History on the Street: Postwar Memorials in Cologne

Originally published on May 1, 2012 on Open Salon.

I’m always struck by Germany’s lesser known postwar memorials. Structures of remembrance built on a grand scale, such as Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, have garnered much deserved popular and academic attention. However, there are numerous other memorials, built on a much smaller scale, that dot the landscape of Germany. They also deserve attention.

For the past several weeks I’ve been living in Cologne, the fourth largest German city, and the largest in western Germany’s Rhineland. I’ve come across two creative and poignant memorials that I think deserve attention. The first is a memorial to a single person, but like all memorials, it is about much more. It is in remembrance of Edith Stein. A plaque recounts her life with select information: born in Breslau in 1891, she was the eleventh child of a Jewish family. While a high school and college student, she left Judaism. She studied philosophy, psychology, history, and German studies in Breslau and Göttingen, before pursuing a doctorate degree under famed philosopher Edmund Husserl. It was at this time that she had her first serious encounters with Christianity; she decided to convert to Catholicism after reading from the autobiography of Teresa of Avila. Stein was baptized in 1922 in Bad Bergzabern. She was a teacher and university lecturer in Speyer and Münster; that is, until 1933 when National Socialist legislation that denied Jews the right to hold such positions revoked her professorship. She then entered the Disclaced Carmelite (notably also called the Barefoot Carmelite) monastery in Cologne and took the name Teresia Benedicta a cruce (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross). In 1938, she took her eternal vows, but soon after had to flee Germany and ended up in Holland, where she entered a monastery in Echt. On August 7, 1942, she was deported to Auschwitz; she was murdered there on August 9, 1942. In 1987, Pope John Paul II beatified her as a martyr, and in 1998 he canonized her as a saint.

What the plaque tells in words, the sculpture shows in images, and what the plaque cannot tell in words, the sculpture evokes in the way it forces the viewer to see. The photo below depicts the monument from a distance close enough to see the entirety of it, but too far away to notice the details.


In the following image, you see three women—all of them are Edith.


Reading the sculpture from right to left, the first representation of Edith shows her leaning on the Star of David. The depiction induces a sense of weighty contemplation, recalling Rodin’s The Thinker. She does not take the rejection of her inherited faith lightly, and that is because she is a woman of conviction, no less while adhering to Judaism than to Catholicism.


The second likeness of Edith, in the next two photos, represent the period in her life in which she did not have a faith—in between Judaism and Catholicism, she didn’t have direction. It is also a representation of a fundamental division in her identity. From certain perspectives, she appears whole, but from others, she is fragmented.



The third representation shows Edith dressed in monastic garb, carrying the symbol of martyrdom in front of her. The series does not tell the story of Edith progressing from one identity to another; she was always all three. Or, perhaps she was always divided. Maybe it is the likeness in the middle that both fuses and balances the other two.


The memorial is much more than the three images of Edith. It invites the viewer to perceive it from multiple angles and see how the rest of her story unfolds; not in representations of the woman, but in her environment and under her circumstances. The monument is elevated, and in front of the third sculpture of Edith there are numerous sets of footprints—some barefoot, others not. All of them are heading in the same direction as Edith, carrying her cross. The footprints lead to a pile of shoes, eliciting images of the footwear taken from inmates of Nazi concentration camps.


The only thing that keeps the shoes from piling down onto the street are two tablets of stone, the ten commandments—the first is increasingly burdened. Etched next to the footprints are numbers—these represent the tattoos given to inmates at Nazi concentration camps. Not all inmates of Nazi camps, in particular the four other extermination camps in addition to Auschwitz, received tattoos. Killed a mere two days after her deportation, Edith almost certainly did not receive one. The presence of the numbers suggests that the monument is also about survivors.



The only pair of feet facing Edith rather than moving with her are on a flat stone, as opposed to the rough stone of the rest of the monument. Somewhat displaced, as if it were floating in the middle of the monument, the pierced feet represent Jesus. When one stands on them, she looks directly into Edith’s face, while Edith’s divided self lingers melancholically over her left shoulder.



From Edith’s perspective, it looks as if the world is coming undone in front of her; a pile of victims’ shoes just to the left of a fractured cross, the crevice of which is hollow, with the exception of a crown of thorns.


