University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


  • Identity and Empty Reflections

    Identity and Empty Reflections

    Identity and Empty Reflections about Horst Hoheisel's Negative Memory and Yearning for Sacrifice.

    By Hanno Loewy

    Horst Hoheisel's public artistic interventions have for some years involved the most reflective attempts to subject to a critical revision the relationship between past and present, between taboo remembrance and moral acknowledgement, between denial and demonstrative history culture, in Germany.

    For obvious reasons, but perhaps with under-emphasis, James Young has canonised his negative memorials as counter-memorials. They are `Counter memorials' not only in the sense that they subvert the tradition of formulae for pathos, which are inherent within national symbolic institutions and their expressions in public monuments. Hoheisel's memorial-phantasies and the spatially realised installations and social processes associated with them are subversive, too, of the artist's own symbolic intention in each case. Hoheisel knows this and positively provokes this effect.

    Hoheisel has substituted the imaginations, fears, symbolic representations and defence strategies, which are associated with materials and documents, historical places and topographies, as themselves the medium, in order to test (and to reject) different form of placing oneself in relation to history and to transform this relation into a visible form which can be experienced and therefore also criticised. In this process he does not shrink from monstrous thoughts, for the history which has him in its grip is monstrous.

    Monstrous and challenging was the gesture associated with the negative form of his reversed well/spring/fountain? bored into the square before Kassel's City Hall and through which Hoheisel first brought himself to world-wide attention.

    On 9 April 1939, shortly before the so called Reich fighters day, Nazi activists destroyed a fountain in front of the Town Hall in Kassel, which had been donated by a Jew, Sigmond Aschrott in 1908. The fountain had already been caught in the crossfire of propaganda as a Jewish fountain. It had become the object of opinions that maintained its pyramidal form and with Jewish and masonic symbols located in a public place was a devilish contribution to Jewish world domination.

    The destroyed fountain became a flower bed and then a fountain until in the 1980s the citizens of Kassel wanted to restore it, but without any reference to its history. Horst Hoheisel proposed that the fountain should not be restored but should be sunk in the square in a negative form, in concrete as a fountain pit into which water would pour. The passer by, lost in his thoughts or thoughtless would cross the void seen below through a grating, with curiosity, and this would be a substitute for a monument

    Another monstrous proposal of Hoheisel was that instead of building a national memorial for the murdered European Jews, one should tear down a national memorial, namely the Brandenburg Gate, pulverise it and spread the dust over the site of the proposed memorial. His plan in the competition for the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe was rejected by the jury in the first phase. Either noone noticed the poison of this provocation, or it was quietly taken out of circulation. Other quite seriously meant monstrosities that he proposed were more successful e.g. to ignite an atom bomb under the competition site, in order(as explained in the artists notes) to burn away evil underground once and for all. This proposal found some friends in the jury and it was eliminated only in the 3rd round. The Evil Underground was meant to signify the Fuehrer, but the site was also close to the Fuehrerbunker and to the Reichschancery. The text was to read not only The Command centre of Murder, but also Hitler's personal testament, in which he took all responsibility and claimed the world would thank him for ridding it of Jews.

    The memorial in Berlin will not be able to rid itself of this frivolous concept, a memorial for the victims and a megalomaniac Fuehrer's grave. Hoheisel's insistence on this irritating link between identification and treatment of victims, pointing to building of national consciousness, guilt and remorse also lead to a continuation of the concept of sacrificing the Brandenburg Gate. On 27 Jan 1997 he projected on this Gate of the German People, this symbol of division and reunification, the words Arbeit Macht Frei. A year late Hoheisel and the architect Andreas Knitz placed a fictitious advertisement in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, offering the competition site for sale to the highest bidder. The advertisement quoted a non existent Bureau for Administration of German land as the vendor, and described the site as being 20000 sq.m, and was until recently available for use as a memorial. 40 property companies expressed serious interest and requested more information. They were sent a reply thanking them for their interest in the site of German land in the centre of Berlin, and stating they had become part of a work of art. In the meanwhile the prosecution of Hoheisel and Knitz for deceit and fraud was suspended.

    Hoheisel and Knitz undertook a number of projects together, among which subtle and quiet works like the disc in the ground in Buchenwald maintained at a body temperature of 36.5 C, which commemorates the spot where the survivors held the first memorial service in April 1945, for those that did not survive. An unobtrusive sign that indicates the beginning of ritualised remembrance in Buchenwald and which could be more important for maintaining the memory of the dead than all ideology and Learning from History.

