Lest we forget: Grindr remembers the Holocaust

‘Is this the most awful/hilarious thing ever?’ asked @BenjaminFMoser in my Twitter feed yesterday. I followed him to a British blog which collects Grindr profiles featuring photographs taken inside the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.

Covering over 18 000 square metres, the rows and rows of blank cement blocks that make up the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in central Berlin are a compelling place to visit. I did so twice: once when the memorial was under construction in 2004, at which time it seemed vast and much discussed, and again in 2010, when it had blended somewhat into the monumental surrounds. According to designer Peter Eisenman, the cement blocks or stelae are designed to ‘produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere’; an ‘ordered system that has lost touch with human reason’. Although not universally praised, the construction of the memorial – exclusively to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust – was a big deal to Germans, and the subject of argument about appropriate ways to remember.

Memorialisation is one of Germany’s strongest methods for dealing with past traumas, but in contrast to the Jewish Museum in Kreuzberg, which positions the visitor as an active participant in history – walking on metal faces, or being shut into a dark room – the Holocaust Memorial is more like a vast, lifeless, impersonal cemetery, which gives a sense of the scale of death, but doesn’t bring the human back (arguably an impossibility). Like the nearby Topography of Terror it has become a tourist attraction, partly stripped of its horror. Intended for disruptive contemplation, it has quickly become a fun place to hang out and take hot selfies.

Perhaps Eisenman underestimated human beings’ liking for uneasy atmospheres. The scale, impersonal nature and quirky design elements of the memorial make it a comfortable place to explore, rather like a labyrinth. But there’s something more happening here. ‘Totem and Taboo: Grindr remembers the holocaust’ is disturbing because it is a portrait of a human failing. These images represent the ahistorical reality of online encounters. As we have slowly become ‘users’ instead of people, we have carved out new public spaces, falsely distinct from physical spaces, and in these new spaces, the past cannot infiltrate. At nearly four years, Grindr’s new space is old now, and its users are slowly building their own moral code, and their own forgetfulness. With 3.5 million users in 192 countries, Grindr is as much a public space as a specialist enterprise. It’s a place where people carve out their identities and share ways of being. It is a social realm much like the other specific social realms we now inhabit, as projections of ourselves. Those projections can never quite hide our flaws. And yet our internet selves attempt to abdicate from the real world’s responsibilities, as if shameful memories can be disappeared in this new atemporal landscape. Of all people, surely it is LGBTQI people who would have learned by now that we cannot run from shame.

An estimated 15 000 gays and lesbians were murdered in the Holocaust. The number is hard to pin down because homosexuality remained criminal in Germany after 1945 and many of the victims went uncounted. The deaths of LGBTQI people in the camps were hardly discussed in Germany until the 1980s. The history of the Holocaust is the history of homosexuality. It is ours to care for. And it is close at our heels: Berlin’s own memorial to Hitler’s homosexual victims, built across the road in the Tiergarten in May 2008, was vandalised within months.

As well as Grindr users’ failure to see their own awful history, homosexual men fail to see themselves as an oppressed group any more, as a group that needs and desires solidarity with other groups. This is, in part, a result of increased social acceptability of homosexuality. Some of these profiles are explicitly racist, though there is still argument about whether ethnically exclusive dating is racist (I think it is). These predominantly white males have not forgotten because they are evil; they have forgotten because they have so much incentive to forget. That is privilege in action – the privilege of amnesia. When the world is a smorgasbord of casual hookups, the opportunities to forget are everywhere. How quick we are to accept them.

Just as these profile shots are the internet, ‘Grindr remembers’ is also the internet: holding itself up to scrutiny. In doing so, it is both drawing our attention to this forgetting, and making its own kind of memorial. A blog that cheekily reminds us to ‘Be the change you want to see in the world,’ it prompts bigger questions – questions we are only clumsily beginning to ask. How, in our seemingly ahistoric realms online, do we remember the past? How do we hold one another accountable? And another question, barely asked: who benefits from keeping us in this eternal selfish present?

This kind of phenomenon isn’t going to go away simply by shaming individuals for their ignorance. Grindr is only a single example of our ability, as image-dominated social media users, to reduce the world – and ourselves – to commodities. By decontextualising ourselves from our own cultural histories and our membership in a common humanity, we not only forget, we fail to bear witness – not only to the past, but to the injustices which go on all around us. While these images were taken, fascists were gathering literally just around the corner. We don’t even need to consider the present rise of fascism in Europe for this collection of images to become utterly haunting. Death by homosexuality is all around us still, in Uganda, in Moscow, in the USA, and in our own families. When we forget our histories, the erasure of the present follows close behind.

Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I wonder if this is as much about the nature of official Holocaust remembrance as about Grindr. I mean, the Holocaust has simultaneously become universally commemorated and largely depoliticised, remembered as an existential evil stripped from any particular social context, so that newspapers can editorialise about it without drawing any conclusions about what’s currently taking place in Hungary or Greece. This seems an extension of that: for these guys, the memorial is just a big official memorial to a big official tragedy, without any relationship to their own lives.

    1. My search for “Jobbik nazi” returned about 5,400,000 results, with lots of prominent news outlets near the top; “Golden Dawn nazi” returned 1,440,000–so I guess there’s room for improvement there! I didn’t search for “holocaust”, anti-semite” or other such terms in connection with those nationalist parties.

  2. Yes, and in that sense I think the monumental approach to remembrance is deeply flawed. Architecture like this tends to replace, rather than provoke, conversation about past trauma.

    On the other hand, gay culture has a particular way of “reclaiming” public space for cruising that is also not ahistorical: eg. the AIDS memorial grove in Sydney Park is a popular beat. Perhaps using these places for intimacy is itself a way of remembering the dead, and our own fleeting good fortune.

    1. It does raise really interesting questions as to what a more progressive commemoration might be like. I agree with what you say about the monumental approach: it’s almost as if a structure like that’s designed to experience for you. But I do think there’s particular issues around the commemoration of the Holocaust, too. If the slogan ‘never again’ means anything, it has to imply a political engagement: we, the living, pledge to the dead that we will never let comparable political forces arise. But that’s quite different from the almost metaphysical way that the Holocaust is often discussed.

  3. Interesting post. I wonder Jennifer, how you can be sure that this is evidence of “Grindr users’ failure to see their own awful history,” and that “homosexual men fail to see themselves as an oppressed group any more, as a group that needs and desires solidarity with other groups.”

  4. gay men use grindr to hook up sexually, and I’d be cautious of reading too much into these postings. It is also quite ahistoric to speak of lgbtqi people in reference to the Holocaust: the term is a recent US invention, and uf we want to be accurate let’s go back and check the categories which were used at the time

  5. What is The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin for? Two things strike me here:

    * For having its official Holocaust politics and secrets named and appropriated by Grindr for the purpose of gratifying sexual desire.

    * For upholding political desire and renouncing any momentum of appropriation by remembering those absolute victims who can’t be named, who can’t protest, and who have disappeared and are disappearing as ash and dust.

    The second desire is the madder desire – naming to excess even as we fail to save those who are disappearing anonymously.

  6. What a horrible name ‘Grindr’ is! I hadn’t heard of it until yesterday when I read your article Jennifer.
    ‘White rose’ sounds a lot better for the purposes of commemorating victims don’t you think?

    What about Jeff’s questions about what a more progressive commemoration might be like?

  7. This is an interesting post, Jennifer. *However, I find your historical amnesia offensive. I find your historical ignorance appalling. As a 78er (yeah, you can check the website, my name is on the list of those attending the 1978 demonstrations), I am horrified by both. The number of homosexual individuals murdered by the holocaust was much greater. Try 100, 000. For goddesses’ sake, please do some reading. Among other texts, read Men with the Pink Triangle by Heinz Heger.
    *I find your moral certainties equally offensive. In your original post, you wrote ‘Grindr users’ failure to . . . solidarity with other groups’ is moral certainty. It is not written in a conditional or tentative way. It is not an opinion. You do not use the personal pronoun, ‘I’; you do not say, ‘I wonder’ or ‘I suspect’. It is the statement of a bourgeois brat. Oh yes, you write in a subsequent post, ‘It’s an opinion, rather than an assertion of certainty’. Well frankly, that’s bullshit. I don’t even use Grindr; I couldn’t be bothered. So if we’re using ‘evidence’ and ‘experience’, there’s at least one challenge to your certainties.
    * Your lack of historical analysis is also evidence. Please note Dennis’s comments. It is in appropriate and poor theory to use the term l/g/b/t/i people when writing about the holocaust. The term ‘gay’for example, though used in historical contexts prior to the Stonewall Riots, it was used more commonly as a term of pride after this specific event and the subsequent gay and lesbian liberation movements and, later still, the gay and lesbian right movement.
    * Since 1977, I have been politically active, mostly in l/g/b/t/i political activity, but also as a trade unionist, anti-uranium activist and involvement in other social movements. To find posts like this where you use your ‘privilege’ of power on the Overland website leaves me shaking my head and, (unfortunately) yet again, wondering how middle class bleating, that is, at least in some of the posts on Overland’s website, has become the core of radical politics.

  8. Apologies Jennifer, for describing you as ‘a bourgeois brat’. This personal denunciation was unnecessary and offensive. Again profuse apologies. My other criticisms do apply. I suggest more reading about subjects, resist generalist certainties and try not to pontificate. Certainly make critical observations, but not moralistic certainties.

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