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Buchenwald Memorial/National Monument of the GDR

Visible from far and wide, the Buchenwald Memorial is the gravesite of almost 5,000 concentration camp inmates, and today it is the largest monument commemorating a NS concentration camp in Europe. The large-scale complex was constructed in 1958 on the southern slopes of Ettersberg Mountain as a national monument of the GDR.

Aerial view of the memorial site. At the top left, the path begins downhill. Further down, the balcony-like Street of Nations stretches from one ring grave to the next. Halfway down, another ring grave. From there uphill the path leads to the bell tower.
Aerial view of the "National GDR Memorial" complex. Photo: André Hense, 2019. ©Buchenwald Memorial

The design of the memorial complex originated from a limited competition, resulting in the recommendation that a young group of architects, which soon called themselves "Architektenkollektiv Buchenwald" work together with sculptor Fritz Cremer. They planned a massive complex, in which visitors are first led down to three mass graves, the "night of fascism," and then up again to a giant bell tower, "the light of freedom." The architects employed the Western traditional motif of resurrection to portray the suffering and death of the concentration camp inmates as a communist-led struggle and victory.

View through the archway that marks the entrance to the memorial complex. Behind it, the path leads downhill, along massive stelae.
The archway marks the entrance to the memorial and leads to the Stelenweg, 2022. Photo: Lukas Severin Damm.

Entry and Stele Path

The path to the graves leads through a heavy, stone gateway and down open steps. It is marked along the way by seven steles symbolizing the seven years of the concentration camp:

  • Stele 1: "Construction of the camp"
  • Stele 2: "Arrival of the inmates"
  • Stele 3: "Slave labour in the quarry"
  • Stele 4: "Suffering and extermination of the inmates"
  • Stele 5: "Solidarity despite suffering and extermination"
  • Stele 6: "Thälmann ceremony and preparations for resistance"
  • Stele 7: "Liberation"
A paved path leads downhill from the entrance to the memorial. On the left side of the path sculptured stelae.
The stele path of the memorial complex leads down to the first ring grave, 2022. Photo: Lukas Severin Damm, 2022. ©Buchenwald Memorial

During the GDR period, the resistance of the inmates against the SS, as portrayed on the stele, symbolized victorious struggle of communism against fascism. Even the design of the steps is defined by these oppositions: red and black stones have been set in such a way that from below the entire set of stairs appears red.

The texts on the backs of the stele were written by Johannes R. Becher, Cultural Minister of the GDR at the time.

The "Avenue of nations". On the right are several stone pillars with fire bowls arranged at regular intervals along the entire street. The street itself winds slightly to the left.
The Street of Nations connects all three ring graves, 2022. Photo: Lukas Severin Damm, 2022. ©Buchenwald Memorial

Avenue of Nations

The three circular graves are joined by the monumental "Avenue of Nations." For the builders this was seen as a "path for reflection and gathering strength."

Running along the avenue are 18 pylons with fire bowls, a design based on ancient Egyptian precursors. They bear the names of 18 selected nations, from which people were deported to Buchenwald.  

Soon after the memorial was inaugurated, not only was the composition of the countries a source of criticism, but doubts were also raised as to whether the emphasis on "nations" was an appropriate way to represent the people who were persecuted based racial and social criteria.

Frontal view of one of the 18 pylons on the Avenue of Nations with fire bowl. In the background the Weimarer Land at the foot of the Ettersberg.
The pylons with fire bowls on the "Road of Nations" were regulary lit for national Events, 2022. Photo: Lukas Severin Damm.

The neoclassical style of the "Avenue of Nations" most exemplifies the dominating, totalitarian architecture used by the architects of the memorial. Drawing on a classical formal vocabulary to commemorate the dead, the construction of such a monumental site can, nevertheless, be viewed as an attempt to respond to the dimensions of the crime and ensure that its remembrance persists over time.

View from the stairs of freedom into one of the brick ring graves. with a greened earth funnel in the middle.
Third ring grave between the Street of Nations and the "Stairs of Freedom". 2022. Photo: Lukas Severin Damm. ©Buchenwald Memorial

Ring Graves

The massive ring-shaped walls built in Roman style encompass three large grave pits. These are the mass graves from Buchenwald Concentration Camp, where the SS buried some 3,000 bodies in the spring of 1945 (2,000 additional bodies in adjoining graves). Many of the deceased were Hungarian Jews, who had been deported to Buchenwald via Auschwitz. On a plaque they are portrayed as "antifascist resistance fighters and patriots."

The first plans for the memorial were based on two mass graves. However, when a third mass grave was discovered during construction, the stele path was extended to the right, and thus this third depression in the earth was also integrated into the "Avenue of Nations."

At the end of the avenue, the path leads to the third and largest ring grave and then heads up the steep "Stairs of Freedom," paved with light-coloured stones, to the bell tower.

A group of figures from behind, looking from the Ettersberg towards the Weimarer Land. All figures represent euphoric and partly armed prisoners. The figure on the far right holds up a flag.
The location of the group of figures on Freedom Square was deliberately chosen so that they overlook the Weimarer Land, 2022. Photo: Lukas Severin Damm.

Figural Group

On the open assembly area in front of the bell tower is a figural group by Fritz Cremer, which is set on a pedestal of red stone. The bronze sculpture—the largest such sculpture in Germany—is dedicated to the victorious resistance of the camp inmates and shows the "self-liberation" of the inmates under communist leadership.

Cremer created eleven individual characters for the group composition: Inspired by the politically aware fighter, the "Rufer" (the one calling to action), the inmates liberate themselves. Off to one side on the right stand the figures of the "Zweifler" (doubter) and the "Negative" (pessimist). Above the "Stürzende" (falling man)—in the centre of the group—is the figure of the "Schwörer" (oath-speaker), who is pledging the "Oath of Buchenwald." The "Junge" (boy) with the determined expression represents the children saved by the camp resistance fighters.

In the foreground is a larger-than-life bronze figurine group staging prisoners of the concentration camp after their self-liberation. In the background rises the bell tower of the memorial complex, built of light stone.
The bell tower on Freedom Square deliberately makes the memorial visible from a great distance, 2022. Photo: Lukas Severin Damm. ©Buchenwald Memorial

Bell Tower

Constructed from light-coloured sandstone and visible from afar, the "Tower of Freedom"—a name that vanished in the 1970s in favour of simply "Bell Tower"—concludes the path "through death and struggle to victory" that the memorial conveys. According to the self-understanding of the monument's builders, the over 50-metre tower stood for the pronouncement of the GDR as the better Germany.

The parapet of the bell tower served as a speaker's platform for leading state and party representatives of the GDR during mass assemblies, which regularly took place on the square in front of the tower—where also soldiers of the National People's Army (NVA) were sworn in, workers were recognized for completing stages of their training, and matriculation ceremonies were held.

Inside the bell tower are the earth and ash from concentration camps and sites of National Socialist terror from throughout Europe, which lie sealed beneath a slab of bronze. From here, two sets of stairs lead to a platform that is bathed in light. Above is the almost seven-tonne Buchenwald bell, which rings on the hour.

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