Sculpting Memory: Reading Berlin’s Book Burning Memorial
Berlin is a city overrun with markers of the past. Generations of memorials and monuments form an integral part of the city’s landscape. Memorials, monuments, and commemorative plaques are part of the ongoing dialogue with this difficult past. The National Socialist book burning of 1933, which took place at the beginning of the Nazi rise to power in Germany, stands as a symbolically important event for Germany to process and acknowledge. For Reunified Germany, dealing with this event was illustrated as a way of finally coming to terms with Germany’s Nazi past. Stemming from a movement towards critical “Auseinandersetzung” (discussion or examination, literally ‘setting apart’) with the past rather than a presentation of already-formed conclusions about an event in the past, Micha Ullman’s Bibliotek, the current memorial, invokes a deep and reflective sense of loss. The memorial is comprised of a thick glass window flush with the surface of August-Bebel-Platz that looks into rows of empty bookshelves—space for 20,000 books, the approximate number burnt in 1933. Unmentioned on August-Bebel-Platz (place of the 1933 book burning), however, are the plans that former East Germany drafted for the same event. Indeed, the planned sculpture for the East German memorial was made, but was put (with no marker of its prior intended purpose) at the Gethesmanekirche in Prenzlauerberg after the reunification of Germany in 1991. This paper closely analyzes the forms of the planned East German memorials alongside their built Reunified German counterpart so as to elucidate the different memorial practices in the different Germanys. Close-reading the forms of the memorials as well as the language of the planning documents through archival research allows for a multi-layered inquiry into the national memory and national identity embedded in the historical landscape of Berlin.
“Aber es gibt keine Asche hier,” he said to his friend: “but there aren’t any ashes here.” “Nein,” the friend answered, “nur leere Regale.” “No, only empty shelves.” In central Berlin, the memorial to the National Socialist book burning of 1933 stands in stark contrast to the surrounding monuments. Indeed, the memorial is not even visible at first glance. Although the form is suggestive of the loss created by the book burning, the literal ashes have long since disappeared, probably blown away or swept up after the book burning. Designed in a 1993 competition, the memorial is an underground empty library with white concrete shelves that the viewer can see through a thick glass plate flush with the surface of August-Bebel-Platz. The shelves hold space for about twenty thousand books, the estimated number of burnt books in 1933. Approximately twenty feet to the north and south of the memorial are bronze plaques, inscribed with the date of the book burning and Heinrich Heine’s now famous and eerily prescient quote from his 1820 Tragedy, Almansor: “Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.”
In the artist Micha Ullman’s justification for his winning design of the memorial, he writes: the memorial is a “Konfrontation des Betrachters mit Verlust und Unsicherheit” through the “hermetisch abgeschlossener Raum” of empty bookshelves. It is noticeably difficult to look into the memorial itself during the daytime —the glass pane reflects both the viewer’s image and the sky above so that the viewer cannot see the bookshelves right away. Likewise, part of looking back at the event of the book burning is an investigation that includes reflection on us as viewers and participants. To see into the past, or a representation of the past in the memorial, we’re first made to look at our own peering faces.
Before my third year of studies began, I left for Berlin to study and live there for thirteen months. While living there, I became fascinated by the omnipresence of memorials and markers to the past: a city full of memorial spaces and monuments, over-full, even. The book burning memorial on August-Bebel-Platz in particular captured my interest. At night, the memorial is lit from inside, and a faint glow can be seen around the site of the 1933 book burning, as if the fire itself echoed each night again in the landscape. In winter, the warmth from the light of the memorial melts the snow that lands on it, and a criss-cross path of footprints leads to the memorial from the corners of August-Bebel-Platz. My wonderment at this strange and suggestive memorial grew over the year that I was in Berlin, and slowly transformed into this present inquiry. My interest in the status, nature, and aesthetics of this memorial, prompted me to investigate the memorial’s development and context. The memorial proved to be a complex and nuanced presentation of the past from Reunified Germany’s historical vantage point, as well as a fascinating starting point from which to look at commemoration of the book burning in both Reunified Germany and in the former East German Republic, the GDR.
II. History of the Book Burning
The 1933 book burning, both symbolic in its action to “purify” German libraries as well as physically destructive, stands at the beginning of growing German extremism in the early years of National Socialist power. Its significance as an action to “purify” libraries exhibits an alarming, propaganda-driven destruction of voice and knowledge, which attempts to erase all access to knowledge and voice counter to the National Socialist dogmas. When Hitler came to power in January of 1933, the already existing Nazi-leaning student group at the University organized a campaign of ‘cleaning out’ their own personal libraries, the libraries of friends, and the libraries of the university from certain books. These books, according to the propaganda, exhibited an un- or anti-German “Geist”, “Spirit.” “Geist,” a difficult-to-translate word with meaning and depth in a larger philosophical and societal context, approximates the English “spirit.” The main statement of this campaign – “Wider den undeutschen Geist,” or “away with the un-German spirit” – was published on signs around the university about a month before the book burning in 1933. Included among the blacklisted authors were: Nelly Sachs, Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Moses Mendelssohn, Karl Marx, August Bebel, Alfred Döblin, Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Magnus Hirschfeld, Else Lasker-Schüler, Ernest Hemingway, and Heinrich Heine. This list, attacking Jewish intellectualism, covers over 400 authors in total.
The event of the book burning itself, on the evening of May 10, 1933, began with the gathering of all the books exhibiting “undeutschen Geist,” and with a lecture by Professor Alfred Baeumler, who encouraged the development of “neuen Menschen” through the burning of the books.
His presentation was interrupted often for applause in a room packed with listeners, many of whom were wearing Nazi uniforms. Following was a torch lit procession from the back of Humboldt Universität, continuing up across the River Spree by way of Oranienburger Straße, Hannoversche and Hessische Straße until Invalidenstraße. There, participants gathered more books, then made their way down through the area of the Reichstag, and then, finally marched down Unter den Linden towards August-Bebel-Platz.
