The Genius of This Pillar

What may just seem like an ugly grey block is actually one of the most powerful memorials to genocide.

In the aftermath of WW2, German artists wanted to commemorate the horrors their country had committed. But the problem was that the traditional ‘war monument’ simply would not suffice.

Most monuments commemorate victories or valour or the loss of a nation’s young heroes. It is rare for artists to have to commemorate a period of history their country would rather forget. A period of history where their country slaughtered millions of others in a genocide.
Furthermore, the Nazi regime had turned the monument into just another manipulative arm of their propaganda machine. Monuments under the Nazis were used to show the Reich’s agenda, to publicise what the Arian race should look like. Artists in post-war Germany no longer felt figurative art could be used because of the associations with Nazi statues. The rigidity of monuments and the certainty of a black and white history are traits that are too closely associated with fascist regimes.

Additionally, it was believed that it was too easy to create a monument which allowed the public to ‘remember’ an event. How often do we walk past a monument in the street and genuinely think about what part of history it represents? Not very often. It seems that with most monuments, by placing it in a public space, it is as if we are asking the monument to remember for us, rather than reminding us to remember ourselves.

So this was the struggle German artists faced in the decades after the Holocaust. They wanted to create monuments that would actually enable memory rather than simply becoming another dot on an urban landscape. They also didn’t want to continue the fascist traditions of huge, heroic, classical statues that force a particular ideology onto the public.

Artists began to conceptualise ‘counter monuments’ which challenged the conventional monument. Jewish couple Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz came up with a solution. In 1986 they unveiled their Monument for Peace and Against War and Fascism in Harburg-Hamburg. It was a monument that was designed to force the public to participate, force passers-by to actively remember what it represented. It was entirely the opposite of any Nazi Arian sculptures. It could not have been further from neo-classical heroic statues monumentalising the past.

This was a monument which was designed to disappear. Attached to the 12-metre tall lead-coated column were steel styluses which encouraged people to sign their names or messages onto the monument. After one and half metre sections were covered, the column was then lowered into the ground to allow the next session to be marked.  The more actively visitors remembered, the faster the monument would disappear.

The final section was lowered into the ground on 10th November 1993, and the column finally vanished. Today, all that is left is a burial stone inscribed to ‘Harburg’s Monument against Fascism’ alongside the original text which read ‘we invite the citizens of Harburg, and visitors to the town, to add their names here next to ours. In doing so we commit ourselves to remain vigilant… In the end it is only we ourselves who can stand up against injustice.’
Thus, this memorial reminds us that a statue alone cannot do the memorialising for us. We cannot simply put up blocks of stone and forget what they represent. Now that there is nothing left to see apart from this plaque, the memorial continues to ask us to remember what this empty space represents. It places the burden of memory on us, we must remember for ourselves. 

Showing the progression of the monument
Unlike the statues of pre-war regimes, this was not a memorial that aimed to remain fixed and timeless. Statue such as these will forever be out-dated and detached from the world around them. Memorials that change demand interaction.
Despite the fact that the pillar is no longer there, it serves to remind us of the horrors the country witness and also the power that artists can have on memory.

Based on the research of James E Young, 'Memory/Monument' in Critical Terms for Art History, ed. by R Nelson and R Schiff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 234-247

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