A delegation of German soccer players is to visit Auschwitz, the former concentration camp, prior to the European Championships in Poland. Can a sporting event bear the weight of that history?
Dieter Graumann, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has described the German Football Association's (DFB) decision to visit Auschwitz as "the right step, and an important one". Graumann himself publicly prompted the visit with a statement in March 2012, in which he said it would be "unthinkable for the Germans not to visit one of the Holocaust memorial sites at Auschwitz or Babi Yar during the European Championships."
A symbol of the Holocaust
The Auschwitz Holocaust Memorial commemorates the mass murder of European Jews that was committed on an industrial scale during World War II. After invading and annexing Poland in 1939, the German National Socialists built numerous large-scale concentration and extermination camps on Polish territory. Between 1940 and 1945 more than a million people, the majority of them Jews, were murdered in Auschwitz. The camp was preserved as a memorial in 1947, and nowadays around a million people visit it every year.
The president of the German Football Association, Wolfgang Niersbach, announced at the end of March that some of the national players as well as representatives of the DFB would be visiting the memorial.
It has yet to be confirmed who exactly will be in this delegation, and when exactly the visit will take place. For Niersbach, the important thing is that it "must take place in a dignified context and must not be allowed to become a public spectacle".
Anti-Semitic insults on the pitch
The educationalist and historian Klaus Ahlheim also feels the visit of the German delegation needs to strike the right balance. "It sends an important signal at the level of symbolic politics. We need repeatedly to remind people and be reminded of what happened. And we need to do this in the coming generations as well, because people like to forget, and they forget quickly and completely."
On the other hand, he says, the young soccer players are part of the "generation of grandchildren", who nowadays are unlikely to have any personal relationship with the events of the Holocaust. When taking schoolchildren or young adults to sites like the Auschwitz memorial, it's important to ensure that they are well prepared. "If young people are simply bused in, or made to go there, it can also be counterproductive," Ahlheim explains.
In Ahlheim's opinion, what is even more important than this kind of ritual remembrance is dealing with anti-Semitic, racist, or xenophobic influences in German football today. As he points out, "You hear people on the pitch these days yelling 'You Jew!' Right-wing and xenophobic insults are 'in' right now. This is something that needs to be addressed."
The Swiss sports reporter Alexander Kuhn agrees. He thinks the idea of a "class trip to Auschwitz with a media escort" is in bad taste. Writing in the Swiss newspaper Basler Zeitung, Kuhn commented: "The DFB's focus should not be on a clumsy attempt at mourning the past accompanied by plenty of media coverage. Rather, when a problem arises, they should react appropriately to what is happening today."
But other European football teams, such as those from Britain, the Netherlands and Italy, have also announced that they will be visiting Auschwitz. The Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk wants to take his entire team the 70 kilometers from the training camp in Krakow to visit Auschwitz.
The Italian national soccer team also intends to go. Giancarlo Abete, the president of the Italian Football Association, said: "We must make sure that tragedies of the past never happen again. The visit to Auschwitz is intended as a stimulus to combat all forms of discrimination."
Author: Rachel Gessat / cc
Editor: Nicole Goebel