An introduction to Holocaust memorials


On this page I aim to explain a little more about memorials and why they are used.


Traditionally, public memorials and monuments have been commissioned and erected to serve a variety of functions: the celebration of a victory, the marking of a significant occasion, honouring the war dead or to act as: ‘heroic, self aggrandising figurative icons.’[1] 


In terms of 20th century commemoration the need to grieve, mourn and remember those who had suffered and died was generated by the First World War’s mechanised killing, trenches, stalemates, 9.7 million dead and 21 million wounded along with the fact that that the majority of soldiers that were lost were conscripts and therefore essentially civilians in uniform.  This outpouring of grief took several forms which are still visible and pertinent in the early 21st century. 


Plaques, cenotaphs and monuments were placed in countless villages, towns and cities, both in the UK and across Europe ranging from an obelisk on a village green, to simple countryside graveyards, to the massive Menin Gate.  The aim of these memorials was to help a generation that had lost thousands of men to come to terms with their grief and give physical recognition to their loss.  They also provided a grave stone for those who had no known grave since: ‘in the absence of tombstones... the monument can function as a substitute site for mourning and remembrance,’ a place where relatives could visit, grieve and perform the rites of mourning.[2]  


After the First World War a formalised act of remembrance was instigated by King George V, and became a ritual now performed every Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday across Britain incorporating such customs as the sounding of the Last Post and Reveille, the reading of the inscription on the Menin Gate, the laying of poppy wreaths, the wearing of poppies and the two minutes silence.[3]  These traditions and monuments have become steeped into society and: ‘just as the long shadow of the Great War determined subsequent military, political, and societal responses to the Second World War, it also established commemorative practises and modes of remembrance in Britain and France notably, but elsewhere too, in which the war dead of 1939-45 were more or less easily assumed.’[4]


It was in the aftermath of the First World War that the desire to break free from the constraints of the traditional [physical] war memorial became prevalent.  The monuments designed and erected prior to and for the most part in honour of the First World War were archaic and formalised.  They fulfilled certain criteria such as using stock phrases including ‘lest we forget,’ ‘we shall remember them’ and ‘to our glorious dead’.  They took certain shapes: obelisks, plinths and crosses inlaid with swords; which were significant because they were established forms with which people were already familiar.  Many of these memorials utilised imagery of angels, mythological heroes, the goddess Victory or soldiers themselves and bore lists of the dead, battles and dates.


Some saw this type of memorial as outdated and inappropriate and: ‘both artists and some governments shared a general distaste for the ways the monument seemed formally to recapitulate the archaic values of a past world now discredited by the slaughter of war’.[5]  A new generation of cubists and expressionists in particular, rejected traditional mimetic and heroic evocations of events, contending that any such remembrance would elevate and mythologise them.  In their view: ‘yet another classically proportioned Prometheus would have falsely glorified and thereby redeemed the horrible suffering they were called upon to mourn.’[6] 


Whereas previously the: ‘traditional aim of war memorials has been to valourise the suffering in such a way as to justify, even redeem, it historically.  [But] for these artists such monuments would have been tantamount to betraying not only their experience of the Great War, but also their new reasons for art’s existence after the war, to challenge the world realities, not affirm them.’[7]  ‘As true to the artist’s inner vision as such work may have been [however] neither public nor state seemed ready to abide public memorials built of foundations of doubt instead of valour’ and for the most part memorials erected in the wake of the Great War and to honour it fulfilled the traditional principles.[8]   For the most part, imagery did not reflect the horrors of war, instead brave soldiers in smart uniforms with bayonets fixed were depicted and not the dead and dying in shell holes – the imagery and wording highlighting the brave and righteous side of war, not the horrifying and deadly aspect of it.[9]  The memorials served to glorify the war, not question it. [10] 



Only a few veered away from the accepted norm including Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s sculptures of the Fallen man and Seated youth of 1917.  The former depicts a naked human form on his hands and knees, the top of his head is touching the ground, he looks downtrodden or prostrate in grief.  He certainly does not resemble the accepted image of a hero or soldier.  In the former sculpture the figure is sitting, his arms across his knees, his head bowed and shoulders hunched.  Maybe he is contemplating or grieving, but again he does not fit with the accepted image of   a wartime hero.


