Unity Memorial Rocking Back and Forth in the Free World

Berlin’s long-delayed reunification memorial, a see-saw structure that rocks back and forth, finally got the green light after an impassioned speech by the president of the Bundestag.
Drawing of the planned memorial.

So it is going to happen after all.

Almost 10 years after Germany’s federal lawmakers approved plans to build the Monument to Freedom and Unity, the Christian Democrats, their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, and their coalition partners, the Social Democrats, finally put their foot down and said enough is enough.

They want the memorial to German reunification, a giant see-saw like structure that will rock back and forth, to be erected as soon as possible on the base of the former Kaiser Wilhelm National Monument in front of the reconstructed Berlin City Palace. With that, the ruling coalition has finally put an end to years of back and forth about the memorial -- a debate regarded by critics as “undignified” -- over what has been dubbed “the unity rocker,” “the giant unity fruit bowl” and the “unity playground for grownups.”

The final push came on Sunday, during the election of Germany’s new federal president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. In a speech, the president of the Bundestag, Norbert Lammert, a CDU member vehemently called for the memorial to finally be built, “just as the German Bundestag decreed, symbolically on November 9, now almost 10 years ago.”

Afterwards, members of the government acknowledged that he had pulled it off, saying “Lammert has rocked the thing,” in reference to the monument’s tilting steel dish design that rocks when people climbed into it.

The appropriate and worthy commemoration of our remarkable history of freedom and democracy is indispensable to our nation’s self-image. Norbert Lammert, Bundestag president

The heads of the conservative and SPD parliamentary groups, Volker Kauder and Thomas Oppermann, sat down together right away on Monday and conclusively settled the matter. The CDU/CSU group announced Tuesday afternoon: “The monument is to be erected on the designated location exactly as the winning design 'Citizens in Motion' intended.” And SPD parliamentary group spokesperson, Rüdiger Petz, said: “Honoring the achievements of East Germans cannot be allowed to fail due to costs or construction problems.”

Mr. Petz was making reference to the decision by the Bundestag’s budget committee to veto the monument in April 2016. At the time, the committee surprisingly halted the project and postponed it indefinitely. The high cost overrides were given as the reason. Originally between €10 million and €11 million had been projected, but at the beginning of 2016 it was becoming evident that most likely €5 million, or about $5.3 million, more would be necessary. This was primarily caused by the costs of compliance with the requirements of preserving the historic imperial-era mosaics discovered in the damp cellar vaults beneath the former national monument. In addition, a colony of rare bats roosting in the vaults had to be resettled.

The winning design for the Monument to Freedom and Unity envisions a giant, walkable, rocking dish with the slogan, “Citizens in Motion.” It was submitted by the Stuttgart communications and event agency, Milla & Partner, in collaboration with the Berlin choreographer Sasha Waltz. Their unity rocker won out over around 900 other proposals during two rounds of competition.

The giant dish is conceived as a “kinetic object,” with the “visitors themselves - the citizens who set things in motion - [becoming] an active part of the monument.” Just as during the peaceful revolution of 1989, they must communicate, come to an understanding and work together to bring it into motion. The disk only tilts when there are 20 more people gathered on one side than the other.

At the time of the budget committee’s decision on postponement, there was a massive protest by proponents of the project. In the vanguard of those coming out strongly in support of the monument were former Bundestag President Wolfgang Thierse, an SPD member, and former East German civil rights activist and CDU lawmaker, Günter Nooke. And when, in November 2016, the budget committee approved €18.5 million for the reconstruction of the former national monument’s imperial colonnade on the same site, there was more outrage. Mr. Thierse spoke of a “counterrevolution.” He railed, “this shows a profound contempt for the peaceful revolution.”

Then, at the end of last year, Culture Minister Monika Grütters and the Bundestag’s culture committee managed to bring the two sides together. Ms. Grütters called for the proceedings to be resumed. She wrote that it must be possible to honor the “definitive, joyful and historical event” of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the peaceful revolution carried out by the East German people with a “public memorial marker.” And on January 25 the parliament’s culture committee invited numerous cultural experts and representatives of the political parties and social organizations to a conciliatory discussion. The large majority attending spoke out in favor of building the monument.

Sometimes good things take time. But how much time? Mr. Lammert lost his patience on Sunday. “The appropriate and worthy commemoration of our remarkable history of freedom and democracy is indispensable to our nation’s self-image,” he told the Federal Assembly.

Kai Wegner, a Berlin CDU member of the Bundestag, is now hoping that Berliners will be able to seesaw by the 30th anniversary of reunification in 2020. Mr. Wegner said on Tuesday he expects the Berlin city government will now “push the project forward.” The conditions look good. The funds are set aside and the building permit has been approved.


This article first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]