Holocaust remembrance in Germany: A changing culture

Every year in January, German officials commemorate the murder of millions of Jews and other groups perpetrated by the Nazis. Now more than ever, people are debating the "right" way to remember that horrific event.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This quote by Spanish-American philosopher and writer George Santayana can be found at Auschwitz concentration camp. Remembering the Holocaust has basically been a state effort in Germany for years — from bureaucrats to members of parliament. But public interest is still strong as well. Former concentration camps and other memorial sites are registering record visitor numbers.

And yet, Jewish organizations say they have seen an increase in anti-Semitism in Germany. "The remembrance world champion is losing the battle against today's hatred against Jews," says Meron Mendel, the director of the Frankfurt Anne Frank Educational Center.

Remarks such as those from the AfD's Höcke have sparked fears of rising anti-Semitism in Germany

That concern is backed by a recent survey from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in 12 European countries. It found that over the last year, Jews in Germany haven't just faced more hostility than in previous years, but also more than in other countries.

Some 41 percent of Jews in Germany said they were victims of anti-Semitic hostility, compared to an average of 28 percent in the other surveyed countries.

Read more: German teacher fights schoolyard anti-Semitism

What particularly worries Jews in Germany are statements made by politicians from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Last year, its leader Alexander Gauland said that "Hitler and the Nazis are just a speck of bird shit in over a thousand years of successful German history." And two years ago Thuringian state AfD leader Björn Höcke called for a "180 degree change" in Germany's culture of Holocaust remembrance.

According to historian Wolfgang Benz, incidents such as these do not necessarily mean that anti-Semitism is once again socially acceptable in Germany, considering the "outrage" that Gauland and Höcke have caused. In an interview with DW, he denied that the situation was getting worse: "We are just more sensitive to this rage yelling that's coming from the AfD, for example."

Jewish memorials in Berlin

The Holocaust Memorial

A huge field of stelae in the center of the German capital was designed by New York architect Peter Eisenmann. The almost 3,000 stone blocks commemorate the six million Jewish people from all over Europe who were murdered by the National Socialists.

Jewish memorials in Berlin

The "Stumbling Stones"

Designed by German artist Gunther Demnig, these brass plates are very small — only 10 by 10 centimeters (3.9 x 3.9 inches). The stumbling stones mark the homes and offices from which people were deported by the Nazis. More than 7,000 of them have been placed across Berlin, 70,000 across Europe, and in 2017 the first stones were also laid in outside Europe, in Buenos Aires.

Jewish memorials in Berlin

The Wannsee Conference House

Fifteen high-ranking Nazi officials met in this villa on the Wannsee Lake on January 20, 1942 to discuss the systematic murder of European Jews, which they termed the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question". Today the house is a memorial that informs visitors about the unimaginable dimension of the genocide that was decided here.

Jewish memorials in Berlin

Track 17 Memorial

White roses on track 17 at Grunewald station remember the more than 50,000 Berlin Jews who were sent to their deaths from here. 186 steel plates show the date, destination and number of deportees. The first train went to the Litzmannstadt ghetto (Lodz, Poland) on October 18, 1941; the last train to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp on January 5, 1945.

Jewish memorials in Berlin

Otto Weidt's Workshop for the Blind

Today, the Hackesche Höfe in Berlin Mitte are mentioned in every travel guide. They are a backyard labyrinth in which many Jewish people lived and worked — for example in the brush factory of the German entrepreneur Otto Weidt. During the Nazi era he employed many blind and deaf Jews and saved them from deportation and death. The workshop of the blind is now a museum.

Jewish memorials in Berlin

Fashion Center Hausvogteiplatz

The heart of Berlin's fashion metropolis once beat here. A memorial sign made of high mirrors recalls the Jewish fashion designers and stylists who made clothes for the whole of Europe at Hausvogteiplatz. The National Socialists expropriated the Jewish owners and handed over the fashion stores to Aryan employees. Berlin's fashion center was irretrievably destroyed during the Second World War.

Jewish memorials in Berlin

Memorial at Koppenplatz

Before the Holocaust, 173,000 Jews lived in Berlin; in 1945 there were only 9,000. The monument "Der verlassene Raum" (The Deserted Room) is located in the middle of the Koppenplatz residential area in Berlin's Mitte district. It is a reminder of the Jewish citizens who were taken from their homes without warning and never returned.

