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Is the New World War II Monument Fascist?

"For a great building project I would, like Faust, have sold my soul." --Albert Speer

Responsible critics and historians are naturally reluctant to throw around a term like"fascist" when describing a contemporary work of art. However, a growing number are openly using that term to describe the World War II Memorial slated to be built on the National Mall in Washington. Using that term"is not a moral judgment," explains Judy Scott Feldman, an art and architectural historian who opposes the memorial,"it is an historical observation."

The design, which calls for a sunken granite plaza with 56 stone pillars, and two 43-foot high triumphal arches, suggests the grandiose schemes of Hitler's architect and confidant, Albert Speer. Worse yet, the World War II Memorial will occupy the center of the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Positioning such a gross symbol of conquest on one of the nation's most important public spaces shows contempt for the historic character of the Mall, whose openness is itself a monument to the democratic freedom the U.S. veterans of World War II fought for. The memorial's closed design will also restrict pedestrian access to the site of two defining events of the Civil Rights movement-Marian Anderson's concert there after being denied the use of a local commercial hall, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous"I Have a Dream" speech.

To add further insult to veterans, and indeed the general public, a German corporation that used slave labor to build fighter planes for Nazi Germany will profit from construction of the memorial. Philipp-Holzman AG, which never divested its profits from the Holocaust, and has never paid a penny in restitution to Holocaust survivors, became one of the wealthiest corporations in post-war Germany, and acquired the Washington-based Chas. H. Tompkins Company in the late 1970s. Apparently unaware of this past, the U.S. General Services Administration recently awarded Tompkins the $56 million building contract for the World War II Memorial.

All this at least justifies the charge that the memorial's sponsors are insensitive and suffer from historical amnesia.

The French architect Pierre L'Enfant's 1791 plan for Washington is widely considered America's most notable achievement in municipal planning. L'Enfant envisioned the Mall as a major open space in the city, a"public walk," where the elected leaders might mingle with the people.

In the twentieth century, development of the Mall has honored L'Enfant's vision of a central east-west axis along the Mall, as well as an intersecting north-south axis connecting the White House to the Jefferson Memorial. An exemplary addition to the Mall is the Vietnam memorial, a minimalist abstraction which curves outward at a 125-degree angle, pointing both to Washington and Lincoln, respectively.

The massive World War II Memorial will block the open vista between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial."Is this not a siting more characteristic to dictatorships-Napoleon's Paris; Hitler's Berlin?" then-Senator Robert Kerrey of Nebraska entered into the Congressional Record when the site was selected in 1997. Although Kerrey could not be reached for comment to confirm his present position, it is clear that he has backed away from his once staunch opposition to the memorial. An impressive array of critics and veterans, however, say they were inspired by Kerrey, and vow to continue the fight to protect 'America's front yard.'

On the other hand, the Austrian-born architect Friedrich St. Florian defends his design for the World War II memorial in the idiom of Beaux Arts - the tradition of public architecture that seeks to lift the spectator out of the affairs of everyday life."An entrance into a memorial is not like an entrance to a subway stop," he says."It is a moment of transition, a moment of passage. You move from the openness of the Mall into a more compact architectural situation, like the stairs leading up to Lincoln."

But according to Judy Scott Feldman,"this is not a transitional experience because it is a dead end, it is a cul-de-sac." In Feldman's view, the severely controlled access to the memorial intensifies the effect of its"pathetic, empty, sterile design." J. Carter Brown, the chairman of the U.S. Fine Arts Commission, which has approved the design, emphasizes that the proposed memorial is in the classical tradition, and"not just this year's skirt length." Indeed, it seems judicious to work within an established tradition if the aim is to produce something lasting. One need only be reminded of the very inappropriate war memorial at Verdun, which was a product of the excesses of the Art Nouveau movement in France. Alan Borg, in his book War Memorials: From Antiquity to Present, derides the structure at the center of the memorial as"melting ice cream."

Unfortunately, the World War II Memorial has less in common with the classical"temples of democracy" built in Washington during the 1930s than it does with Albert Speer's 'stripped classicism' that was fashionable in Nazi Germany. Stripped classicism involves classical designs reduced to their structural elements and rendered on an immense scale intended to overwhelm the spectator with the experience of raw power. In addition, according to Feldman, the World War II Memorial's use of caged eagles, along with wreaths atop stone pillars are the same symbols of"triumph and death" used by Speer in public plazas that celebrated Germany's"heroic dead." (A sarcaphogus and eternal flame were also once part of the design.)While Hitler's master plan to redesign Berlin never fully materialized, these favorite architectural motifs of Speer's became common sights, such as the pillars that lined Unter den Linden Street in Berlin, and the Koenigsplatz in Munich that honored the so-called"putsch martyrs."

Mike Conley, a spokesman for the American Battle Monuments Commission, argues there is nothing totalitarian about stripped classicism, noting that Speer actually copied Paul Cret, the French-born architect who designed the Federal Reserve Bank (among other eyesores) in Washington.

Interestingly, Speer gave more or less the same defense of his architecture in his memoirs, published in 1969, noting the presence of neoclassicist architecture in foreign capitals. Having spent 20 years in prison for his use of slave labor, perhaps Speer forgot what he had written in the 1930s, when he proclaimed that his building projects were inseparable from Hitler's goal of creating a one-thousand year Reich. In fact, he boasted,"the monuments of National Socialism will tower like the cathedrals of the Middle Ages," blotting out the"department stores of some Jews."

When Speer became the Nazi Minister of Armaments, however, he was forced to divert material and resources from Hitler's building projects to build his war machine. It may be noted with historical irony that with the World War II Memorial, Speer's interrupted vision has been fulfilled.