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Will Berlin's monument to German Unity ever be completed?

Stefan Dege
October 2, 2023

A memorial is being built to celebrate Germany's reunification. It was supposed to be inaugurated four years ago. Now no one knows when it will be ready. What makes it so controversial?

The Freedom and Unity Monument, Berlin
The monument was supposed to be inaugurated in 2019Image: Milla & Partner

October 3 marks German Unity Day, celebrated every year since the peaceful reunification of the country, 33 years ago.

A monument to mark this historical event, the Monument to Freedom and Unity, was supposed to be inaugurated in 2019, on the 30th anniversary of Germany's reunification. But political debates, bureaucratic hurdles, safety concerns and a lack of funding delayed the launch of the project.

Four years later — even though construction has been ongoing since May 2020 — things don't look much better.

The historic base in front of the Humboldt Forum, where the Berlin City Palace once stood, is almost finished, the Stuttgart planning office Milla & Partner has confirmed to DW.

Freedom and Unity Monument Berlin
The Monument to Freedom and Unity is commemorating Germany's reunificationImage: Milla & Partner

The walkable shell that was chosen as the winning design in 2011 competition, popularly known as the "Einheitswippe" (unity seesaw), is apparently in development. According to Milla & Partner, the 32 steel segments of the monument are currently waiting in a production hall in North Rhine-Westphalia to be transported to Berlin.

But more delays are already expected.

"The Monument to Freedom and Unity will not be completed this year," confirms creative director Sebastian Letz. "We have drawn up a plan for implementation in 2024 and communicated it to the Commissioner for Culture and the Media Culture some time ago." Now it is up to the head of the state entity developing the project, Commissioner for Culture Claudia Roth, to make decisions.

"Everyone involved is trying to ensure the monument is completed quickly," a spokesperson for the commissioner told DW.

In the end, only the general contractor of the project — the Stuttgart creative consulting agency Milla & Partner — can determine the inauguration date: "According to the general contractor, there are currently construction delays due to difficulties with a subcontractor in the steel construction sector," explains the culture commissioner's spokesperson.

A graphic of the Unity Monument
The monument can tip from one side to the other when enough people gather in one directionImage: Milla & Partner / Sasha Waltz

Soaring costs

A renewed increase in costs is also expected. The monument was originally set to cost €15 million ($15.8 million), an estimate that was later increased to €17 million. Now the project could be even more expensive, predicts writer and former GDR civil rights activist Andreas Apelt, from the association German Society.

The monument project was initiated in 1998 by Günter Nooke, a GDR civil rights activist; Florian Mausbach, former president of the Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning; journalist Jürgen Engert; and Lothar De Maizière, who was the head of the first democratically elected government of East Germany.

Their idea behind the monument was to honor the "feeling of liberation, the historical happiness and tears of joy triggered by the fall of the Berlin Wall."

In 2007, the Bundestag German parliament decided to build the monument, financed by federal funds. But then political infighting began, and the parliamentary budget committee temporarily blocked the funding.

The project's opponents questioned the symbolism of the monument.

The Monument to Freedom and Unity in Berlin

Finally, a second Bundestag resolution in 2017 sealed the project. The groundbreaking ceremony took place in 2020.

Since then, the building site in front of the completed and now opened Humboldt Forum in Berlin's Mitte district has been bustling with activity.

The construction of the walkable shell of the "Citizens on the Move" monument is to measure 50 by 18 meters (164 by 59 feet). If more people move to one side, according to the plan, the scale will tilt accordingly. As in 1989, people would have to come to an understanding and decide to act together in order to make a difference.

The curvature of the bowl is to form something like a stage, emblazoned with the slogan of the 1989 protesters in large gold-colored letters: "Wir sind das Volk. Wir sind ein Volk" (We are the people. We are one people).

Critics of the project described it as "political kitsch," a "weak metaphor" with a "fairground character," while others praised the "strong symbolism" of the monument.

The combination of the terms "freedom and unity" also drew criticism because protesters in the GDR had demonstrated for freedom but not consistently for reunifying Germany as well.

A person holding a cloth, having just unveiled a memorial to Germany unity that reads 'Deutsche Einheit'
In Perleberg, Brandenburg, a monument celebrating German unity was unveiled mmediately after reunificationImage: Gerd Bielefeld/Stadtverwaltung Perleberg

'Consensus increasingly difficult'

"What kind of unity is being celebrated?" asks Annette Ahme of the Historische Mitte association. The unconditional accession of the GDR to the Federal Republic of Germany without an accompanying constitutional debate was wrong, she tells DW, and the unification process between East and West has since failed. "And a monument is supposed to sanctify that now?"

Olaf Zimmermann, executive director of the German Cultural Council, believes societal support for the monument is lacking, whose seesaw symbolism he finds "no longer in keeping with the times."

Why has the monument project been delayed so long? "That," says Zimmermann, "is because ultimately no one wants it after all." He is also "increasingly uncertain" about whether anyone still needs the monument, given "growing tensions" between East and West within Germany.

'Unity was a stroke of luck in history'

Hendrik Berth, a psychology professor and transformation researcher at the Technical University of Dresden, speaks of different ways East and West Germans view a unified nation. "Perhaps a memorial should have been erected quickly in 1991 or 1992," he speculates. "The longer it takes, the more difficult it becomes to find something that can even remotely find some consensus." He posits that a lasting effect of the unity monument is unlikely.

In the eyes of Andreas Apelt, a former GDR civil rights activist, further unification of the East and the West is inevitable. "Reunification  was a stroke of luck in history" but, he argues, adding that after all, protesters managed to topple a dictatorship. "We have to keep this momentum from back then, with all the optimism."

This article was originally written in German.