There can be no surprise in the observation that a newly erected statue of Adolf Hitler kneeling and praying at the site of the World War II Warsaw ghetto provokes strong feelings. That was, after all, the artist’s intent; indeed, how could it be otherwise?
The work, titled “HIM” by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, is visible only from a distance, and the Hitler figure is relatively indistinct. Nor does the artist specify what Hitler is praying for.
Artists like to say that part of their job is provocation, and this certainly qualifies. The Warsaw ghetto, for those not up on their World War II history, was an area of the city’s center where Nazis confined in squalor and eventually murdered or shipped to extermination camps hundreds of thousands of Jews living in that area.
Like much of art, what one thinks of it hinges on how one interprets it. One plausible interpretation is the pondering of whether Hitler might at any point have regretted his and his movement’s deeds, and what under such circumstances his reaction might have been. Of course there is no evidence on the record that he experienced any regret — beyond, presumably, the regret of failure to accomplish his goals.
That absence is part of what drives some, notably the Simon Wiesenthal Center, to object to the statue as, our phrasing here, the defilement of a sacred place. To the extent that the statue portrays Hitler in even moderately sympathetic terms, it would be hard to argue with that objection.
The statue’s most laudable accomplishment may be to prompt viewers to ponder their own reaction to evil when confronted by the results of its misdeeds. In this interpretation, Hitler is brought to his knees by the artist’s perpetual imposition of his realization of what he has done. Thus might it also be with others who perpetrate evil.
This nation has plenty of recent experience with evil, and as with Hitler, little of that experience lends itself to the idea that the perpetrators regretted their deeds. At minimum, like Hitler both realistically and metaphorically through the artwork, they were brought to their knees. That isn’t much in the way of solace, but it’s all we are sure to get.