Memorial for victims of Cologne NSU attack faces hurdles | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 27.06.2019
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Memorial for victims of Cologne NSU attack faces hurdles

15 years ago, right-wing extremists set off a nail bomb in Cologne's Keupstrasse, injuring 22 people. Now, an artist's plan to commemorate the victims is hitting roadblocks. What's stopping it?

The former railway area in the Cologne neighborhood of Mülheim still stands empty. It was to be the site of an ambitious memorial by Berlin-based artist Ulf Aminde. He planned to create a concrete floor slab mirroring the foundation of the building across the plaza where a bomb placed by right-wing extremist group National Socialist Underground (NSU) exploded on June 9, 2004, targeting the Turkish community.

According to the installation's design, anyone approaching the platform can see virtual walls grow out of it into the sky, on which they can watch short films which will play thanks to augmented reality via a smartphone app. "The films relate to the perspective of migrants," Aminde said.

A meeting place for the entire community

The artist has conceived his memorial as a project in which anyone can participate. "Everyone is invited to produce films that can be seen by everyone: residents of the neighborhood where many people of foreign origin live, as well as schoolchildren and students. This is a very important element of this memorial," says Aminde.

He hopes it will be a "critical archive of migrant resistance."

"In this way we shed light on the historical context in which the NSU was able to carry out its attacks and murders," explained the artist. "We shed light on the political climate and the history of the racist violence that the bomb attacks fell into." Twenty-two people were injured in the attack, four of them seriously. For years, Turkish community members were suspected of being behind the attacks themselves.

Images of the devistation after a bomb attack in Cologne (picture-alliance/dpa)

The aftermath of the nail bomb explosion 15 years ago that injured 22 people in Cologne.

Read more: Neo-Nazi attack survivor: 'I won't stay silent' 

A 'critical archive'

Having a meeting place that is also a living film archive was the idea the Berlin artist brought to the Council of the City of Cologne two years ago. The residents of Keupstrasse were also enthusiastic. But today, shortly after the 15th anniversary of the attack on June 9, the construction of the memorial is once again uncertain. Cologne's Mayor, Henriette Reker, announced that the planned site belonged to a private group of investors and that she could not ask them to change how they used their property. It seems the artist may need to look for a new location.

However, some in the community feel the installation would not be the same without having a direct view to the site of the attack. Members of the "Keupstrasse is everywhere" initiative also criticize the city of Cologne: "Those responsible have still not understood the significance of this memorial," they wrote in an open letter that can be read on the Internet. "We are in negotiations with the city and with the investor who owns the site," Aminde told DW. "And at the moment, I have the impression that those affected are being denied the right to commemorate the victims of the attack and, above all, the right to remember.

Victims became suspects

It's no surprise that emotions are soaring when it comes to this memorial. It wasn't until seven years after the violent nail bomb attack that the crime was attributed to the true perpetrators: the right-wing terror cell of the National Socialist Underground (NSU). Until then, the victims had not been allowed to be victims. Germany's interior minister at the time, Otto Schily, had ruled out terrorism and placed the perpetrators within what he called "the criminal milieu" of the district, which was mainly inhabited by Turkish people. This was a fatal misjudgment that turned victims into suspects and destroyed confidence in the rule of law.

Read more:Neo-Nazi attack survivor: 'I won't stay silent'

Meral Sahin, victim of the attacks (picture-alliance/AA/A. Hosbas)

Meral Sahin was a victim of the 2004 attacks and is now a spokesperson for her community and a proponent of the memorial.

'Who holds their protective hand over the murderers?' 

The NSU's violent attacks have also been portrayed in theater and literature. Author Wolfgang Schorlau used his unique narrative style to stage the NSU scandal in the political thriller The Protecting Hand (Die schützende Hand). He depicted authorities investigating the environment of the victims of the NSU murder series. Files were shredded, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution was also involved. "What if this is not just a failure of the authorities? Who is holding his protective hand over the murderers?" asked Schorlaus in his book.

Only a stone's throw away from the site of the attack in the Keupstrasse the Schauspiel Köln theater troupe performed David Calis' play Die Lücke (The Gap). Here, too, the victims were given a voice when the author, director and filmmaker put local residents on stage with actors. Several pictures of the destroyed Keupstrasse and footage from a surveillance video depicted the events of that fateful day. In them, one of the bombers can be seen pushing his bicycle past the shops. Calis' message was that the bomb widened the gap between the Turkish world and the majority German society.

A scene from the theater work The Gap or Die Lücke (Schauspiel Köln/Foto: David Baltzer)

Novels and plays have been written in response to the attacks, such as "The Gap" by David Calis, performed here in Cologne.

Standing together

Each year since the attack, the tragedy is commemorated with art and culture festivals in Cologne-Mühheim  which fall under the motto "Birlikte — Zusammenstehen" (Birlikte — standing together.)

But will there soon be a memorial for the victims of the notorious attack? Supporters of the plan, such as Yilmaz Dziewior, director of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, remain optimistic. The museum will display the award-winning memorial design in an exhibition for one month.

Aminde hopes his plans for the proposed site will go ahead.

"Instead of saying that the high value of private property must be preserved, we should take a 'heart in the right place' perspective. Then, we can find a solution."

From June 28, the Museum Ludwig in Cologne will be showing Ulf Aminde's memorial design. The exhibition runs until July 28 and depicts a small-scale version of the memorial.

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