Spring 2003

Property and the Banality of Memory

Two architects respond to a hotel built on the site of an old Gestapo camp outside Saarbrücken

Mark Landsman

There are places where the claims of property and history, of commerce and memory, collide, where all collective property rights to the past are usurped by private concerns and those wishing to exercise such rights face a unique set of obstacles. A fascinating case in point is provided by Neue Bremm, a place with an unsavory past lying on the outskirts of the city of Saarbrücken in southwestern Germany, practically on the French border. Deriving its name from a local inn established in the 1920s, Neue Bremm has functioned ever since as a roadside stop, a place for a momentary pause while otherwise in transit, though the character of its visitors and the purpose of their stay have varied considerably over time. As is true of so many places in Germany during World War II, the Gestapo established a camp here that functioned as both a collection point from­ which prisoners were sent on to larger camps (including the extermination centers in the East), and as a place for “disciplining” primarily foreign laborers conscripted to work in Germany. The Nazis officially designated Neue Bremm as an “expanded police prison.” For many years after the war it was referred to as a concentration camp. More recently, it has been identified as a “Gestapo camp.” Whatever its appellation, it was a place where prisoners—men and women—were brutally disciplined, undernourished, tortured, and murdered. As such it is undeniably an instance of what the Germans call “sites of horror” (Orte des Schreckens): forced labor camps, concentration camps, and extermination centers.

After the war, virtually all traces of the camp were removed by local authorities. There remained only the foundations of the prisoners’ barracks and a fire pond around which they had been forced to run endless laps while the guards brutalized them. In 1947 the site received a commemorative stone slab, the text for which was oddly written only in Fre­nch. (The area fell within what was still the French occupation zone of Germany.) In subsequent years, highways and commercial buildings steadily encroached on its borders. Finally, in 1975, the French hotel chain Novotel (a subsidiary of the Accor Group) purchased from the city of Saarbrücken what had been the women’s half of the camp, and proceeded to build its first hotel on German soil, a minor symbol, however misplaced and superfluous, of the postwar German-French rapprochement. With the new “Novotel Saarbrücken” in place, neither those driving past on the highway, nor those who stopped to spend the night and enjoy a dip in the swimming pool, would be likely to find any indication of the site’s troubling, not-too-distant past.

The men’s half of the camp, meanwhile, continued to be owned by the city. Discreetly separated from the Novotel by a thick row of spruce trees, it remained in a state of neglect until recently, when a local citizens’ initiative formed to establish a memorial to the history of the site. (This is a common occurrence in Germany). After installing a few small, temporary, commemorative signs, the Initiative Neue Bremm, as the group officially calls itself, held a formal “contest of ideas” for a permanent memorial. The winning design, chosen in April 2000, was submitted by two Berlin architects, Nils Ballhausen and Roland Poppensieker. Ballhausen is an editor at the German architecture magazine Bauwelt, and Poppensieker is an instructor in the architecture program at the Technical University in Berlin. Their task, as they understood it, was to address the following question: “How does one integrate this transitory site into the general consciousness?” A follow-up question might have been: How does one recover a repressed past when the instrument of its repression (the hotel) isn’t going away?

Appalled by the very fact of the Novotel on the site, Ballhausen and Poppensieker first developed what they called a “counter-hotel.” Under the title “Hotel of Memory,” the first version of their project confined itself to that half of the camp not occupied by the Novotel. They envisioned four simple rectangular buildings standing right where the barracks had once stood, but slightly shifted so that the original foundations of the barracks would still be visible. The buildings—intended to house a documentary exhibition, an archive, and two suites of rooms—were to form a quad around the fire pond. This design was intended as a provocative gesture towards the Novotel sitting just out of view on the other side of the spruce trees. Yet as the title “Hotel of Memory” also suggests, the architects were well aware that in order to integrate the site into the consciousness of those in transit, they had to associate their memorial with the existing entity that encouraged people to stop and stay a while. In short, the very thing whose existence they criticized was integral to the success of their project.

