University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


Horst Hoheisel

Horst Hoheisel's Counter-memory of the Holocaust: The End of the Monument

by James E. Young. (Reprinted with permission of the author)

Among the hundreds of submissions for a German national memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, Horst Hoheisel's design embodied very precisely the impossible questions at the heart of Germany's memorial process. Already well-known for this negative-form monument and his Denk-Stein-Sammlung in Kassel, Hoheisel proposed a simple, if provocative anti-solution to the 1995 memorial competition: blow up the Brandenburger Tor, grind its stone into dust, sprinkle the remains over its former site, then cover the entire memorial area with granite plates. How better to remember a destroyed people than by a destroyed monument?

Rather than commemorating the destruction of a people with yet another constructed edifice Hoheisel would mark destruction with destruction. Rather than filling in the void left by a murdered people with a positive from, the artist would carve out an empty space in Berlin by which to recall a now absent people. Rather than concretizing and thereby displacing the memory of Europe's murdered Jews, the artist would open a place in the landscape to be filled with the memory of those who come to remember Europe's murdered Jews. A landmark celebrating Prussian might and crowned by a chariot-borne Quadriga, with the Roman goddess of peace, would be destroyed to make room for the memory of Jewish victims of German might and peacelessness. In fact, perhaps no single emblem better represents the conflicted, self-abnegating motives for memory in Germany today than the vanishing monument.' Of course, such a memorial undoing will never be sanctioned by the German government, and this too is part of the artist's point. Hoheisel's proposed destruction of the Brandenburger Tor  simultaneously participates in the competition for a national Holocaust memorial, even as its radicalism precludes the possibility of its execution. At least part of its polemic is directed against actually building any winning design, against ever finishing the monument at all. Here Hoheisel seems to suggest that surest engagement with Holocaust memory in Germany may actually lie in its perpetual irresolution, that only an unfinished memorial process can guarantee the life of memory. Better a thousand years of Holocaust memorial competitions in Germany than any single 'final solution' to Germany's memorial problem.²

Germany's 'Jewish question' is now two-pronged memorial question: How does a nation of former persecutors mourn its victims? How does a nation like German rebuild itself as a new and just state on the bedrock memory of its crimes? One of the most fascinating responses to Germany's essential memorial conundrum is the advent of its 'counter-monuments': brazen, painfully self-conscious memorial spaces conceived to challenge the very premises of their being. For a new generation of artists in Germany today, the question is not whether to remember or to forget the Holocaust. But rather, given the tortuous complexity of their nation's relation to its past, they wonder whether the monument itself is more an impediment to public memory rather than is incitement. They are heirs to a double-edged postwar legacy: a deep distrust of monumental forms still redolent of their systematic exploitation by the Nazis and profound desire to distinguish their generation from that of the killers through memory. To their minds, the didactic logic of monuments, their demagogical rigidity, recall too closely traits they associate with fascism itself. A monument against fascism, therefore, would have to be monument against itself: against the traditionally didactic function of monuments, against their tendency to displace the past they would have us contemplate - and finally, against the authoritarian propensity in all art that reduce viewers to passive spectators. Thus, when the city of Kassel invited artists to consider ways to rescue one of its destroyed historical monuments -the Aschrottbrunnen - Horst Hoheisel decided that neither a preservation of its remnants nor its mere reconstruction would do. For Hoheisel, even the fragment was a decorative lie, offensive: not only would self-congratulatory overtones of Wiedergutmachung betray an irreparable violence, but the artist feared that a reconstructed fountain would only encourage the public to forget what had happened to the original

