Buchenwald: Lessons from past and present | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 13.07.2012
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Germany

Buchenwald: Lessons from past and present

75 years ago in July, 1937, the concentration camp Buchenwald was built near the city of Weimar. The memorial there today draws people from around the world, and its program has seen some shifts in recent years.

Glockenturm. Teil der 1958 eingeweihten Mahnmalanlage. Sammlung Gedenkstätte Buchenwald. Foto: Peter Hansen

Gedenkstätte Buchenwald

Once a favorite area for hiking and vacationing, Buchenwald was transformed in 1937 into a site designed to annihilate people.

Beyond clusters of trees, a valley opens up, dotted today by one or two villages. Back then, the cold and windy north side of the valley was set aside for Buchenwald's prisoners, and the more comfortable climate on the southern side was reserved for the guards and camp directors.

An open secret

"The camp was no secret," noted historian Ronald Hirte during a visit to the grounds. Everyone could have seen Buchenwald from below, he said, because the surrounding forest was not as thick as it is today.

Buchenwald was situated about five kilometers (3 miles) from the city of Weimar. Among local residents, its existence was an uncomfortable fact. The concentration camp was a place of horrors that people in the cultural and political focal point of Weimar wanted to know nothing about.

"But many local companies did very well thanks to the work of the prisoners," Hirte said.

Thousands of people from throughout Europe were deported to the camp beginning in 1937, and they were forced to march from Weimar to Buchenwald. Later the city was connected with the camp by a railway built by the prisoners, who also built a service road still called today by its original name: Blutstraße - literally, Blood Street.

A plaque memorializing women and girls murdered in Buchenwald

A plaque memorializing women and girls murdered in Buchenwald

On a now barren and empty spot on the hill, prisoners had to gather each morning and night for a role call that could last hours. A gateway bearing the words "Jedem das Seine" (Translated literally: "To each his own," but figuratively: "Everyone will get what he deserves.") still stands, along with bunkers and the dark and musty rooms in which Nazi guards tortured and murdered the prisoners.

Bringing the present into focus

It is not uncommon for 20 groups of young people to visit the memorial on a given day.

"Interest continues to grow, and so does the number of visitors," said Hirte.

It is now Germany's third and fourth post-war generations that can come to ask questions here and learn what happened. The memorial offers a wide-ranging educational program. But the point is not to moralize and point fingers into the past, said the director of the memorial, Volkhard Knigge: "We want to direct questions of contemporary society toward the past."

More concretely, that means that issues including human rights violations, persecution, right-wing extremism and nationalism are taken up as contemporary topics against the historical background of the Holocaust.

"Today, that is our central historical, political, and ethical educational task," Knigge said.

During a recent visit, two 14-year-old boys sat in front of a plaque listing the home countries of former prisoners.

"We are here with our school, and our teacher just showed us around. Now we have a couple of assignments to do - for example, finding out where the prisoners were from and how many lived here," one boy explained.

Watching them, it is apparent that this is not just a routine field trip. There is a bit of horsing around when the school groups first arrive, but silence and solemnity are the norm once students pass by the execution chambers and furnaces used to incinerate bodies.

There are also groups from Poland, Russia and the USA in attendance. One American student relates that her grandfather was among those who helped liberate Buchenwald but that he never spoke about the experience.

Restored items belonging to former prisoners

Restored items belonging to former prisoners

No "trite effects"

Addressing questions about what should be shown today, how the site should be commentated, what is authentic and credible - and what isn't - forms the core of the work done by the memorial's team. The administration has generally tried to avoid reconstructing what Buchenwald might have been like.

"We don't want to create any trite effects," said Ronald Hirte. "The noisiness and narrowness of this place, how terrible the smell was - we could never convey that to visitors today anyway."

The memorial's head said that Buchenwald has become a model for other countries around the world - in a partnership sense rather than in a presumptuous way.

"Everywhere in the world, in South America, Rwanda, South Africa, Hungary, in the former Yugoslavia, there are people examining and dealing with their history. We support and encourage them in their search for ways to honor and respect victims without concealing the horrors of what happened," he said.

Asking why

In recent years, other less visible groups have been added to the list of those memorialized. Alongside Jewish victims, politically persecuted individuals of various nationalities, Soviet prisoners of war and Roma and Sinti people, the grounds now also house memorials to German Armed Forces deserters, homosexuals and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Looking through a fence at graves at the Buchenwald site

Mass graves from Buchenwald's term as a Soviet internment camp

The varied exhibitions allow visitors to learn more about Buchenwald, including the fact that it was changed into a Soviet camp just after the war. Just a few traces are left over from this chapter in Buchenwald's history. The camp was used to imprison those whom the Soviets suspected of having supported the Nazi regime. Even when their suspicions proved unfounded, it played no role. Being suspect was enough to justify a multi-year sentence. This part of Buchenwald's history became taboo during the GDR period.

Thousands of people who died of hunger and disease between 1945 and 1950 lie today in mass graves that have been converted into cemetaries. Buchenwald has become a double memorial.

Author: Cornelia Rabitz / gsw
Editor: Gabriel Borrud