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Thursday, 27 January, 2000, 13:03 GMT
Berlin's battle to build memorial

President Wolgang Thierse delivers speech during Berlin Holocaust Memorial ceremony President Wolfgang Thierse delivers speech at Berlin Holocaust Memorial ceremony

By Caroline Wyatt in Berlin

The low-key ceremony in Germany to mark the beginning of work on a planned national memorial to the victims of the Holocaust comes after an agonised decade of debate.

It should have been a powerful gesture of atonement. Yet the often bitter argument over what the memorial should look like, and who it should commemorate, has dominated the project from its inception.

Many questions hung over the project. Should a national memorial to the victims of the Nazis be dedicated solely to their Jewish victims? Should it be for everyone who was murdered or persecuted, including gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Communists and the mentally or physically handicapped?

With this memorial, there can be no more denial or indifference.
Wolfgang Thierse, German President

After a vigorous debate, it was decided it should be devoted solely to the Jewish victims.

Yet even the concept of building a national memorial for one of the last century's major crimes came under fire - not least from the Jewish community in Germany, which feared that such a memorial would be an attempt to draw a line under a murderous period of history.

Debate over design

Others questioned the need for such a monument, pointing out that the German capital was already full of museums, memorials and documentation centres dedicated to the study of the Holocaust.

Berlin's Holocaust Memorial: Dogged by delays Berlin's Holocaust Memorial: Dogged by delays
Then came a massive debate over the design itself. The original winner of an international competition had proposed a slanting tombstone. The names of 6 million victims of the Holocaust would have been inscribed on the block, the size of two football pitches.

That proved so unpopular with the city and the previous CDU government that a new competition had to be held. This time, a design by the American architect Peter Eisenmann was chosen.

It features a vast field with more than 2,000 abstract columns resembling gravestones, just a stone's throw from the Brandenburg gate.

Clearing away relics of the past

The site itself was to pose problems, as it had been the previous 'no man's land' between the two walls which separated East and West Berlin.

The notorious 'death strip' had been famous for its watchtowers and guard dogs. The area still had to be cleared of World War II bombs, mines and ammunition before the memorial project could get underway.

It was during this time that a bomb disposal squad stumbled on several unexplored Nazi bunkers which lay below the site. The project was held up even further as archaeologists excavated the area.

No 'city of mourning'

However, the critics were still not satisfied. Berlin's Mayor Eberhard Diepgen complained that the monument's design - so redolent of a cemetery - would turn Berlin into a 'city of mourning', and that the design was too abstract.

Many among the Jewish community in Berlin perceived the design as a massive cliché. Peter Eisenmann was sent back to the drawing board to incorporate a library and documentation centre on the Holocaust into his plans.

His third proposal was finally accepted - though not necessarily liked - by all.

That should have been the end of the problems - but far from it. Thanks to various question-marks - including the exact ownership of part of the site - building work on the German national memorial to the Holocaust cannot start until the middle of the next year at the earliest, with completion scheduled for mid-2002.

The ground-breaking ceremony was conducted by Mr Wolfgang Thierse, the President of the German Parliament, and one of memorial's fiercest defenders. Last year, he reminded his fellow Germans why it was necessary to build the memorial.

"We are not building it for Jews or the other victims," he said.

"We are building it for ourselves so that with this memorial, there can be no more denial or indifference."

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See also:
25 Jun 99 |  Europe
Bundestag decides on Holocaust memorial
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