The theatricality of the torch lit procession is unmistakable, exhibiting both the showiness of the burgeoning Nazi party and the effect of a crowd-gathering ploy. Upon arrival at August-Bebel-Platz, where a crowd of observers had already been gathering for the last hours, the marchers soaked the pyre with gasoline, and threw in their torches. As the Feuersprüche, or fire speech, by the Reich propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels began, so did the destruction of the books, with the repetition of “ich übergebe den Feuer….”
Strangely enough, it was the academics, not the crowd which had earlier gathered, who showed the most support for this destruction, a destruction which, in its very nature, narrows the fields of study across many different disciplines. As each book was thrown into the fire, the students cheered but there was no loud acclamation from the crowd, probably made up of curious Berlin citizens.
In a report after the book burning, the Frankfurter Zeitung commented on the event:
In allen deutschen Universitäts-städten ist vor einigen Abenden in großer Öffentlichkeit der un-deutschen Geist verbrannt worden, der zersetzende, der jüdische, der marxistische. Von Königsberg bis Bonn, von Kiel bis München wurde das getan, unter kräftigen Feuersprüchen der Redner und von starken Beifall umrauscht. Die Flammen loderten, züngelten und stoben den geachteten Geist in alle Winde. Überall versicherten die Sprecher, es handele sich um einen symbolischen Akt, der aus dem Willen zu deutscher Erneuerung komme.
This commentary exhibits definite skepticism and justified suspicion of the action of the book burning. It speaks of the destruction and scattering of the respected mind, ominous in its indication of what was to come. That the book burning was only a “symbolic act” seems to be a gross underestimation of the power of such symbolic acts. The tenor of “deutsche Erneuerung” (German renewal) at the cost of knowledge and voice seems to be an impossible exchange: ‘renewal’ here is a code word for destruction and extremism. How is it possible to remember this event and represent it in the landscape of the city? The symbolic connotations of the book burning are difficult to process, in that they reflect a profound lack of cultural sensitivity, which seems in some ways too complex in its ramifications for a concrete memorial form. Is it enough to build an admonishing memorial? Does such a memorial then gradually also efface the importance and difficulty of the book burning? Indeed, perhaps a single memorial to the book burning of 1933 oversimplifies the issues that were at hand in the destruction.
III. Meaning, Representation, and Reconstruction: Memorials as Public Art Forms
A memorial is both reflective and representational, often manifested as an object that has been sculpted to present or make physically manifest an event of the past. A memorial can attempt to preserve and illustrate a person, thing, or event, whether in concrete form or in another form, such as a ceremony or book. In the context of the book burning memorial, and current Berlin memorial practices, it seems the memorial must not only attempt to preserve the memory of the 1933 book burning, but also question it and instigate critical reflection. In this way, the memorial is unable to simply present or illustrate the past to a contemporary audience, but rather inherently captures an understanding of the past in its form and figuration contemporary to the built memorial. The constant negotiation between the poles of total erasure and total memorialization is a negotiation that is especially fascinating in Berlin.
Even the complexity of navigating memorialization in itself offers a stage for discussion of the ways in which the past should be represented in a city or state. The debates that take place themselves already suggest an understanding of the past. Making memorials (both built and those that remain un-built) can be seen as an “active process of sense-making through time.”
This process of “sense-making” is alive and well: not only does the debate about the building of the memorial in Reunified Germany crystalize many of the conceptions about national memory and the event of the book burning of 1933, but so does the lack of substantial dialogue on the East German plans for the memorial illustrate the way in which the Reunified German planning committee conceptualized their role in constructing the past. The multilayered aspect of memory work in Berlin plays a vital role in this inquiry. How is it possible to “make sense” of memory in Reunified Germany when the memory work begun in the former East German Republic is left out of the conversation from the beginning? Though not marked on August-Bebel-Platz, this square was part of East Berlin during division, and East Germany’s Berlin Magistrat had developed proposals for an admonishing sculptural memorial to the 1933 book burning. These plans, resulting in a plaque in 1983 (since taken down) and plans for a larger memorial begun in 1987, and to be unveiled in 1990, were mostly left out in the 1992 discussions on the memorial in Reunified Germany.
In English, there is an ambiguity between the terms “memorial” and “monument.” “Memorial” and “monument” often are used almost interchangeably, whereas in German, Denkmal and Mahnmal are distinguished from one another in their connotative meaning. The only distinction that seems to exist between the English terms has to do with form rather than implicated meaning: a “memorial” can be anything that commemorates, whereas a “monument” must be some sort of concrete, form-based memorial.
“Memorial” itself presents an ambiguous meaning, where it can be both a positive memorial and a negative, admonishing memorial unless its purpose is qualified in its presentation. In James Young’s work, At Memory’s Edge, “monument” indicates an “intersection between public art and political memory, which reflects and has reflected…aesthetic and political revolutions, as well as the wider crisis of representation.”
In German, mahnen, “to admonish,” is built into the word Mahnmal (memorial), which could be literally translated as “admonish mark.” Denken, “to think” is built into Denkmal (monument), meaning “thought-mark.” The distinction between the form that admonishes (Mahnmal) and the form that is a mark of thought on the city landscape (Denkmal) allows for a word-based understanding of the aim, though perhaps not the form, of the memory-object. Current trends in Germany of memorialization, in Berlin especially, take the difficulty of an object-based kind of memory work into account, particularly in the case of the so-called “countermonuments” and “countermemorials.”
These memorials, through an effacement of traditional form, attempt not to be the end of all discussion. Such a memorial is “against itself” in its manifested form in the sense that the concept of the object effaces its concreteness, even while the object remains concrete and often permanent.
The memorial at the center of this inquiry, built between 1994 and 1995 after the German reunification, was designed by Micha Ullman, an Israeli sculptor whose parents left Germany shortly after the 1933 book burning.
