Dr Julien Drouart
German Army Memorial: A surprising innovation
Updated: Jan 12, 2022
The German Army Memorial is a reminder of the country's military involvement on the international scene since reunification. It is above all a sober and surprising tribute.
A visit to the German Army Memorial is optional.
Understanding the chronology: 1990, the German revival
Berlin, the capital: what about the ministries?
On 20 June 1991, the parliament approved the controversial discussion on the name of the city that would become the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany. By a narrow majority, Berlin won out over Bonn, and the city was to become the seat of the ministries, the representations of the Länder and thousands of officials working for the federal state.
The shift of the country's centre of gravity to the East, however, raised new geopolitical questions concerning diplomatic relations with the countries of Central Europe, and even more so with the Soviet Union and Russia. Certain ministries considered strategic therefore remained in Bonn, notably the Ministry of Defence.
In 1993, the German armed forces opted for a secondary representation in the new capital and established their quarters in the buildings of the former Imperial Navy: the Bendlerblock. The location is important because it was within these walls that a group of German officers plotted an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler in 1944.
A memorial to Germany's military activity
Since then, Germany has regularly been involved in large-scale military interventions on the international scene. The question of a tribute to be paid to the soldiers who fell during operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan or elsewhere will therefore gradually be raised. The approach is part of the national narrative that the country wishes to present, but also with the concern to offer families and comrades-in-arms recognition and a space for remembrance. It is therefore in Berlin, the capital of reunified Germany, and not in Bonn, the original seat of the ministry, that a memorial is inaugurated in 2009.
Sober architecture in the service of privacy
Located in the heart of the Tiergarten consular district, the memorial is adjacent to the military parade grounds, behind the Bendlerblock. The memorial space itself consists of a 32-metre long, semi-open, reinforced concrete hall to which visitors have free access.
Gigantic bronze armatures as wall cladding stylistically reproduce thousands of military identity plates, the kind that soldiers wear around their necks so that they can be identified if necessary. Perforated in the ochre metal, full and half moons filter the light from the outside, creating magnificent shadow effects and a constant relationship between the individual and the body, the soldier and the army. A metal book of remembrance lists the names of the fallen by year.
The interior continues with a promontory towards the Room of Silence where the ochre colour of the metal gives way to absolute black. A skylight overhangs the room, once again allowing light to flood in. This is where the names of some 3,000 soldiers and civilians of the German Army who have died in service since the end of the Second World War are projected. In 2018, the opening of a documentation centre on the history of the German armed forces and their current mission completes the memorial area.
The place of politics, ideology and humanity
The criticisms levelled at a memorial that is far from being unanimously approved are numerous. Its off-centre location was the first complaint. Shouldn't it have been placed opposite the Reichstag building, where the national parliament sits? This would certainly have distorted the original concept of paying individual rather than national tribute. In this sense, the German Army Memorial is not intended to replace a traditional war memorial, which would be a completely different approach. In other words, it is the German Army and not the nation that honours its fallen.
Another criticism was the absence of any historical context: the dead are listed without giving their causes. However, this is to forget that the memorial is not a museum of military history and that, more than the historical event, it is the memory of the individual that takes precedence, or at the very least, the esprit de corps. Moreover, the documentation centre, limited and ideologically oriented as it is, partly fills this gap.
Finally, some critics regret that, unlike the classic memorials and monuments to the war victims, the names are not engraved in stone, metal or wood, but are projected succinctly onto a wall. This implies that the space dedicated to personal mourning fades away before the institution. Yet the concept of the memorial emphasises the brevity of life and the inexorability of death. Furthermore, and perhaps this is where the memorial differs from traditional achievements, the tribute rejects the cult of the immortal, eternal soldier.
In the end, the real question that must animate any visitor is: what are the personal, political and ideological motivations that would lead him or her to visit or not visit this memorial? The answer is individual.
Reasons to go
An architecture of transparency
Intimacy enhanced by some natural light
Reasons to avoid
Very few visuals
Absence of informative signs
Not very accessible