Monday, May 23, 2022

Public Memory and Public Monuments: The Limits of National Narratives?

Guest Blogger

This post was prepared for a roundtable on Public Memory and Public Monuments, convened as part of LevinsonFest 2022—a year-long series gathering scholars from diverse disciplines and viewpoints to reflect on Sandy Levinson’s influential work in constitutional law.

Anna Saunders

As a scholar of German memory culture, I have spent considerable time examining the memorial processes, aesthetics, and histories of local and national memorials in contemporary Germany. Much of my work has been about examining national trends, such as the influence of Holocaust remembrance on memorial culture, or the impact of a divided history on the memorial landscape of eastern Germany. The course of twentieth-century German history, coupled with a widespread desire after unification to work through this past, has created a rich context for the study of monuments; one could even claim that Berlin suffers today from an affliction called ‘monumentitis’.

I would like to turn my thoughts here, however, to the limitations of the national frame. In many ways, it makes sense for studies of public memory and public monuments to focus on the national context – after all, this continues to be the central framework in which public memorialisation and symbolism is developed and understood. But such processes are taking place within an increasingly global context, and I have been intrigued by the way in which traditional monuments are being used as stages on which international concerns can be played out, perhaps suggesting a new mode of memorial intervention or activism. From the German perspective, this appears to be motivated, on the one hand, by an unease with national political developments and public memory narratives and, on the other hand, a desire to foreground international responsibilities and human rights.

In order to illustrate these observations, I will briefly outline two examples. The first was organised by the controversial performance art group named the Centre for Political Beauty (Zentrum für politische Schönheit, ZPS), which has been responsible for a number of high-profile acts targeting remembrance culture in recent years. In this case, the ZPS removed official memorial crosses to victims of the Berlin Wall, mounted along the river Spree, just a few days before the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 2014. The crosses (in fact, replicas) were then transported to the outer borders of the EU to protest at the thousands of migrants who had lost their lives attempting to cross the border. The crosses were photographed at various points on the border, as well as with a number of refugees living in woodland in Morocco, next to the ‘death strip’ of Melilla. According to the ZPS, ‘In an act of solidarity, the victims of the Berlin Wall fled to their brothers and sisters beyond the external borders of the European Union, more precisely: to the future victims of the wall’.[1]

This action ensured high-profile press coverage, especially given the timing of the event, and brought the German past into uncomfortable proximity with the plight of contemporary refugees. Through crowd funding, the organisation coordinated two bus-loads of so-called ‘peaceful revolutionaries’ to Bulgaria’s outer borders, armed with bolt cutters and electric angle grinders, to bring about the ‘first fall of the European Wall’, with demonstrators shouting ‘The wall must come down’ (‘Die Mauer muss weg!’ – the famous slogan from 1989). Their aim was to draw attention to the hypocrisy of official ceremonies celebrating the fall of the Wall in Berlin, which they claim featured ‘nostalgic and sedating speeches in an Oktoberfest-like ceremony’,[2] while a humanitarian crisis continued at Europe’s outer borders. Although the white crosses were finally returned on the evening of the 25th anniversary, their absence caused uproar in political circles and forced dialogue between the politics of past and present – above all drawing attention to the danger of official memorials and ceremonies potentially becoming little more than ritual lip service to the past.

While this example was led by a group known for radical action – and I won’t reflect here on the legality of their acts – other artists and activists have aimed to achieve similar ends through different means. In Dresden, for instance, German-Syrian artist Manaf Halbouni installed his provocative ‘Monument’ in Dresden in 2017. This consisted of three disused busses, erected vertically, in front of the Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady), recreating one of the most striking images of the Syrian civil war: three busses standing on end in an Aleppo street to act as a barricade against sniper fire. Intended by Halbouni as a ‘peace monument’ (Friedensmahnmal), it linked the plight of civilians in the Syrian civil war with the fate of Dresden in 1945, not only because of its location in front of the carefully reconstructed Frauenkirche, itself a victim of bombing raids, but also because of the date of its installation, which coincided with the anniversary of the start of the Allied air raids on 13 February 1945. This date has, in recent years, become a vehemently contested day of remembrance in Dresden’s history, and the location is notable not only as a site of reconstruction after unification, but also as a prime location for anti-Islamic and anti-immigration demonstrations in the wake of the migrant crisis. As with the Berlin example, two disparate histories were placed side-by-side, with the aim of drawing explicit comparison between the two and triggering heated discussion about contemporary public memory.