My project is based on reading the memorial as a complex cultural text. This mode of inquiry allows a simultaneously historical and literary-interpretive approach. “Berlin is a city text frantically being written and rewritten,” says Huyssen, allowing the memorial to be seen either as a sign which is part of the city-text, or as a text in its own right in the discourse of the city.
It becomes possible to read the form of the memorial through its presentation in urban space, and what its form implicates and expresses alongside its development, including history of production and interpretations of planning documents. “Each memorial object also has, for want of better terms, a prehistory and an afterlife (or simply a life—that is, its treatment following its construction and dedication), neither of which is very visible when simply looking at the memorial itself.”
By reading the memorial as a text, with the same interpretive intensity as a poem, alongside work with the language of the documents that detail its production, I will analyze the figurations of memory presented in both Reunified Germany and in the former GDR. My inquiry is premised on a multidisciplinary approach, drawing on public art, political ideology, urban theory, cultural studies, tourism, and history in order to investigate how the government appropriates the past and deals with a negative past to be presented in that society.
My original research question focused entirely on Micha Ullman’s memorial for Reunified Germany, and asked what a close reading of this memorial could offer to elucidate conflicts of remembering a turbulent past. Though I already knew that there had been a different design planned in the former East German Republic, I had intended to focus entirely on the “reading” of the Reunified German design. The reading was to compare the different proposals submitted in the 1992 to 1993 competition to understand the different trends and movements present in the German memorial climate. However, during my time at the Landesarchiv in Berlin, I worked closely with East German planning documents as well, and the possibility for a comparison offered a helpful way to enrich the project. The importance of this comparison is echoed in Structures of Memory:
The fall of the Wall revealed, among other things, two different landscapes of memory. Many of the memorial practices prevalent in the East, including social realism, an emphasis on the language of anti-fascism, and the use of the red triangle, were abandoned as the Wall fell.
Reading these two landscapes across the existing temporal divide elucidates memorial practices of both landscapes separately, but also insight into a discourse between them. Reading specifically the designs for the same memorial across the temporal divide offers a pointed way in which to begin a comparison between these two different landscapes.
This paper explores both Reunified Germany’s plans as well as former East Germany’s plans in order to chart the differences and continuities between the contrasting memorial landscapes. How does a comparative close reading of both former Eastern Germany’s design for a book burning memorial in Berlin differ with that of Reunified Germany’s realized design for the same historical event? What can this comparison and close reading offer to elucidate the different ways in which the two governmental systems deal with, process, and present memory? This comparative close reading facilitates an approach where it is possible to read between my present and its past, with the constant adjustment of understanding and interpretation between the different layers of meaning and production of the memorial. “Indelibly etched into our memory is the idea of Berlin as the capital site of a discontinuous, ruptured history.”
By reading this memorial, a dialogue between past and present is created, which works towards understanding these “ruptures,” and even the contingent continuities between them.
Intentions expressed in the planning documents and intentions interpreted out of these documents put the supposed fixedness of the memorial form into question, at once transforming a static concrete bastion of memory into a dynamic and contested space of appearance and presentation. Investigating the back-story of the memorial offers a window into how memory is dealt with in both governments. Examining the documents that detail justifications, intra-governmental communications, and general planning of the memorials show both the language of commemoration, as well as the underlying problems of memorialization and dealing with the past in both governments. “Berlin’s landscape has become a potent mix of erasure and concentrated official collective memory, resulting from the interaction of local, state, and international factors, as well as personal and collective memories.”
The documents detailing meetings and justifications allow one to discern not just the finished monument product or memorial space, but also the less officially-sanctioned version of memory. Within the phrasings in these documents, there are explicit, non-explicit, and sometimes unintended ways of understanding the past. These formulations are often imbued with political and ideological significance. This investigation leads to a discussion of what is at stake when trying to make the memory of an event concrete in the city landscape. Indeed, when constructing this landscape, not only are current ways of understanding the past concretized, but the ways of understanding and processing the past are also envisioned for the future. Rudy Koshar emphasizes “that the memory landscape symbolized and shaped German perceptions about the past and the nation.”
In other words, memorials shape memory.
At stake in the construction of a memorial is the sense of dealing with the past productively, especially true of current Berlin memorials. The trend of miniments and countermonuments allows for an unfinished work of memory to encourage discussion and reflection.
The name of this consensus is anti-monumentalism. The monumental is aesthetically suspect because it is tied to nineteenth-century bad taste, to kitsch, and to mass culture. It is politically suspect because it is seen as representative of nineteenth-century nationalisms and of twentieth-century totalitarianisms.
This current form relies on participation from the viewer, making its role in public space is not merely didactic, but rather, intriguing and thought-provoking. Indeed, James Young posits that the “surest engagement with Holocaust memory in Germany may actually lie in its perpetual irresolution, […] only an unfinished memorial process can guarantee the life of memory.”
In the past, and indeed, even in the former East German Republic, memorials in the city landscape were focused more on a final, definitive representation and understanding of the past.
Compared to the monumental style that is seen in the surrounding, earlier monuments forming the physical context of August-Bebel-Platz, Ullman’s memorial is powerfully minimal. The traces of different existing monuments and memorials, as well as plans illustrating divergent ideas for memorialization underline the dynamic nature of the city-text. Not only are events constantly transpiring, but the aesthetic means of dealing with events of national importance are in a consistent mode of flux and development. This is particularly true for Berlin, where “substantial changes in the aesthetic forms of the memorials designated to mark resistance to or persecution by the Nazi regime” have taken place.
