Global Dialogues

Memories of Identities, Identities of Memory

How do memorials shape who we think we are? And how do we “do” identities when we interact with memorials? As Salon.com and others noted recently, gay men have been using the signature concrete slabs of the Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe as backdrops to their profile pictures on grindr, a geo-social app that lets those have have logged on find each other that is popular with gay men. In Salon’s account, the combination of the memorial and the anticipation of erotic pleasure is “odd” and “peculiar.” The Memorial appears as a “prop” for self-presentation. The trend is portrayed as equivalent to the EasyJet airline’s 2009 fashion shoot for an in-flight magazine at the memorial. EasyJet apologized. “We realized that to hold a fashion shoot in front of the memorial was inappropriate and insensitive, and we didn’t wish to offend anyone.”

Is the grindr trend just another “inappropriate and insensitive” use of the memorial space? How are our current identities involved in claiming spaces and making calls of inappropriateness?

I was asking myself these questions, weeks after correcting the proofs of my article on two Berlin memorials and complex identities. For this article, I asked how memorials to Nazi victims deal with the complex identities of those who are commemorated, and how these memorials shape current identities. I looked at a small monument to a group of Jewish Socialist resistance fighters, and to the Monument to the Homosexuals Persecuted under National Socialism that is located right across the street from the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. Theorists of identities have long emphasized that in order to capture identities and experiences of discrimination, we need to stop talking about identity dimensions as if they existed in isolation from one another. We all are situated differently along axes of, for example, gender, race, sexuality, class, (dis)ability, religion, and so on. We also know that racism, for example, affects women and men differently because racism is already gendered. So goes the theory. It seems to not have made its way to the people who plan and design memorials.

In Berlin, there are memorials dedicated to those who were persecuted by the Nazi state as members of distinct groups: Jews, Sinti and Roma, and homosexuals. Not all of the victims identified with the identity under which they were persecuted. In addition, the groups were in fact not distinct. Consider Magnus Hirschfeld. He was a prominent advocate for gender and sexual diversity. He was Jewish. He was a socialist. He was repeatedly singled out by Nazi propaganda as a “degenerate Jew,” yet Hirschfeld did not identify as Jewish. He also did not publicly identify as gay. On 6 May 1933, Hirschfeld was abroad when the Institute for Sexual Sciences was raided by Nazi groups. Research material was looted and destroyed, and approximately 10,000 books from the institute library were burned. Hirschfeld never returned to Germany and died in exile in France in 1935.

Where does the Berlin memorial landscape make space for people like Hirschfeld? There is the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. With the authorization of this memorial, German Parliament also recognized its “obligation to commemorate the other victims of National Socialism in appropriate ways.” The grassroots memorial initiatives from the LGBT community converged with the state’s commitment to recognize “other” groups of Nazi victims. Thus, there are two memorials dedicated to identities under which Hirschfeld was persecuted, though he did not identify with them.

There are, however, no memorials to those persecuted as “anti-socials” or “habitual criminals,” two groups who were consistently vilified and persecuted. Memorials to groups of Nazi victims require the presence of contemporary social movements that identify with the identity aspect under which victims were persecuted. Memorials mediate between the identities of those who were persecuted and our own complex and shifting identities. Memories give roots to identities, and memorials are sites that animate memories.

The meaning of memorials is constructed through interaction between the visitors and the memorial site. The Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews, an abstract undulating concrete garden, has animated different modes of engagement. Most people walk through the memorial maze, many take photos, some play hide and seek, others try to climb on the slabs. Not all photos are the same. Some try to capture the mood of the place, some document and denounce the “inappropriate” behavior of other visitors, and others resemble the typical “I was there” tourist shot of smiling persons against the backdrop of a recognizable site.

In the grindr photos, men perform gay identities in a space that is devoted to Jewish victims. The blog totem & taboo, which collects these photos, offered an interpretation of these identity performances that is congruent with the space:

“Grindr, the latest most addictive gay obsession, has wowed its members in relentlessly promoting the memory of the holocaust. While the gay community is being under scrutiny for promoting hedonism and alienation, this tribute seems all the more compelling.”

Is this performance of queer identities complexity at work, an act of solidarity, or a protest against the separation of memorial sites by the victims’ identities? Or is the “grindr remembers” explanation for the photos an attempt to give an appropriate justification for an inappropriate practice?

In their collection of the photos, the totem & taboo blog owners include their own comments on the relationship between space, identities, and grindr. For example, the profile of a young man leaning against the slabs that contains the request “no Asians” is presented under the heading “Commemoration – yea; Asians – no.” The photo of another user is presented as “and another Israeli is occupying the monument.” The photo of user “Hungry@Berlin” is headlined with “commemoration is a dish best served cold.”

In the discussion of the grindr profiles, little attention is paid to the fact that the memorial dedicated to those persecuted as homosexuals is across the street from the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. Would it be more appropriate to pose at this “other” memorial? Who can claim a memorial as one’s own? And how is this done? The meaning of memorials is shaped through identity performances, through making claims to spaces and relationships. The grindr photos ask us to confront these questions about identities and claims to memories and spaces. They challenge us to own up to what it is we are seeking to find in memorials. “When we come to see a memorial, we and the reasons we chose to visit this memorial are already in the pictures we are taking,” I wrote in the article.

Back then, the sentence was a comment on the reflective glass surface of the video booth of the Memorial for the Persecuted Homosexuals. But is applies to other photos taken at the memorials on both sides of the street. I ended the other piece, and would like to end this one by suggesting:

“The ethical challenge is to look for more in memorials than the reflection of ourselves and to engage with the complexity of the suffering, resistance and identities that the memorials can be made to speak to.”



  • Iris

    I wonder whether the EasyJet fashion shoot came before the grindr trend. The grindr photos look so much like a spoof on the ad campaign. If one followed the other or not, both are a comment on a culture where people want photographic documentation of themselves in every tourist site, no matter what it is. When we click away, do we stop to think that a memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe is different than the Eiffel Tower? Perhaps the grindr photos are more of a sarcastic joke about this phenomenon, and the serious explanations of persecution came afterwards to ward off criticism of what looks so silly.

  • Christiane

    Good point. The blog seems to have been more earnest about the commemoration angle in the beginning; and when the memorial as a backdrop became a clear trend, their editorializing comments on the photos became more snarky. For example, “commemoration is a dish best served cold” clearly indicates that commemoration doesn’t seem to be the central perceived issue in the photo.

    Some photos really feature the memorial in a very conscious way, using its aesthetics and meaning. Those photos, I’d say are more subversive of conventions of space and identity performances precisely because they are clearly not thoughtless. They think differently.