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Historical monument helps Germans introspect about genocide




These days, the Berlin site, where a memo detailing the planned mass extermination of the Jews was drafted in 1942, has a new purpose. It uses its history to encourage Germans to reflect on the past and the tendrils into the present.

“Even in 2019, everything is linked and rooted to that story,” said Eike Stegen, the house’s public relations officer, in an interview with the SA Jewish Report.

“Something didn’t just end – boom – in May 1945 – hour zero – and we can move on and see everything start anew. German society is still a post-national-socialist society.”

Unpacking what this means for contemporary Germany is one of the house’s key aims. Unlike many sites related to the Holocaust, which focus on the victims, Wannsee House focuses on the role of the perpetrator.

“There is a chance to learn from the development of these perpetrators, and how they moved into genocide – which was not there from 1933.”

In particular, says Stegen, there are lessons to learn when looking at the back stories of the individual men who toasted the drafting of the final solution with cognacs and cigars in the parlour of the house.

“These are men who studied at university; who had academic degrees; who travelled internationally. And the development of all of this is that they sat on 20 January 1942, at the conference table, and discussed the murder of millions of European Jews.”

Wannsee House carries out this work by hosting groups of adults from similar fields of work. In their sessions at the site, they probe how their particular professions were involved in the “Holocaust; the creation of the Nazi dictatorship; and discrimination, dispossession and deportation.”

Stegen says that while on the surface this work might seem to relate only to those directly involved in areas such as policing or transport, in fact, a wide range of professions made up the story of World War II. A recent example is a group of apprentice hairdressers who came to the House of the Wannsee Conference to study how hairdressers were positioned during the time of the Nazis.

One discovery was that at the time, there was a popular women’s perm that originated in France. However, the Nazis didn’t want German women emulating the French.

“So the Nazis invented a German perm that was to be offered to German women. Thus, even the private sector was involved [in the Nazi project].”

Beyond this is the industry’s direct ties with genocide – the shaving and later the sale of the hair of inmates in concentration camps.

For example, the centre has, as one of its artefacts, “a bill from Majdanek where 500kg of hair was sold to a private firm for 20c a kilogram”.

Stegen says that though the hairdressers embraced the challenge of interrogating their professional past, and the social power it might continue to offer, not all sessions have been productive.

It doesn’t always work. You do get in Germany – and maybe other countries – feedback [from groups] that, “This topic has been discussed too much. We know everything. Don’t talk about Auschwitz again.”

In particular, police, prison guards, and soldiers – those trained and allowed to kill, who have the authority to apply state force – often come in wanting to close themselves off from these kind of interrogations.

“There is a feeling that they won’t voice, that it [discussions of the linkage to the Nazi regime] will be about themselves.”

Yet, “if you get to the point where people are allowed to contradict each other, to reflect their own opinions, it may have a stronger impact even than that of the hairdressers”.

“For the hairdressers, it’s more about empathy. With these groups, it’s more about reflecting on the role of the perpetrators, and their own role and frustrations. Nevertheless, with these groups, it’s more challenging.”

Stegen says an element picked up by other groups, such as those from the corporate sector, is the business-like language, “the language of euphemism”, of the memorandum itself.

These avenues of reflection are powerful.

“A critical discussion of Germans as perpetrators, as bystanders, and onlookers is a meaningful discussion to have. It can make a society stronger, and more democratic in the sense that we are aware of what has happened, and should not happen again.”

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