The Pillar Of Shame
In Remembrance of Mass Extermination and Anti-humanism 1933-1945
A Sculptural Outcry
On 4th June 1997 a Pillar of Shame was set up in the former British Crown Colony Hong Kong. This event marked the initiation of an art manifestation by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot that is now spreading over the Planet. About once a year, a Pillar of Shame will be mounted as a memorial of a severe infringement against humanity.
The Pillar which is an original dark sculpture eight metres in height depicting more than 50 painfully twisted human bodies.
Monuments of this calibre are normally set up in memory of 'heroic'
deeds. However, here the sculpture will be mounted to serve as a continual
reminder of a shameful act which must never reoccur. The Pillar of Shame is a
kind of Nobel Prize of Injustice.
The Pillar of Shame is to be erected on a central site in Berlin as a memorial to the victims of the terror of the Third Reich, a terror which reached its climax in the systematised, industrial mass extermination of humans. Presumably the sculpture will be put up in 2002.
The sculpture is created by Jens Galschiot. It will be placed on a platform of bronze created by former concentration camp prisoners (and from other places of internment) who have engraved about 10 million notches into the bronze plates. The notches symbolise their murdered fellow prisoners and other victims of the mass extermination. In this way the memory of the victims will become an integral part of the memorial.
The Pillar of Shame is not to be considered as a contribution
to the standing controversy on the official holocaust monument, but as a
personal statement of an artist in close co-operation with the surviving victims.
Hence we set up the sculpture according to our own agenda, to commemorate all
victim groups: Jews, Gypsies, political prisoners, slave labourers, Jehova’s
Witnesses, homosexuals, etc.
The Pillar of Shame will be placed on a square platform measuring 10 x 10 m. The platform will be completely covered by bronze plates. About 10 million notches will be engraved, one for each of the victims of mass extermination. The notches will be placed in groups of five, four side by side and one across. These notches will fill the area of the platform completely.
The survivors from the concentration camps will draw the many million notches on big sheets that by a photographic process will be transferred to the bronze plates. In this way they almost engrave the fates of their fellow prisoners into the plates, as a testimony from the depth of history passed on to posterity. Each of the former prisoners ‘subscribes’ with his prisoner’s number, the name of the camp and the distinctive mark branded into the skin or worn on the jacket (marks used to distinguish the different groups: Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, etc.). Only by these ‘signatures’ the monotony of the notches will be broken.
On each sheet there is enough space for about 10.000 notches.
The setting of so many notches might be a hard job for a person in failing
health. But the task will be more practicable, if the former prisoner fills out
the sheet in co-operation with a younger person, e.g. a relative. Precisely the
shared effort of young and old implies a strong symbolism. This way it is
stressed that the experience from the past is handed on to the younger
The symbolism of the sculpture may be interpreted in an unknown number of ways depending on the background of each observer.
Here a number of possible interpretations:
The symbolism of the platform and the notches
The symbolism of the sculpture
The Nazi regime’s mass extermination of undesirable individuals stands as the biggest crime in the history of mankind - a crime which is unique because of its organised industrial planning. It is a crime manifested as a product of European civilisation emanating from the heart of Europe. The planning and organisation came from Germany, a country considered to be highly civilised and which had fostered some of the most important figures in the intellectual history of Europe: composers, poets, philosophers, etc. It was at this centre of European culture and humanism our Inner Beast was nourished and developed into a demon, which with surprising speed grew to huge dimensions. The result was an unprecedented crime, a crime which was to shock both those living at the time and especially posterity.
It was a demon
European civilisation is based on the ideals of the French Revolution about freedom, equality and brotherhood. The synthesis of civilisation is humanism, but it also carries in itself the antithesis. It is this seed of anti-humanism that became fully developed in the shape of Nazism.
That is why the Pillar of Shame must be erected in Berlin, the new heart of Europe, to remind us that our demonic side, the Inner Beast, must never again prevail so that it takes power over whole populations.
Both among historians and laymen there are two principal schools of thought when it comes to understanding the causes of mass extermination that took place under Nazism. One of them sees the development in Germany during the mid-war period as an exception - an abnormal deviation in the general development in Europe towards democracy and greater humanity. This deviation is allegedly based on a quite special German tradition and perhaps also on the German soul (characterised by properties such as ‘Herrenvolk’, aggressiveness, blind obedience and belief in authorities), which is thereby ascribed the full blame of the tragedy.
The other school of thought sees the development in Germany as the culmination of a general tendency in the period against totalitarian rule systems. Round about in Europe totalitarian regimes sprouted like mushrooms - regimes which more or less markedly were based on Fascist ideology. Even in apparently firmly rooted democracies, authoritarian and Fascist movements gained power. In several countries with solid democratic traditions, wide circles of the population were sympathetic towards - or even admired - the efficiency of the new authoritarian regimes in organising apparently harmonious and well-organised societies.
