Atrocity, remembrance, spectacle

Massacre and desire in dark tourism

The process of experiencing the European city is one of corrosion, in which the screens of the city are torn away, revealing layers and nodes of history and memory that lie shattered by the trajectories of the twentieth century.
Stephen Barber, Fragments of the European City (Reaktion Books, 1995)

…it is the memory of the past itself which serves as the screen obfuscating the intrusive presence of the stain. This stain undermines the position of the spectator who, from a safe distance, has observed the depicted events… as if something has emerged in this depicted reality which is ‘too strong’ and threatens to break through its frame.
Slavoj Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies (Verso, 1997)

THE EVENTS OF World War II have been so subpoenaed by history that Europe cannot conceal the horrors of its past. As a migrant to Berlin, a spectator of aftermath, it’s unsurprising to see that Germany remains conscious of its role as an antagonist in this history. Numerous sites commemorating victims of the Holocaust now feature in Berlin’s public space. From German artist Gunter Demnig’s brass stumbling stones engraved with the names of the Jewish dead and embedded in the city’s pavements, to New York architect Peter Eisenman’s concrete metropolis Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, there is an element of spectacle and pathos to each of these works. They draw clear attention to history while capturing the nation’s guilt. Former Nazi edifices that have since been transformed into war museums, such as Berlin’s former parliament house, the Reichstag, and the House of the Wannsee Conference, are imbued too with a particular kind of spectacle. Visually arresting, with classical columns and grand concrete facades, their allure has a distinct psychosomatic dimension. That is, how can we believe these structures of such ostensible beauty once stood among profound evil?

The intersection between a monument, the spectacle and its utility in reshaping the ideology of a postwar society is interrogated by University of California historian Kirsten Harjes when she calls into question how Berlin’s memorials mobilise Germany’s collective memory of Nazism to construct socio-­political cohesion.[i] To Berlin’s visitors, however, the spectacle arguably does less to compel socio-­political cohesion than expose a more affective desire for its spectator to feel proximate to death. As Annaclaudia Martini and Dorina Maria Buda from the University of Groningen have argued, visiting a memorial that gives shape to catastrophe can ‘elicit moments of such intensity in the interaction that it has the potential to become perceivable.’[ii] Where the history of Nazism has not directly impinged upon the lived experience of a sightseer, the spectacularising aura of a memorial can generate what is now known as ‘dark tourism’: visitors are drawn to the spectacle of horror these monuments embody, which in turn is supposed to ‘educate’ them about the past.

In 2017, two Chinese tourists were arrested for performing the Nazi salute outside Berlin’s Reichstag, a gesture still criminalised in Germany. It’s unclear whether these men identified as Nazis, though in the end they were able to leave the country after paying a fine of five hundred euros. Their intentions were neither probed nor made explicit by the media, so we can only speculate what motivated them to perform the salute. It might have been a simple case of ignorance, that in a perverse attempt to connect with the past they summoned a gesture synonymous with their conceptions of Germany. Perhaps they saw photographs of the salute being made outside the Reichstag during Hitler’s reign and sought to recreate the moment in kitsch homage, without understanding that they were unlawfully disinterring fascist history. As explanations to their state of mind were absent, ethnicity became both a headline for the story and the cause of their crime. In other words, a connection was drawn between their Chinese identity and latent Nazism.

It would be misleading to say that the spectacle of the Reichstag failed to invite these tourists into its museum and, through this, to understand the gravity of the Nazi salute. Rather, it appears that they produced the salute because of it. The drama of dark tourism can conjure within its participants the perception that they are players in the horrors these memorials commemorate. Viewed through the prism of Martini and Buda’s theory, then, it seems these Chinese tourists were in their own way contending with Berlin’s past.

Ever since I read this story, it has plagued my conscience: it’s as if I might be compelled to recreate the salute in public, a kind of ‘fascist need’ willed into existence through narrative alone, given licence to invade my character on a basis as spurious as my sharing the same race as these tourists. The Holocaust has never directly formed part of my lived or family experience, and yet the affective legacy of genocide has always surrounded me. Having lived in Sydney for many years, and now in Berlin, my landscapes have always been marked by massacre. Here, my once perceived distance from the history of genocide has been thrown into question by the mirror of these Chinese tourists, which is to say (in Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s terms) that the stains of the past have broken through their frame to disturb my position as a settler in both cities.


