Address by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel at the panel discussion titled “Dialogue between the descendants of perpetrators and victims of National Socialism”

06.11.2017 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Thank you very much for this invitation, and for your kind words of welcome! I was pleased to accept it, because I admit that, to me, this topic is not only of political, but also of strong personal interest.

Let me wish you all a very warm welcome to the Federal Foreign Office and to our library reading room. The history of the Federal Foreign Office during the period of National Socialism has been presented in this space.

We’ve admittedly had some time in Germany to look into how the perpetrators and victims have been dealt with, which includes the history of all those who are children of the perpetrators and of the victims, and that of apparently uninvolved individuals. However, the process of dealing with this history does not go back to the early days of the Federal Republic. Our critical assessment of National Socialism and of the Germans’ role as citizens, active participants, people who simply toed the line, and perpetrators did not begin in earnest until the Auschwitz trials were held in Frankfurt from 1963 to 1965. Anyone who wanted to get an impression of how difficult these efforts were in the early years, in a society that was happy to repress all of its memories and fully concentrate on rebuilding the country, could watch one of the films that have been made about Fritz Bauer. Bauer, who at the time was the Chief Public Prosecutor in Land Hesse, had to fight and overcome great obstacles to even place National Socialist perpetrators under arrest.

Since the 1960s, and of course also as part of the student movement, we have developed ways to remember the National Socialists and their crimes, the things that people are capable of doing to other people. Remembering the conditions under which this could occur is meanwhile part of our national ethos in Germany. Addressing this topic in school, in academic research, in our relations with neighbouring countries, and on television – all this has meanwhile become possible.

Every 27th of January in the German Bundestag, we hold a commemoration to mark the day that Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated.

All these years, we have indeed faced opposition, and there has always been controversy. We don’t need to go back as far as the famous debate about drawing a line under the past that has resurfaced time and again in Germany. The controversy is far from over.

I can still recall how, as a young man, I participated in a demonstration in 1978 in my home town of Goslar that called for the opening of our still-preserved Jewish cemetery that dates back to the late Middle Ages. We were a group of young people, and even though it was 1978 we were put under surveillance by the state security service – as if this were a revolutionary act that posed a threat to the Federal Republic of Germany!

Ten years later, in 1988, my home town put up the first plaque commemorating our Jewish fellow citizens who were deported to Auschwitz. The plaque showed how little thought had gone into it. The victims’ birth dates were marked with a star, and their presumed dates of death with a cross. This caused the last surviving Jewish citizens who attended the unveiling to faint. To this day, this mistake – the incompetence, and the refusal to confront the past it signified – is on full display. For years, I have suggested that my home town replace this commemorative inscription.

At my school, there was great controversy over whether or not we should view 8 May 1945 as liberation day. The official stance was that it was the day of defeat. This did not change until 1985, when the great Federal President Richard von Weizacker delivered his historic speech. During my school days, at least at my intermediate school, our history lessons stopped just before the outbreak of the First World War. This had something to do with our history teacher’s political views.

Right now, we are witnessing that, in our country’s political culture, an elected representative can call for a complete reversal of Germany’s culture of remembrance. What could this actually mean – other than no longer wanting to remember!

It also shows how, even in a country that since the 1970s can be proud of how it confronts its past, this topic is not without controversy, and certainly not a simple matter. It shows how time and again, some people are in denial, and how new interpretations could become socially accepted if there were no debate in our society on this issue.

I have been confronted with how difficult this is several times during my political career. Until the mid-1980s, hundreds of former members of the SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler gathered for meetings in Bad Harzburg. Even in post-World-War-Two Germany, the group maintained strict discipline: the troops stayed in one hotel, while non-commissioned officers stayed in another and officers in a third. We were the ones who, in the eyes of many, were disturbing the peace by voicing our outrage at the fact that a criminal organisation had permission to meet in Germany.

Everything to do with remembrance can cause controversy, particularly because a country of perpetrators is always also a country of victims.

In what ways can the gassing of people in Chelmno extermination camp, the mass shootings at Babyn Yar, the starvation of thousands of Greeks, and of Russians who were citizens of the former Soviet Union, and the Nazi euthanasia experiments be relevant for us today, for each and every one of us?

