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Holocaust remembrance in Germany: A changing culture

January 27, 2019

Every year in January, German officials commemorate the murder of millions of Jews and other groups perpetrated by the Nazis. Now more than ever, people are debating the "right" way to remember that horrific event.

Deutschland Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel im ehemaligen KZ Dachau
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/K. Joensson

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This quote by Spanish-American philosopher and writer George Santayana can be found at Auschwitz concentration camp. Remembering the Holocaust has basically been a state effort in Germany for years — from bureaucrats to members of parliament. But public interest is still strong as well. Former concentration camps and other memorial sites are registering record visitor numbers.

And yet, Jewish organizations say they have seen an increase in anti-Semitism in Germany. "The remembrance world champion is losing the battle against today's hatred against Jews," says Meron Mendel, the director of the Frankfurt Anne Frank Educational Center.
That concern is backed by a recent survey from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in 12 European countries. It found that over the last year, Jews in Germany haven't just faced more hostility than in previous years, but also more than in other countries.

AfD's Björn Höcke
Remarks such as those from the AfD's Höcke have sparked fears of rising anti-Semitism in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Schutt

Some 41 percent of Jews in Germany said they were victims of anti-Semitic hostility, compared to an average of 28 percent in the other surveyed countries.

Read more: German teacher fights schoolyard anti-Semitism

What particularly worries Jews in Germany are statements made by politicians from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Last year, its leader Alexander Gauland said that "Hitler and the Nazis are just a speck of bird shit in over a thousand years of successful German history." And two years ago Thuringian state AfD leader Björn Höcke called for a "180 degree change" in Germany's culture of Holocaust remembrance.

According to historian Wolfgang Benz, incidents such as these do not necessarily mean that anti-Semitism is once again socially acceptable in Germany, considering the "outrage" that Gauland and Höcke have caused. In an interview with DW, he denied that the situation was getting worse: "We are just more sensitive to this rage yelling that's coming from the AfD, for example."

Too much, too little or wrong remembrance?

Remembrance itself has a checkered history in Germany. Until the 1960s there was a general silence. People didn't want to know anything about their own crimes or lack of action. Things began to change when the country's younger generation started questioning — and accusing — their elders.

Forty years ago, the American television series Holocaust was viewed by millions of people in West Germany. The word "holocaust" was still unknown to most Germans in 1979. The series had a tremendous effect. "It was this film that created something like a culture of remembrance in Germany," says Werner Jung, director of the National Socialism Documentation Center in Cologne.

Read more: German students give Holocaust victims a voice online

A few months after the original air date, Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, decided by a narrow majority that the mass murders committed during the Nazi era shouldn't fall under a statute of limitations.

But there was resistance back then as well. Günter Rohrbach, then the head of public broadcaster WDR's TV movie division, received death threats, and bomb attacks were carried out on two transmission masts. Right-wing critics called the TV series an incitement; the left derided it as a "commercial Hollywood melodrama."

Meryl Streep in 'Holocaust' in 1978
The US television series 'Holocaust,' starring Meryl Streep, had a significant impact on Germany's remembrance cultureImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Others complained of an excess of remembrance culture. In 1998, German author Martin Walser lamented what he called the "instrumentalization of Auschwitz" and said that the constant use of the Holocaust as a "moral cudgel" had the opposite effect. The remarks triggered a heated debate.

Meanwhile, German-Canadian sociologist Yark Michal Bodemann has criticized the situation quite differently. He argues that Holocaust remembrance in Germany has been nationalized and no longer has a Jewish character. It should mostly be the Jews themselves who take care of remembrance, he believes, adding that they didn't need a state anti-Semitism commissioner either.

Read more: When monuments become targets

Fewer contemporary witnesses

At the recent Hanukkah Festival in Berlin, during which German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier lit the first candle, concern was expressed that "the memory of the Shoah will be lost."

Amid that concern, however, there have been positive stories. Leonid Danziger's, for example. Born in Kyiv, he came to Berlin roughly two decades ago. "I learned Jewish life in Germany," he says. And Charlotte Knobloch, the former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, sees a future in the country despite anti-Semitism: "We are here, we will stay here."

'I speak for the dead'

Other signs of hope include Israel's recent posthumous honoring of two Germans who had protected Jews: lawyer Heinz Gützlaff and actor Hans Söhnker. Or British-Jewish opera singer Simon Wallfisch assuming German citizenship because of Brexit. Several of his great-grandparents were murdered by the Nazis.

The way people in Germany remember the Holocaust is now changing, largely because there are increasingly fewer surviving contemporary witnesses. Despite this, the historian Wolfgang Benz believes that "remembrance is independent from contemporary witnesses, and the knowledge about the historical events does not disappear with the death of the contemporary witnesses."

Read more: Nazi crimes prosecutor: 'Time is running out'

The 86-year-old Israeli historian Saul Friedländer will deliver this year's commemorative speech in the Bundestag. "At some point people will read books about the Third Reich and the Holocaust like we do about Caesar's Gallic War today," Friedländer once said. "That's how it'll be, there is nothing we can do about it."

Benz sees the change as a natural process, "but one that cannot be equated with apathy or indifference," he says. "The Holocaust will never disappear from public memory."

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