Germany′s planned reunification memorial dogged by rising costs, citizen opposition | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 22.08.2018
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Germany's planned reunification memorial dogged by rising costs, citizen opposition

Germans' uneasy relationship with their history is once again being tested, this time over controversial plans for a memorial to the country's reunification. This week, the project may come one step closer to completion.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, and the resulting reunification of Germany, counts as one of the country's most important and revered events. In 2007, Germany's Parliament, the Bundestag, gave the green light to a project commemorating that historic moment.

"The peaceful revolution in fall 1989 and restoration of German unity" should be remembered, according to the parliamentary resolution. The courage of then-East German citizens is to be noted in particular, the resolution goes on, for making a free reunification possible in the first place.

Playing with political interests

For many countries, such as the United States and France, national history isn't up for debate to the extent it is in Germany. The project to commemorate German unity has been bitterly contested for 10 years — everything from the planned location in central Berlin to the memorial's design. Even animal welfare activists have caused consternation. All the toing and froing has turned the issue of remembrance into a game of politics. Given the limits of public interest, progress on the memorial has suffered.

Read more: 57 years since the building of the Berlin Wall

That may change on Wednesday, when the state of Berlin sells the property for the planned memorial to the federal government, which has commissioned the project. That removes one of the memorial's major hurdles, but the ongoing arguments over how to commemorate East Germany's peaceful revolution and the ensuing reunification have clouded the joy surrounding that historic event.

Mock-up of Berlin reunification memorial (picture-alliance/dpa/Foto: Milla&Partner)

The planned memorial has been plagued by rising construction costs and citizen opposition

Memorial design mocked

The National Monument to Freedom and Unity, as it is known, got off to a shaky start. The memorial's design, drawn up by the architecture firm Milla und Partner and choreographer Sascha Waltz, is set to be a 50-meter-wide crescent that can be walked on and moved by visitors, and engraved with the defining chant of the East German freedom protests: "We are the people. We are one people."

Milla and Partner calls the monument an eye opener: "It comes to life when people gather, communicate and move together. It's an invitation to participation and an image of genuine democracy."

Read more: Picking up the pieces: The story of East Germany's central bank

What's intended to be a parallel of what really happened in 1989, however, has been mocked as a seesaw, a banana peel and a golden bowl. The location in the center of Berlin has been maligned as well. The monument is to be erected on the pedestal of an equestrian statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I, in front of the rebuilt Berlin Palace.

"There is what happened in 1989: The fall of the Berlin Wall. Then there is German unity. That was 1990. That's something else," said Annette Ahme, an organizer of memorial opponents. "This is about unity," she added, which is why Ahme has pushed for another location for the memorial: In front of the Reichstag, where reunification was legally agreed on.

Opponents to the Belin reunification memorial standing in front of the Reichstag (picture-alliance/dpa/B.v.Jutrczenka)

Ahme and her fellow memorial opponents believe it should be built in front of the Reichstag

Soaring costs

The memorial was due to be built in 2013, but those plans were put on hold when surveyors discovered a bat colony under the equestrian pedestal, and the animals had to be safely relocated. Then the pedestal's tiles had to undergo maintenance. The project's budget ballooned from €10 million ($11.6 million) to €17 million, and it faced termination on several occasions, including by the Bundestag, which only re-approved the go-ahead of the original plan in May of last year.

Germany and memorial culture

Culture Minister Monika Grütters, who is heading up the project, added to its uncertainty when she questioned if "Germans are capable of memorial of a positive nature" during a panel discussion on memorial culture two years ago. The erection of national monuments, she said, does not come easily to Germany.

Read more: Tourist trap and memorial: What is to become of Checkpoint Charlie?

"National monuments have been unthinkable since 1945, given all the suffering Germany has inflicted on Europe and the world in the 20th century," she said.

Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe (AP)

Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe was also the topic of intense discussion before its construction

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe was one of her examples of Germany's difficulty in happily, even proudly embracing its own history of freedom and democracy. "It's highly symbolic that after 1990, after more than 10 years of debate and arguments, and competition involving hundreds of drafts and repeated revisions of the selected project, it became the most meaningful memorial in Berlin."

Read more: Art and history collide in East Berlin's forgotten diplomatic quarter

However, doubts remain that the National Monument to Freedom and Unity can achieve a similar level of symbolism. And time is running out for all the necessary building permissions and construction timetables to meet the desired deadline of November 9, 2019: The 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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