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Remembering the Past for the Present's Sake

The association "Against Forgetting" is creating a book containing interviews of children who survived Nazi concentration camps. DW-WORLD spoke to the group's president, Joachim Gauck, about German-Polish relations.


"Germany has a strong culture of remembrance" -- Joachim Gauck

Joachim Gauck, 65, is a theologia n . He is perhaps best k n ow n i n Germa n y for his role i n the early 1990s as commissio n er for the office charged with a n alyzi n g the exte n sive files kept by the East Germa n secret police, the Stasi. I n 2003 he became head of the associatio n "Agai n st Forgetti n g -- For Democracy," which e n gages i n critical reviews of the Natio n al Socialist a n d GDR eras as well as political extremism a n d racism. Gauck has four childre n a n d lives i n Berli n . I n 2005 he received a n ho n orary doctorate from the U n iversity of Augsburg .

DW-WORLD: Your associatio n is worki n g with the Warsaw Jewish Historical I n stitute o n a schoolbook with stories from 12 to 18-year-olds who were i n co n ce n tratio n camps. Are n 't these stories too atrocious for school childre n ?

Joachim Gauck: If we really look at what kinds of horrors children choose themselves to be exposed to, I don't think that's true. German and Polish specialists and teachers are selecting the stories that won't overwhelm readers, but make it possible for them to understand this horrible part of history. We know that these kinds of stories have a greater effect on younger generations when they portray people in their own age groups.

I n ge n eral, Germa n s are said to e n gage i n a n ho n est, critical a n alysis of their ow n history. Most adults are aware of the crimes Germa n s committed duri n g that time. Is the work of your associatio n the n particularly directed toward you n g people?

No, our work is aimed at the whole of society. In Germany, unlike anywhere else, we have a very strong culture of remembrance, one that sometimes borders on the neurotic. But at the same time, it seems as if our modern society is divided in two. There is a civil society with its norms and public engagement, but then on the other hand, there is one in which people define themselves increasingly as mere consumers and observers. We can't be satisfied with this kind of dichotomy in society.

Does that mea n i n Germa n y we have, regardi n g remembra n ce, somethi n g that might be called a n educatio n al u n derclass?

Yes, you could say that. Germany is not unique in that way, but we have people who are cut off from the country's cultural debate. In Germany there is general understanding about one's own guilt. But this understanding is decidedly denied by right-wing radicals or extremists or it is simply ignored, unconsciously, by people who feel that have nothing to gain from debates over culture, politics and justice.

So the aim is to reach these people, with for example, this Germa n -Polish schoolbook. But how ca n rememberi n g atrocities help i n the reco n ciliatio n of two peoples with this difficult history?

Polen Jahrestag Konzentrationslager Auschwitz

Barracks of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp

With Germans, remembering helps those children of the Nazi period or those born after it to recognize the heavy guilt that their forebears carry regarding their neighbors. It helps create a certain modesty and thoughtfulness toward those neighbors. We shouldn't have guilt feelings, but we should remember that the concentration camps in Auschwitz were set up by Germans, sometimes by our fathers and grandfathers. From the German side, we want to create a new sense of empathy. For Poles, such a project is further proof that we in Germany recognize their own suffering and are interested in what happened them.

Despite various projects, Poles are still very sceptical regardi n g Germa n s. Accordi n g to rece n t surveys by the Alle n sbach I n stitute, 61 perce n t of Poles a n d 38 perce n t of Czechs thi n k it is probable that the Germa n gover n me n t will dema n d the retur n of Germa n regio n s lost after World War Two or at least dema n d compe n satio n for them.

That is really grotesque. The media in Poland are especially guilty of creating such sentiment. I am a great admirer of the Polish mentality and their strong desire for freedom, but at the same time, one has to keep a critical distance. The presentation of current debates has led to firm opinions among some sections of the population that the revanchists -- an old communist propaganda concept -- want to somehow take back former parts of their countries. Those fears are being stirred up again. The conflict about the planned center for expellees has been used to do that, for example. More objective reporting from the local media would be helpful.

Accordi n g to Alle n sbach, 41 perce n t of Poles a n d 39 perce n t of Czechs are of the opi n io n that the real goal of expellee associatio n s is to get back property their members o n ce had.

Polen Deutschlandbild Zeitschrift Coverbild

A controversial cover of the Polish weekly WPROST

That just goes to show how distorted the reporting is, since the expellee associations themselves have never made that an issue. The German government would certainly never pursue such a goal. That has been explained repeatedly.

The n ew Polish preside n t, Lech Kaszy n ski, fulmi n ated agai n st the pla n n ed expellee ce n ter i n Berli n duri n g the rece n t electio n campaig n . O n Mo n day, members of the co n servatives a n d Social Democrats i n Germa n coalitio n talks decided there should at least be a "visible sig n " that would serve as a remi n der of the postwar expulsio n s. Does that burde n Germa n -Polish relatio n s eve n more?

You see, in Germany, we have a completely different form of historic debate. As the nation that invaded our neighbors and murdered their citizens, we have a special reason to put the focus on our own guilt and responsibility. Ever since the '68 generation, the majority has accepted the fact that German guilt is something we can never deny. That is the reason that our very concept of nation and our self-confidence are so poorly developed. This self-critical way of relating to our own country, which we are so used to, is something that no normal Pole has experienced. He thinks that when a new discussion begins over expellees, that the Germans think like the Poles do. That is what makes this debate so difficult.

That mea n s, the n , that Germa n politicia n s must commu n icate clearly what ki n d of special mea n i n g a memorial or ce n ter agai n st expulsio n s would have i n Germa n y . What else ca n the cha n cellor-desig n ate, A n gela Merkel, do for relatio n s betwee n Germa n y a n d Pola n d ?

There is one area where a change of accent could do some good. We have observed time and again, and sometimes with great astonishment, the extremely close relationship the outgoing Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has with Russia and President Putin. Poland is at least as sceptical of its eastern neighbor as it is of its western one, us. With Angela Merkel, a stronger consideration of our immediate neighbor is again possible.

The i n terview was co n ducted by Aar n i Kuoppamäki (jam)

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