Jewish memorials in Berlin

The Jewish Museum

Architect Daniel Libeskind chose a dramatic design: viewed from above, the building looks like a broken Star of David. The Jewish Museum is one of the most visited museums in Berlin, offering an overview of the turbulent centuries of German Jewish history.

Jewish memorials in Berlin

Weissensee Jewish Cemetery

There are still eight remaining Jewish cemeteries in Berlin, the largest of them in the Weissensee district. With over 115,000 graves, it is the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe. Many persecuted Jews hid in the complex premises during the Nazi era. On May 11, 1945, only three days after the end of the Second World War, the first postwar Jewish funeral service was held here.

Jewish memorials in Berlin

The New Synagogue

When the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse was first consecrated in 1866 it was considered the largest and most magnificent synagogue in Germany. The only one of Berlin's 13 synagogues to survive the Kristallnacht pogroms, it later burned down due to Allied bombs. It was reconstructed and opened again in 1995. Since then, the 50-meter-high golden dome once again dominates Berlin's cityscape.

Too much, too little or wrong remembrance?

Remembrance itself has a checkered history in Germany. Until the 1960s there was a general silence. People didn't want to know anything about their own crimes or lack of action. Things began to change when the country's younger generation started questioning — and accusing — their elders.

Forty years ago, the American television series Holocaust was viewed by millions of people in West Germany. The word "holocaust" was still unknown to most Germans in 1979. The series had a tremendous effect. "It was this film that created something like a culture of remembrance in Germany," says Werner Jung, director of the National Socialism Documentation Center in Cologne.

Read more: German students give Holocaust victims a voice online

A few months after the original air date, Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, decided by a narrow majority that the mass murders committed during the Nazi era shouldn't fall under a statute of limitations.

But there was resistance back then as well. Günter Rohrbach, then the head of public broadcaster WDR's TV movie division, received death threats, and bomb attacks were carried out on two transmission masts. Right-wing critics called the TV series an incitement; the left derided it as a "commercial Hollywood melodrama."

The US television series 'Holocaust,' starring Meryl Streep, had a significant impact on Germany's remembrance culture

Others complained of an excess of remembrance culture. In 1998, German author Martin Walser lamented what he called the "instrumentalization of Auschwitz" and said that the constant use of the Holocaust as a "moral cudgel" had the opposite effect. The remarks triggered a heated debate.

Meanwhile, German-Canadian sociologist Yark Michal Bodemann has criticized the situation quite differently. He argues that Holocaust remembrance in Germany has been nationalized and no longer has a Jewish character. It should mostly be the Jews themselves who take care of remembrance, he believes, adding that they didn't need a state anti-Semitism commissioner either.

Read more: When monuments become targets

Fewer contemporary witnesses

At the recent Hanukkah Festival in Berlin, during which German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier lit the first candle, concern was expressed that "the memory of the Shoah will be lost."

Amid that concern, however, there have been positive stories. Leonid Danziger's, for example. Born in Kyiv, he came to Berlin roughly two decades ago. "I learned Jewish life in Germany," he says. And Charlotte Knobloch, the former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, sees a future in the country despite anti-Semitism: "We are here, we will stay here."

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Other signs of hope include Israel's recent posthumous honoring of two Germans who had protected Jews: lawyer Heinz Gützlaff and actor Hans Söhnker. Or British-Jewish opera singer Simon Wallfisch assuming German citizenship because of Brexit. Several of his great-grandparents were murdered by the Nazis.

The way people in Germany remember the Holocaust is now changing, largely because there are increasingly fewer surviving contemporary witnesses. Despite this, the historian Wolfgang Benz believes that "remembrance is independent from contemporary witnesses, and the knowledge about the historical events does not disappear with the death of the contemporary witnesses."

Read more: Nazi crimes prosecutor: 'Time is running out'

The 86-year-old Israeli historian Saul Friedländer will deliver this year's commemorative speech in the Bundestag. "At some point people will read books about the Third Reich and the Holocaust like we do about Caesar's Gallic War today," Friedländer once said. "That's how it'll be, there is nothing we can do about it."

Benz sees the change as a natural process, "but one that cannot be equated with apathy or indifference," he says. "The Holocaust will never disappear from public memory."

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