Memorials before the First World War

Memorials, or monuments, were traditionally designed to celebrate great historical figures. This is a still an important part of their function today. Sometimes, such memorials are put up years, decades, or even centuries after the death of the hero they celebrate. Nations and regions (re)discover great historical figures as they seek to create a proud historical identity.

Battle of the Nations monument in Leipzig, Germany, commemorating the defeat of Napoleon in 1813. Design: Bruno Schmitz (copyright: Webster. CC-BY-SA-3.0)

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was common in Europe to memorialise great battles. Although proposals for the Battle of the Nations monument date back to 1814, it was not completed until the eve of the First World War in 1913. It became a rallying point for German national sentiment.

Memorials and the First World War

Millions of ordinary men and women participated in the First World War (1914 – 1918). The countries involved appealed to their populations to join in the struggle for what was seen as a national cause – whichever side you were on.                                                    

The First World War cost the lives of almost 18 million soldiers and civilians around the world. This fundamentally changed the way we memorialise. After the First World War – in Europe particularly but also in the United States – national, regional, and local memorials recalled the war and the sacrifices of those who fought in it.

First World War memorials remembered both the deaths of soldiers whose bodies had been identified, and of those whose bodies had not been found or identified. During and after the First World War, fields of poppies came to symbolise mass death on the battlefield, as well as the hope of regeneration.

The Menin Gate Memorial (1927) is dedicated to those British and Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives at Ypres, Belgium, during the First World War, and whose bodies were never recovered. It was designed by Reginald Blomfield (copyright: Sgt Adrian Harlen/MOD. Open Government Licence)

After the First World War, the national sacrifice of ordinary people stood at the centre of memory. Death and suffering dominated remembrance, but it was strongly believed that the soldiers had died for a worthy cause. First World War memorials celebrated the defence of the nation.

Memorials after the Second World War

After the Second World War ended in 1945, nations again remembered their soldiers who had died in combat. 

National World War II Memorial, Washington (copyright: Lipton sale. CC BY 3.0)

But the Second World War had not only brought millions of soldiers’ deaths on the field of battle. Millions of Jews had been murdered by the Nazis. Terrible crimes had also been committed by the Nazis against, among others, gypsies and Soviet prisoners of war. How was this criminality to be remembered?

Concentration Camps and Memorials

After 1945, most of the former Nazi camps in which Jews had been murdered lay in eastern Europe. Some former camps were immediately reused. The “Small Fortress” at Terezin in Czechoslovakia was used to intern ethnic Germans until 1948. The Soviets set up “Special Camps” at the site of former concentration camps in eastern Germany. Most internees were Nazi functionaries. The Soviets also interned political opponents, teenagers and women innocent of involvement in Nazism, sometimes to make up the numbers. In the West, camps were also reused. Dachau was first used by the Americans to intern Germans, then it housed German refugees from the East.

The very first memorial site relating to the Second World War was set up at the former Nazi camp of Majdanek in Poland in November 1944. At most former Nazi camps, some sort of museum and/or memorial was constructed in the 1950s or 1960s. Few of these memorial sites focused to any significant extent on Jewish death or suffering.

The memorial dedicated in 1958 at the former Nazi camp of Buchenwald in Thuringia. Thuringia became part of communist East Germany after 1946. This heroic memorial celebrates a supposed revolt at the camp by communist prisoners (copyright: Friedrich K. CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Jews who died in the Holocaust had been citizens of many European countries. In commemoration, the death of Jews was often subsumed under the losses suffered by individual nations. Commemoration in eastern Europe stressed communist resistance and the fight against fascism (which, so it was claimed, still existed in the West). In Poland, the emphasis was on the martyrdom of the Polish people. Many western countries also preferred to remember their anti-Nazi resistance rather than their participation in crimes against Jews.

In 1967, a monument to the victims of Auschwitz was erected at the site of the former camp. It was not made clear that most of these victims were Jews. The language of the memorial was vague and abstract. It was originally dedicated to the victims of fascism. There was a reference to the “four million people” who died at the hands of the Nazis in Auschwitz (in fact, it was 1.5 million). 

