My generation knows him as the hunk from Baywatch, while my children’s generation knows him as “The Hasselhoff” from The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.
Both generations in Germany, however, know him, as “The Hoff”: the pop singer who in 1989 belted out “Looking for Freedom” at the newly breached wall. It is in this latest role that David Hasselhoff, and the Wall, are again in the news.
This time, though, not because Berliners want the wall torn down, but because they want what’s left to remain standing. Earlier this month, a series of demonstrations took place at a section of the Wall known as the East Side Gallery. The mile-long “Gallery” was born in 1990 when it was transformed into a concrete canvas. City authorities invited more than a hundred artists to paint on it; a number of works, including the recreation of the notorious kiss between Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker, are now iconic.
Yet, 25 years later, the bulldozers of capitalism have pushed aside the guard towers of communism as the Berliners’ greatest foe. A German real estate developer, Maik Uwe Hinkel, had begun to remove a section of the Gallery in order to build a road and bridge to a luxury apartment building he was constructing. But by March 3, when more than 6,000 Berliners gathered by the Wall, with the tweeted encouragement of Hasselhoff, to protest the plan to move the Gallery to a nearby park, Hinkel suspended his plans.
The bleakly massive emblem of communism, the Wall has now become a feeble relic of that same era; few observers have missed the irony that the concrete slabs which once divided the nation now unify it, and which once blocked hopes for the future now keep open a path to the past. It is decidedly odd to see people flock to the support of a wall now seen as defenseless and in need of protection.
Yet these protests overlook that the Wall’s slow disappearance in fact reflects the logic behind many of Germany’s monuments to an even grimmer chapter to its past: the Holocaust.
Several years ago, the historian James Young, gazing at the work of Berlin demolition crews, described the few remaining sections of the Wall as “monuments to a disappeared monument.” Young chose his words deliberately: “disappearing” monuments were the ideal of many German artists attempting to speak to the unspeakable—the willed destruction of European Jewry.
Monuments are the things we build in order to recall past events. But as anyone who has ever watched passersby in Washington, Paris, London and other monumental cities, we rarely, if ever, see monuments. When we do, most often we don’t respond in the way intended by the artists, who have tried to embalm past events in stone. Indeed, as the Austrian novelist Robert Musil noted, “There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument. They are impregnated with something that repels attention.”