Sunday, May 30, 2004

Memorial Politics

The National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. is now open. The construction of the monument was surrounded by many controversies. For instance:
One of the two American companies selected . . . to build a World War II memorial on the Mall is owned by a German construction company that used concentration camp labor during World War II.

The two companies, Tompkins Builders of Washington and Grunley-Walsh Construction of Maryland, were awarded a $56 million contract for the first phase of the memorial. Tompkins is owned by J. A. Jones Inc., of Charlotte, N.C., which is wholly owned by Philipp Holzmann AG.

Holzmann, a German construction giant, was one of hundreds of German companies that used workers in concentration camps and is among dozens of companies that have agreed to contribute to a $4.5 billion fund to compensate Nazi-era slave and forced laborers. (Elaine Sciolino, "Memorial Builder Has Parent Link to Nazi Era," New York Times, June 13, 2001)
Read the media coverage of the controversies at the website of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall.

The World War II Memorial, whose original design by Friedrich St. Florian reminded many of the work of Nazi architect Albert Speer, "drives a wedge between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, breaking the connection between the nation's two most prominent symbols of democracy" and "will restrict, if not prohibit, major future public gatherings. Room will not exist for the 250,000 people who marched on Washington and heard Martin Luther King's 'I Have A Dream' speech in 1963. . ." (The National Coalition to Save Our Mall, "The World War II Memorial Defaces a National Treasure"). If nothing else, it is a fitting monument to the American elite's will to power -- especially of the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations -- foreclosing Americans' right to claim the historic space for social movements for democracy.

The National Coalition to Save Our Mall see the World War II Memorial as "a lost opportunity": "Full and open public discussion of how we as a society wished to commemorate WW II in our nation’s capital —- a discussion never permitted to happen for the WW II Memorial —- would no doubt have opened a debate about history, memory, American values, the power of the democratic ideal, and the role of America in modern world history" ("The National World War II Memorial," April 6, 2004). The Coalition's attempt to save "the grand open space that was the Mall area between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial," constructing a more symbolically fitting memorial to World War II veterans in a more physically appropriate location, ended in failure, but the Coalition certainly left historical documents of its own that attest to the spirit of concerned citizens fighting a good fight against the power elite who always seek to memorialize their class ideals and to pass them off as "American values." Future generations will see the World War II Memorial in light of such historical documents that will give them a glimpse of citizen-soldiers for democracy excluded from the monument itself.

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