IV. Investigating Memory’s Form: Towards an Understanding of East Germany’s Berlin Book Burning Memorial Plans
The present memorial on August-Bebel-Platz is Reunified Germany’s presentation of the event and its significance. What does not show up on the square is the physical version of memory that the former East German government had designed for the site. The planned East German memorial offers a contrasting way of dealing with the book burning. With the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, and an Inner-German border, the city of Berlin became a physically divided territory, with an island of the Western powers in the western side of the city, and a continuation of the Eastern powers in the eastern side of the city. August-Bebel-Platz, directly on Unter den Linden, was part of former East Germany’s territory in Berlin. Therefore, it also became the memorial territory of the former East German government, and both the ability and responsibility to develop an appropriate memorial to the book burning fell to the East German Berlin Magistrat.
In order to address a history of commemoration practices in former East Germany and the analysis of those events, I will interpret the commemorative plaque, or Gedenktafel, installed in 1983; the Tag des freien Buches, “day of the free book”; and the two memorial plans drafted in 1987, the re-casting of Ernst Barlach’s Geistkämpfer, spiritual fighter, and Siegfried Krepp’s Dornbusch, thornbush, respectively. Additionally, this work leads to an analysis of the language present in the documents detailing the former East German Berlin Magistrat’s justifications and show how this framing produces meaning as intensively as the proposed memorial forms.
In July of 1980, planning began for a commemorative plaque by the East German Berlin Magistrat, to remember the “fascist book burning of 1933.”
The text of the Gedenktafel ran as follows:
Auf diesem Platz vernichtete nazistischer Ungeist
die besten Werke der deutschen und der Weltliteratur.
Die faschistische Bücherverbrennung
vom 10. Mai 1933 sei ewige Mahnung wachsam zu sein
gegen Imperialismus und Krieg.
The above text references Geist in the context of the Nazi lack of it, referring back to the call of the book burning campaign in 1933: “Wider den undeutschen Geist,” “against the un-German spirit.” “Ungeist,” however, also means “malevolent spirit”—framing the Nazi past in moral and admonishing terms. This terming of “Ungeist” also presents a certain distancing from the past, in that it cordons off the actions of the Deutsche Studentenschaft in 1933 to malevolence, rather than political, social factors of this extremism. The language of the plaque speaks to the destruction of “the best works of German and world literature” at the hands of the Nazis, but leaves out an important detail, namely that books written by Jewish authors made up a significant amount of the destroyed books. This tendency in former East Germany to commemorate, but not to commemorate Jewish identity of victims as thoroughly as, for example, their Marxist or anti-fascist convictions is illustrated by Jennifer Jordan in Structures of Memory:
[A]lthough in the late 1980s memorial culture in the East did begin to open up very slightly to broader understandings of victims and of appropriate representational forms[,] Reichel notes: “Only very late did they [The East German government] begin to differentiate their one-dimensional victim definition and to open up to Jewish victims.
The commemorative plaque was the first recorded step by the East German government to install a permanent marker to the 1933 book burning, but one that only lay at the very edge of August-Bebel-Platz. The plaque was an unobtrusive, unmonumental, and, according to Günther Schabowski’s March 1987 letter to Erich Honecker, an unremarkable or inconspicuous plaque.
The purpose of the plaque was to be a reminder, an “eternal admonishment” to be “vigilant against imperialism and war.”
The intention of the East German Berlin Magistrat in planning this public commemorative plaque seems to have been of using the past as a pedagogical tool in reconstructing a new Germany decidedly against its Nazi past. Whereas the Reunified German memorial submissions and Ullman’s winning memorial itself claim to deal with subjectivity in allowing the viewer to critically work with the past on their own interpretive grounds, the former East German plaque attempts to illustrate a much more pointed, specific message to glean from the event of the book burning. The book burning is a symbolic event for the East German government from which society can learn to abhor fascism. Indeed, the form and function of the plaque are both bound up in its rather straightforward and unproblematic presentation of a complex event. The posed simplicity of the book burning and its meaning are glossed over in a cut-stone form. The book burning, a dually symbolic and physically manifested event is an attempt to threaten, but also to physically erase knowledge and voice. This event of destruction seems ill-served in the single dimension of the plaque. Perhaps the very nature of the destruction of voice and knowledge in the book burning makes any commemorative structure suspect: is the destruction of knowledge assuaged by the use of a form towards that memory?
In 1983, a letter planning for the Tag des freien Buches and requesting an action on the fiftieth anniversary of the book burning was sent.
The letter says that such an action would be a “wirksame Demonstration für Frieden und Sozialismus, gegen Imperialismus, Faschismus und Krieg, an der viele Schriftsteller aktiv beteiligen könnten.“
The emphasis of a demonstration against imperialism, fascism, and war is especially interesting as it integrates writers and youth into a state-sponsored show of solidarity against imperialism through song, readings, fanfare, and film clips.
Although the fiftieth anniversary of the book burning was an especially meaningful day on which to reaffirm the “new” German Geist as created by the former East German state, this action was not the first Tag des freien Buches, a Bazaar-type celebration occuring once a year around May 10th.
However, as anniversaries often bring with them a semi-superstitious meaningfulness, the fiftieth anniversary of the book burning was seen to be an especially powerful demonstration for the political and social convictions of the East German State. As mentioned, the planning documents and the report after the event illustrate a multi-media extravaganza aimed towards a reclamation of the space, representation of the past, and a protest all in one. The Tag des freien Buches, was a state-sponsored event in line with beliefs, party lines, and former East Germany’s version of the past and vision for the future. Still, it is arguably a more active preservation of the memory of the book burning than a permanent, possibly domineering monument.
In March of 1987, Günther Schabowski wrote a letter to Erich Honecker to find a “more dignified (würdigere) artistic solution for the admonishing remembrance of the fascist book burning in 1933.”
