Monuments and Memorials: aspects of constructing national identity and public memory through the visual arts in 20th Century Central and Eastern-Europe


Name, title   András Rényi

Department  Nationalism Studies

Central European University

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Course Description

The terms ‘monument’ and ‘memorial’ are often used interchangeably, but in fact they refer to two different things. Publicly erected site markers and visual signs have two different functions in a modern society: 1. they celebrate past events, persons or symbols that are of great importance for the ‘positive identity’ of a given community, or 2. they may  warn the community not to forget negative events, persons or symbols, that people would rather not remember. Architectural and sculptural signs referring to ‘postitive identity’ can be termed “monuments”, while those claiming more reflectiveness and critical thinking on behalf of the beholder, are “memorials”.

The difference between the two functions has become dramatically manifest in the latest controversy over the official project to erect a brand new monument in the very centre of Budapest, commemorating the occupation of Hungary by Nazi troops in 1944. We will use our distinction between monuments and memorials to understand the harsh criticism the project had received by the public and by historians.  These criticisms point to the implied effect of the monument to dismiss the responsibility of Hungarian authorities and ordinary people for collaborating with Nazi Germany in the Holocaust.  We will look at how, during the controversy, proponents of the monument reformulated their own project.  Initially, the proposed sculpture was to be a monument commemorating a historical event, the loss of Hungarian state-sovereignty.  But as a result of the public debate the same statue will stand not as a monument, but as a memorial to innocent victims.

 In this course we will track back two diametrically opposed traditions of public memorial practice.  One is the tradition of state-dictated national monuments, predominant in the last third of the 19th century, in the age of the birth of new nation-states. The other tradition is that of participatory memorials, best represented by the so called counter-monuments in contemporary art.

National monuments highlight monumentality as a key feature of national symbolism. By analyzing case studies of such complex architectural settings as the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument to Rome, the Siegessäule-Brandenburger Tor complex in Berlin, or the Millenial Monument in Budapest, we will look at how they serve the purpose of creating a single mythic-heroic narrative of a unified national history and grandeur in terms of spatial simultaneity and monumentality. With their oversized dimensions, such monuments were meant not to inform but to overwhelm citizens - a feature that was typical of official Nazi and Soviet spatial environments as well. Particular focus will be placed on post-war monumental practices in communist Hungary, on the consecutive paradigms of monumental sculpture characterizing the Stalinist cult of personality (embodied in the vast Stalin-monument by Sándor Mikus in Budapest).  We will look at the more moderate  monumentalism in the Kádár period (eg. Imre Varga’s Károlyi and Béla Kun-monuments) and then turn to the so called Memento Park, an ironic heterotopy outside the capital city, established for communist monuments that had been removed from their original site after the collapse of communism.

In contrast to this didactic tradition, we will also examine a few important monuments of 20th century self-referential modernist sculpture.  These are based on a rejection of conventional mimetic and heroic evocation of events.  We will look at the most recent paradigm of the so called ‘counter-monuments’ that are a less institutional, and more self-reflexive way of bringing people to remember traumatic events and losses that otherwise would be rather not remembered – for instance, the Holocaust. Most contemporary monuments and counter-monuments (such as Jochen Gerz’s vanishing column in Hamburg-Harburg, Rachel Whiteread’s Nameless Library in Vienna or Gyula Pauer’s Shoes at the Danube bank in Budapest) look very different from traditional monuments.  Their purpose is not to present another tombstone.  They are meant not to console, but to provoke passers-by: to demand interaction, to enforce self-reflection and to make viewers experience the common space they construct around themselves.

Monuments and memorials remember the past, but are meant for the future and are intended to be effective in the actual present. They are integral parts of the so called visual culture of the day. Therefore, as Nicholas Mirzoeff puts it, they can be treated as ‘visual events’, i.e. as interactions of the particular visual/spatial signs, the artistic (architectural, sculptural etc.) technology that enables and sustains them and the citizen/viewer. This makes the interdisciplinary approach for us a must: in the analysis of the aesthetical performance of these works, results and methods of art history, anthropology, history and political sciences all should be taken into account.


Learning Outcomes


By the end of the course, students will be able

  • to understand and reflect upon the difference between history and memory, between communicative and cultural memory;
  • to perform a contextual interpretation of public monuments in terms of their aims, purposes and functions in building and strenghtenig national and other group identities;
  • to discuss and judge competing practices of commemoration and contemporary attempts to problematize and reinterpret traditional forms of public monuments and creating new types of memorial spaces ;
  • to describe, to discuss and critically evaluate public monuments in terms of their symbolism, rhetorical apparatus, attractive and persuasive power and aesthetical value.


Course Requirements


Students are expected to attend weekly classes, read the assigned readings and participate in discussions. Beyond this,  they will be asked to choose one single monument or memorial place in their own country (if possible), and develop a complex case study on it, i. e. a properly (with pictures, maps and other charts) illustrated 15 minute presentation in class and a final paper (1200-1500 words). The analysis must include historical and political contexts as well as  rhetorical and aesthetical aspects of the given case and must be relevant to the topics discussed in the course. Students are welcome to consult on which case to choose in advance.  Presentations will be delivered continually and discusssed together in the last two classes.


Students are asked to submit a preliminary version of their presentation and paper by the middle of the term.  The paper will be graded according to the considerations of the course’s learning outcomes. Final grades will be dependent on class participation (30 %), oral presentation (30 %) and written paper (40 %).