German lawmakers OK plan for Holocaust memorial

Berlin structure to honor Jewish victims of war


BERLIN -- After a decade of increasingly tense debate over the place of memory in a society now two generations removed from the Nazi era, the German parliament approved a plan yesterday for the building of a vast memorial in the heart of this city to the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

The vote opened the way for the construction near the Brandenburg Gate of a project designed by the New York architect Peter Eisenman. It will combine a field of more than 2,000 stone pillars with a building that is officially being called a "documentation center" but will have many of the attributes of a Holocaust museum.

"We are not building this monument solely for the Jews," said Wolfgang Thierse, the speaker of parliament. "We are building it for ourselves. It will help us confront a chapter of our history."

That confrontation has been going on for many years, often with a wrenching honesty.

So insistent has reflection on Hitler been that many Germans have become impatient with it.

The country's protracted difficulty in reaching agreement on what sort of memorial, if any, to build in the Berlin now being reborn as the capital of a united Germany clearly reflected a tension between remembrance and a growing desire among young Germans to emerge from history's long shadow.

But the debate on those issues had become increasingly circuitous, and the vast site reserved for the memorial between the glistening, newly built Potsdamer Platz and the reopened Reichstag had become a growing embarrassment.

As other empty stretches of land were filled with new buildings, the 4.9-acre vacant lot began to resemble a hole in the city's heart.

Since taking office eight months ago, the center-left Government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has pushed for a decision, and its top cultural official, Michael Naumann, has led the quest for a compromise.

The efforts evidently paid off yesterday as parliament voted by 314 to 209, with 14 abstentions, to approve Eisenman's ambitious project.

In many ways, the memorial's size and position ensure that it will be a central element in the emergent city of refurbished or newly built ministries and embassies mushrooming where the Berlin wall once stood and where Hitler once presided.

The vote backed a compromise reached between Eisenman and Naumann last January.

The agreement involved reducing the number of stone pillars to about 2,000 from close to 3,000 and adding a building that will house an extensive archive, an information center and an exhibition space.

In effect, the compromise reflected a desire to combine the purely artistic expression of remembrance and remorse with a center that would be accessible and useful.

Naumann called the idea a "superb synthesis."

"The 10-year discussion has at last reached a successful conclusion," said Andreas Nachama, the head of the Berlin Jewish community. "Now the plans can finally be implemented."

But it was evident in parliament yesterday that strong reservations persist, particularly in Berlin.

Mayor Eberhard Diepgen, a Christian Democrat, denounced Eisenman's project for its "monumentality" and said it would have no resonance for future generations.

Diepgen is known for his intimate sense of this city's mood, and with elections later this year, he clearly took a position that he believes will be well received locally.

In theory, city authorities could stall the construction, set to begin next year, but that seems unlikely, given parliament's clear message yesterday that the time has come to get on with the project.

The mayor had backed a plan for a far smaller stone memorial inscribed simply with the words "Thou Shalt not Kill" proposed earlier this year by a Berlin theologian, Richard Schroeder, saying that its "precision, dignity and modesty" gave it more power than Eisenman's project. But the parliament voted to reject that idea.

One evident problem with the inscription "Thou Shalt not Kill" is that it appeared to reflect the mood of the Germany of the postwar years with its insistence that "only peace" would go out from German soil, rather than the Germany that has recently been at war in the Balkans and has sent thousands of peacekeeping troops to Kosovo.

Confronted by the conflict of two basic principles of the postwar German state -- "No more war" and "No more Auschwitz" -- Chancellor Schroeder's government has sided with the latter, explaining its decision to join the NATO bombardment of Kosovo in terms of the need to stop ethnic persecution.

Pub Date: 6/26/99

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