WHILE THERE IS a dearth of memorials dedicated to the history and memory of Australia’s First Nations in central Sydney, the most powerful is Tony Albert’s sculpture Yininmadyemi – Thou didst let fall in Hyde Park. The work consists of four monumental bullets standing seven metres tall surrounded by three fallen shell casings, all of which are mounted on a boomerang-­shaped base. Located on Hyde Park’s perimeter facing Elizabeth Street, the scale of Yininmadyemi is commanding. The austere construction of aluminium, black marble and steel sits above the screeching traffic and violent bawls of drivers that pass it on a daily basis. An inscription on the base of a fallen shell casing details its tribute to First Nations soldiers, memorialising their heroism in both Australia’s frontier wars and the later colonial wars into which they were conscripted but never acknowledged. Although the spectacle of Yininmadyemi is profound, it is somehow eclipsed by the ANZAC Memorial that stands less than a hundred metres away – taller, prouder and routinely patrolled by police. Upon entering that memorial’s ‘Hall of Memory’, visitors are immediately struck by a soaring atrium with marble bas-reliefs, each carved with tableaus of larrikinism and mateship produced during the war and that now, allegedly, underpin the Australian spirit. Neither the scale nor the three-­paragraph inscription of Yininmadyemi can compare to the ANZAC leviathan and its comprehensive exhibition of wartime mythology. Put another way, visitors are lured into believing that the narrative of settler-­colonial sacrifice is greater and more deserving of attention than that of Indigenous loss.

Where Berlin’s memorials do not appear to compete against one another, there is a contest of spectacle and narrative between Yininmadyemi and the ANZAC Memorial that dictates the extent to which First Nations histories might be appreciated and understood. Contrasting these cities’ different approaches to memorialisation makes apparent the pliability of any understanding of history. And while I feel compelled to contend with the Holocaust in Berlin, Sydney’s glorification of the ANZAC legend and dearth of First Nations’ tributes only encourages my embodiment as innocent settler. In other words, the existential anxiety I should feel as a non-­Indigenous Australian is not provoked in Sydney. Or, more accurately, it’s actively suppressed by the cityscape. While it’s slippery to speak in absolutes – for there are undoubtedly those who carry and confront these histories in everyday life – the greater Australian imagination sees no value in dwelling on its genocidal past. Beyond political platitudes such as Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, empathy towards First Nations peoples is largely cleaved from public life and, consequently, public space. The evil of this design is that it exists to elevate a particular version of the truth: one sculpted by Australia’s colonial governance that has sequestered any threat of contestation by First Nations people by negating their stories in the landscape.[iii] In contrast and by sheer force of quantity, encountering Berlin’s many Holocaust memorials necessitates a deeper consideration of the past and its relationship to contemporary experience. The remedy to myopic remembrance, then, is perhaps more obvious than many Australians might care to acknowledge.


IT’S A MID-WINTER afternoon in Berlin when I find myself at the House of the Wannsee Conference in the city’s picturesque outer suburbs. This was once the summer villa of Jewish pharmaceutical manufacturer Ernst Marlier, later sold to the industrialist Friedrich Minoux and, in 1940, expropriated by the SS and used as a planning site for the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. In 1941, various heads of Nazi government met at the Wannsee Conference to design how European Jews would be transported to the concentration camps – though visitors might be forgiven should they forget this upon entering the house. Indicators of its intended function as a summer villa remain – vaulted ceilings, frescoed walls and a large spiralling staircase – though, inevitably, these details of luxury are deadened by the museum’s darker tone. Vitrines containing memoranda from the conference sit next to interactive screens that detail its scarring on Europe’s Jewish population, and as I walk past the elegant French windows that line the eastern facade, the bucolic view of the lake outside seems to belie the atrocities planned within these walls.