The Second World War ended 72 years ago, at a time when the children who examine this question today were not even born. How were my parents, my grandparents, or in some cases my great grandparents, involved? What was their role, and what were their experiences? Although this question concerns many, it is only natural that, as time passes, the way we confront the past and in some cases the roles that distant relatives played is different than if we are talking about the generation of our fathers and mothers.

After all, when the Second World War was unleashed in 1939, it was not from a nondescript place, but from National Socialist Germany. The Nazi crimes and war atrocities that were perpetrated during the next six years left traces across Europe and far beyond, impacting societies and individual families. It is nothing short of a miracle that our country experienced the merciful treatment of being invited to return to the fold of the world’s civilised nations only a relatively short time after these crimes were committed. I am still impressed that Europeans whose countries the pillaging and murderous Germans had recently passed through invited us soon after the end of World War Two to co-found the European Union. I do not imagine this was very popular in France, Belgium, Italy or the Netherlands. Those were brave people who wanted Germany to help establish this European Union. Sometimes, Germans need to be reminded of how courageous others were to include Germany in efforts to establish Europe.

At the time, people saw that their very life depended on it – because they knew, as Francois Mitterand would later point out, that nationalism always meant war.

So it is a great miracle that we were extended an invitation after all of these crimes. Yet it is also every single generation’s great responsibility to engage in remembrance, for that very reason. This is not about perpetuating guilt complexes – there’s no way that young people would be receptive to this. But we must keep an awareness of this responsibility alive, not just in theory, but through our activities, ranging from our political efforts to the work of associations, and extending into the daily life of our families and our everyday interactions.

There have been countless discussions, dismissals and renewed discussions about whether or not Germany is a land of perpetrators, or whether all German people are perpetrators, and of whether or not collective guilt exists.

Moreover, the question of who is a perpetrator is far from resolved. The search for perpetrators, and the work to identify them, justifiably continues. I think it is truly disgraceful that our country has still not managed to bring the perpetrators, or at least those who are still alive, to justice. It is important that the public prosecution office in Frankfurt am Main has brought charges against a man who is now 96 years old for being an accessory to murder. Of course, regardless of the judgement, this man will no longer receive just punishment during his remaining lifetime for the crimes he is being accused of.

Researchers’ current estimate of the number of perpetrators who were involved in the Holocaust is a total of between 200,000 and 250,000 German and Austrian citizens. In addition, there are the many people who were directly or indirectly involved in Nazi crimes, as well as the foreign collaborators in both Eastern and Western Europe.

Apart from the major war criminals – who were soon brought to trial by the Allies and, incidentally, released just as quickly because, it appears, the consensus at the time was that they were needed – identification of individuals as perpetrators always depends on the historical, political and social context, and the process of answering these questions is still ongoing.

The Federal Foreign Office answered the question of what role diplomats played in Nazi Germany very late. The Independent Commission of Historians presented its report, titled Das Amt und die Vergangenheit (The German Foreign Office and the Nazi Past), here in this reading room in 2012.

Thank goodness, there is today wide consensus on who the victims and persecuted individuals were.

60 million people were killed during the Second World War – an unfathomable number, and it should be said that half of them were civilians. Six million Jewish women and men were murdered. To this day, we cannot imagine the industrial machinery of destruction that perpetrated this mass murder. Just as unfathomable is the amount of life and humanity that were lost. Then, there is the irreparable damage that was done to culture and society. The expulsions, the expropriation and the destruction of property and identity.

Altogether, the Second World War created an unparalleled fracture in history.

In 1945, nothing was the same.

What this meant for families, I truly witnessed for myself. At the age of 16, I discovered that my father was a National Socialist – which he remained up to the very end of his life when he died three years ago.

I did not know how much Nazi literature exists in Germany. It was only while sorting through his belongings that I gained a glimpse of this. There probably isn’t a single brochure that he didn’t subscribe to and send to other people. Incidentally, his employment as a civil servant was tolerated, and he remained employed up to his retirement. In Germany, if you were a civil servant in the postal service with a permanent contract, a postman, you could be fired for being a member of the German Communist Party. But the example of my father shows that being a dyed-in-the-wool National Socialist did not prevent a person from being appointed, and remaining, a lifetime German civil servant, which included a full pension. At the same time, I have a daughter whose grandfather was Jewish. Although her grandfather later converted to Catholicism, he did come from a Jewish family, and you can still see the family’s gravestones here at the Jewish cemetery in Weißensee. Only one generation is not buried there – because it was put on the last train that left Berlin, the so-called factory transport, destined for Auschwitz. The grandmother of my eldest daughter was one of the victims of Mengele. We discovered this during a visit to Yad Vashem.