International Memorial at Auschwitz (copyright: Jorge Láscar. CC BY 2.0)

The memorial’s dedication was corrected in 1990, and the memorial site at Auschwitz has undergone many changes since the fall of communism.

Memorial Sites

Memorial sites remembering the Nazi murder of Jews were sometimes established outside of the former camps. Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the Holocaust, was established in 1953.


Entrance to the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem, commemorating the 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust. It was commissioned in 1976, and dedicated in 1987 (copyright: Josh Evnin. CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 1978 and 1979, the American TV series Holocaust had a profound effect on audiences in the USA and Europe. The series generated increased interest in the crime and victims of the Holocaust. Increased interest was also linked to discussions about contemporary civil rights issues. The term “Holocaust” established itself following the TV series, rendering the genocide of the Jews more visible as a distinct event. This growing interest led to the development of new memorials and the refurbishment of existing ones.

On 1 November 1978, the American President at the time, Jimmy Carter, set up the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. Its task was to oversee the creation of a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. The Memorial Museum was dedicated in 1993.

Tower of Faces at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (copyright: Dsdugan. CC0)


The Holocaust has led us to ask whether humankind really has made progress. How civilized can a world be in which such an atrocity happens?

War memorials, while focusing on loss and pain, always imagined the deaths of soldiers as a sacrifice. The mass killing of Jews cannot and should not be understood in these terms. Memorializing the Holocaust posed new challenges. A new memorial language was needed to express the horror of what was done to the Jews.

Between 1983 and 1986, the Austrian sculptor Alfred Hrdlicka created a monument against war in Hamburg in Germany. He referred to his sculpture as a “countermonument” because it contradicted the warlike message of a nearby memorial dating from the Nazi period.

Hrdlicka’s countermonument. To the far left is a Nazi-period war memorial (1936). In the centre is a new memorial remembering German deserters from the Army in the Second World War (2015) (copyright: Staro1. CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Countermonuments are the opposite of traditional memorials. They remember the victims of murder, injustice, and tyranny. They do not celebrate the past of a state; rather they take a very critical look at it. Many of them are in Germany. They express Germany’s feeling of guilt and shame for the Holocaust.

Occasionally countermonuments disappear into the ground, or are invisible in the first place. They emphasise that it is OUR job to remember. Sometimes they consist of an empty space, making us aware of the loss which comes from destruction. Rather than standing apart from us, they can be spread over a locality or city.

One of the memorial street signs in Berlin's Bavarian Quarter that recall the discrimination and murder of Berlin's Jews (created by Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock, 1993). On the other side of the sign we read: "'Now the time has come, I have to leave tomorrow and that is hard to bear […] I will write to you'. Before deportation, 16 January 1942”

Micha Ullman’s memorial in Berlin consists of an empty library that is sunk into the ground. Engraved on a plaque nearby are the words of the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine dating from 1821: “That was just a prelude, when you burn books, you eventually burn people.” 

Micha Ullman’s 1995 memorial on the Bebelplatz (Berlin) remembers the Nazi book burnings in May 1933 (copyright: Stefan Kemmerling. CC BY-SA 3.0)

The memorial to the Jews of Cracow’s Jewish Ghetto consists of empty chairs. The chairs recall the thousands of Jewish victims deported from the ghetto to their deaths. Traditional memorials overwhelm us through their physical presence; this memorial, by contrast, emphasises absence, emptiness, and loss.

Memorial to the Jews of the Jewish Ghetto in Cracow, Poland, inaugurated in 2005. Artists: Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Latak (copyright: Paul Bacsich)

This memorial in Budapest is dedicated to the memory of Jewish victims shot into the Danube by the Fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross in 1944-1945.

Shoes on the Bank of the Danube: Memorial to the Holocaust in Budapest, Hungary (2005). It was created by Gyula Pauer and Can Togay

In 1993, the German artist Gunter Demnig developed a new kind of memorial called “Stumbling Stones”. Stumbling Stones are set into the pavement outside the homes of Jews and other Nazi victims deported during the Third Reich. They commemorate tens of thousands of individuals by name. 

