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Europe: Germans Debate Holocaust Memorial

Munich, 24 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - More than 50 years after the war Germans are engaged in an intensive dispute about the location and style of a national monument to mark the Nazi murder of six million European jews.

The foundation stone is scheduled to be laid in Berlin in two years from this weekend -- on January 27, 1999, the date on which the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated in 1945. But that is about the only issue on which there is almost common agreement.

A three-day meeting in Berlin earlier this month attended by 70 representatives of political, cultural and academic circles ended in acrimonious disagreement not only about the style of the monument but also about the philosophy behind it and even whether there should be a central monument to the Holocaust.

Other meetings are scheduled for February 14 and April 10 but many critics doubt whether the eminent historians, architects, politicians and other public figures involved in the discussions will be able to reach a final decision.

The curious thing about the present arguments is that theoretically there should be no need for them. Plans for a central memorial to the Holocaust were discussed for more than 10 years before the decision to build it was announced in the summer of 1995.

It was agreed then that a monument to the "murdered jews of Europe" should be located in Berlin as the capital of Nazi Germany. It would be placed on the Wilhelmstrasse, the center of Nazi power, near the Brandenburg gate. More than 500 designs were considered. The winning model proposed a huge gravestone-shaped slab bearing the names of all the murdered jews, whether in Germany, the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, Romania, France or elsewhere. The cost was estimated at around $10 million (15 million DM).

But the decision was barely announced before the protests began. Germany's chancellor Helmut Kohl became personally involved by declaring that the proposed monument was much too large. Others argued that it might not be possible to find the names of all the those murdered by the Nazis and it would be an insult to have an incomplete list.

Some criticized the site on the Wilhelmstrasse -- they said it should be closer to the new Federal parliament in Berlin to emphasize the memorial's importance to post-Nazi Germany. And there were those who said a central Holocaust memorial was simply unnecessary -- there were enough individual memorials around Germany.

The Munich newspaper "Suddeutsche Zeitung" commented: "it is clear that despite the discussions, despite the competition on the design, those most involved are far from consensus. The Berlin official responsible for cultural affairs, Peter Radunski, insists that the monument will be built as planned. He says there is political will to go ahead.

"The location near the Brandenburg gate will be maintained, the money is there. The foundation stone will be laid on January 27, 1999" he said determinedly.

But many of those who attended this month's meeting in Berlin want to re-open the whole debate on the design and location of the monument.

Some argue that despite the 10 years of discussion before the 1995 decision there is no broad public agreement about the monument. Their critics say such people are basically opposed to having a central monument at all and open to delay the plan by endless debate until it is forgotten.

The head of the central council of jews in germany, Ignatz Bubis, does not go into that aspect of the argument but he, too, says there has been enough disccussion.