1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Berlin debates new memorial for victims of Nazis

Mikhail Bushuev
June 9, 2020

Should Polish victims of Nazi terror receive a special memorial in the German capital? There are influential politicians in favor of the plan, but an alternative has also been proposed — a decision is expected soon.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and cabinet members Wolfgang Schäuble und Frank Walter Steinmeier lay wreaths at the Neue Wache Memorial in Berlin to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Tw
Image: Reuters/H. Hanschke

What is the most appropriate way for Germany to commemorate victims of Nazi war crimes in eastern Europe? Debate over this issue, one that is central to Germany's politics of remembrance, has come to a head once again as the time approaches to make a decision about a new memorial site in Berlin.

There are basically two concepts in the running: A memorial to Polish victims of the Second World War, and a documentation center to preserve the memory of all the victims of the Nazi regime in eastern Europe.

Read more: Opinion: 80 years after World War II, we must fight for an open Europe

Polish suffering

Over the past few years, the initiative for a Poland memorial in Berlin has received much support. Those behind the initiative want a site in the capital that commemorates the Polish victims of Nazi occupiers. "The idea of this initiative is to fill a gap in German collective memory," the former president of the Bundestag, Wolfgang Thierse, told DW.

Thierse, who belongs to the Social Democratic Party (SPD), said that although there were many sites commemorating Nazi crimes, including the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, "the fact that Poland, the first victim of Nazi aggression, our direct neighbor, suffered terribly for five years under German occupation is little known and little remembered."

The initiative has prestigious supporters. Altogether 137 well-known names from politics and society are on its list, including not only Thierse, but also his predecessor, Rita Süssmuth, from the Christian Democratic Party (CDU). A group of parliamentarians, among them Green Party politician Manuel Sarrazin and CDU Secretary General Paul Ziemiak, have independently launched a similar appeal.

Poland: Where World War II began

'Avoiding victim nationalization'

The proposed alternative to the Polish memorial is a documentation center that, according to the former president of the German War Graves Commission, Markus Meckel, "takes all of Europe into account." Meckel told DW that the center would aim to collect material and information connected with Nazi crimes particularly in eastern Europe. The driving forces behind this initiative are Meckel himself, alongside well-known historians Martin Aust and Heinrich August Winkler.

Speaking with DW, Meckel described the Polish memorial as the wrong way forward, claiming it would class victims according to their nationality, whereas the documentation center would be a dignified memorial to all victims of the Nazis' war of extermination.

Wolfgang Thierse accepts that this argument carries some weight, but counters by saying, "the alternative means that we do what the Nazis did: They spoke of Slavic subhumans, without making distinctions."

White-washing German history

Commemoration of lesser-known crimes

Berlin already has one Memorial to Polish Soldiers and German Anti-Fascists but it dates back to the times of the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR). Both Meckel and Thierse find the memorial to be a falsification of history. Meckel fails to see the necessity of constructing a new Polish memorial, nevertheless, suggesting instead that the existing site could be reworked to make it more accurately reflect accepted historical truths.

Although the two initiatives have many differences, they also have something in common: Both aim to commemorate the victims of Nazi war crimes, mainly in eastern Europe. Such events, many say, lack a place in German collective memory. "Everyone in Germany knows about the massacre in Oradour in southern France. But in Belarus, there were more than 600 villages like that. That is something that no one in Germany knows," says Meckel, who today heads the German-Belarusian Society.

Meckel says he does not want to weigh such crimes against one another, but adds that there was a fundamental difference between the war of occupation in western Europe and the war of extermination in eastern Europe.

A solution in sight?

The discussion about the new memorial site is moving forward. Supporters of the two appeals, which have sometimes been signed by the same people, have recently been finding ever more common ground. This does not surprise Manuel Sarrazin of the Green Party, who says the two initiatives are not contradictory but in fact supplement one another.

Germany's coalition government has agreed on a path of compromise. Media reports say coalition parties want to push for a decision on establishing a new memorial in Berlin before parliament breaks for the summer. It appears they have also reached a consensus that it should commemorate the victims of the Nazi wars of extermination in Europe and "particularly in the east."

According to DW information, however, an application for just one of the two initiatives has been submitted to the parliamentary cultural committee: The application to set up the joint documentation center. If this remains the case, the plans for a special Polish monument will be off the table.

Every evening, DW sends out a selection of the day's news and features. Sign up here.