In the following months, their design changed radically as they came to the conclusion that they had to look beyond the borders of the original men’s camp. If their memorial was to hav­e any audience at all, it would have to extend outward and incorporate the Novotel itself. Under the motto “guests disseminate history,” they redrew their “Hotel of Memory” by developing several strategies to integrate the Novotel into the memorial, and vice-versa. In pursuing this goal they were guided by a distinct skepticism about the efficacy of large, heavy, symbolic forms filled with pathos and bound up with ritual. As Ballhausen explained to me, “What’s fascinating about Saarbrücken is that today the site of horror has a banal, everyday function. The site is not so ‘pure’ and divorced from the world as one has become used to with many memorials.”

Computer-generated images of Ballhausen and Poppensieker’s “counter-hotel.”

In keeping with the banal, everyday character of the site, Ballhausen and Poppensieker developed a new design that dispersed the memorial, casting its components in the visual and idiomatic syntax provided by the hotel and the highway. The past, in other words, would be evoked not in the traditional form of a grand monument. Rather, it would be insinuated into the prosaic forms of the surrounding environment, integrated into the experience of the everyday. For example, their new design “personalized” every room in the Novotel with a portrait of, or a personal file on, a particular prisoner. It also envisioned a long illuminated sign running along the top of one of the outside walls of the hotel. Visible from the highway, the billboard-like sign would play on the words, “Hostel Hostile Hotel Hostage.” Of course, these ideas had to be submitted to the Novotel for approval. Rather like tenants asking their landlord for permission to paint the walls red, the representatives from the citizen’s initiative carried out negotiations with the hotel which, for its part, was keen to make sure that the specific ways in which the past was to be evoked would be compatible with the commercial interests of roadside hospitality. Not surprisingly, the hotel rejected the above-mentioned ideas out of hand, yet its overall attitude toward the project was one of cooperation, not hostility. For example, it consented to the removal of the row of spruce trees blocking a view of the men’s camp. According to the latest, agreed-upon design, the trees are to be replaced by a low set of stairs on which one can sit and look across at the remaining traces of the camp and those aspects of the memorial to be situated there. And although there will be no personal portraits in the individual rooms, the hotel did agree to allow the etching of a prisoner’s portrait into one of the medallion-shaped concrete blocks on its facade.

As for the illuminated sign originally intended for the outside wall of the hotel, Ballhausen and Poppensieker have simply moved it to a wall running along the highway (that is, along the former men’s camp, on land the hotel doesn’t own), and presented it in lettering that echoes that of the Novotel logo. In addition, directly behind this wall, but equally visible from the highway, there will loom a large concrete surface with a deceptively disturbing photograph etched into it. Taken during the war, it shows two mothers playing with their daughters in a field directly outside the barbed wire enclosing the camp. As such, it neatly conveys the eerie wartime proximity between everyday life outside and the life in the camp. On the other side of this surface, under the heading “Reception,” the history of the camp will be told in text and image. What remains to be decided is exactly how much space in the Novotel itself will be devoted to a standing exhibition further documenting the history of the site. As the project is still in the planning stages, the negotiations continue. Building is supposed to begin sometime in 2003.

What is the rationale behind the approach taken by Ballhausen and Poppensieker, their avowed banalization of the forms of access to the past? The specific nature of the site itself explains only so much. In fact, their design is part of a larger discussion in Germany that has been going on for decades about how to commemorate the Nazi past. Ever since the end of World War II there has been an aversion to the traditional form of the historical monument as handed down by the nineteenth century, particularly in its more celebratory, nationalistic, self-aggrandizing functions. Monuments and memorials devoted to the Nazi period have naturally been intent on serving other purposes: the injunction to remember; the education of subsequent generations; the honoring of victims; the expiation of guilt. For many artists involved in creating memorials for the Nazi era, the very form of the monument was itself tainted because it seemed to share certain tendencies associated with fascism, such as nationalist hubris, the claim to permanence, didacticism, aesthetic monumentalism. In addition, there was a sense that the traditional monument, rather than encouraging genuine engagement with the past, became a weak substitute for real memory, a place to deposit and then forget the past. The monument simply became yet another reified element in the cityscape, the kind of thing one walked past without even noticing. To combat these ills, a new tradition emerged, that of the countermonument, which rejected many of the basic features of the traditional monument. Where the traditional monument employs figurative representation, the countermonument embraces abstraction. Where the traditional monument is fixed and permanent, positing an unchanging interpretation of the past, the countermonument formalizes impermanence and incorporates the process of forgetting that preceded its creation. Where the traditional monument stands at a decorous distance from the viewer, like a traditional work of art, the countermonument seeks to break down that distance, to provoke the viewer to interact with it and thus to internalize memory.[1]

