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Matthias Hass. Gestaltetes Gedenken. Yad Vashem, das U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum und die Stiftung Topographie des Terrors. Frankfurt and New York: Campus Verlag, 2002. 405 S. Illustrated. EUR 45, ISBN 3-593-37115-4.

Reviewed by Tanja Schult, Sodertorns Hogskola, Sweden.
Published by H-Museum (January, 2003)

Matthias Hass' Gestaltetes Gedenken (Designed Commemoration) deals with the development, organization and conception of the three memorial sites; Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Topography of Terror in Berlin, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The title is misleading: Hass is not, as the title may presume, in the first place interested in the chosen forms of representation of the history of National Socialism and the Holocaust, but mainly in the different ways the national societies of Israel, Germany and the U.S. are dealing with the Holocaust in general. The societal context, the prehistory as well as the simultaneous history to the memorial sites, is in fact his main subject. Hass investigates clearly how, when and why the Holocaust memory begins to play a certain role in the three countries. Very briefly summarized, the preoccupation with the Holocaust had wide political importance for each nation: In Israel the Holocaust became an import element in the process of shaping the national consciousness of the young nation; the public dealing with the history of the Third Reich and the Holocaust contributed to the process of democratization of (West) Germany; in the U.S. the national remembrance of the Holocaust became an important part for the integration of the American Jews into the American society, due to the fact that the Holocaust served as the most negative counter-example confirming the necessity of American values and democracy.

For his study Hass chooses the three mentioned memorial sites, because memorial sites appear to him as the most visible signs of remembrance to the victims of the Nazis. But it is doubtable whether the choice of three memorial sites is really needed for his purpose: the demonstration of the different forms of preoccupation with the Holocaust and the different significance the Holocaust has in the three national societies. It seems as if the memorial sites serve as a pretext or an excuse for the author that he has the possibility to deal with what he is mainly interested in-- and what he is good at--to investigate when, how and why theses sites--as a visible manifestation of the national dealing with the Holocaust--came into existence. The parts in which Hass is actually dealing with the forms of representation (Gestaltetes Gedenken) are indeed very short and unsatisfying. The comparative part--as presumed by the title--is also short and not much more than a summary of the three case studies with very few comparisons.

The study has a promising start, with a long introduction where Hass explains his procedure and gives a couple of apparently relevant definitions. But while reading his 400 pages work essential definitions for his study, as of resistance e.g., are missing. Cause of much confusion is the fact, that a discussion about the different academic attempts to find a suitable definition of the Holocaust appears first in the context of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (p. 313, et sqq.), instead of discussing this important question at the beginning.

Matthias Hass explains in his introduction why he regards the Topography of Terror suitable for a comparison with Yad Vashem and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. But the question still remains if there is really an equivalent memorial site in Germany, which is suitable for a comparison with Yad Vashem and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Especially when one pays attention to Hass' explanation of Germany's decentralized memory landscape concept, his choice of comparison is not convincing. Even if the location may not be as relevant for the Topography of Terror as for Buchenwald e.g., Hass himself demonstrates that the whole concept of the Topography of Terror is based on the entity of the place and the exhibition. This is why the killing of handicapped people e.g. is left out of the narration of the Nazi crimes here, because they actually did not take place there. But the place itself is of importance, can even be seen as a bondage: to tell a certain part of history, that means here to show the doings of the persecutors in the first place, because this was in fact the main center from where Nazi terror emerged. Between 1933 and 1945, the central institutions responsible for the repressive and criminal policies of National Socialism were located on the terrain of the Topography of Terror. Consequently the comparison with Jerusalem and Washington with their concentration on the victims is not satisfying. One may get the impression that there exists no site in Germany where the victims are memorialized. Hass states that the importance of all three sites mainly result from the fact that they are sites of national relevance. But as long as the Topography of Terror still is an interim solution and waiting for a museum building, the national relevance of this site is not absolutely obvious. Hass gives this site national importance already today, but it is not equivalent with the enormous national importance Yad Vashem and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum do have--at least not in the public national consciousness of most Germans. However, comparisons to any German memorial site or museum may remain unsatisfying, unless there would be an equivalent as a museum which deals with the Holocaust only as in Israel and the States.

Matthias Hass is obviously writing for a German or at least for an European audience. Necessary information e.g. why the area of the Topography of Terror was called "Prinz-Albrecht-Gelšnde" is missing, nowhere one can find when the Prinz-Albrecht-Palais was built and which function this historical site had. Hints about the politics of the former German chancellor Helmut Kohl (1982-1998) e.g. are just understandable for an insider, a statement like the change of government in 1982 without naming which political parties took over is useless if written for an international readership. Here, one can add that the structure of the study leads to lengthy repetitions. This harsh critique primarily addresses the supervisors of the project, but one still wonders if the publishing house no longer advises their authors adequately--sometimes the choice of words and the many typing errors hardly makes one believe that the study at least went through a proof-reader.

What do we get: three comprehensive case studies about development, organization and conception of the memorial sites, but even intense information about the different ways of preoccupation with the Holocaust and the different functions the Holocaust indeed has in the three named national societies. Instead of giving another, now so popular, seemingly comparative study of memorial sites by presenting three parallel histories, which in my eyes will never be fully satisfying, I wonder why Hass instead does not concentrate on general political and cultural events and uses them as examples of comparison--to be able to deal with what he is anyway most interested in : the different kinds of preoccupation with and instrumentalization of the Holocaust in the three national societies of Israel, Germany and the U.S., showing similarities, differences, and the mutual influences.

Just by referring to examples, Hass already mentioned in his study such a real comparative study could be written: using The Eichmann Trial (1961), the Six Day War (1967), the Yom Kippur War (1973), the TV serial "Holocaust" (1978), Schindler's List (1993) e.g. as higher-level questions. In this way, rigmarole repetitions could be prevented, and maybe real new insights could be found. Especially in the field of mutual influence it could be interesting to show how Germany in the process of democratization depends on the Allies, and above all the the US, and which consequences this had for the memorial sites. Another aspect could be the question of identification with the victims of the Nazi-regime, which is naturally the case for the Jews in Israel, legitimate for Jews and Gentiles in the Sates, but seems still difficult for non-Jews in Germany. How does this inevitably affect the forms of representation? Especially if we accept Hass statement, that an identification is possible just with the victims not with the persecutors--how can Germans then deal with the Holocaust? Do the three countries draw the same conclusions from the historical event for future politics? How does the often-mentioned Americanization of the Holocaust influence the forms of representation, or even the definition of the Holocaust itself in other countries? A real comparative study between different countries as the example of memorial sites or as other examples still keep waiting for, but Matthias Hass has laid a profound ground for such a comparative study.

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 27/01/04 05:07:41
©S D Stein

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