After more than a decade of controversy, German officials dedicated a five-acre plot of land today in the heart of Berlin as the site of a national Holocaust memorial that is intended to remind future generations of Germans that the stigma of Nazi genocide can never be erased from their nation's history.
Marking an annual day of remembrance for the 6 million Jews murdered under Nazi rule before and during World War II, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the German Parliament reaffirmed their support for the memorial and vowed to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust despite the desire of many younger Germans to be treated like other Europeans.
But as a sign of the difficulties that likely will slow completion of the project, the ceremony was conducted not with a symbolic groundbreaking but with the unveiling of two billboards heralding the memorial on a fenced lot near the Brandenburg Gate. Construction may not start for at least another year because of legal problems over ownership of the land and questions about the contours of the final design.
Last year, Parliament endorsed the concept of American architect Peter Eisenman for a sculpture garden consisting of 2,700 concrete pillars that vaguely resembles a labyrinthine graveyard. But the Schroeder government also insisted on adding a didactic dimension with an exhibit and document center designed to educate future generations about the Holocaust.
The squabbling over the shape of the project has been compounded by political conflict over its value and purpose. Some opponents say the magnitude of Nazi crimes was so great that no memorial could measure up. Others believe that Berlin has other sites--the Topography of Terror exhibit of Gestapo crimes; the Wannsee house, where the Final Solution was crafted; and a new Jewish Museum--that make the project redundant.
Eberhard Diepgen, Berlin's Christian Democratic mayor, has complained that the memorial is not appropriate for the center of the capital, arguing that the city's towering new skyscrapers at Potsdamer Platz and gleaming new glass office buildings near the former site of Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall crossing, symbolize the new Germany.
Diepgen refused to attend today's ceremony, saying, "You can't expect that I would attend a symbolic event and honor a decision that I would never have made." His decision provoked criticism from Schroeder's Social Democrats, who accused Diepgen of trying to curry political favor with those Germans who resent being reminded of Nazi crimes.
Among some intellectuals and historians, there is a growing consensus that the time has come for Germany--with two-thirds of its population born after the war--to stop apologizing about the Nazi era. But today, on the 55th anniversary of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in southern Poland, prominent members of the German establishment agreed that the Berlin memorial must be built.
At a somber ceremony at the Reichstag, Parliament President Wolfgang Thierse declared that Germany's aspirations for "a more peaceful, just and humane century" could only be fulfilled through a diligent crusade against the dangers of extremism.
"That is why we have to take with us into the new century the knowledge about the inhumane brutality of the Nazi system, about the ignorance and gullibility of the masses and the immeasurable suffering of the victims," Thierse said.
As guest of honor, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel warned that Germany must not relax its struggle against any tendency to bury the Nazi past. "By conspiring to obliterate the victims' memory, those who want to turn the page are killing them a second time," he said.
Wiesel urged the government to sustain its education campaign so that the world can see how the values and attitudes of the German people have changed since World War II. "In those days, the word 'German' inspired fear," Wiesel said. "But the children of the killers are not killers; they are working valiantly and honorably to build a new destiny."