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‘Remembrance means we can’t remain silent’

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“Remembering the systematic genocide of the European Jews, a crime against humanity on an unprecedented scale, and the horrors and atrocities perpetrated in Germany’s name under the Nazi regime of terror remains a perpetual responsibility and obligation for us Germans.”

So said Professor Monika Grütters, German minister for culture and freedom from 2013 to 2021, at a talk on coming to terms with Germany’s past at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre on 2 May.

“Germany’s path to freedom, democracy, and the rule of law was a long, hard, and rocky road full of setbacks and wrong turns. It’s laid through the darkest abyss in history. The Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre shows what Germany lost with its marginalisation of German Jews,” Grütters said. “Remembrance occupies a special position within Germany’s cultural policy. National remembrance and commemoration cannot be limited.”

Grütters said that the responsibility for ensuring a culture of remembrance in Germany didn’t fall solely on the shoulders of the government and policymakers, but was enshrined within each German citizen. It was therefore always in part a public matter.

“Our aspiration as a nation is to deal appropriately with our history,” she said. “In this way, we can lay the foundations for the present and future. It’s therefore all the more devastating to see some of the reactions to Hamas’s brutal attack on Israel on 7 October last year.

“Germany’s announcement of support for Israel is of symbolic importance given the history of the Holocaust in which the Nazis murdered six million Jews in Europe. Israel was founded as a haven for Jews following World War II in the shadow of these atrocities. German government spokesman Stefan Lieberstein said that Israel is defending itself against the inhuman attack by Hamas.

“There are alarming developments taking place in Germany and Europe,” Grütters said. “Right-wing and populist parties are garnering strong support, and their representatives are being elected to parliaments in growing numbers, even in Germany. In particular, following the horrific events on 7 October, Germany has experienced a rise in antisemitic attacks, including and especially in Berlin. The question of why Jews specifically are so hated is a question that has been troubling us since long before Hamas’s devastating attack on Israel.

“The irrational, delusional, and absurd nature of the ever-present, centuries-old scourge of antisemitism is perhaps also one of the reasons why there’s a sense of helplessness when it comes to attacking it, as we’re finding out once again. Especially when confronted by it in environments that we thought were too intelligent, too thoughtful, and too tolerant for such fakes and attacks in culture and academia.” Grütters was commenting on the surge in antisemitic activity on university campuses globally.

“Holocaust survivors have formed words for experiences that go beyond all normal measures of what’s conceivable and imaginable. Their words have helped us to see not just the horrifying stark figure of the millions who were murdered, but also the fate of individual people, people from whom the Nazis took everything but their lives. People who lost their parents and children. People who were robbed of their homes, their dreams for the future, their enjoyment of life, and their dignity. People who were emotionally broken by the suffering inflicted on them. The fewer Holocaust survivors there are who can tell us their stories, the harder it becomes to convey, and the more important authentic sites of remembrance become,” she said.

“We’re preserving concentration camps in particular as contemporary beacons for future generations. The national collective memory should be based on historical facts, not distortions of history, myth-making, or oversimplifications of political monopolism on how things should be interpreted.

“Remembrance means that we cannot stay silent when hatred is torn up against Jews or Muslims, or refugees and immigrants, for example. Remembrance means never retreating into the comfortable but irresponsible belief that our voices, our actions, don’t matter. The opposite is true. It’s up to every one of us. Let’s not forget that the silence of the majority was what paved the way in Germany for the so-called final solution to the Jewish question – the systematic Europe-wide organisation of genocide that was discussed and agreed upon at the Wannsee Conference 82 years ago. Whereas the courageous and valiant efforts of very few by contrast saved lives in the Third Reich and preserved pockets of humanity in an intellectual and moral wasteland, as was the case, for example, with Oskar Schindler. The wind of freedom blows only where people are willing to stand up for freedom and defend it. Our culture of remembrance can and should contribute to this,” Grütters said.

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