With their memorial for Neue Bremm, Ballhausen and Poppensieker have followed many of the programmatic tenets of the countermonument, and yet they’ve managed to do so without being rigidly beholden to any of them. First, by drawing the Novotel into the memorial, they have incorporated the process of forgetting that preceded the efforts of the citizen’s initiative. And yet the fact that memory can be fleeting, or repressed, hasn’t moved them to adopt an overly literal formalization of impermanence by having their memorial vanish over time. After all, how is the engagement with the past to be sustained if the instrument of its evocation is designed to disappear? Second, like the ideal-type countermonument, they’ve broken down the distance traditionally separating the viewer from the object by inserting the various components of their memorial into the everyday experience of its visitors. Yet in breaking down this distance they have held back from an outright rejection of figurative representation. On the contrary, they found new ways to employ figurative images without falling prey to the pitfalls of ossified statuary. Their approach, in other words, has been open and flexible. As a result, it suggests several intelligent ways in which to broaden the, at times narrow, array of options available to the countermonument as originally conceived.

If there is a disadvantage to the situation in Neue Bremm, it is one over which the Berlin architects, of course, have no control, namely, the fact that the Novotel has a decisive say in the final product. However interesting the results of the ambivalent friction with the hotel management, it is, to say the least, a matter of regret that the access routes to the past are subject to negotiations with a private-property owner concerned first and foremost with matters of business—the very property owner, lest we forget, that in 1975 was perfectly happy to collude with the city of Saarbrücken in burying Neue Bremm’s Nazi-era past. Were this purely a business proposition, one could rightly expect to hear people screaming, “conflict of interest!” Along these lines it is a salient fact that the hotel director himself has now become a member of the citizens’ initiative. In short, as the memorial reached out to incorporate the hotel, the hotel seemed to want to bring the memorial into its own snug embrace.

One might be tempted to view all of this as an unseemly compromise between the rights of private property and the claims of history. It would certainly be reasonable to suspect that the hotel’s cooperation is motivated at least in part by the requirements of public relations and the compulsion to exert some measure of control over the project. To go a step further, one might even suspect the hotel of harboring the cynical hope that the memorial will increase its occupancy rate by turning Neue Bremm into something more than just a roadside stop—that is, into a destination, yet another highlight on the itinerary of atrocity tourists. (The high-profile “Schindler’s List” tours offered in Krakow of the old Jewish quarter and nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau leap immediately to mind.) But such a scenario seems highly unlikely in Neue Bremm. However horrific its history, it was certainly no Auschwitz. In any case, it is difficult to imagine any other arrangement under the circumstances. Neue Bremm epitomizes a particular subset within the broader category of “sites of horror.” In contrast to the principal, more notorious sites such as Auschwitz and Treblinka (outside Germany) or Dachau and Buchenwald (within Germany), which have been duly cordoned off and commemorated since the end of the war, Neue Bremm and its like have been hidden from the culture of memorialization and allowed to develop postwar identities and functions unrelated to the episode of National Socialism. The task of recovering their past, decades after the fact, will inevitably be bound up with the sort of negotiations between past and present, history and property, taking place in Neue Bremm. Ultimately, we are brought back to Ballhausen’s observation that as a site Neue Bremm is simply not pure; it is irredeemably banal. If for this reason alone, the cooperation of the hotel is to be welcomed, even as one saves the lion’s share of praise for the Berlin architects and the members of the citizen’s initiative, who have done the most to assert the collective property rights to the past.

  1. To take one example, in 1986 Esther and Jochen Gerz unveiled their “Monument Against Fascism” for the city of Hamburg, a twelve-meter high, one-meter square pillar made of hollow aluminum and plated with a layer of soft, dark lead. At each corner of the pillar, a steel-tipped stylus was attached by a cable, so that viewers could score the lead, writing or drawing whatever they wanted to. As the lower sections of the pillar filled up with texts and drawings, the pillar was gradually lowered into the ground until it disappeared. Readers interested in learning more about this discussion will find a good introduction in James E. Young’s The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993).

Mark Landsman is a writer living in Brooklyn. He received a PhD in modern European history from Columbia University. His thesis was awarded the Theodore Hamerow Prize for Best Dissertation in European History by the Historical Society in 2002.

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