In the Heart of Berlin: Magnificence or Madness?

In the Friedrichstadt neighborhood of Berlin, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe designed by Peter Eisenman stood near the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag and several buildings of the Nazi regime. It was the top one on my list of must-see sites in Berlin. But upon first seeing it, I exclaimed like many who have seen it before: “What an odd place!”

Rid of figurative representation and symbols, this site aims to create a memorial space with its abstract form. In fact, the site consists of 2,711 concrete slabs of variant heights on a sloping ground, covering 19,000 sq meters. It carries no Jewish symbols or inscriptions of victim names. Anyone without background knowledge of its purpose will not be able to identify it as a memorial to Jewish victims in the Holocaust.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe | via Deutsche Welle
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe | via Deutsche Welle

So a place of no meaning? What a bold idea.

The question is, why? Why would Peter Eisenman create “a place of no meaning” that bewilders visitors instead of reminding them of history? The answer perhaps lies in the individual experience of wandering in the memorial site. As I walked through the slabs, the sense of strangeness and discomfort never went away. From an exterior of a rhythmic pattern gradually looking into an interior memorial space in which stability vanishes, I experienced the loss of self at a site where time does not seem to progress. Naturally, without a Holocaust narrative, the question of how to commemorate the past is left open for the visitors to deal with for him or herself. What I experienced was certainly, in the designer’s own words, a memorial space of “the extreme of reason, of rationality gone mad, in its hyper-ordered grid of buildings and fences, to suggest that under the laudable reason of the Enlightenment lays the possibility of inhuman reason.”

But hey, who decides how the past should be seen? There was darkness and terror, but there was also learning and change. At the East Side Gallery, I saw that the old Berlin Wall had turned into a colourful memorial of new meanings in our age. People of all nationalities were coming to this site to appreciate the 105 paintings, all of which convey messages of freedom, peace and love.

The Wall | © Freya/ Independent Skies Magazine
The Wall | © Freya/ Independent Skies Magazine

To me, this is Berlin, a place where people turn the ruins of the past into the foundation of a better tomorrow. I suggest you to go and see for yourself.

Freya Ziyan Lu

Featured image via Deutsche Welle.


Dekel, Irit. Mediation at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print.

Kattago, Siobhan. Memory and Representation in Contemporary Europe the Persistence of the past. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012. 150. Print.


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