Controversy over far-right AfD member joining former concentration camp board | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 28.11.2017
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Controversy over far-right AfD member joining former concentration camp board

Politicians from the far-right AfD could soon be represented on a board that oversees former Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. Survivor groups are appalled. But some observers say excluding the party could backfire.

The success of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in last month's Lower Saxony elections is causing a headache for establishment parties and the state's Memorials Foundation. In previous years, each party represented in the Landtag, or state parliament, sent one member to sit on the foundation's oversight board. Following the current rules, a representative from the AfD, which won more than 6 percent of the vote in the October 15 Lower Saxony election, would also get a seat.

The Lower Saxony Memorials Foundation is in charge of the Bergen-Belsen Memorial, the site of a former concentration camp where visitors can learn about the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime.

Controversy over German remembrance culture

Among the Memorials Foundation's main tasks is to "appropriately commemorate the victims of Nazi persecution and to ensure their life stories are not lost" and "support historical and civic education relating to Nazi crimes and to encourage reflection about their significance for the present," according to its website.

Björn Höcke (picture alliance/dpa/M. Schutt)

Some AfD members wanted Höcke expelled after his Holocaust remarks, but that never happened

Prominent AfD members in the past have stirred controversy for making anti-Semitic statements. Björn Höcke, head of the AfD in the eastern-German state of Thuringia, earlier this year called the Holocaust memorial in Berlin a "monument of shame" and said that German remembrance culture should first and foremost consist of teaching people about the great achievements of their forefathers.

The AfD parliamentary group in Lower Saxony has not replied to DW's request for comment for this story.

Preserving ideals or creating martyrs?

News of a possible AfD member on the Memorial Foundation's board has sparked backlash from Holocaust survivor associations.

Former Bergen-Belsen prisoner Shraga Milstein wrote a letter from Israel saying the thought of a member of this "revisionist and racist" party on the board was "unbearable" to him. Milstein was 12 when British soldiers rescued him from the camp in 1945.

The director of the Memorials Foundation, Jens-Christian Wagner, has received other worried letters from survivors' associations in the US, France and Israel.

"We have to take these concerns seriously," Wagner said in a statement. "It would be wrong to ignore the AfD. [But] dealing with them and their positions has to happen in a public forum … The foundation board is the wrong place for this. One hopes that the AfD will not send a representative to sit on the board."

Bergen-Belsen Krematorium Wachturm Verbrennungsofen (Getty Images/C.Ware)

Tens of thousands of people died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during World War II

However, some observers fear that excluding the AfD would send the wrong message.

"I don't think changing the rules to exclude the AfD is a good idea," Michael Fürst, chairman of the Association of Jewish Communities in Lower Saxony, told DW. "That would only turn them into martyrs. Us other board members are strong enough to deal with an AfD representative."

'Opposite of everything foundation wants to achieve'

Lukas Welz, chairman of Amcha Germany, an aid organization for Holocaust survivors, vividly remembers how, during the national election campaign this fall, the right-wing populists put up an election poster with the picture of a pregnant woman and the line "We'll make new Germans ourselves" in front of the Bergen-Belsen memorial.

Displaying this xenophobic, anti-immigration poster right by the former concentration camp was a deliberate provocation by the AfD, Welz said.

"Thinking about this and the fact that survivors' organizations are so opposed to an AfD member on the board, I've come to the conclusion that the AfD cannot be on the foundation's board, because the party is the opposite of everything the foundation wants to achieve," he told DW.

The board in its current, pre-election configuration will meet in December to discuss the issue. Member Sven Bratmann, who represents the state parliament's center-left Social Democrats (SPD), believes that the addition of the AfD would not stop the Memorials Foundation from achieving its goals.

"We are doing good work and one AfD board member would not be able to stop us," Bratmann told DW. "But the good atmosphere we've had in our meetings so far would probably change."

Instead of every parliamentary party automatically being represented on the foundation board, Bratmann has another suggestion.

"We could vote on the board members the Landtag sends to the foundation," he said. "This way, AfD members would have to explain why they want to be on the board."

If the other parliamentary groups weren't convinced by what the AfD members had to say, they wouldn't get elected, Bratmann said. "I think this could be a solution."

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