These two cases are interesting within the context of public monuments for several reasons. First, they highlight the continuing importance of materiality. While it is the social interaction with a monument that imbues it with meaning – rather than any inherent meaning residing in the stone, brick or bronze – these examples remind us of the power of materiality and serve as a reminder that the monument offers something that is denied by the ubiquity of today’s virtual world and fleeting screen images: the material quality and solidity of the object. While these examples may be ephemeral, they deal in very concrete terms with the tangible physicality of memorials. Part of the outcry concerning the ZPS’s action, for example, was the theft and dishonourable treatment of sacred memorial crosses that carried their own remembrance history; for many in Dresden, the imposition of what they saw to be ‘scrap metal’ was abhorrent after spending so many years returning the church and square to its former Baroque glory. In both cases, the fixation with a material symbol that was uprooted from its original position and placed uncomfortably in a different location served to unveil the human cost of present-day politics and underlined the problematic negotiation of narratives of remembrance.

The second aspect relates to emotionality, and a desire to provoke public feeling through emotionally-charged images and events. In both cases, this was heightened by the deliberate decision to coincide with an anniversary date, when public sentiment was at a constructed high point. Within the context of German remembrance, a strong emotional focus contrasts with the counter-memorial aesthetic of the late twentieth-century,[3] where projects often attempted to engage the intellect and promote individual reflection, rather than trigger a public outflow of emotion. While there clearly is still a place for individual reflection, it seems that the intended internalisation of historical responsibility (particularly relating to the Holocaust) encouraged by such structures appears to fall short in the face of right-wing populism and increasing distance from historical events. The recourse to greater emotionality could, then, be interpreted as a response to the limitations of state rituals and the accepted norms of memorial form.

Third, these examples aim to mobilise public feeling in a ‘multidirectional’ way,[4] using some memories not only as platforms for others, but also to provoke discursive public spaces around national narratives and memorial tropes. In doing so, they promote international political and humanitarian concerns and aim to highlight our responsibilities not only as national citizens, but also as global citizens. While neither example discussed here can be seen as anti-national (or anti-nation), both invest in a greater understanding of the national within the international, and critically the relationship between the two. We may also be witnessing here a reflection on the limitations of established national memorials in an increasingly global context. While traditional, national, heroic monuments are often constructed to create a sense of belonging, and counter-memorials encourage us to question – or re-think – this belonging, neither commonly encourage us to turn our sights beyond the nation. Instead, the two examples discussed here create a deliberate sense of unease or discomfort with the national context by exposing our frequent inability to think beyond it.

Whether we will see increased memorial activism in times to come remains to be seen. For now, however, such cases provide us with new ways of thinking about public memory and public monuments, bringing the relationship between the national past and the international present into sharp focus.

Anna Saunders is Professor of Modern Languages and Cultures and Head of the Department of Languages, Cultures, and Film at the University of Liverpool. You can contact her at

[1] ‘Erster Europäischer Mauerfall’, ZPS website: (accessed 6 April 2022).

[2] ‘Erster Europäischer Mauerfall’, ZPS website: (accessed 6 April 2022).

[3] Thematised above all by James Young, in (amongst others) ‘The Counter-Monument: Memory against Itself in Germany Today’, Critical Inquiry, 18 (1992) 2, 267-296.

[4] Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford University Press, 2009).

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