This question has for decades been the cause of passionate discussion. Feelings run high, not only among historians, but also in the public debate. This is undoubtedly due to a feeling that the interpretation of the past has strong implications for how we deal with the present time. The evaluation of the causes of mass extermination is inextricably bound up with the question of responsibility and guilt - and thus the question of: who is to learn what from history?
Adherents of the latter thesis (German history seen as normality) are sometimes accused of wanting to ‘relativise’ the mass murder and deny its unique character (its ‘singularity’) and thereby destroy the possibility of learning from history how to deal with the present time. In opposition to this view the artist believes that the only way to learn from history is to acknowledge the general human weaknesses that made the barbarity possible and thereby to assume part of a shared responsibility, whereas an explanation model taking its point of departure in a special German soul will not, even for the Germans, form a useful basis for learning from history.
The history of mass extermination has both general and specific (singular) features. The psychological mechanisms leading to the atrocities are generally human, but the actual implementation was organised by German leaders with wide support in the German population. The German nation cannot therefore shirk responsibility.
This view on the mass extermination implies that my Pillar of Shame is staked to criticise our civilisation so that what was learned from the catastrophe can be applied today. If as members of European civilisation we do not take responsibility for our Inner Beast, we may have a new catastrophe. Only by taking responsibility for the past can we commit ourselves to the future.
Our memories become ever shorter because our consciousness is overburdened by the media's continuous stream of information. The smell of decomposing corpses and death vanishes as soon as the pictures fade from the screen. It is the aim of the Pillar of Shame to perpetuate the memory of the atrocity and its victims - to serve as a reminder in history.
Due to global network of similar sculptures, the Pillar will be endowed with an extraordinary symbolic value that can hardly be erased from the human mind.
The first Pillar of Shame was presented to the world public in November '96. Exhibited on the NGO Forum of the FAO summit in Rome, Italy, the sculpture became a sort of symbol of the conference.
On 4th June '97 the happening was started when 55,000 people gathered in Victoria Park in Hong Kong for a solemn candlelight vigil to commemorate the bloodshed 1989 in Beijing. The Pillar of Shame was displayed as the focal point of the ceremony.
After years of tug-of-war with the authorities, it seems that the students of Hong Kong University have eventually succeeded to ensure a permanent site for the Pillar of Shame on the campus.
Setting up the Pillar ahead of the hand-over on 1st July, is a way of placing the sculpture on Chinese territory. Expressing an overt accusation of the old men's regime in Beijing, it functions as a litmus test of the authorities' vow to respect human rights and free speech in Hong Kong.
The second Pillar of Shame was set up in the Mexican capital on 18 April 1999 to mark the International Day against Impunity. Subsequently the sculpture was set up in the village of Acteal in the highlands of Chiapas to pillory the authorities’ handling of the conflict with the indigenous peoples. This conflict got a grim acuteness on 22nd December '97, when 45 people of this village were slaughtered by a paramilitary group.
In the spring of 2000 a Pillar of Shame was set up in Northern Brazil to mark once again the International Day against Impunity and to commemorate a massacre on landless peasants.
The Pillar of Shame has been created by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot, born 1954. He lives in Odense in Denmark with his wife and three children. He has exhibited in Denmark, Greenland, Belgium, Brazil, The Czech Republic, China, England, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Spain and Switzerland. The artist's message is aiming at the defence of the ethical foundations of our civilisation, independently of political, religious and economical interests.
The artist funds his art manifestations himself by selling his ‘conventional’ bronze and copper sculptures, although he also receives limited contributions from philanthropic foundations.
The projects are carried out with the support of innumerable unsalaried helpers. Their commitment symbolises of our common responsibility for the social and ecological development of our Earth. This responsibility should not just be left to politicians, experts, artists, etc.
So the press titled My Inner Beast, carried out by Galschiot in '93. In twenty big cities a sculpture of a pig in human clothes was set up without the knowledge of the authorities as a symbol of the increasing racism.
Galschiot has often been accredited as an NGO on international conferences, e.g. on UN's social summit in Copenhagen. On this occasion he carried out the happening The Silent Death with the aim of highlighting the double standards of the rich world. We're solemnly proclaiming the inviolability of the right to life, but at the same time we accept a global imbalance with thousands of children as victims each year. 750 figures of children (a total of 15 tons) were fettered to benches, lamp posts etc. all over the City. In addition 13,000,000 certificates, one for each child doomed to die of hunger and lack of medicine in 1995, were distributed.
and a lot of photos are available at our homepage: www.aidoh.dk
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Vagn Frausing (international secretary)