In late January 1945, Hungarian teenager Bart Stern hid in a pile of bodies to avoid being killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz. He survived, but not one of his friends escaped.
Soon afterwards, the Red Army liberated the few remaining inmates at Auschwitz. More than a million people had been murdered there, 90% of them Jewish, the rest Roma and Sinti gypies, Russian prisoners-of-war, Poles, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and others caught up in Hitler’s killing machine. Thousands more perished on so-called death marches as the Nazis raced to evacuate the camp before the Red Army arrived.
Since then, what have we learned? I’ve been part of a project that’s trying to figure this out. An exhibition at the University of Leeds, partnered with the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, looks at how Germany confronted the Holocaust in a global context.
Roll call of atrocity
After the war, steps were quickly taken in attempt to prevent anything like the Holocaust ever happening again. The United Nations was founded and, in 1948, the UN established the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But as this was happening, South Africa’s ruling National Party was introducing apartheid as official government policy. The ensuing racist and anti-Semitic persecution that followed as a result is a reminder that democracy and human rights are very fragile things.
The values espoused by the Declaration of Human Rights – and by the ostensibly democratic nations who voted to support it – are suppressed all too often, whether due to self-interest, conflict, or the political and economic forces that benefit from unequal and war-torn societies.
However loudly we recite the lesson of the Holocaust – “Never Again!” – we seem unable to prevent new mass killings: Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur, Iraq, Syria – the roll call of atrocity is depressingly long. Intolerance of others underlies these atrocities, just as it drives radical Islamists to gun down cartoonists in Paris. It motivates Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in Europe and the violent xenophobia that has plagued parts of Africa and Asia.
Last year we marked 100 years since the outbreak of World War I, which has been commonly referred to as: “the war to end all wars”. And with each subsequent conflict that has followed, there is a memorial, a protest, or a politician declaring: “Never Again!”
But in Germany, the slogan “Never Again” has turned into something more meaningful. It may not be perfect, but Germans have tried, often with admirable honesty, to face up to the Holocaust. This did not happen overnight – and, as the recent protests in Dresden demonstrate, there is a long way to go in some places.
Getting to grips in Germany
Since 1945, Germans have had to face the uncomfortable truth that their fathers and mothers, or grandfathers and grandmothers, were aware of the atrocities taking place or even directly responsible for them, and that so few resisted. After the war, for many people in Germany, denial seemed one way to deal with it. But the next generation’s reaction was one of outrage and, over time, this morphed into efforts at reconciliation and restitution, the building of memorials and commemoration of the victims – and Germany’s desire today to be a beacon for human rights.
In the decade after the end of the war, once the Nuremberg Trials were over and Germany, like the rest of Europe, was once again focused upon rebuilding itself, many wanted to sweep the Holocaust under the carpet. Hans Globke, for example, had been a member of the Nazi party, and had even written a legal commentary on the Nuremberg race laws. By the 1950s, Globke was chief of staff and a close adviser to the first West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer.
But by the 1960s, a younger generation of Germans was caught up in the protests which were sweeping the world. This generation would not hide from the past, nor accept the silence that their parent’s generation had grown accustomed to. In 1961, the televised trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem reminded the world of the Nazi atrocities. Meanwhile, former Nazis had re-occupied comfortable positions of influence in German society. There was oppressive adoption of Emergency Laws in West Germany in the late 1960s.
All this fuelled the drive to see a new, open Germany which defended human rights, locally and globally. The fatal shooting of student protester Benno Ohnesorg in 1967 and the attempted assassination of student leader Rudi Dutschke in 1968 further heightened tensions between the old order and the new generation. The floodgates were open.
The years since the reunification of Germany has brought a country whose landscapes are inescapably marked by the Nazis and by memorials to their victims. Germany’s identity is increasingly one which recognises its dark past. The German Constitution, introduced in West Germany in 1949 and adopted across reunified Germany in 1990 asserts the inviolability of human dignity and Germany’s commitment to human rights. The reopened Reichstag building in Berlin, boasting a glass dome designed by Norman Foster over the debating chamber, promotes transparency in government.
Dark pasts linger
The lesson to learn from this is that dark pasts are never entirely forgotten. The language of the Holocaust speaks to a global audience,# with their own histories and cultural memories.
In South Africa, there was apartheid – and before that, a long history of conflict and oppression. In South America, there was the “disappearance” of thousands of dissidents during the dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s and, in Asia, we’ve had the Japanese war of aggression, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and the Indonesian generals. Europe and North America have histories of slavery and colonialism, and Britain a less-than glorious legacy of decolonialisation in Kenya and rule in Ireland.
Germany today is by no means perfect. The marches in Dresden (a city where less than 2% of the population are foreigners – and in other German cities – against the supposed “Islamicisation” of Europe show that prejudice and even racism can still thrive there. As recent events in Paris have tragically demonstrated, racism, fundamentalism and intolerance are urgent issues across Europe, including in the UK.
We begin 2015 sandwiched between the start of a four-year programme of World War I memorials and a general election campaign being fought against a backdrop of anti-terror rhetoric, rising nationalism and a continent-wide political shift to the right which so often thrives on and feeds off intolerance.
So 70 years after the liberation of the death camps, as the survivors die off, the memory of the Holocaust passes from those who were there to us, the generations that follow. In considering how the Holocaust has been remembered in Germany, the perpetrator nation, we also need to focus attention on the hatred that is still all-too common today.