In the best tradition of the counter-monument, therefore, Hoheisel proposed a 'negative-form' monument to mark what had once been the Aschrott Fountain in Kassel's City Hall Square. Originally this had been a 12-meter high, neogothic pyramid fountain, surrounded by a reflecting pool set in the main town square, in front of City Hall, in 1908. It was designed by the City Hall architect, Karl Roth, and funded by a Jewish entrepreneur from Kassel, Sigmund Aschrott. But as a gift from a Jew to the city, it was condemned by the Nazis as the 'Jews' Fountain' and so demolished during the night of 8-9 April 1939 by Nazi activists, its pieces carted away by city work crews over the next few days. Within weeks, all but the sandstone base had been cleared away, leaving only a great, empty basin in the center of the square. Two years later, the first transport of 463 Kassel Jews departed from the Hauptbahnhof to Riga, followed in the next year by another 3000. More than 1000 were murdered. In 1943, the city filled in the fountain's basin with soil and planted it over in flowers; local burghers then dubbed it 'Aschrott's Grave'. During the growing prosperity of the 1960s, the town turned 'Aschrott's Grave' back into a fountain, sans pyramid. But by then, only a few of the city's oldtimers could recall that its name had ever been Aschrott's anything. When asked what had happened to the original fountain, they replied that to their best recollection, it had been destroyed by English bombers during the war. In response to this kind of fading memory, the 'Society for the Rescue of Historical Monuments' proposed in 1984 that some form of the fountain and its history be restored - and that it recall all the founders of the city, especially Sigmund Aschrott. On being awarded the project, Hoheisel described both the concept and form underlying this negative-form monument:

'I have designed the new fountain as a mirror image of the old one, sunk beneath the old place in order to rescue the history of this place as a wound and as an open question, to penetrate the consciousness of the Kassel citizens so that such things never happen again.

That's why I rebuilt the fountain sculpture as a hollow concrete from after the old plans and for a few weeks displayed it as a resurrected shape at City Hall Square before sinking it, mirror-like, 12 meters deep into the ground water.

The pyramid will be turned into a funnel into whose darkness water runs down. From the architektonische Spielerei, as City Hall architect Karl Roth called his fountain, a hole emerges which deep down in the water creates an image reflecting back the entire shape of the fountain.'³

How does one remember an absence? In this case, by reproducing it. Quite literally, the negative space of the absent monument will now constitute its phantom shape in the ground. The very absence of the monument will now be preserved in its precisely duplicated negative space. In this way, the monument's reconstruction remains as illusory as memory itself, a reflection on dark waters, a phantasmagoric play of light and image. Taken a step further, Hoheisel's inverted pyramid might also combine with the remembered shape of its predecessor to form the two interlocking triangles of the Jewish star- present only in the memory of its absence. Of course, on a visit to City Hall Square in Kassel, none of this is immediately evident. During construction, before being lowered upside down into the ground, the starkly white negative-form sat upright in the square, a ghostly reminder of the original, now-absent monument. Where there had been an almost forgotten fountain, there is now a bronze tablet with the fountain's image and an inscription detailing what had been there and why it was lost. As we enter the square, we watch as water fills narrow canals at our feet before rushing into a great underground hollow, which grows louder and louder until we finally stand over the Aschrottbrunnen. Only the sound of gushing water suggests the depth of an otherwise invisible memorial, an inverted palimpsest that demands the visitor's reflection.. Through an iron grate and thick glass windows we peer into the depths. 'With the running water', Hoheisel suggests, 'our thoughts can be drawn into the depths of history, and there perhaps we will encounter feelings of loss, of a disturbed place, of lost form.'

thought stone collection

Thought Stones Collection

In fact, as the only standing figures on this flat square, our thougts rooted in the rushing fountain beneath our feet, we realize that we have become the memorial. 'The sunken fountain is not the memorial at all', Hoheisel says. 'It is only history turned into a pedestal, an invitation to passersby who stand upon it to search for the memorial in their own heads. For only there is the memorial to be found.' Hoheisel has left nothing but the visitors themselves standing in remembrance, left to look inward for memory.

Five years later, Horst Hoheisel turned to the next generation with a new, more pedagogically inclined project. With permission from the local public schools, the artist visited the classrooms of Kassel with a book, a stone, and a piece of paper. The book was a copy of Namen and Schicksale der juden Kassels (The Name and Fates of Kassel's Jews). In his classroom visits, Hoheisel would tell students the story of Kassel's vanished Jewish community, how they had once thrived there, lived in the very houses where these school-children now lived, how they had sat at these same classroom desks. He then asked all the children who knew any Jews to raise their hands. When no hand appeared, Hoheisel would read the story of one of Kassel's deported Jews from his memory book. At the end of his reading, Hoheisel invited each of the students to research the life one of Kassel's deported Jews: where they had lived and how, who were their families, how old they were, what they had looked like. He asked them to visit formerly Jewish neighborhoods and get to know the German neighbors of Kassel's deported Jews. After this, students were asked to write short narratives describing the lives and deaths of their subjects, wrap these narratives around cobblestones and deposit them in one of the archival bins the artist had provided every school. After several dozen such classroom visits, the bins had begun to overflow and new ones were furnished. In time, all of these bins were transported to Kassel's Hauptbahnhof, where they were stacked on the rail platform whence Kassel's Jews were deported. It is now a permanent installation, what the artist call his Denk-Stein-Sammlung (memorial stone archive).