The idea of an “artistic solution” (my emphasis) would seem to be a misuse of the memorial in the current commemorative environment of Berlin, where the aim lies in an attempt at a continual re-thinking and reflection on the commemorated past, rather than presenting an answer or solution. Indeed, the emphasis in this letter is to find a memorial that would be an expression of the East German society and state— a memorial that would:
Wesen und Anspruch unserer Gesellschaft und unseres Staates zum Ausdruck bringen, Hort und Hüter der Freiheit, des fortschrittlichen humanistischen Geistes zu sein. Es ist an eine spezielle bildhauerische Lösung gedacht, die die Funktion des Platzes als Stätte großer Kundgebungen räumlich nicht eingeschränkt. In Frage käme eine reliefartige Darstellung, die an der Fassade der Kommode angebracht werden könnte.
In this way, the underlying idea for the memorial becomes one that is, in essence, more about garnering a positive definition of the state and society than a critical reflection on memory and the event of the book burning. The open expression of this plan, to design a memorial that expresses the “essence and standards of our society” contrasts greatly with a lack of such an open statement of state alignment in Reunified Germany’s memorials. Indeed, even though the statues proposed in former East Germany are more monumental, they are complex figures of memory with regard to the book burning.
The Dornbusch, an original sculpture by Siegfried Krepp, and initially favored for the book burning memorial, used symbolism from the Old Testament in the form of a burning bush—to replicate or make a connection through fire from the biblical burning bush to the destruction of literature and knowledge of the book burning. The religiosity of the sculpture’s symbolic vocabulary of the Old Testament seems at odds in an East German context, since the East German state was decidedly less religious than the West German state. However, this symbol could be interpreted as a harkening back to literary beginnings and origins using the Old Testament as a starting point. In light of the Dornbusch as literary beginnings is that of communication and knowledge as well: the “burning bush” sculpture symbolically stands for the voice of God, the voice of knowing in the bible. The relationship to burning could also be used in an understanding of rebirth, where destruction engenders new beginnings, appropriate in the new German Geist emphasized in the planning documents, which eerily echoes the calls for “German renewal” in the propaganda for the 1933 book burning. In the relationship to fire as well, there seems to be the possibility of an indictment of the Nazi government and the society that took part in it. The ‘original,’ biblical “Dornbusch” uses fire as a productive, spiritual medium. This second fire, the book burning, is destructive of knowledge and tolerance. The third “fire” is symbolic and sculptural: bringing both of these histories into an indictment of the actions of the Third Reich. In this way, the symbolism in the statue accesses a deeper past, where two opposing uses of fire are presented, one using it as a way of rewriting and re-forging history, an another using it as a way to destroy in order to “renew.”
The Geistkämpfer, a proposed recasting of a 1920s Ernst Barlach’s sculpture, however, and not Krepp’s Dornbusch, was ultimately chosen by the former East German Berlin Magistrat as an appropriate memorial to the book burning.
The selection of Geistkämpfer illustrates a reuse, rather than an original composition: the sculpture already had a history of use when it was chosen by the former East German government. Originally designed by Ernst Barlach as a statue for the Kiel Nikolaikirche in the 1920s, it is an especially complex and multi-layered choice as a memorial form, as it has a few different purposes and intentions woven into its “memorial life.” The use of Barlach’s Geistkämpfer emphasizes former East Germany’s interest in the Geist as a necessary starting point towards healing and remaking the German Geist in opposition to the Geist developed in the Nazi years. The importance of the artist in the sculpture also plays into former East Germany’s choice. Ernst Barlach, a sculptor who died under intense criticism and persecution for his pacifist position and ‘degenerate’ artwork during the Third Reich, is a figure in some ways consistent with Jordan’s observations in former East Germany’s patterns of memorialization. Figures who were resistance fighters, or who had a role as political enemies of the Third Reich had an especially important and emphasized role in former East Germany’s conception of a new German-ness. Additionally, the statue’s proportions reemphasize the more monumental style of earlier German commemorative practices, reflected in the monuments around Bebelplatz. This comfortable monumentalism is a possible continuity with the practices during the Nazi era, but also of earlier, arguably imperialist tradition of grand forms.
In choosing Barlach’s Geistkämpfer, there is an implicit ideological significance, illustrated in Barlach’s experience during the Third Reich as well as the statue’s name and role in re-understanding and rebuilding identity. In the conceptualization of the Geistkämpfer in the former East German Republic, there is a repurposing of form, as Barlach had originally intended the Geistkämpfer as a sculpture without memorial implications of the book burning. In the intended re-use as proposed in the former East German Republic, the statue becomes a memorial of the artist himself, as well as of the book burning, associated with his active, perhaps rebellious, presence in society, through his “degenerate sculpture.” The event of the book burning likewise informs the statue’s use as memorial (burnt Geist to reforged, triumphant Geist), as well as the artist’s work as an author burned in the book burning. These factors act together to give an embodied, historical significance to the statue.
Former East Germany’s plans show a reaffirmation of German monumental (though decidedly anti-fascist in name) tradition in the form of the memorials proposed for August-Bebel-Platz. Furthermore, these plans repeatedly emphasize the ideology and significance of making a new German Geist in a way that would reflect the values of universal socialist humanism and the East German republic. Though more monumental, both designs prove difficult to connect to the event of the book burning in a form-based way. Neither the Dornbusch nor the Geistkämpfer quotes the form of books or libraries. The distance between form and event illustrates East Germany’s re-appropriation of the book burning as a symbolic event, in that the sculpture form itself illustrates a more purposefully appropriated use of the book burning, taking on meaning more from the GDR’s goals than from the past it commemorates.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the rapid decline of the East German state following the dissolution of the entire Inner German border, Germany was reunited in October of 1990. Continuing East German work to install the Geistkämpfer continued until May of that year, but stopped with Reunification. The Geistkämpfer, re-cast and purchased in May of 1990 by the East German Magistrat, was probably installed shortly after Reunification by Reunified Germany at the Gethesmanekirche in Prenzlauerberg as a memorial to the democracy movement in the later years of the GDR. In West Germany before the fall of the Wall, and in West Berlin in particular, commemoration of the book burning was already taking place. Although there was no record of a concrete memorial to the book burning built in West Berlin, there were “Aktionen,” much like the East German Tag des freien Buches. These “Aktionen” consisted of readings from authors whose works were burned in the book burning.
