Shortly after the reunification of Germany, I was in Weimar on business. Just outside the town was a large Red Army base, occupied by troops of the former Soviet Union, their money worthless, their prospects dim. Slightly further out, concealed by wooded slopes, was the site of a camp of a different kind, called Buchenwald.
The day I drove out to see what was left of Buchenwald it had rained heavily and ominous thunder clouds were still massing. I followed the signs that led to the camp and found an empty car park surrounded by trees. Leaving my car, I followed a path that suddenly debouched onto a huge paved avenue flanked by funereal urns, that curved around a vast depression in the ground. Beyond was a great stone tower where a bell tolled. Some distance away, on the edge of an escarpment overlooking a panorama of open countryside, was a huge bronze sculpture of a group of concentration camp prisoners dressed in rags, haranguing the landscape in silence.
I was profoundly moved by this scene, helped by an apocalyptic sunset as it was, and the following day I described it to the people I had come to interview. To my surprise they said that I had not reached the site of the main camp, but only the 1950s memorial to the thousands of Soviet prisoners who had died there. As a result I resolved to go again. The next Saturday morning I set off, took the right turnings and found the remains of the camp with its grim gatehouse, rusted barbed-wire fencing and reconstructed crematorium. But I also came upon an extraordinary social scene. There was no sign of rain on this occasion, the sun was shining and the car park was full. Nearby was a gift shop and bookstore in the shape of a concentration camp hut, and a similar one converted into snack bar. On the grass all around the area were picnicking families, children playing and adults throwing Frisbees. As much as anything it was like a London park on a summer weekend.
This experience came to mind when I was asked to comment on the competition- winning scheme for the memorialisation of Ravensbruck concentration camp (aj 4.6.98). Like Buchenwald, Ravensbruck too was liberated by Soviet troops and it too has a Soviet memorial, held in such low regard that in 1991 it was planned to build a supermarket next to it. The new scheme is less frivolous, but it calls for neither the grandeur of the Soviet memorial at Buchenwald, nor for that camp's unintended theme-park atmosphere. Instead it will preserve the site plan of Ravensbruck in the form of an archaeological dig, telling its story through 11 separate exhibitions in surviving old buildings.
Is such cleverness troubling? Perhaps it is. Why, if the Nazi camps are a historic phenomenon, is not their memorialisation by the liberators of 1945 considered to be too? The Soviet memorial at Ravensbruck covers 3.2 hectares and represents an authentic historical response to terrible events. What - apart from a dreadful picnic ground - will be gained from memorialising another 142 hectares?