Memorials To Monstrosities


There are two words for “memorial” in German:

A Denkmal is a memorial or monument whose purpose is to remind us of something that has happened or someone who has lived. Denken is the German verb “to think,” so a Denkmal stands as a testament to something on which we have a duty to reflect. Denkmals can be bloated and grand — as in the Soviet Memorial in Berlin or Mount Rushmore in South Dakota — or sombre and respectful — as in the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, a black wall engraved with service members’ names, dedicated to honoring those who fought in the war.

A Mahnmal is something subtly different, and we have no readily available English translation. Mahnen means both “to admonish” and “to remind;” it is often paired with the idea of caution or observance, as when one urges someone to take caution or be vigilant. A Mahnmal, then, is something meant both to remind and to warn, it pleads for remembrance not for the purpose of glory but for the purpose of heedful acknowledgment, even shame. A Mahnmal takes the idea of “never again” and gives it shape.

Berlin has an impressive Mahnmal culture. The most famous is the Holocaust-Mahnmal, or the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, a vast grid of concrete vertical slabs arranged on rising and falling ground.

(Photo of the Holocaust-Mahnmal by Flickr user .tungl)