‘But first, let me take a selfie!’ Critical reflections on the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe


The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Wood 2018)

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is one of the most visited sites in the German capital, described by Visit Berlin (2018) as an imposing place of contemplation, remembrance and warning. Opened in 2005 and designed by architect Peter Eisenmann, the memorial is described as an open, abstract and accessible structure which provokes the viewer to confront the topic independently (Visit Berlin 2018). Being a poignant place for tourists and Berliners alike, this memorial is a significant addition to Berlin’s urban landscape; provoking thought about memorialisation in the city and Berlin’s relationship to its geopolitical past, present and future. Taking photos of memorial sites is nothing new. However, being an avid people watcher, trying to make sense of interactions with this memorial is fascinating.

‘Is this the right place to take a smiling selfie?’, ‘Is that guy really on Skype to his friend at a memorial?’, ‘Is hide and seek an appropriate game to play around symbolic gravestones?’, ‘Is that girl really standing on top of the memorial, making her friend take seven different photos of her jumping like Gabriella from High School Musical?’

These are all moments that struck me when I was weaving my way in, out and around the concrete stelae. Who am I to say what is the right or wrong way to engage with this memorial?

This memorial is both architecturally and aesthetically striking; or to use a millennial phrase, ‘Instagrammable’. The 2711 towering concrete blocks that create a 4.7 acre grey expanse in the middle of one of Europe’s most vibrant cities do not make up your ‘average’ memorial (Brody 2012). There are no names, no gold etching, no sculptures or statues and little to no information describing what the memorial commemorates. While widely stated as open to personal interpretation, Brody (2012) suggests the memorials ambiguity is the first step to forgetting- the assumption of familiarity separates the victims from their murderers and portrays the Holocaust as a “natural catastrophe”. The memorial has been the topic of fierce debate since installation: see Chin (et al 2011), Ouroussoff (2005), Young (2002), and Till (2005) for a particularly critical cross examination.

Do the pillars represent coffins? Do the different heights portray the rise and fall of the Third Reich? I relished having conversations with my peers trying to make sense of the memorial and its effect on contemporary Berlin’s urban, social and digital landscape. The grey stelae are consuming; standing in the middle you find an eerie silence in the hustle and bustle of Stadtmitte. These feelings are symbolic- prisoners identities were traded for a tattooed number and my momentary feelings of foreboding uncertainty are minor compared to what the persecuted must have felt. Similarly to Ouroussoff (2005), there is one thing I cannot help but ask myself; if you are parkour style posing on a memorial for millions of murdered Jews, are you here for the right reasons? One can only hope the majority of visitors engage with the memorial like Mumma (2015) however Ouroussoff (2005) suggests these moments showcase human’s ability to numb themselves from the harsh reality of the Holocaust. This is something we must avoid at all costs.

In addition to field observations, searching the location tagged photos on Instagram and Twitter hashtag, you are inundated with social media interactions. Check out this Metro Online (2017) article exploring the work of Israeli author Shahak Sapira who created Yolocaust, a platform showcasing selfies from various social media platforms and dating apps projected onto death camp photos. Makes you think twice, huh?


Photo sourced from Metro Online, Hartley-Parkinson (2017)

Whatever way people engage with this memorial, it serves as a stark reminder of Germany’s troublesome past and stands as a testament to not make the same mistakes. Chin (et al 2011) suggests the memorial etches the Holocaust in “the permanent memory of Germany’s history and landscape”. With this in mind, it is important to be critical of the memorials portrayal which I feel is symbolic of the way Germany wants to present itself post-unification. Is this memorial symbolic of contemporary Germany’s desire to forget their social responsibility for the past (Till 2005 p2) or a fitting, respectful memorial for millions murdered, with Germany holding themselves accountable on the world stage? For me, with its placement close to embassies and consulates, it is somewhere in the middle.

So, if you do visit the memorial, look around. What fills the landscape? What is happening around and in-between the memorial? Most importantly, put your phone down and spark the conversation to ensure lessons from the Holocaust live on.

References and suggestions for further reading:

Brody R (2012) ‘The Inadequacy of Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’. The New Yorker. Accessed 02/04/18, available at https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/the-inadequacy-of-berlins-memorial-to-the-murdered-jews-of-europe

Chin S M, Franke F, Halpern S (2011) ‘A Self Serving Admission of Guilt: An Examination of the Intentions and Effects of Germany’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’. In Zarankin J (2011) (eds.) Reflections on the Holocaust. New York: Humanity in Action, 13-21

Hartley-Parkinson H (2017) Powerful images that show why Holocaust Memorial selfies are so disrespectful, Metro Online. Last edited 19/01/17, accessed 26/04/18, available at http://metro.co.uk/2017/01/19/powerful-images-that-show-why-holocaust-selfies-are-so-disrespectful-6391091/

Mumma R (2015) A Reaction to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Dialogue of Civilization, global, intellectual life, University Scholars. Northeastern University. Accessed 13/04/18, last edited 17/08/15, available at https://www.northeastern.edu/universityscholars/a-reaction-to-the-memorial-to-the-murdered-jews-of-europe/

Ouroussoff N (2005) A Forest of Pillars, Recalling the Unimaginable. The New York Times. Last edited 09/05/05, accessed 19/04/18, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/09/arts/design/a-forest-of-pillars-recalling-the-unimaginable.html

Shapira S (2017) Yolocaust. Accessed 26/04/18, available at http://yolocaust.de/

Till K E (2005) New Berlin: Memory, Politics, Place. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.

