A Touch of Albert Speer (Der Speigel)

By Carlos Widman, Der Speigel

Washington Gets A Huge WWII Monument -But the Memorial in Gold, Bronze and Granite Revisits The Aesthetic of the Defeated Enemy

“Between the massive temple in which Abraham Lincoln is enthroned and the 169 meter high Washington Monument, which reminds us of George Washington, lies sacred ground — the most precious piece of splendid promenade, the Mall, which runs through America’s capital city.

Nothing should come between those two titans who created the American nation in two historic battles, the American Revolution and the Civil War. And nothing should desecrate the parkland in between, where black Americans in the summer of 1963 gathered with Dr. Martin Luther King, calling for equal rights.

The entirety of the Mall’s axis seemed to be untouchable until the U.S. Congress decided unanimously two weeks ago to build precisely there a domineering monument to World War II.

“The Good War”, as it is called today by older people – the good war, not least because this war was won: Didn’t it deserve a Monument a while ago? After all, the dead and the veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Wars were honored with memorials before the GIs of WWII: Those who returned home from unpopular wars, which had no clear aim or were lost, had been welcomed at home like people with a contagious disease. The Memorials on the Mall were supposed to give them consolation.

The victors of 1945 didn’t need that at all: They were given a confetti parade, were kissed by Marlene Dietrich, and Uncle Sam offered them grants — the GI Bill — to pay for their college education.

Only later, 40 years after the war, veterans groups seemed to start feeling a need for a monumental recognition. Republican Bob Dole, once a candidate for President and a disabled veteran of the Italian battlefield, has now collected $172 Million for this memorial — far more money than the planned monument will cost.

Again and again like a drumbeat, Dole, who already was prominent in Viagra commercials, has alluded to a biological fact: Of 16 Million American citizens who fought WWII, only 5 Million are still alive.

Nobody dared to point out that the dwindling number of those concerned (the surviving veterans) might speak against such a huge effort. The opponents of the project were only asking for another location for the Monument, a little bit off of the main axis of the Mall where other war memorials are located, and perhaps a little less warlike in design.

“We are giving a banal war memorial the same importance as the most powerful symbols of our Nation,” objects Judy Feldman, architectural historian and co-chair of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. She fears that the veterans groups and the Pentagon may have come together in this effort primarily to polish the image of the U.S. military. This certainly is a plausible motive – even more, the sheer size of the Memorial embodies the American victory over Evil, as embodied in Hitler.

It shows a certain naivete to choose an Austrian who came to the States as an adult and speaks English with Kurt Waldheim’s accent, to build this monument. U.S. citizen Friedrich St. Florian, born in 1932 in Graz 1932 as Friedrich Gartler, has been chosen for this honorable duty in a national competition involving 404 participants. The inhabitant of the Steiermark with the elegant pseudonym came to the U.S. in 1961 thanks to a Fulbright scholarship which allowed him to study at Columbia University in New York. Soon he became an architect and taught at the well-known Rhode Island School of Design. He is still teaching there today. In search of a solution which would please the veterans, St. Florian had a sure touch, nothing too complicated, preferably familiar forms, cozily retro.

On a surface of three hectars (7.4 acres), 56 granite columns, each 7 meters (17 feet) high and decorated with bronze wreaths, will face each other in a half circle, towered over by two massive triumphal arches. Add a pair of eagles and some twinkling stars: Nothing exciting for America, in the first half of the past century many such “pseudo-classical” monuments were built.

The problem is that this style – in a monument to commemorate the victory over Nazi Germany — reminds us right away of the architect Hitler himself discovered. Deborah Dietsch, Editor in Chief of the Magazine ” Architecture” says it outright: She feels painfully reminded of the architecture of Albert Speer. And Judy Feldman sees consequences: “When the tourists come out of the Holocaust Museum and go to the WWII Memorial, they will be in for a shock. This is the same kind of aesthetic they would have just seen in photographs of the Third Reich.”

But Bill Clinton liked it and his successor George W. Bush last week gave his permission to build it. In three years this gigantic Monument will be standing on the Mall, irreversible, right smack in between Washington and Lincoln.

By then, maybe the angry WWII veteran who recently talked to a reporter might have calmed down. His words were “It looks like Hitler won the War.”