How history influences vocabulary: Meet Hamburg’s “Mahnmal”, St. Nicholas Church

“Memories are not just about the past. They determine our future.”

– Jeff Bridges

“What’s in a name?” is one of Shakespeare’s many famous quotes. When you look at the beautiful German word “Mahnmal” (oh, how I love the alliteration in it) you will agree with me that there is a lot in a name.

A “Mahnmal” is a special sort of monument. It is designed to make people do more than just remember an event or person. Its function is to teach, to awaken awareness, to inspire insight and to appeal to a tolerant attitude towards others. 

Mahnmale in Germany

“Mahnmale” are found in abundance in Germany, often related to their national socialist past. I think the Germans are an example in this area. They do not hide their past, but face it and the many “Mahnmale” are there for us to learn lessons from. A famous one (see small photos) is the Holocaust-Mahnmal in Berlin.

St. Nicholas Church

This is the tower of St. Nicholas Church in Hamburg. Most of this church was destroyed during the bombing of Hamburg in 1943 (operation Gomorrah – another example of  “What’s in a name?”). This bombing by the allies was a reaction on the many bombings done by the Germans in WWII.

Since most of the city was destroyed, Hamburg had to set priorities for the reconstruction, which were houses and the iconic St. Michael’s Church (see photo above), a landmark of the city. Parts of the ruins of  St. Nicholas Church were used to rebuild Hamburg. Not all of it though, since it was decided to preserve the tower and some remains of the wall as a memorial against war.

In 1987 an exhibition was installed in the crypt. This permanent exhibition tells the story of the bombing and the reasons leading towards it (like I said, the Germans face their past and role in it). It also explicitly warns visitors what the consequences of war can be for civilians of any country (the German word for warn is “mahn”).

That’s when St. Nicholas Church developed from a “Denkmal” (memorial) into a “Mahnmal”.

Mahnmal in English???

When you are reading this I will have just returned from a trip to NYC. I plan to visit the 911 Memorial there. I wonder if the Germans would call this a “Denkmal” or a “Mahnmal”. I also wonder what English word would cover the meaning of “Mahnmal”, since it is so much more than a memorial. Any suggestions?



Travel tips and useful links:

  • You can visit the crypt/exhibition and the viewing tower (that’s where the photo with a view over Hamburg was taken) on one and the same ticket (Price 2019: EUR 5)
  • More background information about St. Nicholas Church, including practical information, such as opening times and prices, can be found here.


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  1. You are traveling a lot! I don’t know a English word for it. I have never seen a Mahnmal before. Enjoy your weekend! It will finally be a dry one here. Well, that’s what they say!!

    1. Hey Nancy. Yeah, I travel a lot lately and totally enjoy it. I had never before heard of the word Mahnmal, but absolutely love it. I am just very curious it is only a German word or whether it exist in other languages too. I also wouldn’t know a Dutch version. Do you? Love, Lieske

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