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What Holocaust remembrance means today

Elizabeth Grenier Wannsee
January 20, 2022

In 1942, Nazi leaders met in a villa to plan the Holocaust: 80 years after the Wannsee Conference, the memorial center's director Deborah Hartmann still sees links with today's society.

House of the Wannsee Conference
Image: DW/E. Grenier

On January 20, 1942, a group of 15 Nazi leaders met in a lakeside villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. During their 90-minute meeting, which became known as the Wannsee Conference, they discussed the implementation of the "Final Solution to the Jewish question," the official code name for the systematic murder of Jews during World War II.

Today, the mansion serves as a Holocaust memorial and educational center, with a permanent exhibition that goes beyond the infamous 1942 conference. "It's about way more than these 15 men, even though it's tempting to focus on them, because that allows everyone else to feel relieved of responsibility," says Deborah Hartmann, who became the director of the House of the Wannsee Conference in December 2020.

Deborah Hartmann: A woman standing in a museum space where the word Deportation can be read on one of the displays in the background.
Deborah Hartmann, director of the House of the Wannsee ConferenceImage: Elizabeth Grenier/DW

For Hartmann, the memorial center not only stands for what happened on January 20, 1942, but also symbolizes Germany's postwar reluctance to deal with the Holocaust, referring to the fact that historian and Auschwitz survivor Joseph Wulf had already proposed in 1965 to turn the Wannsee villa into a Holocaust memorial and research center.

But at the time, politicians were against the project; the house was used as a camp for school groups.

Facing death threats and losing hope that the government would ever pursue and convict Nazi war criminals, Wulf died by suicide in 1974.

The project was relaunched in the 1980s, and it was only on January 20, 1992, on the 50th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, that the Holocaust memorial and museum was opened.

Joseph Wulf
Historian and Auschwitz survivor Joseph Wulf wrote several books about Nazi Germany and the HolocaustImage: Ursula Böhme/GHWK

Through his research, Joseph Wulf aimed to demonstrate postwar continuities in terms of power structures within West Germany's politics and leadership positions, explains Hartmann. This decades-long fight to confront society with what actually happened is something she finds particularly moving.

And "continuities" is a term Hartmann often uses when discussing her own work, as she sees Holocaust remembrance work as not being only anchored in events of the past, but as an ongoing process that requires pointing out how history connects with today's attitudes.

Remembrance work requires honesty

By pointing out one of those continuities, she actually caused a small diplomatic incident in 2018.

Before becoming the director of the House of the Wannsee Conference, she was the head of the German Desk of Yad Vashem's International School for Holocaust Studies. The Vienna-born scholar also served as a guide for official delegations from German-speaking countries visiting Israel's official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

During a guided tour with then-Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, she criticized him for touting his dedication to remembering the Shoah and fighting antisemitism, all while forming a coalition with the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), which includes politicians who are "openly antisemitic," she said. 

Her remarks sparked outrage within diplomatic circles, leading Yad Vashem to apologize to Austria's ambassador in Israel. But even if it meant risking her job, Hartmann believes "she wouldn't do anything differently today, because somehow we need to be honest with ourselves."

Visiting Yad Vashem

A perpetrators' location to commemorate the victims

Hartmann's great-grandparents were deported from Vienna and murdered during the Holocaust, but she doesn't believe her own Jewish identity should be in the spotlight when discussing her role as director of the memorial center.

"Why am I now being asked about the fact that I'm Jewish?" she wonders. "I understand of course that this is of interest, but at the same time, what does it actually mean to be asked that? Is it because it's still so unusual or extraordinary? Is it because there still can't be any normality between Germans and Jews?"

"Obviously one's family history always resonates in the background," she adds, but like anyone else in such a context, she manages to distance herself from that background for her work. "But of course, it's also important to me that the Jewish perspective and Jewish experience from the past and present are made visible."

For Hartmann, even though the Wannsee mansion housed the perpetrators, their actions can only be understood by keeping in mind the victims' perspective. "There are no perpetrators without victims and no victims without perpetrators, of course," she points out. 

A person looking at a multimedia museum display, showing different screens and a map of Europe.
'The Start of the Deportations': A display at the House of the Wannsee Conference's permanent exhibitionImage: DW/E. Grenier

Along with the center's permanent exhibition, the House of the Wannsee Conference also offers workshops for specific professional fields, such as police officers or hospital staff, allowing them to look into the question, "What did my professional group do at the time; what was their stance?" explains Hartmann. They also examine how some of the practices of the Nazi era are still in use today, for example in the administrative language used in protocols.

Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories linked to antisemitism

Current events also demonstrate that ideas from that era are still influencing people today.

Last year, members of the anti-vaccine movement, known in Germany as the "Querdenker" movement, manifested their presence by leaving pamphlets in the museum and writing a comment in the memorial center's guestbook, comparing the current COVID-19 restrictions to the Nazis' anti-Jewish laws.

"The Querdenker movement is based on conspiracy theories, so there is, of course, a very close connection to antisemitism and antisemitic thinking," says Hartmann.

"And of course we also have the task, as a memorial center, to make that clear and to do something about it."

But can a Holocaust memorial center such as the House of the Wannsee Conference counter conspiracy theorists and the growing popularity of far-right parties such as Germany's Alternative for Germany (AfD)

"The message doesn't always get through, but we must try to reach the people who are ready to talk with us," says Hartmann. "It might not work through historical education, but here too we can show the continuities in beliefs, by making it clear that conspiracy theories are a very important part of antisemitism."

Even though such efforts, as she realistically adds, are "only an attempt," they're still worth a try.

Edited by: Sarah Hucal

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