Jeffrey Schnapp’s lecture on the importance of monuments was right in my ballpark, so to speak. This semester, I took a class focused on debating the Nazi past, both from a historiographical perspective and looking at the contemporary politics and importance of memory. Monuments are undoubtedly a key part of understanding history. They remind us of what has been done and, if the monument is effective, facilitate a dialogue on how to grow from our past experiences and come together.
The monument I’m about to bring up isn’t necessarily a ‘revolutionary’ monument, but it is crucial nonetheless. In Hamburg, there is a “counter monument”. It is a simple monument – a square pillar with a message on it written in several languages to essentially remain vigilant moving forward, decrying the atrocities of the Nazi regime. The monument has many signatures on it of people who visit. This interactive monument is both a means to remember and uplift the victims of the holocaust and also an interactive call to work against the powers still present to some degree in society – racism and hate chief among them.
In more recent years, in Germany, as a result of the influx of immigrants, many of whom do not know or do not understand the importance of world war two in German History and memory, often have trouble relating to and engaging with the past. This is a problem that crosses borders. How do we make history relevant to those who don’t relate to it? Monuments are one answer to this question – but a monument is useless to this segment of the population if all it is meant to do is drag people back toward the past, back toward often dark times in a particular country’s history. Furthermore, too often monuments exist as a means to inspire mass guilt in the population. There are sometimes good and evil forces in history, but more often there is an expansive gray area that a monument can’t quite encapsulate. Does a German today need to feel remorseful for their ancestor being a member of the nazi party? That seems problematic to me, and I think it explains to some degree why many in Germany would avoid regularly attending holocaust memorials – it is either irrelevant to them or masochistic.
So how do we remember the past in a healthy way? We see monuments as we see our culture – dynamic, progressive, with a distinct reflective look at the past as a guide for our future. When a German looks at a commemorative monument, perhaps they can think about current oppression in the world today, not necessarily in their country, and they can muse on how to best combat that. As an American, I can go to an American history museum and think about how we are still oppressing Native American groups. I can go to the Vietnam memorial and think about how we are still utilizing an illiberal interventionist policy and this is the end result. A monument isn’t a tool for the past. It is a key to the future we want, that we can fight for.