Germany has been the undisputed leader in Holocaust remembrance. Although the rise of a new nationalist right threatens to undermine much hard work, the majority of Germans remain ready to take responsibility for remembering the genocide.
Germany has a unique relationship with the Holocaust. No other country is nearly as
universally accepting of its guilt, and no other country expends this amount of effort and will into commemorating their role in this European tragedy. Germany has built thousands of memorials and museums, and takes a strong official stance about their responsibility towards the darkest period of their history.
No country is perfect, of course, and German Holocaust remembrance carries its own problems. Germany’s quest to own up to its guilt has stoked reactionary populism in the form of the Alternative for Germany party (AfD), which received almost 13% of the national vote in 2017 and became the first far right party in the parliament since the Third Reich. While the party does not deny the Holocaust, nor German guilt, it does claim that the Holocaust is ‘over-remembered’ in comparison to other, more positive eras of German national history. Indeed, in May of 2018 a leading party member, Alexander Gauland, claimed that the Holocaust’s significance amounts to ‘a piece of bird shit’ in the grand scheme German history.
The problems do not end with the Alternative for Germany party. The educational system mandates Holocaust education, but the depth and breadth of this education varies. Many students in non-college preparatory high schools, Realschule, say they don’t remember any what they learned about it, whereas many students in prep schools, Gymnasium, feel they never strayed from the topic. The background students come from makes a big difference. Even third-generation Turkish-Germans do not view this part of German history as something that concerns them.
Yet to an extent unparalleled elsewhere, Holocaust remembrance remains a central aspect of German life. To some extent, this is owing to exigency; a reunified Germany may well not have been allowed to exist, let alone in the EU, without demonstrating that it had learned the lessons of its past. And so, the legacy of the Holocaust became a foundational part of the modern Germany identity. Other countries with a Holocaust history, as well as those with other unseemly histories, whether they be slavery or colonialism, would do well to follow Germany’s example in this regard.
Germany is also an interesting case within the European context because its far-right populist party, the AfD, has won a real voice that cannot be ignored. As countries across Europe struggle to deal with the threat to the liberal traditions of tolerance and multiculturalism posed by these ethno-nationalist parties, all eyes are watching to see how the continent’s greatest economy handles its own particular breed of right-wing populism and the Holocaust revisionism that seems to inevitably follow.
The Holocaust in Germany
Germany’s Jewish community was one of the most well integrated in Europe prior to the Nazis’ ascent to power. The Nazis began discriminating against Jews almost immediately, enforcing a series of laws meant to drive the Jews from the country. Even so, by the beginning of the war in 1939 some 200,000 Jews remained in Germany. These Jews would continue to suffer harsh conditions, being systematically removed from the country over the next four years to work in labor camps.
In 1942 at the Wannsee Conference, the Germans officially enacted a policy of exterminating the Jews, the ‘Final Solution.’ By the end of the war, 180,000 German Jews would be dead. Wherever German soldiers invaded, they killed Jews. Germans built and ran Auschwitz and other death camps. All told, an estimated six million Jews perished.
Germany was slow to start a practice of Holocaust remembrance in the postwar era. In East
Germany, the blame for all atrocities was put on the West, with Stalin’s war crimes brushed
under the rug for the duration of the new Soviet regime. Easterners were ostensibly all good socialists. In the West, the perpetrators of the Holocaust lived the rest of their lives peacefully, turning to hard work and rebuilding the economy in order to be accepted into the western international community.
When the postwar generation came of age in the 1960s, the Holocaust become a topic of discussion in society. The first memorial was built in Berlin in 1967 and the children of the perpetrators started a national discourse, asking their parents and grandparents about their role.
According to several interviewees, the screening of the 1978 American miniseries ‘Holocaust’ was the catalyst for many Germans to begin speaking more openly about their roles during the war.
Anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism, and Holocaust minimization were all present in some form
throughout the latter half of the century. President Reagan’s speech in the Bitburg cemetery at the request of Helmut Kohl in 1985 underscored the popularity of the opinion that Germans, too, were victims of the Nazis.
Since reunification, Germans have worked hard to demonstrate that their state is willing to accept full responsibility, in part as a means of assuaging fears of Germany ‘rising again.’ State- sponsored memorials, such as das Denkmal fur die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe) near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, began appearing in the 1990s and 2000s, and more remembrance sites continue to be created.
- 1967: First memorial to the Holocaust erected in Berlin.
- 1975: First meeting of the Society for a Jewish Museum in Berlin.
- 1987: First exhibition created at what would become the Topography of Terror at the
former site of the Gestapo headquarters.
- 1989: Perspektive Berlin founded to advocate for a national memorial in the heart of
- 1996: Federal President Roman Herzog declares January 27th the Day of
Remembrance for Victims of National Socialism, marking the anniversary of the day
Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz. Germany is the first country to dedicate a day to
- 2001: Jewish Museum opens in Berlin.