Visit Berlin (2018) Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Accessed 04/04/18, available at https://www.visitberlin.de/en/memorial-murdered-jews-europe

Young J E (2002) ‘Germany’s Holocaust Memorial Problem- and Mine’. The Public Historian, Vol 24, No 4, p65-80. JSTOR, accessed 13/04/18 available at www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/tph.2002.24.4.65


Bearing responsibility as the symbol of Berlin.

Despite being in Berlin over Easter, rather than searching for chocolate bunnies, I was hunting for bears (metaphorically speaking). Pictured below is my excitement of finding my first bear, the novelty soon wore off after realising around every corner there was another bear waiting to be found.

pic 1

(Collins, 2018)

For Berliners, the animal that is most celebrated is the bear, bears are carved into stone, on plaques and found within souvenir shops. Linguistically, the prominence of the bear is thought to arisen from the German word for bear (Bär) being phonetically similar to the first syllable in Berlin. The bear has been displayed upon the country’s coat of arms since 1280 and has been altered throughout history. Despite these alterations the bear remained central and is a recognised symbol of Berlin.

pic 2

(Collins, 2018)

The photo shows bears across Berlin, the first is a stone monument located near Berlin University, the second is an advertisement for the construction of the U5 and the third is a picture of a souvenir shop window. The bear influenced Eva & Klaus Herlitz when seeking a canvas for their street art project. The largest bears across Berlin today are part of this project, designed to bring art to the metropolis of Berlin. Berlin is known for its bold gestures and this is no exception, more than 100 Buddy Bears were created in 2001 and placed across the metropolis (Herlitz and Herlitz, 2009). The Buddy Bears became symbolic of the wider movement towards the ‘urban reinvention’ (Colomb, 2013). The furry inhabitants became part of the marketing imagery and narrative of the city that promotes Berlin as a creative city. The project enabled a collective identity to emerge within Berlin, as the Buddy Bears symbolised the heritage of Berlin and focused on the shared culture as opposed to differences. This promoted the creative scene, presenting a version of Berlin staged for potential investors and tourists.

pic 3

(Collins, 2018)

The photo above shows a Buddy Bear residing in the US embassy. In 2002, the project developed into a collaboration with the UN, the Buddy Bears evolved into symbols of tolerance and unity. Bears were commissioned to represent each of the 140 countries recognised by the UN, with each bear designed by indigenous artists (Buddy-Baer.com, 2018). As Berlin’s collective identity has been previously characterised by division and geopolitical tensions, the UN bears draw upon this turbulent past and creatively reconstruct it. The act of the bears touring the world illustrates how they have become part of the geopolitical identity of Berlin, to display Berlin as a city of tolerance and international understanding. The bears illustrate how Berlin’s national identity is called into existence and illuminates a collective identity of the city that is easier felt than articulated. Berlin’s history is highly politicised which the bears work to provide a positive representation of.

pic 4

(Collins, 2018)

The photo above shows a bear within a souvenir shop below the TV Tower. As these bears have been separated and distributed across the capital and the globe, I struggled to see the bears as symbols of international solidarity. Instead I viewed the bears as a marketing tool for tourists. Each bear had become part of the urban fabric that surrounded it however, they were all visibly detached from one another. It seems that the symbol of the bears has changed from a symbol of international solidarity to a symbol of tourism. These thoughts were exemplified after finding the Capital Bears, which were initially created to reflect the life of the German capital and the history of the city.

pic 5

(Collins, 2018)

The photo above shows the sheer delight of my peers after asking them to pose for the umpteenth time with another bear, yet the fame of featuring in a blog spurred them on. The second photo again illustrates how the Capital Bears have been more commonly used as doormen, representing the Park Inn rather than Prussian architecture. These Capital doorman bears have monopolised the symbol of the bear within Berlin to become a symbol of capitalism within the city. These Capital Bears visibly represent the shift in towards capitalising on the culture of Berlin as the metropolis of Germany.


(Collins, 2018)

The cartoon illustrates how I perceived the crisis of identity that the Berlin bears are experiencing. I considered the overarching representation of the bear to have developed into the global branding of Berlin, influencing tourism and enticing a ‘willingness to visit’ (Lee et al., 2012). The shift in the symbolism of the bears and their prominence within the city, illustrates how their materiality continues to uphold significant agency within Berlin’s urban assemblage.


References and Suggested Further Reading:

Buddy-baer.com. (2018). Buddy Bears – Start. [online] Available at: https://www.buddy-baer.com [Accessed 25 Apr. 2018].

Bolin, G. and Miazhevich, G., 2018. The soft power of commercialised nationalist symbols: Using media analysis to understand nation branding campaigns. European Journal of Cultural Studies.

Colomb, C., 2013. Staging the New Berlin: Place marketing and the politics of urban reinvention post-1989. Routledge.

Herlitz, E. and Herlitz, K., 2009. United Buddy Bears — The Art of Tolerance. Buddy Bär Berlin Publications.

Hull IV, R.B., Lam, M. and Vigo, G., 1994. Place identity: symbols of self in the urban fabric. Landscape and urban planning28(2-3), pp.109-120.

Lange, B., Kalandides, A., Stöber, B. and Mieg, H.A., 2008. Berlin’s creative industries: governing creativity?. Industry and Innovation15(5), pp.531-548.

Lee, S., Rodriguez, L. and Sar, S., 2012. The influence of logo design on country image and willingness to visit: A study of country logos for tourism. Public Relations Review, 38(4), pp.584-591.

Ladd, B., 2018. The ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German history in the urban landscape. University of Chicago Press.