Since its opening as a museum in 1992, the villa has undergone numerous renovations. Prior to its 2006 renovation, visitors were particularly drawn to see a table they believed the Nazis sat around at the conference. In Frank Pierson’s 2001 film Conspiracy, this table was a central prop, and though it was only ever just that – a tool of artistic effect – its removal from the museum has nevertheless disenchanted some visitors.[iv] Hans-­Christian Jasch, legal historian and director of the villa, writes that Hollywood’s intervention has rewritten the aesthetic truth of the conference, which is to say that many visitors still wish for this sensationalised object to have remained.[v] Indeed, the table has become an artefact through which these visitors have spectacularised the villa’s evil, a phantom of their imagination that draws from the affective desire of dark tourism to dramatise history. In some way, then, perhaps a direct correlation exists between this disappointment and the actions of the Chinese tourists. For it is only in the act of physically connecting with traces of Nazi Germany – through the salute and the table, respectively – that visitors can engage with key events of World War II.

This slipperiness between truth and obfuscation is similarly present in Sydney, where Yininmadyemi fights to commemorate the sacrifice of Australia’s First Nations, while its narrative is physically and discursively shadowed by the greater spectacle of the ANZAC Memorial. Viewed wholly, it’s as if the power relations between history, its remembrance and the spectator are in constant negotiation.[vi] With Berlin as a kind of template, the challenge remains: whose voices might we consult to ensure that First Nations histories are remembered and represented in a more meaningful way in the urban life of Sydney, and indeed across wider Australia?

Berlin’s built environment only sharpens the argument that First Nations histories ought to be more fully commemorated in Australia’s landscape. The spectacle of a memorial – and the legacies it enshrines – is a powerful tool that can buttress a more honest engagement with the past. Berlin’s history is on full display while Sydney’s lineage is truncated in favour of upholding settler-­colonial security. And while the incident of the Chinese tourists demonstrates that the symbolic power of Berlin’s memorials is not immune to the distortions of any spectator’s imagination, their educational value has lessons around better unpacking Australia’s genocidal foundation. Building memorials to commemorate the violence wrought upon Australia’s First Nations will empower us to inspect our past instead of hiding from it. It’s a strategy that matures a nation’s relationship to atrocity, and will empower Australia to greater question the assumptions of the settler or even fascist within, constructing a more accurate and representative image of our national truth.

5 June 2020


[i] Harjes, Kirsten (2005). 'Stumbling Stones: Holocaust Memorials, National Identity, and Democratic Inclusion in Berlin', German Politics & Society 23(1), 143, 138-151.


[ii] Martini, Annaclaudia and Dorina Maria Buda (2018). 'Dark tourism and affect: framing places of death and disaster', Current Issues in Tourism 23 (60), 680, 679-692.


[iii] Moreton-Robinson, Aileen (2015). The White Possessive: Property, Power and Indigenous Sovereignty Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press p 81.


[iv] Jasch, Hans-Christian (2017). 'The House of the Wannsee Conference: Tourism and Holocaust education at a perpetrator site', Worldwide Hospitality and Tourism Themes 9 (2), 149, 146-157.


[v] Ibid.


[vi] Sci, Susan A. (2009). '(Re)thinking the Memorial as a Place of Aesthetic Negotiation', Culture, Theory and Critique 50, 41, 41-57.
















For references, see


Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung is a writer and art critic based in Berlin. His work has been published in The Saturday Paper, Art + Australia, Running Dog and PW-­Magazine, among others. He has recently completed residencies at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, and Kunsthaus KuLe, Berlin.


[i] Harjes, Kirsten (2005). “Stumbling Stones: Holocaust Memorials, National Identity, and Democratic Inclusion in Berlin” German Politics & Society 23(1), 143, 138-151.


[ii] Martini, Annaclaudia and Dorina Maria Buda (2018). “Dark tourism and affect: framing places of death and disaster” Current Issues in Tourism 23 (60), 680, 679-692.


[iii] Moreton-Robinson, Aileen (2015). The White Possessive: Property, Power and Indigenous Sovereignty Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press p 81.


[iv] Jasch, Hans-Christian (2017). “The House of the Wannsee Conference: Tourism and Holocaust education at a perpetrator site” Worldwide Hospitality and Tourism Themes 9 (2), 149, 146-157.


[v] Ibid.

[vi] Sci, Susan A. (2009). “(Re)thinking the Memorial as a Place of Aesthetic Negotiation” Culture, Theory and Critique 50, 41, 41-57.


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