On June 27, the city of Munich unveiled its “Monument to the Gays and Lesbians Persecuted under the Nazi Regime.” The sidewalk memorial, commissioned by the city in 2011 and created by the German artist Ulla von Brandenburg, is a mosaic of colored concrete blocks that marks the site of a gay bar raided by the Nazis on Oct. 20, 1934. A plaque describes the raid as the start of “the systematic persecution of homosexuals by the police, the Gestapo and the judiciary.”
The Forward interviewed von Brandenburg and Hans-Georg Küppers, director of Munich’s Department of Arts and Culture, via email about the memorial’s historical resonance, why it took so long to build, and what it means for contemporary Munich.
Why did it take so long to get this memorial in Munich?
Hans-Georg Küppers: From 1933 to 1945 in Nazi Germany some 70,000 men were, because of homosexuality, denounced, imprisoned, and brought to concentration camps. Lesbians were discriminated against and excluded. For decades these persecuted and murdered men and women were not at all remembered in Germany, let alone their suffering recognized and appreciated. They weren’t part of public remembrances either in Munich or elsewhere in Germany. [Berlin opened a national memorial to gay and lesbian victims of Nazism in 2008.]
Why did Ulla von Brandenburg’s concept win the international competition?
The readability of the ground monument was one of the reasons.
What are you hoping that visitors will learn or feel when they see the memorial?
This monument creates a place of remembrance, of individual and collective commemoration of the victim group of homosexuals and their suffering during the Nazi era. It is also signifies the long overdue redress of the injustice that gay men in particular endured even in the postwar period. [Paragraph 175, the Nazi law criminalizing male homosexuality, remained on the books until 1969.] And for the present and future, the artwork symbolizes the social acceptance of individual lifestyles and the open and tolerant Munich society.
Why did you want to pursue this project?
Ulla von Brandenburg: I was invited with five other artists for this competition. I won. I wanted to make a carpet like a patchwork out of different sized and colored concrete plates, like the patchwork in the costume of the fool, the opposite of the king. And in his costume is symbolized that everybody should be equal in a society and have his or her place. But it is also like the flag from the gays and lesbians, the rainbow. In two concrete plates there are a pink triangle and a black triangle — the signs gays and lesbians had to wear in concentration camps.
What is the relationship between this memorial and your other artworks or interests?
I did a lot of works with fabrics and patchwork – for example, about the Underground Railroad in the U.S., where hidden signs in quilts played a role in leading slaves to freedom, to Canada. [The work also relates to] my interest in spatial concepts — changing spaces, floors, walls, ceilings. In Munich, the pedestrians are walking on history, where the bar “Schwarzfischer” was and where the [Nazi anti-gay] raids happened, and I hope they become conscious of this history, which we should never forget.
Did you look at memorials in Germany or other countries, and perhaps use them as models?
No. This is my first project like this, and I didn’t have any influences beside the “Stolpersteine,” which I like. [The artist Gunter Demnig’s “Stumbling Stones” are cobblestone-sized commemorative brass plaques embedded in sidewalks that mark the residences of victims of National Socialism.]
What were you trying to avoid?
I wanted to express the idea in an abstract way. Not telling the story. Not getting literal or too direct.
What were the greatest difficulties that the project entailed?
The time. It took very long from being chosen to the realization of the work.
Mainly because the former building was destroyed, and we had to wait until the new building was ready.
What messages did you want to convey?
Still today gay and lesbians are discriminated against, persecuted and killed. I hope that this monument helps [people] never forget the history and be awake in the present. The forgetting of the extermination is the extermination itself.
Julia M. Klein is the Forward’s contributing book critic.