This so called ‘pathetic hero’ was not what was traditionally expected from a war memorial as it represented human weakness and  frailty and as such it was: ‘condemned by emerging totalitarian regimes in Germany and Russia as defeatist for seeming to embody all that was worth forgetting – not remembering in the war’.[11]




The imagery utilised by Lehmbruck is similar to that employed by artists who have designed Holocaust memorials at sites such as Ravensbrück,[14] Grosse Hamburger Strasse[15] and Sachsenhausen.[16]  At the latter site (which is in former East Germany) the above argument is also prevalent.  The most recent memorial which was designed and installed after the fall of the Soviet regime and the reunification of Germany depicts emaciated bodies holding up a fallen figure, and although it is larger than life it shows weakness and frailty.  This monument has a similar ethos to Lehmbruck’s work which the totalitarian regimes disliked and so it only came into existence after the fall of communism in Germany.  It provides a stark contrast to the monument that was erected immediately after the liberation of the camp by the Russian Army which is in the Soviet (anti-pathetic) style depicting strong, muscular bodies (even on the figure representing a camp survivor), sharp angles and larger than life figures.   It would seem that this monument was erected not so much as to remember the victims of the Holocaust but to celebrate the strength of the Red Army and the Communist Russian liberators.  Is it then the case that the former monument there is the embodiment of: ‘all that was worth forgetting – not remembering?’[17]


[18]   [19]


Memorials raise issues of memory and forgetting.  Andreas Huyssen, the Villard Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, argues that erecting memorials is the only way to ensure that we remember: ‘how, after all can we guarantee the survival of memory if our culture does not provide memorial spaces that can help construct and nurture some collective memory’[20] whereas Mumford states that: ‘stone gives a false sense of continuity, a deceptive assurance of life.’[21]  


One argument suggests that objects stand in for memory and in the end lead to forgetting,   Huyssen expresses concern at the use of memorials as a way of remembering, suggesting that ‘the promise of permanence a monument in stone will suggest it is always built on quicksand, some monuments are joyously toppled at times of social upheaval, others preserve memory in its most ossified form, either as myth or cliché.  Yet others stand simply as figures of forgetting, their meaning and original purpose eroded by the passage of time.'[22]  He implies that while memorials look as though they will be permanent, their message may be short lived as those commissioners, designers and intended audiences fade and change over time and the memorial’s message and reason for being are forgotten, or worse become a myth or fable of the past. Conversely, it may be argued that a gravestone is not only a memorial that is of value to its own generation as a form of catharsis, but also an historical artefact to future generations.



Memorials seem to be the method by which 20th and 21st century mankind has chosen to commemorate significant events and places.  The trend in post Second World War commemoration eventually moved away from traditional, monolithic structures, to more artistically influenced designs. This was because commemoration was not only for conventional soldiers who had died but civilians, victims of the Holocaust and concentration camps, victims of the Occupation and resisters as well as servicemen, prisoners of war and home defence.[23]


Holocaust memorials


Whilst on ‘Insite’ 2009  - an immersive learning programme at the Imperial War Museum, I became aware of the multi-faceted nature of many memorials and the reasons for their existence.[24] 


As with all memorials, those dedicated to the Holocaust are affected by politics and issues of national memory.  For example, the memorial at Auschwitz: ‘for more than 40 years exhibited a museological, pedagogical, and commemorative orientation that, to varying degrees, simplified the camp’s history, valourised certain types of deportees and their experiences over those of others, and introduced culturally and ideologically bound memorial narratives grounded in post-war Polish society and politics.’[25]   The way in which the camp had been permitted to interpret and portray its history had been dictated by the state, which, in the immediate post-war period was communist and therefore had its own ideals to uphold, and individuals to hero worship.


Some memorials also had a national identity to deal with, in France for example there is, added to the mix, the discomfort of a nation which had collaborated on a large scale with the Nazis, both by allowing the Occupation and by being complicit in the round ups of the Jews and The Final Solution.  This is highlighted by the fact that only recently was the need for memorials to:


‘cater also for the sectional memory of groups previously excluded from collective acts of remembrance, occluded or marginalised by official ambivalence and indifference’[26] recognised.  Thus, for example ‘the French government’s belated acknowledgement in 1993 of the French state’s complicity in the wartime persecution of the Jews removed the obstacle to the creation of an official memorial to the victims of the infamous ‘rafle du vel d’Hiv’ in July 1942...’[27]


 Holocaust memorials also have a tendency to pick out and memorialise certain individuals - plaques to particularly heroic or tragic figures adorn the walls at Sachsenhausen, Ravensbrück and Natzweiler-Struthof Struthof, and their stories are also told in the camp museums and exhibitions.  Part of the reason for this is that it is easier for the individual observer to relate the experience of another individual and their suffering than it is to attempt to empathise with a large group of people.  


