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Das dritte Denkmal

Since 1936 a monument to commemorate the soldiers of the German 76th infantry regiment fallen during the First World War adorns the Dammtordamm in Hamburg. This enormous rectangular limestone block, with its perimeter of carved marching soldiers, bears the text: “Deutschland muss leben, und wenn wir sterben müssen” (“Germany must live, even when we have to die for it”). Because of its war-celebrating character, the erection of this monument was held up until 1933, when the social democrats were driven from government and the monument became a propaganda instrument supporting Nazi politics.
After the Second World War, a storm of protests led to the initiative for erecting a ‘Gegenmal’ (counter-monument) in the 1980s. This monument by sculptor Alfred Hrdlicka should, according to the brief, put the philosophy behind the other monument into perspective. It was placed right next to its Nazi counterpart. This monument as well – a morbid representation of starving and perishing people – has given rise to many voices of protest. A contemporary critic wrote: “Against stupidity, even Gods fight in vain.” According to him, the dead soldiers were glorified in the Nazi memorial, while their victims were no more than extras in the counter monument, which was never fully completed.
At certain times the earth between the first and second monument moves, and the third memorial makes itself felt. Das dritte Denkmal (The Third Monument) is an earthquake below the meadow on which both competing war memorials are placed. A cleverly crafted technical design for an underground hydraulic mechanism that causes realistic earthquakes was specially made for this purpose by Stephan Kuderna.
The reception of art is generally seen to be an individual affair, which is in itself a legitimation of exhibitions. Over a short period of time, a number of people can experience a number of artworks and the public is offered the opportunity to individually contemplate the works, even if in general there is little room for a – broadly collective – cultural dimension. An artwork which demands a short spell of a visitor’s attention during an exhibition is fundamentally different from an artwork which gradually acquires its meaning in the urban context.
I highly value this cultural influence of an artwork and care less for the manner in which it can be read during a visit to an exhibition. The way this particular artwork will acquire its place in the collective consciousness of the Hamburgers has been well thought of in advance. The spin-off I expect from Das dritte Denkmal will generously compensate for the lacking of traditional art consumers.
It will become clear how German history is reflected in contemporary life, culminating in a third monument at the same location, which tries to do justice to modern democracy by delivering a delicate statement on Nazi history. If in the near future on this one spot, the Dammtordamm, there will exist not only one, not two, but three monuments assaulting each other and attempting to bend each other’s meaning, then a marvellously surrealistic artwork will emerge, which has no equivalent.
The fact that the Art Association of Hamburg has approved the design for Das dritte Denkmal is, I think, an acknowledgement of this. There is a need for new approaches to a problem that has been dragging on for a long time (cf. the controversy around the Holocaust monument in Berlin). An adequate formulation, which does justice to both present and past was hitherto not found in Hamburg. Removing one of the monuments, the one in honour of the 76th infantry which was established by the Nazis, would suggest that the passed is censored out of sight. For this reason it stays. The Gegendenkmal by Hrdlicka, a horror scene of suffering people, proved not to succeed in toning down the Nazi monument, as was its intention, but resulted in a presumptuous show of guilt.
Adding the ‘Third Monument’, raises commemorating to a meta-level. It shows that there can be no question of petrified compensation for guilt, but that history resides in reality as a dynamic process until time has worn off guilt. That is why this work does not appear visually, but shakes the earth until it will eventually fall silent and archaeologists may do their work.
Das dritte Denkmal intensifies the tensions between two monuments and thereby becomes a monument in its own right. It squeezes itself into the city’s conscience. It addresses the population and not the art public. I like it that way. I think that it is a common mistake in the case of exhibitions in public space to assume that people will automatically engage with the art; that population is synonymous with audience. But the city is inhabited by people, not audiences.

Source: Hans van Houwelingen, explanatory notes, and letter to the Visual Arts Committee, Fund for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture, 1999
Note: In spite of earlier approvals, the project was cancelled after a year and a half of preparations because of protests of the Hamburg Subway.