- 2005: Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe opens in Berlin.
- 2008: German Bundestag constructs panel of experts and academics to research and
recommend best practices for fighting anti-Semitism in Germany.
- 2011: Commemorative events held in Munich, Frankfurt, Berlin, and Speyer for the 73rd
anniversary of the November 1938 pogroms.
- 2012: ‘Staying Together: Hungarian Holocaust Survivors Report’ exhibition opens in
- 2014: German Finance Ministry establishes fund to pay restitutions to child survivors of
- 2015: Chancellor Angela Merkel visits Dachau for a commemorative event on the 70th
anniversary of the liberation of the camp.
- 2016: Goethe University is the first worldwide to establish a professorship in Holocaust
- 2017: Chancellor Angela Merkel receives the Elie Wiesel Award from the U.S. Holocaust
- 2017: Germany officially adopts the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s
definition of anti-Semitism.
- 2018: The exhibit ‘Closed Border: The 1938 international refugee conference of Évian’ is
opened to the public at the Memorial to the German Resistance in Berlin.
- 2018: Germany creates a new ‘Anti-Semitism Commissioner’ position to help the
national government monitor and respond to rising anti-Semitism.
Since reunification, the state’s recognition of its responsibility has been unwavering and the consensus is that the German people have a responsibility to be aware of their unique role as historical perpetrators. The government’s education policies, foreign policy, and even parliamentary procedures are all constructed with Germany’s Holocaust history fully in view.
Consider foreign policy and defence: the country’s orientation towards pacifism stems from a recognition of its own bellicose past. German soldiers are allowed, indeed encouraged, to disobey orders they believe to be illegal or immoral. The Bundestag maintains an office, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces, where military members can anonymously submit complaints, recommendations, and comments about the conduct of the military.
Holocaust remembrance begins with education. It is illegal to home-school students in Germany because of the concern that extremists will foster hate and revisionism; education is understood as the first means of affecting a positive remembrance culture and children in Germany are confronted with Holocaust education that is particular to the German nation.
Holocaust history is a requirement, as is the case in many countries, and textbooks are carefully reviewed to ensure for accuracy and accessibility. German students encounter the Holocaust in their literature classes as well, not only in their history lessons.
Germany has scores of memorial sites and museums at the original locations of the Shoah. The German Federal Agency for Civic Education compiled and released a database listing 219 Holocaust memorial sites. Police officers, government officials, military persons, and even nurses take Holocaust history courses at various locations, such as the Wannsee Conference house.
Non-native Germans of Turkish or other origins do not receive the same lessons according to Jutta Weduwen of Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste (Action Reconciliation Service for Peace). Until 2011, the German government had mandatory military or volunteer service, often related to atonement for the Holocaust. Organizations such as ASF and Erinnerung Verantwortung Zukunft (Remembrance, Responsibility, Future), say it has become more difficult to find volunteers than it was in the past.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Day is formally honoured in German parliament by an hour of memory for the victims of national socialism’. This hour in the German parliament is a sombre setting where speakers, often Holocaust survivors, address the packed chamber. Speakers have included the likes of Elie Wiesel, Ruth Klueger, and most recently Anita Lasker-Wallfisch.
This Hour of Remembrance is not without its challenges. Dr Andreas Eberhardt of Erinnerung Verantwortung Zukunft, an organization dedicated to Holocaust remembrance, warns against Germany’s Holocaust remembrance becoming static.
Germany is filled with sites commemorating the Holocaust. Perhaps the best known is the
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, opened in Berlin in 2005. Located in central Berlin near the site of Brandenburg Gate, it consists of a field of 2,700 concrete stelae arranged in a tight grid and accessible day and night. It was designed by the Jewish American architect Peter Eisenman and includes an underground Information Centre.
Memorials and museums can be found at the sites of the former Nazi concentration camps such as Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Dora-Mittelbau, and Sachsenhausen-Ravensbrück. The Wannsee Villa near Berlin, where the machinery of the Final Solution was set in motion in 1941, has also been turned into a museum.
Germans don’t just memorialize the destruction of Judaism. More than 30 museums celebrate the long, rich history of Jews in Germany. The Jewish Museum of Berlin, one of the most spectacular buildings in the city, attracts almost a million visitors a year.
After the war, the Western allies established the International Tracing Service, an archive and centre for documenting Nazi persecution and the liberated survivors. Victims of Nazism and their families can find information regarding their incarceration, forced labour and post-war Allied assistance. The archives count more than 30 million documents.
