30th April 2023 by

Memory without Memorials in Germany

Fabian Lüke (University of Cologne)

Two men in carnival costumes walk up the stairs from the underground station of Kalk-Post, Cologne. Their Bluetooth speaker with loud „kölsche“ music crashes the silence of the estimated 100 people who gathered on the square to commemorate the Hanau shooting which happened in 2020, now three years ago and in which nine people were killed. Their names are:

Gökhan Gültekin
Sedat Gürbüz
Said Nesar Hashemi
Mercedes Kierpacz
Hamza Kurtović
Vili Viorel Păun
Fatih Saraçoğlu
Ferhat Unvar
Kaloyan Velkov

and are often repeated throughout the speeches during the memory protest. The music fades as the two men walk away from the scene. I can feel the relief of the crowd who came together on this cold, rainy, and cloudy day. It is Sunday the 19th of February, after three days of carnival and two more to come. When this disturbance was finally over, the event could continue and the next activist climbed on the platform, took up the microphone and started her speech.

Kalk-Post (Cologne), where the commemoration event took place. Photo: Fabian Lüke.

In my research process, I encountered three sites of public cultural memory practices in which social actors claim for a memorial for the victims of racist and right-extremist violence in Germany. In this blog post, I want to reflect on my research process and try to outline some of the dimensions of memory without memorials in Germany.


The first event in the framework of my „Flash Ethnography“ was a public protest and commemoration event in Köln-Kalk on the same day as the Hanau shooting three years ago. The lines of the introduction are part of my field notes. The commemoration event was a decentralised protest in many cities across Germany to remember the nine victims who were killed in a Shisha Bar and other locations by a right and racist extremist. On the same day, another event for the same purpose took place in Cologne, parallel to the one I attended. But there is a conflict between the two groups as the initiators of the second protest link this specific commemoration to other political topics which are not related the shooting itself: this is often seen as inappropriate for a commemoration event. The protest included a minute of silence for the victims, voicemails from the family members and speeches from various activists. Many of them problematized the way in which the police investigation took place and why one of the emergency exit doors of the Shisha Bar was locked due to a police order. Other speeches linked the experiences of Asian-German communities to the ones of other groups affected by racist everyday practices and right terror attacks. An emphasis was made on solidarity among the communities who experience everyday racism and racialization in Germany.

Especially the simultaneity of carnival and the Hanau attack and its commemoration leads to a conflict in the public realm. It is difficult to have both at the same time, jolly celebration and remembering this tragic event. This leads to an ethical friction in which public commemoration and mourning is clearly marginalized and can only take place in spaces which are more or less isolated from the centres of carnival festivities. But as the introduction of this blog shows, these spaces may be as well intentionally or unintentionally penetrated, evoking tense and odd moments. This consequently reinforces marginalization and its perception.


Two days prior to the commemoration event I watched the lecture Sag mir wo Deine Arme liegen und wann (“Tell me where your arms lie and when”) of the author Senthuran Varatharajah on YouTube. The event took place at the Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus and was streamed online. Varatharajah read nine poems in memory of the victims, combining a poetic portrait of the nine individuals with a description of the timeline of the night from their perspective. The video (with English subtitles) can be watched here:

This requiem [1] in the format of a poem and its artistic-performative reading as poetic remembrance is used as a substitute for a non-existent (spatially located) memorial. But it can also be turned around: Literature and literary practices and their digital circulation open up complementary forms of cultural remembrance and memory in practice that are not necessarily bound to a single place or time and thus offer another potential compared to “classic” memorials. A synthesis of spacially location, memory, activism, and digital technologies can be found in the third site of my research encounter.


The third memory site I visited, not only during our group research, is the Keupstraße memorial in Köln-Mülheim. In 2004 (and in 2001 in Probsteigasse) a nail bomb planted by the NSU exploded in the street and more than 20 people were injured. For about 20 years, demands for a memorial, especially from residents and citizens’ initiatives, were thwarted because the site where the attack took place and where the memorial was planned belonged to a private investor. In 2021, the City of Cologne was finally able to decide together with the initiative on the design and funding of the memorial.

Especially the annual commemoration events, the work of local initiatives and their persistence successfully lead to the final conceptualization and emergence of the memorial. The memorial aims towards an interactive learning and memorial site at Keupstraße and includes the following aspects: a 6x24m 1:1 copy of the foundation of the former building, a digital anti-racist media archive, and a permanent body of affected parties who are in charge of curation and content control. The memorial will be framed by the public square Birlikte. [2].


An important and shared feature of all three contexts is their direction towards the future of memory. Erinnern heißt verändern (“to remember is to change”) was an important sentence during the Hanau commemoration event. The concept of the Keupstraße memorial media archive aims to create a public space where people can meet, talk, interact, commemorate and learn together and thereby actively participate in anti-racist education and knowledge production, centering the perspective of those (directly) affected. It is intended to grow over time and inclusively reflect past, present and future issues and topics of racism and anti-racism in Germany.