The appropriation of Barlach’s Geistkämpfer by Reunified Germany can be seen as symptomatic of a larger trend or movement, where the fall of the wall can be seen much more as a transfer of official government rather than a reunification. Rather than being a new, united Germany, “Reunified” Germany was more so a continuation of the West German state, but with an incorporation of East German territory and citizens.
V. Reunified Germany: Erasure and National Identity: “die Chance wird endlich ergriffen.”
After the German reunification, two years passed without the Berlin Senat bringing up the debate of a book burning memorial. In a Senat meeting from September 1992, the decision was reached that it was necessary to “remember the historical event of the book burning through a Monument.”
Indeed, in this meeting some discussion took place about the appropriateness of the Geistkämpfer in relation to the book burning, and representatives debated over whether the GDR-chosen memorial could be the memorial of a Reunified Germany as well. This September meeting also illustrates an interesting trend: Berlin should be a place of national memory for the reunified Germany. At this point, as the capital was still officially in Bonn, in middle-west Germany. This meeting debates about the history of Berlin, and takes Berlin’s historical significance in German history into account, illustrated as follows: „nach der Wiedervereinigung Deutschlands und Berlins wird endlich die Chance ergriffen, daß Land und Stadt sich als Ganzes der Geschichte der Jahre 1933 bis 1945 zu stellen.“
That is, reunification and reinstitution of Berlin as the capital city of Germany, would allow the country to finally be able to deal with its history properly.
In the following May, a colloquium was held on the anniversary of the book burning, largely organized by Wolfgang Nagel, a Berlin senator. The colloquium followed the already-begun competition for a book burning memorial design. The event of the colloquium itself is interesting, both in its presentation of the book burning history, and as a memorial event in its own right. The colloquium was held in a room of Humboldt Universität that looked out upon Bebelplatz and Unter den Linden, a location that must have inspired a feeling of authenticity of place and immediacy of the discussed history for those present. In the colloquium, and in the Senat proceedings, there were few references to the GDR’s attempts at memory work and memorialization of the book burning. These passing references towards the GDR’s work on memorialization do not offer in-depth dialogue with the Reunified German ideas and difficulties. Though the break in continuity from the planned GDR memorial is understandable, it is strange that the dialogue should be so incomplete between the two governments’ plans of memorialization, and that no comprehensive or even cursory interpretation of the GDR’s forms should be undertaken in the planning stages of Reunified Germany’s memory work.
The Senat deemed the Geistkämpfer an inappropriate answer to the event of the book burning and thus rejected the sculpture. This evaluation of the Geistkämpfer is illustrated in the following excerpt from a 1994 Berlin Senat meeting:
daß die Notwendigkeit besteht, an das historische Ereignis der Bücherverbrennung durch ein Denkmal zu erinnern. Kontrovers blieb die Einschätzung, ob die noch zu DDR-Zeiten gekaufte Skulptur „Geistkämpfer“ von Ernst Barlach angemessen am authetischen Ort (Bebelplatz) finden könnte und der gestellten Aufgabe gerecht werden würde. Den Abguß der Plastik… würde jedoch den Ereignissen vor 60 Jahren nicht entsprechen.
This passage highlights the “present necessity” to remember— specifically “through a monument.” This suggests that physicality and permanence, rather than simply a plaque or an action of sorts, are necessary to correctly deal with the memory of the events of the book burning. That the Geistkämpfer would not be appropriate as a symbol or memorial to the book burning, though it “stayed controversial,” illustrates the presence of possibly dissenting voices in this move away from acknowledging the East German way of dealing with memory. Aesthetically, symbolically, and politically, the Geistkämpfer did not fit the goals of memorialization by the government of Reunified Germany, whose goals in some ways were to forge an understanding of the Nazi past for the new German state by leaving out the East German state’s memory work.
The Senat’s decision, however, to re-use Geistkämpfer at the Gethesmanekirche was not recorded in the materials directly related to the commemorations. At the Prenzlauerberg Gethesmanekirche, the GDR-commissioned copy of the Barlach statue still stands as a memorial to the beginnings of the “Demokratiebewegung” in Berlin during the late 1980s.
This use of the sculpture, while not completely inappropriate, stands in both ironic and almost offensive opposition to the intended use of the statue by the GDR. The current presentation of the memorial at the Gethesmanekirche has no reference to its earlier intended use, promoting erasure. In the re-use of the statue, there is a disturbing lack of careful memory work. It seems that the decision was made hastily, without much work or interpretation of the East German forms as they were. Huyssen illustrates this trend as indicated by politically-motivated reconstructions in his Present Pasts: (referring to the tear-down of the Palast der Republik) “This was not just a tinkering with the communist city text. It was a strategy of power and humiliation, a final burst of Cold War ideology, pursued via a politics of signs, much of it wholly unnecessary.”
Huyssen’s emphasis on this politically-charged form of erasure is a crucial aspect to understand in the restructuring of memory. This erasure is eerily reminiscent of, though of course not nearly so violent as, the erasure of records of knowledge and thought that the 1933 book burning illustrates.
The competition held in Reunified Berlin between 1992 and 1993 invited thirty artists to submit designs. Among the invited were German artists, art professors, and assorted international artists. The competition is both a way of garnering international attention and opening up a semi-public forum of memory work, offering in both cases a way to begin thinking about the past and representing it in the city landscape of Reunified Berlin. The competition, like the decision in former East Germany, shows an example of “memory work” —that is, engaging with or working with the past. The competition, colloquium, and ensuing press conference and exhibition of the works submitted, all illustrate a much more publicly-aware type of memory work as well as an attempt to open up the discourse on possible memory forms and ways of officially representing the past.
The competition started with materials sent out to the invited artists, including an essay on the prehistory and context of the book burning by the controversial writer Eike Geisel; a map of the torchlight procession of the students; articles about the book burning; the memorial context of the space around August-Bebel-Platz; and the history of use of the square. This preparatory gesture, though it makes little reference to the Geistkämpfer and the August-Bebel-Platz plaque as structures intended or implemented by the GDR, gestures towards a historically rigorous approach to memory work.
This gesture importantly suggests to the participating artists that, even if historical details are not incorporated specifically into an informational plaque at the proposed memorial, that they still have a meaningful presence in the body of the work and in the creative process itself.
Ullman’s Bibliothek was an initial front-runner in the competition. Perhaps this early and lasting success in the competition was due to the form’s appropriate minimalness—representative, still, unobtrusive— which leaves Bebelplatz in its “original form.”
Also, Ullman was already a well-known figure. Ullman’s role as an internationally-recognized artist whose family history ties into that of the book burning and the Nazi period in Germany adds to a historical importance to his ‘dealing’ with the memory of the book burning. Relating back to the development in Germany of “countermemorials” or “countermonuments” that seem so widely-accepted in Germany now and in the early 90s, Ullman’s minimal memorial seems to fit well into this movement. His memorial offers much room for viewer interpretation. An aspect of the development of “countermemorials” and “counter-monuments” in Berlin is a sense of distance from the event, which in turn attempts to give interpretive, critical space to the viewer’s interaction and understanding of the memorial. The emphasis is therefore places on further mulling-over of the past, rather than firmly setting it in stone.
VI. Memorial Overpopulation: Layers of History, Legacy of Form: Counter-memorials in Berlin’s Memory Discourse
In Berlin, a city whose many layers of history and world events have created a city full of monuments and memorials, the omnipresence of memorials and monuments begins to run the risk of being an overpresence. When do the physical presences of places of memory become too much? Is there such a thing as over-population of the landscape with memorial forms, an “inflation of memory,” a case of “memorial mania of truly monumental proportions?”
Part of the aspect of the book burning memorial’s minimal form is that it allows the space of Bebelplatz to remain largely open. The form itself, as specified in the planning documents themselves, does not overtake the space of Bebelplatz with “vertical dominance”. In this way, I argue that part of the attraction to countermonuments and Ullman’s miniments is the lack of overwhelming, dominating forms in the landscape. The spaces, though they absolutely impact the viewer, do not attempt a domineering form. It presents a form that could also be part of the background, rather than an aspect of the constant foreground. This very aspect of the memorial’s minimalness incited critical reception of Ullman’s design at the “Rückfrage Colloquium.” Stefanie Endlich was critical of the ability of the memorial to encourage “Mahnen und Gedenken,” and thought that the proposal could even bring people to silence, because of the memorial’s twofold lack of conventional monumentalism and its lack of explication of its “pure art” like qualities.
Indeed, another colloquium attendee criticized Ullman’s miniment for being “too fragile, too intellectual.”
Ullman responded that the memorial was indeed a reflective space, but “not at all so quiet as it appears.”
In his attempt to create a hermetic, quiet yet powerful memorial, rather than a “coercively didactic” memorial, Ullman avoids some of the problems of memorial overpopulation in the city.
It is a memorial that can be sought out or stumbled upon, but it is not one that necessarily and repeatedly asserts itself. Does this work towards resolving the issue? The problem is still exists—the city is still densely populated with monuments, and how can one decide whether a memorial space is effective in the attempt to not forget? Indeed, for Huyssen and others, “[t]he more monuments there are, the more the past becomes invisible, and the easier it is to forget.”
VII. Comparison: Continuities and Departures
Whereas former East Germany’s planning documents and memorial drafts present an open expression of ideology in form, Reunified Germany’s chosen memorial and planning documents present a much less openly instrumentalized version of the past. Nevertheless, the version of the past presented by Reunified Germany’s Berlin Senat is absolutely political. The book burning is for the former East German government a symbolic act to be used as a counterpoint to the re-forging of an antifascist German Geist. In Reunified Germany, the emphasis on the book burning remains a point of importance as it pertains to “dealing with” the past of Germany as a reunified whole. This aspect of “dealing with” the past in Reunified Germany seems hypocritical when seen in conjunction with ignoring the former East German memory work. In Reunified Germany, the emphasis on the book burning remains a point of importance as it pertains to “dealing with” the past of Germany as a reunified whole, but there is a movement away from defining how the book burning fits into the history and identity of Reunified Germany and Berlin.
In the language of Reunified Berlin’s memorial and planning stages, there is an emphasis on ways of appropriately dealing with the act of the book burning. That Germany, and Berlin, reunited, as the Senat said, could only now work on understanding the history from 1933 to 1945. The call in Reunified Germany was to find, not an openly ideological monument, but a memorial that would offer an “authentic” sign of admonishment and remembering at the historical place of the event. An underlying difference between the East German Plans and Reunified Germany’s plans, however, is the language of memorialization. Perhaps the use of the memory of the book burning as an instrument of state support was indeed an accepted trope of memorializing in the former GDR, whereas in Reunified Germany, such use of an event would appear to be overly politically-motivated. The idea of memory as the place to start in building the “New Berlin” is corroborated by Jordan: “[t]his public, material, official collective memory of the Nazi era occupies an important place in the project of transforming Berlin into the unified capital of a unified Germany.”
Indeed, this action of “dealing” with the past could relate to “critical reconstruction,” where the historical use for August-Bebel-Platz must also be taken into consideration, and the memorial built must also fit in with the pre-existing statues, buildings, and monuments, possibly steeped with meaning.
