Do memorials serve as true representations of the past? Discuss with reference to at least two Nazi concentration camp memorials (by Adam McNeil)

Do memorials serve as true representations of the past? Discuss with reference to at least two Nazi concentration camp memorials (by Adam McNeil)

The Nazi concentration camp symbolises everything that Western liberal ideals oppose, totalitarianism, discrimination, barbarity. Thus when gazing over the vast expanse of the crumbling Auschwitz-Birkenau, partiality is inevitable. However, when governments systematically repress truths, history is twisted through propaganda or subconscious repression, and consequently material links between a lost world and our own are destroyed, anachronism fundamentally alters the way in which the past is understood. Memorials which are erected under such circumstances will often be laced with propaganda and falsity, as contemporary socio-political agendas utilise the Nazi genocide to forge or preserve national identities. In this context I will focus on two Holocaust memorials, the former concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald, to distinguish the extent to which memorials serve as true representations of the past.

In order to determine whether memorials serve as true representation of the past, it is necessary primarily to explore the unique nature of Holocaust representation and specify how memorials can best achieve this aim. I will argue that Holocaust memorials must be dually representative: historical truth and traumatic memory must both be represented simultaneously. Secondly, I will study the complex relationship between historical authenticity and representation, maintaining that while accurate preservation is fundamental to concentration camp memorials, a delicate balance between preservation and memorialisation must be adhered to. I will then argue that contemporary political influences pose the greatest risk of historical misrepresentation while focusing primarily on Dachau and Buchenwald: the two memorial complexes which best illustrate the impact of the respective socio-political situations of the former East and West German states, as well as that of the modern Germany, and which best exemplify the fundamental problems regarding whether Holocaust memorials ever truly represent the past.

Whether or not Holocaust memorials truly represent the past is reliant on whether the Holocaust can ever be truly represented at all. Nobody will ever truly understand the experience of the victims, and it is thus impossible for a book, film or monument to communicate that which can’t be understood. Holocaust representation can therefore never be complete; however, if we are to wholly discredit representing or understanding the Holocaust in any form due to its impossibility then we prevent any transmission of its memory into future generations – a transgression far graver than falling short of full representation. Accordingly, if I determine that any individual Holocaust memorial does represent the past, I mean within the limits of possibility.

Furthermore, Holocaust memorials necessarily must take forms unique from other public memorials to represent their unique past. Peter Carrier rightly claims that monuments risk serving ‘equally as catalysts for remembrance and for forgetting’ in that traditional war memorials console the viewer in the fact that the fallen died honourably, that they are now at peace. Moreover such memorials imply that the fallen died under legal, morally correct circumstances and are thus inapplicable to Holocaust representation. German sculptors like Gerzes, Radermacher and Hoheisel reject these traditionalist monuments which purport to redeem tragedy. Such an approach is dangerous, engendering the separation of public memory and contemporary consciousness – a profoundly irresponsible approach considering that the discourses and underlying elements of society which produced the Holocaust remain potent. Secondly, a moral duty to communicate the suffering of Holocaust victims befalls modern Europeans in a way unique from other memorialised events, which must be considered most sensitively when memorialising concentration camp sites. Thus the ‘trueness’ of representation of the Holocaust at the memorial sites of former concentration camps must be judged dually: firstly, on their accuracy and depth regarding portrayal of historical truths; secondly on their ability to transmit the ‘human’ aspect of a distant past into the present – the emotion, struggle and horror.

In order to determine whether specific concentration camp memorial sites achieve the representation of the past as outlined above one must first determine whether this is best achieved through the preservation of authentic remnants of the site or through constructing a memorial complex in its place. As Lennon and Foley argue, exhibitions constructed during the postwar period risk promoting the idea of the past as ‘another country’ , whereas authentic remains connect past with present. In light of this, concentration camp remains have recently become considered principally important; the British government recently contributed £2.15m to Auschwitz museum and most other European countries now regularly contribute significant sums to its maintenance. The duty to represent historical truth is indisputably best served through preservation, and many would argue that authentic remains somehow allow for greater empathy between visitors today and the camps victims. Avner Shalev, director of the Yad Vashem Institute described a ‘moral imperative to preserve [Auschwitz’s] authenticity and legacy.’ This discourse indicates that ‘true’ representation of the Holocaust is best achieved at concentration camp memorials through preserving as much of the original infrastructure as possible.

However, it is also necessary to explore the debate over whether authentic Holocaust relics themselves truly represent the past. James Young for example is critical of the Auschwitz museum’s display of the hair and personal belongings of victims in large heaps: ‘That their lives should be recalled primarily through the images of their death, may be the ultimate travesty.’ I reject this argument: the ‘images of their’ death are surely crematoria, gas chambers, not shoes and spoons, which conversely serve as the only physical link to their pre-Holocaust life which help contemporary observers to relate to the incomprehensible Auschwitz millions, reducing the risk of presenting them as anonymous victims. Nonetheless he raises a point: in order to satisfy the sensitivities that the situation requires, some degree of memorialisation must occur at the sites of former concentration camps to counter the ‘images of their death’ which presented alone would be vulgar and tactless. Thus one must sacrifice a degree of authenticity in order to avoid offending victims and honour their memory, whether through building a small memorial gravestone or a large monument.