The multiple ways of seeing the various iterations of Edith and the broad context under which she lived, and ultimately died, stays with the viewer. Historically and today, Cologne is one of Germany’s most Catholic cities. It is the home to the magnificent Cologne Cathedral, which in turn is the home of the Archbishop of Germany. The monument to Edith Stein is located in a Catholic institutional center. It is right next to Catholic libraries, offices, and archives. The abundance of Catholic imagery asks the viewer to see Edith as a martyr, even though she was victimized despite her Christianity, not because of it. She was killed because Nazi perpetrators and collaborators only saw the image of her with the Star of David—the second representation of her would have been viewed as an impossibility and the third irrelevant.

While the monument to Edith Stein is about victims, the second I want to address is about people who refused to victimize; and while the form of the Edith Stein monument is unmistakably a monument to a particular person, the Homage to the Soldiers who Refused to Shoot (designed by Ruedi Bauer, Denis Coueignoux, Vera Kockot, and Karim Sabano, and dedicated in 2009) does not stand out in the urban fabric and entreat passersby to pause a moment give their attention. One needs only to stand near the monument for a short period of time to see people pass it by. Or, they stop just long enough to point out to a companion that there are words up there, before moving along.


This monument is dedicated to soldiers and non-soldiers who refused to participate in Nazi crimes. It stands on six legs, and about ten feet in the air you see a sort of downwards looking, see-through sheet of letters that form words, distinguished by various colors, and those words form sentences. The viewer has to strain her neck to not only make out the words, but also long enough to make sense of the sentences. Imagine reading this blog post projected onto the ceiling.


The translation from German reads:

Homage to the soldiers who refused to shoot to the soldiers who refused to shoot to the people who refused to kill the people who refused to kill the people who refused to torture the people who refused to torture the people who refused to denounce the people who refused to denounce the people who refused to brutalize the people who refused to brutalize the people who refused to discriminate the people who refused to discriminate the people that refused to laugh the people who refused to discriminate the people who showed solidarity and civil courage as the majority remained silent and followed…

The form—repetitive, without punctuation, and directly above the reader—causes the viewer to interact with the monument in a compelling way. First, I found that it was much easier to keep track of what I was reading by saying it out loud. By doing so, it becomes a benediction more than a poem. This is only reinforced by the repetition. The design forces the viewer to look up, crane her neck, and strain to keep track of the words as they are being read.


It is clear to me that this is integral to the purpose of the monument. It is uncomfortable to read the monument, both in the literal and figurative sense. Germany’s Nazi past makes it strenuous to recognize deserters and civilian resistors, because once that happens there might be a sense of displacement of focus from the majority (as the monument correctly states) of perpetrators to the minority of resistors. This monument is mindful to not do such a thing, and one of the ways it does that is by making it a task to notice and consume the memorial. Even in the description of the monument, on one of its legs, it states non-emphatically that “their (resistors, seditionists, and consciousness objectors) courage deserves our respect.”

Memorials in Germany are integral tools that shape public memory, and they have the ability to influence public discourse. Recently, German foreign minister Thomas de Maziére proposed (and here) that Germany institute a Veterans Day honoring German soldiers, living and dead. When thinking about such a proposal, it would be good to keep these two memorials in mind. The problem with such a holiday should be obvious: there are too many soldiers like those involved in killing Edith Stein than those who refused to shoot.

Germany hasn’t had anything like a Veteran’s Day since 1945. Since 1991 (during the first Gulf War, which was the first instance of German military action since WWII), about 300,000 German troops have been deployed into a war-zone. I don’t think the holiday is a good idea, but there are alternatives. If de Maziére’s intention is to honor military members who have served since the reinstatement of the (West) German military in 1956, and particularly those who have been deployed, then a monument might be a good alternative to a holiday. I wouldn’t put it in a busy part of a large city like Berlin. I would also avoid Bonn, the former capital of West Germany. The memorial would perhaps be most appropriate near, but not a part of, the newly opened Milistary History Museum in Dresden. I think it would have to be specific and small scale. Attaching it to the museum, or constructing in close by, should defuse any potential controversy. Postwar memorials in Germany are sharp, evocative, and sensitive, and I think it could be done right.


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