This memorial cairn - a witness-pile of stones - marks both the site of deportation and the community's education about its murdered Jews, their absence now marked by the still evolving memorial. Combining narrative and stone in this way, the artist and students have thus adopted the most Jewish of memorial forms as their own - thereby enlarging their memorial lexicon to include that of the absent people they would now recall. After all, only they are now left to write the epitaph of the missing Jews, known and emblematized primarily by their absence, the void they have left behind. Acutely aware of the propensity in conventional monuments to displace as much memory as they claim to embody, Horst Hoheisel finds that the most important space of Holocaust memory has not been that in the ground or above it, but that space between the memorial and viewer, between viewers and their own memory. To this end, he has attempted to embody the ambiguity and difficulty of Holocaust memorialization in Germany in conceptual, sculptural, and architectural forms that return the burden of memory to those who come looking for it. Rather than creating self-contained sites of memory, detached from our daily lives, Hoheisel forces both visitors and local citizens to look within themselves for memory, at their actions and motives for memory within these spaces. In these and other counter-monuments he has designed at Buchenwald and in Weimar, Hoheisel has built into these spaces the capacity for changing memory, places where every new generation will find its own significance in this past. In the end, the counter-monument reminds us that the best Germain memorial to the Fascist era its victims may not be single memorial at all - but simply the never to be resolved debate over which kind of memory to preserve, how to do it, in whose name, and to what end. That is, what are the consequences of such memory? How do Germans respond to current persecutions of foreigners in their midst in light of their memory of the Third Reich and its crimes? Instead of a fixed sculptural or architectural icon for Holocaust memory in Germany, the debate itself - perpetually unresolved amid ever-changing conditions - might now be enshrined.

James E. Young

'.This essay adapts and elaborates James E. Young, 'The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning' (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993), published in Vienna as 'Formen des Erinnerns' (Vienna: Passagen Verlag, 1997). Also see James E. Young, 'The Counter-monument: Memory against Itself in Germany Today', Critical Inquiry 18 (Winter 1992): 267-296

².For a record of this competition, see 'Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas': Kurzdokumentation (Berlin: Senats verwaltung für Bau- and Wohnungswesen, 1995). For a collection of essays arguing against building this monument, see 'Der Wettberwerb für das Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas': Eine Streitschrift (Berlin, 1995).
On his proposal to blow up the Brandenburger Tor, see Horst Hoheisel, 'Aschrottbrunnen - Denk-Stein-Sammlung - Brandenburger Tor-Buchenwald. Vier Erinnerungsversuche', in: Nicolas Berg, Jess Jochimsen, and Bernd Stiegler (eds.)
'Shoah - Formen der Erinnerung': Geschichte, Philosophie, Literatur, Kunst (Munich, 1996), 253-266

³.From Horst Hoheisel ,'Rathaus-Platz-Wunde', in 'Aschrott-Brunnen - offene wunde der Stadtgeschichte' (Kassel, 1989), unpaginated; my translation.


Plan of the old Aschrottbrunnen by the architect of the City Hall, Karl Roth 1908.


The Aschrottbrunnen on the Courtyard of Honor at Kassel City Hall Kassel 1908.

destroyed fountain

The destroyed fountain sculpture on April 9, 1939.

vigil at wannsee

Vigil for the memorial ceremony at the Wannsee Conference 1986.

Related Article:

Identity and Empty Reflections about Horst Hoheisel's Negative Memory and Yearning for Sacrifice - by Hanno Loewy

Feature projects by Horst Hoheisel: (Each of the following sections contains extensive photo documentation of Hoheisel's counter-monument proposals. Each image enlarges.)

Horst Hoheisel's Curriculum Vitae