The problems surrounding the memorialisation of such enormous and catastrophic physical events such as the Holocaust, the Second World War or even later events such as the Vietnam War or the World Trade Centre, all of which resulted in heavy loss of human life, cannot be underestimated.  Some memorials seek to represent the event by use of metaphor for example ‘The memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’ in Berlin (taken at face value without visiting the subterranean museum) memorialises the murder of some 6 million people.  However, as this is hard to visualise or come to terms with, some memorials physically realise the number of dead through symbolism and recent projects in both the USA and West Yorkshire have attempted to visualise the number of dead by displaying six million paper clips and buttons respectively to visually represent Holocaust victims.[28]  The enormity of the numbers involved in these events press against the use of conventional memorials, and symbolism and sculpture become more widely utilised as you will see throughout the rest of this website.






[1] David Libeskind, Trauma in Image and Remembrance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003) p. 64.  i.e Heroes Square in Budapest ie Victory column in Berlin/ Trafalgar Square,

Jubilee Bridge – Queen Elizabeth II Silver jubilee, the Cenotaph at Whitehall. 

[2] Andreas Huyssen, Monument and memory in a post modern age in The Art of memory, Holocaust Memorials in History ed. by James E Young (Prestel: New York, 1994) p.16.

[3] After the Second World War the act of remembrance also incorporated a reading of the words from the Kohima epitaph. Also, under the Queens Regulations a soldier in the British Army may be required to attend church twice a year, one of those occasions usually being Remembrance Sunday.

[4] Kidd, Memory and Memorials, p.4.

[5] Ibid.

[6] James Young, Memory and the end of the monument in Image and Remembrance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003) pp.63.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Young, Memory and the end of the monument, p.61.

[9] Such as in Bradford or the Royal Artillery memorial in London and as depicted in the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh castle, opened 14th July 1927. 

[10] Royal Artillery Memorial, Hyde Park Corner, London.

[11] Young,  Memory and the end of the monument, p.64.

[12] Fallen Man, Lehmbruck,

[13] Seated Youth, Lehmbruck,

[14] Former Nazi Concentration camp, Fürstenburg.

[15] Memorial to deported Jews, Berlin.

[16] Former Nazi Concentration camp, Sachsenhausen.

[17] Young, Memory and the end of the monument, p.64.

[18] Soviet memorial at Sachsenhausen (by author July 2009).

[19] Holocaust memorial at Sachsenhausen (by author July 2009).

[20] Huyssen, The Art of memory, p.16.

[21] Young, Memory and the end of the monument, p.62.

[22] Huyssen, The Art of memory, p.9.

[23] More recently there have been memorials to Women at war at Whitehall and Animals at war at Hyde Park, London.

[24] InSite was an immersive professional development programme for teachers, museum and other education professionals. It was part of the Big Lottery funded ‘Their Past Your Future’ project which was run by the Imperial War Museum from 2004-2010.  The programme aimed to bring together people from diverse backgrounds to increase their subject knowledge of post-1945 European history. Its historical focus was the legacy of the Second World War, the ways in which this legacy influenced the Cold War and memorialising of conflict in the 20th century.

Participants took part in two overseas trips, to Germany and the Czech Republic and to Budapest. During these visits a variety of museums and historic sites were visited including the village and memorial centre at Lidice, the Stasi HQ and Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, the Party Rally Grounds at Nuremberg, the Forum of Contemporary History in Leipzig and the House of Terror and the Holocaust Memorial Centre in Budapest. As well as the overseas component, there were preparatory and follow-up workshops in London. 

[25] Jonathan Huener, Auschwitz, Poland and the politics of commemoration (Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2003) p.21.

[26] William Kidd and Brian Murdoch, Memory and Memorials, The Commemorative Century (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2004) p.4.

[27] Kidd, Memory and Memorials, p.4.

[28]  6 million + was a project undertaken by Kirklees council in 2005 with artist Antonia Stowe.  The 6 million buttons represent victims of the Holocaust and subsequent genocide and is displayed in temporary exhibitions alongside a film of poems inspired by meetings with Holocaust survivors and refugees.