Speech by Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth at the opening of the special exhibition at the Memorial and Museum Sachsenhausen “The executions need to be carried out subtly in the nearest camp”, photos of the Soviet prisoners of war murdered 75 years ago in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp

06.11.2016 - Speech

Excellencies, Professor Morsch,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Order no. 9 from the head of the security police and the security service dated 21 July 1941 was classified as a “secret Reich matter”. It decreed inter alia: “The executions are not public and need to be carried out subtly in the nearest camp”.

On 20 November 1941, the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Inspectorate sent a telegram to the commandant of the Gross-Rosen concentration camp. It decreed that SS members who had been involved in the executions were to be decorated with a War Merit Cross (Kriegsverdienstkreuz) for performing “special tasks important for the war”. On no account was the word “executions” to be mentioned.

What had happened in the four months between these two orders?

Emil Büge is one of the people who tells us. He was a prisoner here in Sachsenhausen and used his position as typist in the political department of the concentration camp to take secret notes. Risking his life, he kept them until he was freed. Thus he came to chronicle the murder of some 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war within ten weeks at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. An inconceivable number!

In his recently published history of the concentration camp, the historian Nikolaus Wachsmann does the sums : “According to a former SS Block Leader, such work was carried out from early morning until late at night with two to three minutes for each prisoner shot, meaning 300 to 350 people were killed every day. The kapos also worked constantly and burned more than 25 corpses an hour in the ovens”.

These horrendous crimes, these murders of thousands of people using methods akin to a conveyor belt leave us shaking our heads in disbelief. Yet despite all the shamefulness, this abominable act is only one horrifying aspect of the annihilation campaign that the National Socialist leadership unleashed against the Soviet Union in June 1941 under the code name Operation Barbarossa. It was to trump all previous wars in the horror, scale and atrocity of the crimes committed. Historians estimate that between 300,000 and 500,000 Soviet prisoners of war died in German custody between October and December 1941. Those not murdered died of cold, hunger or illness in camps where the conditions were purposely completely insufficient and primitive.

Possessed as it was by this war, the National Socialist regime had left all inhibitions behind, removed all barriers and declared all rules invalid ‑ including the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War of 1929. There we read: “They (prisoners of war) shall at all times be humanely treated and protected, particularly against acts of violence, from insults and from public curiosity. Measures of reprisals against them are forbidden”.

The Guidelines for the Treatment of Political Commissars of 6 June 1941, known as the Commissar Order, represent a blatant violation of the prevailing rules of international law on the part of the National Socialist leadership.

The order takes as its premise that political commissars in the Red Army were responsible for the anticipated barbaric warfare and the inhumane treatment of German prisoners of war. In it we read that “mercy or considerations of international law towards these elements” were wrong and a danger to our own safety. Commissars, identifiable as such due to certain features, were to be separated immediately from the prisoners of war. They were not to be recognised as soldiers meaning they had no protection under international law. “When they have been separated, they are to be finished off”. Commissars who were not suspected of enemy action were to be handed over later to the Sonderkommandos.

For a long time, no-one was able to imagine that the murder of Soviet prisoners of war had been expressly authorised by the Wehrmacht command. “The Wehrmacht officers would act against orders of the SS”, as we read even in the account of Emil Büge who spent many years imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. It was unprecedented and even at the time simply inconceivable.

And yet, there was method to the madness. It was not just in Sachsenhausen that Soviet prisoners of war were killed ‑ also in other concentration camps countless Soviet prisoners of war died, in Dachau, Flossenbürg, Buchenwald, Neuengamme or Gross-Rosen. The commandants of the individual concentration camps talked in meetings and in what can be seen as tutorials about the most effective method for mass murder. In Auschwitz, for example, the effect of Zyklon B gas was tested on Soviet prisoners of war. It became the tool of choice for mass murder in the concentration camps.

It is possible that this appalling practice defied the belief of many people at the time because it was in stark contrast to the treatment of foreign prisoners of war captured by Germany during World War One.

Just a quarter of a century earlier, German scientists had used the presence of prisoners of war from far-flung corners of the world for genuine ethnological, cultural and linguistic studies, making recordings and photographic records.