People who denied Auschwitz and people who died there – all in the same family. You can imagine that this is a lot to think about, and that one must find a way to deal with it. That’s why, for me, this topic is truly very personal, and it’s why I’m glad that we now have an opportunity to talk about the ways in which the present-day context of remembrance has changed.

Of course, there have been fundamental changes since the time that followed the Auschwitz trials. We will have less and less opportunities to refer to authentic reports by living perpetrators and victims. During my first visit to the Auschwitz memorial site with Action Reconciliation - Service for Peace, I was at least still able to speak with a prisoner who was interned for being a Social Democrat and who came from my own home town. By the way, this man thought of committing suicide only once, namely when he reached retirement and wanted to apply for his pension. This included the significant number of years of internment, from 1936 to 1945. The civil servant asked him to prove that there were not good grounds for his being held at Auschwitz. That was the first time he considered hanging himself. He would actually have had to file charges in Germany to get these years credited towards his pension.

The people who witnessed both the mass murder and how the new Federal Republic dealt with it will soon no longer be with us.

But there is even more to consider, because our entire society is changing. Today, people who live in Germany originate from around the world. Some of them grew up in countries where since their earliest days they have been indoctrinated with anti-Semitism. So if we manage to get pupils to tell us what they truly think, and if they do not remain silent out of fear to upset those in authority, some will say: “What does that have to do with us? Our parents come from Turkey, Morocco and Syria. Why do we bear responsibility for this chapter of German history?” In a society that has been shaped by migration, we must also examine this issue from an entirely different angle. We must get people to identify more with this country, beyond simply holding a German passport. This is, after all, not just any country. Not only with regard to National Socialism. It is a country in its own right, with certain ideas about how we live together, with an identity that has grown out of our Basic Law. The roots of this Basic Law indeed extend back to the time of National Socialism and to the Weimar Republic. That’s why this is such a challenging task.

I remember that, during my time as SPD Chairman, Thilo Sarrazin published his book titled Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany does away with itself). It resurrects the idea of eugenics. It contains the astonishing statement that eugenics was very popular in the first half of the 20th century, and the author cannot understand why this is no longer the case in the second half of the 20th century. The true meaning of these words was noticed only by Frank Schirmmacher, the publisher of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, who unfortunately died before his time. The general public took it to be a legitimately expressed opinion, even though the entire Basic Law was written to prevent any linkage between social issues and genetics. The framers of our Basic Law did this because they had the Nuremberg trial of the concentration camp doctors.

Both of you, Ms Granzow-Rauwald and Mr Gantz, have thoroughly researched your own family histories and have examined its effects on your own lives. You are knowledgeable about precisely how society tries to come to grips with the past, and your knowledge is based on very personal experience, or at least on the experiences of your own families. The Neuengamme concentration camp memorial leads the way in this effort – at it, you have established direct ties between the descendants of perpetrators and victims. I wish you great strength as you continue your work, by meeting ever new challenges and working to ensure that, in Germany, we never develop a culture in which this topic becomes taboo.

Neuengamme memorial thereby also makes Shimon Peres’ vision a reality, who in 2010 in his address to the German Bundestag on International Holocaust Remembrance Day expressed the following wish: “This is an hour of grace for the young generation, wherever they may be. That they may remember, and never forget, that they should know what took place, and that they never, absolutely never, have the slightest doubt in their minds that there is another option, other than peace, reconciliation and love.” With these words, the highest representative of a people that Germany had set out to exterminate says in Germany, in the German Bundestag, that our greatest aim should be not only peace and reconciliation, but mutual love. To this day, this understandably makes us feel ashamed, because several decades ago we probably could not have imagined making similar statements. That is why I think Shimon Peres’ wish is something all of us should feel obligated to fulfil. I am most grateful for the brilliant project that has been presented to us here today. I hope you will have an interesting and also engaging and thoughtful evening. I wish you all the best!

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