Working with both the specific memory of the book burning as well as the larger historical context and history of use at the specific location arouses a complex array of difficulties and possible traps—how to deal effectively with the past without erasing the traces of other complexly-layered memorial processes? This sentiment seems to place Reunified Germany’s Berlin Senat in opposition to former East Germany’s Magistrat, in that the past is to be remembered in its symbolic and specific context, and carefully dealt with in context of the historical use of the area. Problematic, however, remains the erasure in the Reunified German planning documents, as well as the still-present politics of dealing with the memory of the book burning.
The memorials at the front of the competition, indeed, seem to fit into James Young’s discussion of countermemorials because they efface traditional forms; attempt a critical interaction with the viewer where embodied memory may play a role; and they use minimal, modernist forms as their basic currency. Though I argue that Reunified Germany’s Berlin memorial is less openly ideological than the former East German designs and justifications for a memorial, the politically-motivated aspects of memory work in Reunified Germany are still fascinatingly revisionary. Where East Germany’s Berlin memorial does indeed present its ideology clearly, Reunified Germany’s Berlin memorial to the book burning seems to present a less explicit, but still very present, ideology. In arguing for the need to once again deal with the past, to finally be able to deal with the past from 1933 to 1945, Reunified Germany presents a disregard for the value or appropriateness of memory work already done in the GDR. This disregard, though in some ways not so objectionable, ensures a certain erasure that perhaps must happen between forms of government, especially for a change as drastic as what transpired in reuniting Germany. Especially difficult is Reunified Germany’s use of the Geistkäpmfer, which marginalizes the history and intended purposed use of the sculpture as a book burning memorial. Not only do the East German attempts at memory work not appear on Bebelplatz, not even the Gedenktafel anymore, but the viewer of the Geistkämpfer is left unaware of its more colorful and controversial background, leading into its current, almost ironic use at the Gethesmanekirche in Prenzlauerberg.
Significant are not only the contrasting ways in which memory was dealt with in the different governments, but perhaps even more so, the continuities between the two governments’ ideas of an appropriate way to deal with memory. First, there is the strange echo in the use of Heinrich Heine’s words from Almansor in both former East Germany and Reunified Germany. “Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen,” which both governments quote, the GDR in the Tag des freien Buches and Reunified Germany in the preparatory documents sent to artists, and even in the finished memorial itself. Perhaps the repeated use is an attempt to connect dealing with the memory of the destruction of literature and knowledge within literature itself. Secondly, there is recurring use of “authentisches Zeichen,” (authentic sign) and “authentischer” or “historischer Ort,” (authentic or historic place) to describe the place and event of the book burning as well as the need to memorialize it. This gives both governments the goal of properly dealing with an ‘authentic site’ of memory. The emphasis on authentic sign and authentic place in the commemorative practices of both governments underlines the importance of space in dealing with memory.
In this analysis, though the memorials proposed or installed by the GDR no longer leave a physical trace on August-Bebel-Platz, a dialogue between the different ways of understanding and presenting the past is constituted. The dialogue between the memorials, complex cultural texts, is both temporal and a-temporal. It is interested not just in the existing concrete ‘response’ to the book burning, but also in the different ways in which the book burning could have been presented in the landscape of the city. The memorial is a focal point from which a Bejaminian “tiger’s leap to the past” can be explored.
In ways both concrete and imaginary, points of inquiry into the past reveal themselves in the archive and in the city itself. “Concrete” stands for the existing form on August-Bebel-Platz, whereas “imaginary” describes the form of the former GDR’s monuments re-constructed through archival research. Both archival knowledge and research elucidate the meanings of the memorials, built and un-built, and their historical significance, similar to Stephen Greenblatt’s concept of resonance. Resonance, he asserts, “depends not upon visual stimulation but upon a felt intensity of names and, behind the names, as the very term resonance suggests, of voices.”
The felt resonance of the memorial through the archives offers a contrasting inquiry to Greenblatt’s exploration of the terms “resonance” and “wonder.” His work in the essay focuses on objects in a museum setting, whereas the object studied here is a memorial embedded in everyday life. The memorial, unlike the object in the museum, is usually not an object of pointed inquiry, and therefore may be easily ignored as yet another thing underfoot. The resonance, therefore, comes about through historical knowledge, through both the archive and the site of the memorial. Knowledge of names and voices—of burnt authors, of city planners, of students at the 1933 book burning—inhabit the sphere of research, but also the narrative and form of the memorial. The visual stimulation of Ullman’s book burning memorial, underground and powerfully minimal, engages wonderment in the public sphere. Viewers stop and often kneel down to peer into the corners of the memorial, perhaps attempting to see what is missing or hidden, or to see past their own reflections. This interaction with the memorial form is indicative of Greenblatt’s “wonder,” a deep and yet immediate reaction, “like fear,” which arises in the viewer when confronted by something so “great and portentous.”
A comparative study of the planned memorial and the built memorial constitutes a dialogue between past and present. The planned memorials from the GDR cannot be experienced with wonderment on August-Bebel-Platz—their form in the public sphere is not available to passers-by, but rather, only in an imaginary reconstruction through historical documents.
The differences between the memorials allow for an understanding of cultural memory and national past, where the aesthetic choices of one artist do not pertain only to his memory alone, but rather to the memory of the collective as determined by the state. Berlin’s book-burning memorials help us comprehend the different self-perceptions of the two Germanys in relation to a common history while illuminating how memorials embody a national memory—and national identity—in a public space.
Isabella Oppen graduated in Fall 2011 with a B.A. in German Studies and Comparative Literature (German and Italian), and a minor in Music. She spent her junior year abroad in Berlin, where she discovered an affinity for Döner, icy sidewalks, and Paul Celan. Her interest in the city’s history, architecture, and memorials grew over her year there, and continued when she returned to California. Isabella received the generous support of the Haas Scholars Program to return to Berlin in summer of 2011 to research in the Landesarchiv. She hopes to continue in either German Studies or Comparative Literature, and is planning on applying to internships and research grants this coming fall.
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