As well as this demand for the alteration of concentration camps in order to satisfy necessary sensitivities, authenticity must further be compromised to promote ‘truer’ representation of historical facts. A concentration camp left absolutely unchanged since 1945 would be authentic, but this approach would risk ‘denying the authenticity of a site, and thus its past, by simply not mentioning it.’ Thus two parallel requirements exist regarding the representation of historical truth: preservation of authentic remains, but also provision of sufficient information so that visitors are aware of what the authentic remains represent, whether this means installing a small plaque or entire museum. Thus a balance must be struck between the two: historical authenticity must be, to a degree, compromised through alteration in order for a concentration camp site to be informative enough to truly represent the past and respectful enough towards the victims. Within this framework, as well as the above established dual requirements of Holocaust representation, I will examine how contemporary socio-political influences are problematic in Holocaust memorialisation.

Various scholars have examined the relationship between Holocaust representation and contemporary politics, with varying methods of assessment. In The Texture of Memory James Young explains different approaches to Holocaust representation according to the political, social and cultural backgrounds of their respective nations, whereas Harold Marcuse argues that a synchronic model in which national boundaries are secondarily important after the time in which the monument was erected is more useful. An optimal approach would perhaps be a combination of the two, place and time. Although political meanings are visible in monuments across Europe, they are most obvious in Germany, where Holocaust memorialisation was most intrinsically linked to national identity. Thus I will focus primarily on Dachau and Buchenwald, the most highly politicised German sites of the former East and West German states.

Dachau and Buchenwald encapsulate their respective former nation’s paradigms regarding Holocaust remembrance, both were subjected to ideologically motivated alteration and consequently it’s contestable that neither truly represents the past. In 1994, Ebelhard Jackel claimed that, apart from Auschwitz, no Nazi concentration camp ‘has become so much of a symbol’ as Buchenwald. ‘No other has been so controversial.’ Jackels words carry authority; he oversaw the controversial changes made to Buchenwald after German Reunification. His task was a part of the reconciliation of two opposing Cold War era paradigms in Holocaust commemoration: that of the East, where Buchenwald had for decades represented anti-fascist resistance and communist martyrdom, and the West, where Holocaust remnants were regarded as evidence of the perils of totalitarianism – fascism and communism. Buchenwald had, after all, served as a Soviet concentration camp in which further atrocity was committed. These conflicting, centrally-driven discourses determined how the Holocaust was represented in their countries, thus shaping policies regarding concentration camp memorialisation.

Under GDR authority, the Buchenwald memorial complex failed on all counts to represent the past. In 1955 Otto Grotewohl established a committee to oversee the development of Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Ravensbruck, three major former camps which lay to the East of the iron curtain, into centres of communist propaganda. During this phase of Holocaust remembrance in East Germany, communists replaced Jews as the primary victims of Nazi mass murder, ideologically produced myth of heroic communist resistance (embodied in a ‘socialist-realist’ style statue typical of Holocaust monuments of the Eastern Bloc, a statue of triumphant “self-liberators” which stands before a looming bell tower) obscured the uncomfortable past. By juxtaposing itself to the previous regime the East German state sought to boost its legitimacy. Four years before the Buchenwald memorial was dedicated Grotewohl specified its purpose: ‘to bear witness to the indefatigable strength of the anti-fascist resistance fighter.’ By the crematorium stood a bust of Ersnt Thalmann, a communist martyr who had died there. The GDR’s Buchenwald memorial complex dually failed to represent the past: it failed to accurately portray historical truth, and it substituted the transmission of traumatic memory for romanticised fabrications. Furthermore the destruction of most original architecture (probably to erase the evidence of postwar Soviet atrocities in the site) eradicated Buchenwald’s historical authenticity, without any resulting representative benefits as previously outlined.

Since German re-unification, sites such as Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen have been reconfigured away from the GDR communist paradigm but whether they have become ‘truly’ representative of the past is debateable. Caroline Weidmer describes Sachsenhausen as remaining ‘submerged under layer after layer of ideological, aesthetic, and political constructions of the past.’ Her criticisms could equally apply to Buchenwald; despite the recent reconfiguration of exhibitions in the sites both remain laden with socialist-realist sculpture depicting the GDR construed falsities of mass resistance and self-liberation. However, demolishing the evidence of GDR propaganda in order to better represent ‘the past’ would be counter-productive; it would constitute a whitewashing of the half-century of communist rule – a misdemeanour akin to that committed by the GDR, misrepresenting the communist past by destroying authentic evidence. Furthermore, new monuments to the Jewish victims, exhibitions explaining how the Holocaust was politicised by the GDR, as well as research into previously suppressed areas such as homosexuals in the camp and the workings of Buchenwald’s satellite camps render the memorial today far more representative of the past than it was before.