 “Stumbling Stones” in Berlin

Stumbling Stones can be found throughout Europe, though they are sometimes controversial. The city of Munich has refused to allow them as it could be seen as disrespectful to tread on Jewish names.

The Holocaust Today

At its 42nd meeting in November 2005, the United Nations General Assembly chose 27 January as the day for the commemoration of victims of the Holocaust: “The General Assembly today decided that the United Nations will designate 27 January – the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp – as an annual International Day of Commemoration to honour the victims of the Holocaust, and urged Member States to develop educational programmes to instill the memory of the tragedy in future generations to prevent genocide from occurring again.”

The centrality of the Holocaust to memory is confirmed by a number of important urban memorials constructed in the last twenty years.

Rachel Whiteread’s Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial (2000) in Vienna’s First District. It commemorates the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed in the Holocaust (copyright: Deror_avi. CC BY-SA 3.0)

Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial is near to the German Parliament. It is a huge memorial, but unlike traditional memorials whose size celebrates past achievements, the enormity of the Holocaust memorial corresponds to the enormity of the crime it remembers. Visitors feel the ground become unstable beneath them as they walk through.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the heart of Berlin, inaugurated in 2005. Designed by Peter Eisenman

The importance of Holocaust memory has also been confirmed by the construction of new memorial centres. Sometimes they consist just of an exhibition. But they can also include memorials, or – like the National Holocaust Centre and Museum – a memorial garden. These centres have a dual function of documentation and memorialisation. Memorial centres also carry an educational remit, given that the Holocaust plays a key part in the school curriculum of many countries. 

The National Holocaust Centre and Museum near Laxton in Nottinghamshire was opened in 1995. It welcomes between 20,000 and 30,000 visitors a year
Holocaust Memorial Centre, Budapest (opened in 2004) (copyright: Takkk. CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Cape Town Holocaust Centre, the first in Africa, opened in 1999 (copyright: South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation)
The Holocaust Memorial Centre for the Jews of Macedonia was opened in Skopje in 2011 (copyright: Rašo. CC BY-SA 3.0)

In the last twenty years, interest in the Holocaust has developed to the extent that some speak of the “globalisation” of Holocaust memory. Remembering the Holocaust sensitises us to the need to be aware of other genocides and acts of discrimination past and present.

There are also a number of memorial centres which commemorate the Holocaust together with other genocides or traumatic events, or Nazism together with communism. Initially, the Museum of Genocide Victims was designed to commemorate the victims of Soviet rule in Lithuania, but in 2011 an exhibition on the Holocaust was added.

The Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius (Lithuania) was established in 1992 (copyright: Bernt Rostad. CC BY 2.0)
Budapest’s House of Terror is dedicated to the memory of the victims of fascism and communism

In Germany, following the dedication of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, other memorials to groups persecuted and murdered by the Nazis were built.

In Berlin, The Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Murdered under the Nazis was completed near the German parliament, and opened in 2012. Design: Dani Karavan


Do memorials on their own really help us to remember?

Do they always need a text? What kind of text should it be?

Is it always “better” to combine a memorial with an exhibition?

Memorialising the Holocaust and other genocides together seems a positive development, but could it also be problematic? Why?

Will Holocaust memorials built between 1945 and today mean anything to people in 50 or 100 years?

How can we keep the memory of the Holocaust “close” to us as it recedes into history?

Should Holocaust memorials for children and teenagers be different to Holocaust memorials for adults?

Should children develop their own memorials? 

Reading List

Jonathan Huener, Auschwitz, Poland, and the Politics of Commemoration, 1945-1979 (Ohio University Press: Athens, 2003)

Bill Niven and Chloe Paver, Memorialisation in Germany since 1945 (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke, 2010)

James E. Young, "The Counter-Monument: Memory Against Itself in Germany Today", Critical Inquiry, Vol. 18, No. 2. (Winter, 1992), pp. 267-229 [available online at]

James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994)