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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

German Army Memorial: A Surprising Innovation

Updated: Jun 21, 2023

The German army memorial is located in the middle of the government district.

The German Army Memorial serves as a testament to the country's military involvement on the international stage since reunification. Primarily, it is a sober and surprising tribute. Whether to visit or not is entirely optional.

Understanding the Chronology: The German Revival in 1990

Berlin, the Capital: What About the Ministries?

On June 20, 1991, the parliament passed a contentious discussion on the designation of the city that would become the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany. Berlin narrowly triumphed over Bonn and was set to become the hub of the ministries, the representations of the Länder, and thousands of federal state officials.

However, the eastward shift of the country's center of gravity sparked new geopolitical queries regarding diplomatic relations with Central European countries, and even more with the Soviet Union and Russia. Some strategic ministries, notably the Ministry of Defense, remained in Bonn.

In 1993, the German armed forces chose a secondary representation in the new capital, establishing their quarters in the buildings of the former Imperial Navy: the Bendlerblock. The location is significant as it was here that a group of German officers plotted an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler in 1944.

A Tribute to Germany's Military Activity

Since then, Germany has consistently participated in large-scale military interventions on the international stage. The issue of paying tribute to soldiers who fell during operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and elsewhere began to arise gradually. This initiative is part of the national narrative that the country aims to convey. Moreover, it intends to provide families and comrades-in-arms with recognition and a space for remembrance. Thus, in 2009, a memorial was inaugurated in Berlin, the capital of reunified Germany, and not in Bonn, the original location of the ministry.

Sober Architecture in the Service of Intimacy

Nestled in the heart of the Tiergarten consular district, the memorial stands adjacent to the military parade grounds, situated behind the Bendlerblock. The memorial space consists of a 32-meter long, semi-open, reinforced concrete hall, freely accessible to visitors.

Gigantic bronze fixtures serving as wall cladding stylistically replicate thousands of military identity plates, typically worn around soldiers' necks for identification purposes. Perforations in the ochre metal, full and half moons, filter the external light, generating beautiful shadow effects and an unbroken connection between the individual and the group, the soldier and the army. A metal Book of Remembrance lists the names of the fallen by year.

The interior leads to a promontory overlooking the Room of Silence where the ochre color of the metal transitions to absolute black. A skylight illuminates the room, where the names of some 3,000 soldiers and civilians of the German Army who have died in service since the end of World War II are projected. In 2018, a documentation center on the history of the German armed forces and their current mission supplemented the memorial area.

The Intersection of Politics, Ideology, and Humanity

Critics have numerous objections to the memorial, which is far from universally approved. Its off-centre location was the first point of contention. Shouldn't it have been situated opposite the Reichstag building, where the national parliament is housed? Such a placement would likely have distorted the original concept of paying individual rather than national tribute. The German Army Memorial, in this context, is not meant to replace a conventional war memorial, which would embody a completely different approach. In other words, it is the German Army, not the nation, that honors its fallen.

The absence of any historical context was another criticism: the dead are listed without stating their causes. However, this overlooks the fact that the memorial is not a military history museum, and it is the memory of the individual, or at the very least, the esprit de corps, that takes precedence over the historical event. Furthermore, the documentation center, albeit limited and ideologically oriented, partially fills this void.

Lastly, some critics lament that unlike traditional memorials and monuments to war victims, the names are not engraved in stone, metal, or wood but are briefly projected onto a wall. This suggests that the space dedicated to personal mourning is overshadowed by the institution. However, the memorial's design emphasizes the transience of life and the inevitability of death. Perhaps distinctively, the tribute rejects the cult of the immortal, eternal soldier.

Ultimately, the real question that should engage any visitor is: what personal, political, and ideological motivations would lead them to visit or not visit this memorial? The answer is personal.

Reasons to Visit

  • Transparency in architecture

  • Innovative design

  • Intimacy enhanced by natural light

Reasons to Skip

  • Limited visuals

  • Lack of informative signs

  • Inaccessibility

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