Considering the short time of the project and due to the lack of time of the honorary work initiative, I unfortunately could not visit the memorial site at Keupstraße together with one of the people from the initiative as I had initially planned. This aspect would have been quite important and the fact that it did not happen made me feel quite uncomfortable writing this blog. I thereby can only describe my own point of view on the topic of memory without memorials and, in a way, leave out the key perspective regarding the issue of representation and cooperative knowledge production.

That is why it was important to share my findings and thoughts within the context of our subgroup and link it to other memory sites and memorials in Germany, Kenya, and Morocco within the cities of Cologne, Nairobi, and Rabat. Our debates on memory practices, institutions, emerging publics and questions of representation were in this case mirrored in a negative moment – as there is no memorial yet for both of the attacks, the question is: what (political) claims do social actors connect to the non-existent or future memorials? What do they expect and wish for?

And what were and are my expectations of “choosing” this topic in the context of the project?

As a provisional conclusion for these thoughts, I would like to borrow some words from the end of
Mithu Sanyal’s book:

„Es geht nicht darum, dass wir die Toten von Hanau betrauern sollen, weil sie ungewöhnlich sind – das ist zwar die Art ihres Todes – , sondern weil sie gewöhnlich sind: Sie waren und sind normale Bürger*innen dieses Landes […]“.

“It is not a matter of mourning the dead of Hanau because they are extraordinary – that is the circumstance of their deaths – but because they are ordinary: They were and are regular citizens of this country […].” (own translation)

Mithu Sanyal (2021): Identitti. München: Carl Hanser Verlag, p. 424.
English: Identitti. A Novel. Translated by Alta L. Price. Penguin Random House 2022”.

This blog is part of the Memorials in Context group
Memory is a concept that allows one to create and hold a narrative of a moment or an event in the past. Each day we are presented with memory and tasked with how we want to carry it forward, in our history books, in the news, in our streets and within our personal lives. On an institutional level, those memories can often be determined and shaped for us by government or specific groups. But are they ever an accurate representation for those affected who have lost and cannot speak for themselves? We are faced with the question of who gets to tell one’s story and how, or who’s story is told and what conflict does it create? We find ourselves In an ocean of memories, where our future decisions are shaped by the lessons we learn from past events that have become memories, challenging us to understand how institutions shape our view and perspective of the past.

Memorials are found in various places, whether the physical locations of events, on houses or buildings, central spaces of cities or in remote places on the margins of social life. Monuments come in different forms and are sometimes more, sometimes less visible or recognisable as such. Their common feature is that they refer to a past that is worth remembering – or is or has been deemed to do so. Memorials are in some cases meant to remind us of our past while deepening our knowledge of how we relate with the future. Memorials, similar to other forms of institutionalized cultural memory, are intended to exist in perpetuity and thus point towards the future. However, social valuations are not constant at all, which is why memorials (from their emergence to their end of life) are always places of social and public debate, which also offer potential for conflict.

As part of our Global Classroom, we, Joseph, Meriam, and Fabian engaged with various memorials in Nairobi (Kenya), Rabat (Morocco), and Cologne (Germany). Here we describe our impressions and the process of our individual and collective engagement in separate articles.

The memorials we deal with have a wide thematic, aesthetic, pedagogical and historical range and could not be more different. The purpose of their existence also varies in the different contexts and cities we live in. In the course of our joint research and learning, we exchanged views on similarities and differences and thought about how we can nevertheless relate the different monuments, their local settings and meaning as well as our individual approach. The comparison and joint reflection during our exchange were of vital importance in order to get a sharper view of the site-specific context, implicit and explicit meanings as well as controversies developing around or emerging from the monuments.

In this process we encountered memory sites which deal with an artificial tree in the National Museum of Kenya remembering the Mau-Mau resistance (Joseph), the renaming of a healthcare facility in memory of doctor from the French colonial epoch (Meriam), and non-existent memorials for the victims of right extremist violence in Germany/Cologne (Fabian). A common thread of the three topics and the local issues that emerge around them is a matter of memory upon the table of social negotiation. Public memory in terms of representation, participation and being recognised and making oneself recognised as a full part of society is linked to the question of social well-being, a concept we have to take up and at the same time deconstruct in our prismic perspective on the making of public memory.

The Use of Symbolism and Ceremonies in Resistance Movements: A Case Study of the Mau Mau Oath Ceremony

When the Door of Memory Opens Up 

About the author

Fabian Lüke is a MA student of Social and Cultural Anthropology and German Literature at the University of Cologne where he works as a research assistant at the Department of Anthropology. His interests include cultural memory, museum anthropology, anthropological and literary theory, poetics of ethnography and 20/21th century German literature as well as audio-visual methods.

Join the discussion

0 people are already talking about this, why not let us know what you think?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *