“Hey, Siri, what is Holocaust?”
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas with an article in the Welt am Sonntag newspaper to mark the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of National Socialism (27 January).
Never before has it been so easy to obtain information. Search engines such as Google handle several billion queries every day. The answer to complex questions seems to be just a mouse click away. Digitisation enables us to have access to an infinite, constantly available amount of knowledge. And yet, time and again we see that this freedom of knowledge does not offer any protection against closed minds. It provides no insurance against intolerance, racism and anti-Semitism. On the contrary, muttered sentiments at the pub can now be publicised all over the world with a single click. Hatred can spread more quickly and lead to hate-mongering. And in the worst case, to violence.
We are seeing how, throughout Europe, nationalism is being propagated and prejudices exploited to justify crude personal ideologies. Populist right-wing provocateurs relativise the Holocaust – well aware that breaking such a taboo will ensure maximum attention. Far-right extremists give the Nazi salute on the streets, young men have the kippah torn off their head, insults are hurled at Jewish children. A majority of Germans are witnessing an increase in anti-Semitism, according to a recently published EU survey. Those directly affected see the situation even more drastically. Almost 90 percent of Jewish EU citizens say that anti-Semitism is increasing in their countries. When Jews in Europe are once again living in fear, we should be ashamed.
Our culture of remembrance is crumbling, under pressure from right-wing extremists. And all the more dangerous is the lack of knowledge of young Germans in particular, as a CNN survey revealed. Forty percent admit themselves that they know very little about the Holocaust. These figures are shocking, and we cannot sit back and passively accept them. We need to preserve the stories of those people who can provide eyewitness accounts of the unspeakable. People like Pinchas Gutter. Pinchas Gutter was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1932. He was six years old when synagogues across Germany were burned down on 9 November 1938. When he was deported with his family to the Majdanek concentration camp and separated from his parents and twin sister, he was ten years old, when the War ended, he was twelve. He was the only member of his immediate family to survive.
Pinchas Gutter’s childhood was overshadowed by the greatest crime against humanity in history, the Holocaust. A childhood that is barely conceivable for twelve-year-olds today. Yet it is people like him who can tell of the Holocaust as no search engine will ever be capable of doing. Who speak to young people at schools and memorial sites. Who show where anti-Semitism and racism can lead. When I began to learn about the crimes of National Socialism at school, the Nazis’ barbarities were still present in people’s minds. Many people around me belonged to the generation who had experienced them first hand.
Today, children and young people no longer have this connection. For anyone born today, the Pogromnacht is as far away in time as Reich Chancellor Bismarck was to me. That changes the concept of memory and creates more distance. The point when first-hand witnesses like Gutter will no longer be able to tell of Nazi injustices is drawing closer. Our culture of remembrance needs to adapt to this. Our country’s efforts to grapple with Nazi injustices have helped make it liberal, open-minded and peaceful. Yet we cannot afford to become self-satisfied. What we now need are new approaches, so that we can use historical experiences and apply them to the present. Our history needs to move away from being a project of mere remembrance and increasingly become a project to promote knowledge.
For that to succeed, memorial sites must be not only places of commemoration but also places of learning. Young people should not leave these sites with bowed heads, but with more in their heads. Remembrance should not be the stuff of museums, but the stuff of the present. We are attempting to strengthen this aspect with programmes such as the recently launched “Jugend erinnert” (Young people remember) campaign. We need not only to preserve historical knowledge but to convert it into social behaviour. There are plenty of good examples of how to do this. Action Reconciliation – Service for Peace, for example, continues to work for reconciliation with the victims of that time. Yet it also works to help people today who are socially disadvantaged and excluded, such as refugees and the homeless. Or take the House of the Wannsee Conference. It does not only provide information on the history of the genocide. It also teaches civil servants about the mechanisms that once turned lawyers into desk murderers.
The example of Pinchas Gutter also shows the role that digitisation can play. He will still be able to share his experiences with twelve-year-olds when he is no longer with us. In a project with the University of Southern California he answered hundreds of questions about his story. Then a hologram was created. He and other eyewitnesses will, as three-dimensional figures, still be able to share a key insight with pupils in future: We must never forget. We must never become indifferent. We must stand up for our liberal democracy. It’s up to us.