    Hoheisel and Knitz's project Pulverised History is also monstrous. Its first stage could be realised in the Year of Culture Weimar 1999. Its further realisation looks likely after many refusals and obstacles. Their proposal in 1995 to tear down the Brandenburg Gate, pulverise it and scatter the dust was (??) that Hoheisel and Knitz took the risk of transferring such a provocative unrealisable gesture on to another object, in another context, where a demolition had in any case been planned.

    For many years it had been planned to build a new building for storing the Thuringian State Archives. The building was planned to be underground, under the historic stables of the Grand Duke. Two shabby buildings stood in the way. Approval was given in the mid 1 990s to destroy the command barracks and a provisional prison which the Gestapo built in 1936. An adjacent riding school which served as the collection point for Thuringian Jews being deported from 1942 on, would be converted into reading room.

    What had been considered a calculated sacrilege in the case of the Brandenburg Gate, could now be the opportunity for Hoheisel and Knitz to demonstrate (?) At the competition for a historic monument to be erected in the riding stables. Their proposal was to celebrate the demolition of the two wood and stone buildings and preserve it for ever. The remains of the barracks would be smashed in front of cameras and stored as archive material. The last traces of Gestapo material would be preserved and given to the State Archive to hold. Such materials should be exposed in the old Gestapo cells in the cellar of the prison, and combined with documentation. Glass slits in the shape of the destroyed buildings would make it possible to look down on the archives, including Goethe's letters, correspondence of the Weimar Bauhaus and the card indices with details of the Buchenwald prisoners.

    The demolished remains of the two buildings should be spread out over the paths so that visitors could further crush them.

    In the meanwhile a part of these archives is stored in containers near the entrance. For a while it seemed that they would remain there, because of a shortage of money. It seemed that all that would remain would be book documentation, a video and a small box of exhibits and crushed history. But now it seems the realisation of Hoheisel and Knitz's (?) is assured. What may become of it? No one will be surprised that the remembrance of the Holocaust in Germany is a story of repression and denial. What society, what nation has ever remembered its own crimes willingly and without objections? More interesting than the question of why the repression is the question why a part of German society actually endeavour to seek forms of remembering the crimes of Nazism.

    The questions after the why and the how are thought provoking. Behind these questions is an unease, a suspicion that forgetfulness, indifference and disinterest could creep into demonstrative remembrance, in offensive denials just as in discrete silence. In the innocent and close question after the why in a still uncomfortable remembrance lies the suspicion that something like a continuation of past happenings could occur in remembering. The exorcism of a culture of remembrance has a double bottom

    German politicians have often returned from Israel and a visit to Yad Vashem citing the puzzling sentence of the Baal Shem Tov Forgetting lengthens the exile and the secret of salvation is called remembrance.

    The Jewish meaning of this sentence which speaks of the dispersion of God in the Creation and of the exile of the Jewish people exhorts one to remember the common origin of the Creation and of the Jewish people, interested nobody. The Israeli interpretation of this sentence which seeks to link the catastrophe, the Shoah, with the founding of the state of Israel and thereby the salvation of the Diaspora was one theme. German politicians see a German meaning to the text. (Freudian? Superficial?) which forgets the first half of the sentence and transforms the second into secret of atonement. But this Utopia of atonement has a dark background.

    Either we must be barbarians and expel the Jews to the last man, or we must incorporate them wrote Heinrich Laube L in 1847 into the constitution(?) of the German nation which had just begun to define itself in this way. The one time revolutionary champion had turned into an antisemitic German nationalist. Others had similar metamorphoses,e.g. Richard Wagner who wrote sentences with double meanings in his book Judaism in Music. He too saw two ways out of the alleged destruction of our culture by the Jews. Either the expulsion by force of foreign elements, which he did not think a practical solution, or that this element is assimilated to work in common towards a higher education and mans noble plans.

    Expulsion and integration, elimination or assimilation-in each case a relationship of force in order to achieve a forced leveling of differences so that there should be a homogeneity in the expression of the people's Germannness, a nation which does not recognize itself as a political or territorial structure but as a cultural community and thereby also as a community of cultural and collective memories.

    With this background of ambivalence between distance and closeness, antisemitism and philosemitism, destruction and atonement, an indication of such negative symbiosis, which Dan Diner declares a consequence of Auschwitz , memory becomes a double bottomed pledge of (?) Memory both creates and buries the burdened identity, is a symptom of the presence of past terror in the present. Yet such a burdened identity, the picture of a German community of fate, is no answer to the problem, but one of its causes.