During the Cold War, the personal files, transport lists, several camps’ death records, individual records, and mass graves served as evidence to help victims’ families gain information and substantiate compensation and pension claims. For the general public and for researchers, however, the archives remained mostly inaccessible. Visitors were only allowed to see the famed ‘Index,’ and some of the buildings were off limits without the director’s express authorization. Rumours were legion: it was alleged that Western secret services had always had access to the archives and didn’t want it to transpire that there was information there about war criminals. It was also rumoured that the Germans were simply loathe to pay any more restitution for damages.
In 2007, after concerted international pressure, scholars and researchers were granted access to the documents. In 2017, the ITS announced that it had published its Holocaust-era inventory online, offering an overview of holdings. More detailed descriptions are being added gradually.
Germany has historically supported Israel financially through payment of reparations. A first
agreement was signed September 10, 1952, and entered into force on March 27, 1953. Under the agreement, West Germany paid Israel for the costs of ‘resettling so great a number of uprooted and destitute Jewish refugees’ after the war and for individual compensation.
West Germany paid Israel three billion marks over the next fourteen years. The payments were made to the State of Israel since most victims had no surviving family. The money was invested in the country's infrastructure.
The far-right Alternative for Germany party seeks to redefine the culture of Holocaust
remembrance in Germany away from what it has deemed a ‘dictatorship of memory’ and a ‘guilt cult’ around Holocaust remembrance. It claims that the overemphasis on Germany’s crimes has obscured the larger narrative of the country’s history. Although the mainstream of the party does not embrace radical Holocaust revisionism, the party remains a stronghold for those who do, and individual party leaders such as Wolfgang Gedeon have been found guilty of Holocaust denial in German courts.
Various AfD leaders have singled out specific memorials for criticism. Gedeon described
stolpersteine (stumble stones) memorials by saying ‘Who gives these obtrusive moralists the right to (create the public memorial)?’ Björn Höcke, the party’s head in the state of Thuringia, was widely criticized after making a speech in which he claimed ‘Germans... are the only people in the world who have planted a monument of shame in the heart of their capital’ in reference to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
The vast majority of German NGOs and university groups are dedicated to promoting a positive culture around Holocaust remembrance. There are institutions for the study of anti-Semitism, improving the quality of Holocaust education in schools, and providing opportunities for young people to volunteer with communities impacted by the Holocaust. The Center for Research on Antisemitism (ZfA) at the Technical University of Berlin sponsors research on the history of the Holocaust, Jewish history, and modern anti-Semitism.
NGOs organize volunteer efforts to aid the communities affected by Nazi crimes. Aktion Suhnesuchen Friedensdienste runs volunteer programs and summer camps in Germany, Poland, and Great Britain. By connecting young people to survivors, ASF helps facilitate Holocaust education while also giving young people an opportunity to grow through an intense experience. Executive director Jutta Weduwen characterized the work not as reconciliation, but rather atonement.
Immigrants are beginning to participate. According to Weduwen, there is broad interest among newcomers in Holocaust education programming. By providing opportunities for immigrants to learn this history, the ASF believes it is helping them integrate into German society. Many independent organizations have conducted studies into the quality of education and educational materials. Partnering with UNESCO, the Georg Eckert Institute published a thorough study of the treatment of the Holocaust in textbooks all over the world. It was often critical of German textbooks, saying ‘In some instances, the authors might be said to inadvertently perpetuate the viewpoint of perpetrators, as in a photograph reproducing anti-Semitic stereotypes which is not supplemented with any critical commentary.’
In a country where Holocaust denial remains punishable by law, mainstream publications take strong stands against revisionism. Just last year, Der Spiegel removed a book from its best- sellers list after it was deemed to be ‘anti-Semitic and historically revisionist.’ The book, Finis Germania, collects the thoughts of the late historian Rolf Peter Sieferle, who accused the Jewish people of offloading their own historical guilt on to the German people after the Holocaust.
The rise of social media and the decline of traditional journalism has transformed the way
information about the Holocaust is disseminated and absorbed. According to Sigmount
Königsberg, the Anti-Semitism Officer for the Jewish Community of Berlin, the anonymity of the internet significantly reduces people’s inhibition to posting about and participating in Holocaust revisionism and anti-Semitism. In 2018, Germany imposed arguably the world’s strongest law against illegal online hate speech, the so-called NetzDG law. It threatens Facebook, Google and Twitter with fines up to EUR50 million if they fail to take down illegal content within an hour.
The Jewish community in Germany numbered 100,000 in 2017, making it the eighth largest
Jewish community in the world and the fourth largest in Europe, according to the World Jewish Congress. Several thousand Israelis also live in Germany.
From 1990 onwards, the German government encouraged the resettlement of Jews from the former Soviet Union. These immigrants injected new life into the aging community and most Jews living in Germany today are originally from the former Soviet Union. In places such as Berlin, Bremen, Hamburg, Potsdam or Schwerin, more than half of German Jews are now native Russian-speakers.
-Authors: Jeremy Epstein and Nicholas Haeg