In the Dachau memorial complex, one is able to see the visible effects of West German guilt on how the Holocaust was represented. While guilt was, for East Germany, never confronted – they were communists, the ideological opponents of fascists and were therefore absolved of responsibility – West Germany engaged in a long process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, overcoming the past. During this struggle camps were altered, partially demolished, and altered again in the ongoing process of debate and controversy; ‘submerged’ by political issues like Sachsenhausen in the East. Dachau became West Germany’s de facto national Holocaust monument, and its contemporary composition reflects this process.

Denialism in West Germany was a major obstacle to Holocaust memorialisation. November 1945: the newly elected Mayor Schwalber of Dachau made the first major public speech commemorating the victims of the nearby concentration camp. In this speech he presented the townsfolk as an opposition force to the atrocity and thus attempted to absolve them of culpability: ‘Today, with pure hearts and clean hands this “other Dachau” commemorated all of the victims whose blood has soaked our native soil and whose ash covers the paths within the camp.’ His attempts to proclaim his ‘other Dachau’ an anti-Nazi force is remarkably similar to the propaganda exercise taking place in the East. The result of this attitude on the memorial site is highly visible. In 1960 most of the remaining 34 barracks were torn down, their outlines lined with concrete and then filled with gravel as symbolic graves, despite protestations from survivors. These ‘graves’ symbolise, above all, the absence of the barracks, and the denialism which facilitated such vandalism. Schwabler’s, and Dachau’s attitude reflects a wider discourse in postwar Germany that held the Nazis – ‘them’ and not ‘us’ – the Germans, responsible.

Dachau’s citizens were determinedly opposed to becoming synonymous with genocide, an intention which facilitated many attempts to destroy the camp’s authentic remains. To this end, in 1955 the town’s representative in the Bavarian Government attempted to have the crematorium of the concentration camp demolished to discourage visitors and when this failed he had all signage in the town directing towards the site removed to prevent visitors. Nikolaus Lehner, a Dachau survivor, remarked that ‘the town effectively stalled the construction of an encounter centre in Dachau for over a decade and yet they are able to have houses built at the edge of the camp almost overnight.’ Some, including the memorial site’s director, Barbera Distel, suspected that the delaying was a deliberate strategy: ‘They know that time is on their side. Every year, there are fewer inmates to protest these things. There will come a time when there won’t be any survivors left at all.’ Due to this culture of denial, Dachau today has little more in the way of authentic remains than Buchenwald, and thus isn’t any more representative of historical fact, at least since Buchenwald’s ‘reorientation.’

Regarding the representation of the victims’ suffering, Dachau was more representative than Buchenwald which for decades ignored it, though it too was laced with political influences. When Dachau’s International Monument, Nandor Glid’s abstract sculpture of tortured and emaciated bodies twisted into barbed wire, perhaps the most disturbing and powerful monument to victims’ suffering in any concentration camp, is compared to the concrete embodiment of deception that is the Buchenwald monument, there is no doubt over which better communicates the suffering of the past. However, Glid’s monument follows the western abstract style established in the 1951 London competition for the Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner, secretively funded by an American industrialist with C.I.A. connections to establish an opposing genre of monument to ‘socialist-realism’ – the ‘heroic’ monument style of the Eastern Bloc (for example, Buchenwald monument). Thus, Dachau’s monument was influenced by Cold War politics, and it represents not just the Holocaust but the socio-political context of the era in which it was dedicated.

The examples of Buchenwald and Dachau indicate that Holocaust memorials do serve as fractured representations of the past, but can never be ‘true representations’ of a past far too complex and ambiguous for sculpture and monument to communicate. A delicate balancing act of authenticity, sensitivity and the accurate portrayal of facts must be adhered to – but can probably never be struck perfectly. However, in studying Dachau and Buchenwald one thing is made explicit, that the history which these concentration camp memorial sites should aim to truthfully represent doesn’t end in 1945. The Holocaust’s enormous and continuing influence on national identity and contemporary political dialogue must also be understood, and thus must also be truthfully represented in the former concentration camps, where the entwinement of contemporary politics and Holocaust representation is most


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One thought on “Do memorials serve as true representations of the past? Discuss with reference to at least two Nazi concentration camp memorials (by Adam McNeil)

  1. Interesting piece, Adam. I’m also studying the memory of the Nazi past – in this case, the Nazi persecution of homosexuals – and of course, the erection of memorials is an important factor in the larger memory(ies) of the past. But, I do wonder – what would a “truly authentic” concentration camp memorial look like? You mention that we have to compromise authenticity by being #1, more sensitive, and #2, to be informative (plaques, etc). I would say that’s the case with ANY representation of the past – whether it’s a documentary, a book, or a memorial – even “authentic artifacts” are only understandable when placed in their proper historical context (aka, when someone provides the “big picture”). So, I do applause you for raising these issues about how complex the act of memorialization is – but I hope that we won’t get too hung up on issues of “authenticity” or at least not when it comes to representing the Holocaust. Of course, we have to be historically responsible, but there’s a limit to how far you can go when making a camp site “authentic,” because the more authentic it becomes, the closer you get to mountains of corpses.

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