    An aspect of the partition of Germany was the battle for the past as resevoir for the legitimacy of the present. Once split into two states in the past, the memories of national socialism were also an object of differences, and served to a polarisation as a stake in the field of politics and the legitimacy of competing identifications, self portraits and political Utopias. After 1989 things changed and not for the last time, memory stands as an indication of the search for unity and an imaginary middle.
    Such unity also uncovers the German crime and its atonement as the alleged original experience of community. A German national memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe is due to be erected in Berlin. But no one knows how this will actually be possible. Communal guilt, communal responsibility are evoked and simultaneously relativised. Collective responsibility is evoked and simultaneously an apparently so "all-powerful" Fuhrer is placed at the centre of that which is to be remembered, as though it is a question of making a collective exorcism of evil in the subterranean depths (?). The uniqueness of the crimes is reckoned up together with the singularity of Germans coming to terms with the past/overcoming the past, as though it is a matter of redeeming the National Socialist dream of the Germans as the true "Chosen People" even in the expiation for the deed. Yet the "overcoming the past" remains as ambivalent as the cause which occasioned it.

    The Jew always sits within us. But it is easier to fight him in corporeal form than as an invisible demon. Have you not realized how much the Jew is the exact opposite of the German, and yet so closely related as if they were brothers. There cannot be two chosen people. We are God's people. Did Hitler expostulate his phantasies so precisely from these words written to him in 1939 by Hermann Rauschning?

    The struggle for identity, centered on the German experience of guilt and atonement creates a new fortress of ethno national isolation: we and the others. Dostoevsky knew that nothing serves to weld together more strongly than a common committed crime. Was Himmler's phrase about the 'glorious, never to be recorded page of history' only the contemporary version of an identity-creating taboo? And in the end does not the breaking of them also belong of the ritual of such taboos? Are destruction and thought, denial and memory, repression and breaking of taboos not finally different sides of one event, in which the phantasized collective presents itself and entangles itself in an inextricable identity created by force.

    Klaus von Dohnanyi in his contribution to the public quarrel about Martin Walsers Sunday speech in the Frankfurt Pauluschurch in 1998 most eloquently charged the German identity about which so many imprecise words have been spoken, this German identity can to day not be defined any more precisely than through our common descent from those who did it, who welcomed it or at least permitted it, Of course such an identity would be, paradoxical as it might seem, the victory of national visions, the nation as an ethnic destiny, as a community of fate: defined by what has irreversibly happened, by history and not by common political presence, defined by descent and not by a community contract, by common origins and not by common concepts, limited only by the breadth of an expanding culture and not through a politically defined territory.

    And yet this fatalistic picture is incomplete. The reality of the German immigrant community looks different. Other arrivals and experiences, for the moment on the periphery but not restricted for ever. The daily border problems and group rituals of a multi cultural society accompany the classic inner conflicts within the German community about the degree of identification with national socialism and the degree of resistance to the national rise of the Third Reich. They also accompany the politically determined disputes about the inheritance from German history. We have not yet begun to envisage what role German memory will play in relation to the Germans of to morrow.

    This is the context in which Horst Hoheisel's art has developed and become radical. His works refer to the absent, to the destroyed without approaching it and without claiming it as an identity. The hole in Kassel instead of the memorial which will not be constructed, and into which water flows below ground; the warm plate at 37 C which recalls the monument raised by the survivors after their liberation; his non realized plan for a memorial in the Bavarian district of Berlin - the same number of paving stones as the Jews who were thrown out and murdered, and finally Hoheisel's proposal for tearing down a national memorial, pulverizing ithis concepts do not avoid the problem of??? They are not even free of that pathos against which Hoheisel has set all his energy. But they articulate these contradictions in the most radically imaginable way. They make them into a pathetic theme.

    In a consistent manner achieved by few other artists in Germany, Hoheisel contrast (deceptive?) reconciliation with accounts of their state of historical consciousness. They are all too easily taken for visions. They are in essence slashes in the surfaces, phantasies, wishes and fears made apparent. From his negative monument in Kassel to his suggestion of destroying a national monument, Hoheisel articulates what it would mean, to take seriously the condition which we name as `memory, to take memory as threat and as abyss. Memory as `teaching'. As `collective' as `connecting', as `reconciling' merely its ideological appearance, its instrumentality, its function as " identity' - in each case against the `Others'. For Hoheisel memory remains as conflict, that over which one cannot agree, something which remains in the experiences of each of the individuals involved and in the physicality of things and places, something which articulates itself in enigmas which challenge us.

    Hoheisel sometimes succeeds in realizing his proposals for a negative memorializing/memory, as in Kassel and Buchenwald. In these cases his reductionist/reduced gestures, his markers of locality (lit: Place - supports) and his systems of reference express a pervasive silence, which thus has absolutely nothing of that sublimity for which the `memory culture' yearns.

    Reprinted with permission of the Author.