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Mandatory school trips to Auschwitz?

January 13, 2018

Should students in Germany be required to visit to a concentration camp memorial site? DW's Marcel Fürstenau says that anyone who believes such a trip will prevent anti-Semitism needs to do more reflecting.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Kahnert

Anti-Semitism has many ugly faces: swastikas on building walls or in Jewish cemeteries, burning Israeli flags at demonstrations and attacks on Jews. It seems like Germany has been hit by a new wave of hatred for everything Jewish. Yet the underlying phenomenon is nothing new. Anti-Semitic attitudes have always been common in society, and despite all the crimes committed in the name of Germany during the Nazi era, these attitudes were never fully eradicated .

But now, unlike in the past, the hatred is being expressed recklessly and without restraint. The outrage has grown accordingly. How did this happen? After all, this country has been dealing with its guilt in an exemplary manner for decades, and has been rightly held up by many countries as a role model. Nonetheless, something must have gone wrong. One often hears that schools do not teach students enough about the Nazi era. Incidentally, similar criticism is heard about East Germany's communist dictatorship.

Productive conflicts better than staged harmony

If both complaints were true, then the solution to the problem would be obvious: more and better education. But it should not necessarily begin with an obligatory visit to former concentration camp sites, an idea currently being discussed by politicians and government officials. Despite the good intentions, it could be misguided. The anti-fascist principles forced on East German citizens by its government show what can happen.

Deutsche Welle Marcel Fürstenau
DW's Marcel FürstenauImage: DW

But even a free society has its difficulties with the supposedly correct form of remembrance. It should be voluntary and free of judgment.

Let us recall the long and sometimes bitter debate about the construction of the Holocaust monument next to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin — or the protests triggered by the German author Martin Walser in 1998 when he called Auschwitz a "moral truncheon" used to instrumentalize Germany's historical shame for current political purposes. The good thing about this — and other — conflicts is the fact that new life is breathed into Germany's reflection on its own, incomparable guilt. This is necessary when a country is only going through the motions of commemoration and reflection.

Sadly, anti-Semitism is timeless

If there were no link between present and past anti-Semitism in Germany, then there would be no talk of obligatory visits to concentration camp memorial sites. Anyone who visits Buchenwald, Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz or any other place of terror should do so of their own volition. Above all, future visitors must be intellectually and emotionally prepared, whether German or a new immigrant to the country.

Combating anti-Semitism should be the primary goal. After that, everything else will fall into place. Some people may instead be moved by a Stolperstein, a brass plate set into a sidewalk and inscribed with the name, date of birth and date of death of a person persecuted by the Nazi regime. Fortunately, empathy is not mandatory.

Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.