Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is riding high at the moment, largely because of a single poll in Iowa that shows him leading the pack of possible Democratic nominees. On Sunday night, however, things took a slightly embarrassing turn for him.
NBC News reporter Ben Kesslen found a photo from 2017 on the Instagram account of Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten, showing him looking back at the camera while standing in the middle of a row of concrete slabs. “This guy,” the caption reads.
is this....at the holocaust memorial in berlin.... pic.twitter.com/8bvmz9Zs7z— ben kesslen (@benkesslen) November 18, 2019
A normal photo until, as Kesslen observed, you realize that it appears to have been taken at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. The memorial, which was inaugurated in 2005, comprises more than 2,700 slabs of concrete across an area of 200,000 square feet; some have said that the slabs, which are of different heights, resemble coffins, and their distribution across the space creates an endless maze. Designed by American architect Peter Eisenman, the memorial is supposed to convey an experience of bewilderment, with “no goal, no end, no working one’s way in or out,” according to Eisenman’s website. “The duration of an individual’s experience of it grants no further understanding, since understanding the Holocaust is impossible.”
This might seem quite tasteless, and it is — although the monument has found itself to be a popular Instagram-photo hotspot. But the Buttigiegs deserve a pass on this. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a terrible one, and it’s easy to see how a space like it can seem appropriate for a loving photo of a partner rather than a site for solemn reflection.
Eisenman sought to make an abstract monument; one that said as little as possible about the particular horrors of the Holocaust, or the particular people that carried out mass murder. The passive voice of the memorial’s name speaks to this, as does the fact that there is scant detail within the memorial’s boundary lines to suggest what it’s all about. “There’s nothing about these concrete slabs that signifies any of the words of the title, except, perhaps, ‘memorial,’” wrote the New Yorker’s Richard Brody in 2012.
Though I know a number of people who have personally found the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe to be a moving tribute to the vast destruction caused by the Nazis (I myself have yet to go), there’s a frustrating logic to it that is seen in many Holocaust memorials — sites in Bologna, Italy and Ottawa, Ontario use similar, contextless abstract designs. The critic Sam Holleran termed this genre “Shoahtecture” in an essay last year:
Deconstructivist elements and an ostentatiousness of style, combined with government-funded, big-budget drives “to remember” are hallmarks of the new Shoahtecture. But as these projects become more ubiquitous, we have to ask ourselves: what are these architectural behemoths really for?
A number of German critics — attuned to the more self-sanitizing instincts of their countrymen — asked a similar question and supplied an explicit answer. “It is not meant to commemorate the Jews,” the German-Jewish commentator Henryk Broder told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2003. “It is meant to flatter the Germans.”
At the time, critics like Broder stressed the need for an educational component to the memorial instead of an emphasis on spectacle. Though there exists a below-ground “Information Center” attached to the Berlin memorial, a survey taken of memorial visitors in 2005 found that that at least “several interviewed visitors were unaware of the existence of the underground education facility.”
Berlin, as the former seat of the government that administered the Holocaust, is filled with memorials to the genocide, which can be found throughout the city (the Eisenman memorial site is located in central Berlin, just south of Brandenburg Gate). Many of these memorials are quite striking, and it can be difficult for anyone, let alone a soon-to-be presidential contender, to mistake what these monuments are for. But other memorials are able to use this to their advantage: one particularly effective example is Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones” — plaques that look like cobblestones and which sit in front of the former homes of Holocaust victims across the city, “disturbing the visual pattern of the street and reminding Europeans of their former neighbors,” as Holleran described them.
And then there’s the trend of tourists taking photos for social media at memorials to terror and genocide. It seems icky that someone might post a loving Instagram of their boyfriend against the backdrop of Holocaust remembrance but, as our own Leah Finnegan wrote for The Awl in 2014:
We should keep posting — and sharing — photographs of places where horror has happened until these places inevitably disintegrate, even if the photo of such a place does not fit so neatly into a social network, where the crass language of the sharing community — “likes,” “hearts,” “selfie,” “re-gram” etc., etc., can denigrate the austerity of an image. If we use social media for only the happy or banal events in life — weddings, brunches, signs with terrible grammar — well, why bother?
Critics of Buttigieg’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination have rightly observed that he has no substance; his mad dash away from Medicare For All and his botched rollout of a racial justice plan speak to a candidate who is more concerned with a political vision that nods to demands for progressive politics but is still beholden to moneyed private interests. The Eisenman memorial in Berlin, as a cursory scan of Instagram indicates, is frequently treated as something other than a commemoration of a terrific tragedy. The NBA player Danny Green posted a much worse photo from the memorial in 2014, after all (caption: “You know I had to do it one time lol #Holocaust). But Instagram, for better or worse, is how Millennials bear witness. So it’s perfectly fine that the Buttigiegs would take such a hammy photo at a Holocaust memorial, and it’s only fitting that the husband of a candidate fixated on surface-level appearances would miss any substance further down.