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News Analysis: Holocaust Memorial Proposal Enters German Election Debate

The debate about a proposed Holocaust memorial in Berlin has suddenly become a hot topic in Germany’s election campaign.

The latest controversy, which extends a public debate that has raged off and on for about a decade, comes as a decision on the final design was expected — and could now cause a further setback to those plans.

Politicians from both of Germany’s major political parties called for a moratorium on the debate until after the elections, which are scheduled for Sept. 27.

The current round in the public debate was touched off last week, when a publisher who is slated to become the government’s top cultural authority if the Social Democratic Party wins the elections, as polls now predict they will, said he opposed the memorial.

Michael Naumann, who is currently head of a German-owned publishing company in New York, told reporters he doubted that an aesthetically elegant memorial could reflect the true horror of the Holocaust.

Existing memorial sites at former concentration camps are much more likely than a memorial to spark horror and reflection, Naumann told a German newspaper.

Naumann apologized late last week on German television for a remark he made in which he compared the current plan for the monument with the architectural plans of the Nazis.

Advocates of the monument, including German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, maintain that a large and prominent Holocaust monument — the proposed site is the size of several large football fields — in the center of Berlin is an important reminder of the past and a guarantor of German democracy. The Parliament is scheduled to move to the German capital from Bonn next year. Supporters also say Germany should commemorate the singular atrocity of the Nazis in a central location.

Detractors, including the head of Naumann’s party, Gerhard Schroeder, claim that former Nazi concentration camps in Germany such as Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen are the appropriate locations to reflect on the Holocaust. A large central memorial, they fear, will become a routine stop for visiting politicians that will trivialize historical memory.

German Jewish leaders, who in the past have said they welcomed the monument, have chosen to stay out of the current controversy. The Jewish community has expressed little enthusiasm about current plans for the monument, but leaders have said it is better for a mediocre design to be built than for Germany to back down from building it. Privately, many leading Jewish leaders and intellectuals have said they would prefer a museum or improvements of memorial sites at concentration camps to a monument.

The idea for the memorial was launched nearly a decade ago by a private initiative. Together with the federal government and the city of Berlin, the group opened a competition for the design that attracted hundreds of entries.

The winning design in that competition was an enormous tilting slab of stone inscribed with the names of all Holocaust victims. Many Jewish leaders objected that the lists would contain many identical or similar names which could dehumanize the memory of the victims. Furthermore, historians pointed out that many names remain unknown.

In a second round of competition, invitations were sent to about two dozen renowned architects and sculptors. Four winning designs were selected, including a field of jagged and unevenly sized stone slabs designed by American architect Peter Eisenmann and sculptor Richard Serra, who later withdrew from the project.

Kohl is reported to favor Eisenmann’s design. However, it must also be approved by the private committee that launched the project and by the city of Berlin.

The new round of controversy is endangering the project’s shaky consensus. The mayor of Berlin, Richard Diepgen, has spoken out for months against the memorial. Growing opposition among leading German intellectuals such as the novelist Gunther Grass could further derail plans for the monument.

Many commentators in Germany have said that the discussion surrounding the project is more valuable than the monument itself. The debate has forced politicians and opinion-makers to reflect on how Germany can best remember and commemorate the Holocaust.

Kohl, who is given little chance of winning re-election, may give a go-ahead before he leaves office. Still, opposition within the Berlin city government to the design favored by Kohl may prevent the chancellor from doing so. And if Schroeder is voted into office, the project is unlikely to be realized in the foreseeable future.

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