Also in the autumn of 1941, photos were taken of the prisoners of war as they arrived. Today we are seeing for the first time in this exhibition the entire collection of the photographs that remains. Professor Morsch has told you the unbelievable story of these photographs. Thank you for this impressive, so important project.

But in World War Two, everything was different. These photographs were not taken out of academic interest in other peoples with unfamiliar languages, cultures and customs. In fact, National Socialist propaganda peddled a distorted picture of the “Soviet paradise” and disparaged its population as sub-humans. The aim was to justify the campaign of domination and annihilation of the Aryan so-called “master race” in the Soviet Union.

At the very place where the barracks with the equipment for shooting in the back of the neck stood, the equipment used here in Sachsenhausen to murder Soviet prisoners of war, we now see a photo installation with portraits of some of them, an installation which is today part of the exhibition.

What can these images say to us today? The contemptuous reason for taking these photographs for me actually becomes the exact opposite:

These are not people who the Nazis have robbed of their dignity, so-called sub-humans. It is people we see ‑ all different and all unique.

The attempt to dehumanise the foe reveals a pattern common to all ideologies based on hostile stereotypes: the opponent, the enemy, is to be robbed of the characteristic of humankind, of the person with equal rights, the person equally valued. Synonyms for sub-humans include vermin, cockroaches, rats and other dehumanised terms. But the power of these photographs turns this cynical intention on its head. In these pictures we can see the identity of these people founded in their uniqueness, each one is individual and distinctive. Those photographed are not robbed of their dignity, on the contrary.

Those who believe that humanity had had an opportunity to learn and understand 75 years after the murder of the Soviet prisoners of war in Sachsenhausen, those who believe that we are adequately protected from repeat performances 71 years after the end of the War, those people are unfortunately wrong.

In fact, we are seeing this pattern to this very day. There is certainly no shortage of hate-filled opinions being expressed about those who speak a different language, have different beliefs, look different, love differently and not just in the so-called “new media”.

But we cannot halt at lamentation. This realisation needs to be a wake-up call. That is why it is right and indeed urgent that sentences are handed down by the courts to users of online platforms for incitement to hatred or that the European Parliament recently lifted the immunity of a right-wing MEP who had clearly incited racial hatred. Acts of incitement to hatred and violence of any kind are not something we can tolerate.

Today we are called upon in many different ways to remember what happened. We owe it to the murdered prisoners of war, as Federal President Gauck put it in his speech on the 70th anniversary of the end of the War in Stukenbrock, to shed light on their fate. We owe it to the concentration camp prisoner Emil Büge and to the Czech prisoners who, risking their lives, smuggled records and negatives out of the camp to the outside world to bear witness to what had happened. We owe it not least to our neighbours today and to the descendants of the peoples who suffered so much due to the war unleashed by Germany: This must not be allowed to happen again.

And it was above all the people of Central and Eastern Europe who suffered particularly as it was there that the rampage of National Socialist Germany was especially heinous.

I am delighted to welcome many people from these countries here today. I would ask you to convey the following message in your home countries: also at this time, 75 years after the events, Germany is shouldering its historic guilt and responsibility. States (thankfully) are not just made up of politicians, but also of many citizens. It is they that need to hear and believe this message, they need to feel it so that our pledge does not remain abstract but takes on concrete form and becomes visible ‑ just as visible as it is in this exhibition of photographs. My Ministry, the Federal Foreign Office, feels especially committed to this need to remember and was happy to support the realisation of this exhibition project.

In the farewell letter he wrote to his children, Klaus Bonhoeffer, described how his brother Dietrich was executed just before the end of the war for resistance against the National Socialists: “Reverence of the past and responsibility for the future generate the right approach to life”. It is in this sense that we are touched so profoundly by the photographs on display today.

Reverence of the past demands that we preserve and pass on remembrance because we have a responsibility for the future, for the world in which we want to live side by side as part of the human family, with respect and basic human decency.

Let us see our fellow humans in the pictures displayed. It is to them we promise that human dignity is inviolable. This is what we are striving for. Worldwide.

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