolution of 1989 and reunification.” (Leipzig would get its own memorial.) A documentation center called for in the first program was cancelled. It would now be an invited competition for twenty to thirty participants — with the caveat that those who had submitted designs in the first round could apply to contribute once more. The site remained unchanged, however. The void in the center of Berlin needed filling, and could not be ignored.

Many still hope that the German Unification Memorial will emerge someday as both a universal and modern artifact. Only a few memorials meet this high standard — Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch in St. Louis comes to mind — without avoiding important polemical discussions (the Arch’s own underground documentation center describes the mixed consequences of the westward expansion of the United States). Like most historic events, the reunification of Germany did not occur in isolation. It came about within a complex web of related events that contributed to the collapse of communism and the formation of new global alignments — events that were sometimes peaceful and joyful, sometimes violent or tragic (Rumania; Tiananmen Square). If it’s worth its salt, the Einheitsdenkmal will register a triumph while provoking further discussions about the lingering differences between east and west, and the place of Germany in a larger, globalized world. It may yet find a place among the few remaining Wall fragments, the Stasi Museum, the new generation of Germans born without any memory of Cold War, and the party held every ten years on a date cruelly shared with less happy times.

  1. Interestingly, an open competition to design the project ended in a hung jury, so a new competition with eight invited artists was arranged. Half of these quit the proceedings when Wilhelm II, the dead Kaiser’s grandson and eventual successor, pushed his favorite sculptor, Reinhold Begas, to the fore. Begas won as predicted, and in 1897 the new monument was dedicated.
  2. See and follow the links to “Ausschreibungen/Wettbewerbe,” then “Ubrige Wettbewerbe,” then “Wettbewerb für ein Freiheits- und Einheitsdenkmal, then “Ausstellung.”
  3. A poll conducted by the Forschungsgruppe Wahlen in late October 2009, commissioned by ZDF TV and Der Tagesspiegel, found that 86% of Germans believe reunification was “the right thing” (85% of west Germans; 91 % of east Germans; 3% undecided).
  4. Der Tagesspiegel, May 8th, 2009.
  5. Here one feels the influence of Austrian writer Robert Musil’s famous observation, from the essay “Monuments,” of 1927, that in the modern era, “there is nothing in the world more invisible than a monument.”
  6. Even then, the first time since WWII that Germans waved their national flag with anything like uninhibited enthusiasm was during the World Cup soccer championship of 2006, which was held in Germany.
  7. Thomas Brussig in Der Tagesspiegel, May 8th, 2009.
Jan Otakar Fischer, “Berlin: The Art of Reunification,” Places Journal, November 2009. Accessed 01 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • Carl W. Smith

    11.10.2009 at 08:57

    I love the idea of large-scale dominoes. Perhaps the Art of Reunification needs a little Art Direction. Here is a link to A Division Through Time . Thank you Jan!