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Speech by Minister of State Michelle Müntefering at the opening of the new permanent exhibition at the House of the Wannsee Conference

19.01.2020 - Speech

Mass murder and crime have become too much, even for death. And so he decides to refuse to render his services for the time being. This is the subject of the opera “The Emperor of Atlantis”, the music for which flowed from the pen of Jewish composer Viktor Ullmann. He wrote this music at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, to which he was deported in 1942. It was there, incidentally, that he also set the Jewish poem “Beryozkele” to music. We will hear this music later on.

It seems almost impossible to tell where one would get the strength to write such music in the very darkest of days. Unfortunately, this opera only describes a vision, a hope. Death had not abdicated – on the contrary. Viktor Ullmann was deported to Auschwitz on 16 October 1944 and died there two days later. He was gassed.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Many people were responsible for his death and for deaths of millions of other Jews. That is the responsibility that Germany must bear – and the obligation to remember these events. We are stunned and speechless, horrified, by the abysses of human action and thought when we consider what happened here 78 years ago. Fifteen men gathered for a meeting back then – high-ranking representatives of the National Socialist regime and the SS authorities. The minutes of the meeting, the only surviving copy of which is to be found in the Political Archive of the Federal Foreign Office, leaves us in no doubt that they were aware of the dimension of their actions. Country by country, they listed the Jewish population – you can see this in the exhibition that I just had a look at – that was to be part of the so-called “final solution”. What a cynical word. They counted 11 million people in all. They did this in a detailed, methodical – and entirely unscrupulous – manner.

One of these men was called Martin Luther, Undersecretary at the Federal Foreign Office at the time. He took a list with him to the meeting with the words “wishes and ideas” on it. “Wishes and ideas” in relation to the murder of millions of Jews of Europe. This is still outrageous today. And yet this is part of our history – of Germany’s history, and also of the Federal Foreign Office’s history.

We are keenly aware of this once again this year. In 2020, we are also remembering the 150-year history of the Federal Foreign Office. The knowledge of and complicity in the Nazis’ crimes against humanity play a key role in this regard. This is not just a question of taking responsibility for and in the light of our history, but is also about drawing the right conclusions in the here and now. This is about checking and adjusting our moral compass time and again.

This newly designed exhibition pursues a very similar aim. It does so by focusing not only on the perpetrators who gathered together here on 20 January. Rather, it shows the involvement of a large part of society and makes it clear that the Shoah wasn’t an isolated crime committed by the few at the top level of the regime’s leadership. It was only possible to carry out this murderous programme because many, many individuals were involved at all levels. Shocking testimonies to this can be seen in this exhibition. For instance,

  • the denunciation in writing of a Jewish woman in hiding by her neighbour. The authorities should act swiftly, her neighbour wrote, otherwise the young woman would escape.
  • Or the letter from a soldier to his wife: “Men, women and children, all killed. The Jews are being utterly exterminated. Don’t worry about this; it must be done.”

“It must be done.” How often were such or similar words used to cover up crimes, to pass the buck and to ease one’s own conscience, if indeed such people had one at all? No, it didn’t have to be done. Indeed, it shouldn’t have been allowed to happen.

The fact that it was possible to resist is also shown very clearly by this exhibition – thereby deliberately breaking with the perspective of the perpetrators. This is achieved by juxtaposing this with people such as Heintz Güntzlaff, who gave a Jewish fellow citizen his identity card where he could insert his photo. It saved him from death.

Examples such as this show that no one was forced to become a perpetrator under National Socialism. Those who did, such as the participants at the Wannsee Conference, cannot claim any extenuating circumstances. They were guilty.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is right that the House of the Wannsee Conference focuses even more than before on the question of how such crimes were allowed to happen. After all, the question regarding social responsibility is, unfortunately, frighteningly relevant again today. Antisemitic hostility has become a daily occurrence in Germany. Jews are openly attacked on our streets or anonymously threatened and abused on the internet.

The Departments for Research and Information on Antisemitism (RIAS) documented over two antisemitic incidents per day in the first half of 2019 – and that was in Berlin alone! The attack in Halle, in which two people were killed and only a door saved dozens more lives, reminded us of how deadly this threat is. It therefore comes as no surprise that 44 percent of Jews in Germany have already thought about emigrating. I find this to be a horrifying statistic.

The fight against antisemitism must therefore be a top priority. In Germany – and also in Europe. For those who incite hatred, who use negative stereotypes to justify their own crude ideology, are on the move throughout Europe. It is they, the right-wing populists and nationalists, who create the breeding ground for antisemitism, hatred and violence. We have therefore resolved to make the fight against antisemitism a key priority when we assume the Presidency of the EU Council from July. This includes criminal prosecution and better protection for Jewish institutions, as well as measures to promote education and integration. We also want to step up the fight against hate crime and disinformation on the internet during our Presidency.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I’m most delighted to be able to open this exhibition and to speak to you today on behalf of Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. The Foreign Minister extends his greetings to you all and regrets very much that he cannot be here today. However – as you have just heard and read in the newspaper – his presence is, of course, required at today’s conference on Libya. And please forgive me for having to depart for the airport in just a moment.

I would very much have liked to have listened to the next speeches. But, as I said just now, I’ll come back and have more time on my hands then. You’re overcome by an oppressive feeling when you come to this place. I have just spoken to the members of the advisory board about the fact that we will have another opportunity to hold intensive discussions in the near future.

I need to depart for Brussels on time. I have the honour to represent the Federal Government at the ministerial meeting of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Germany has an important role to play in this regard as we will be assuming the IHRA Chairmanship for this first time in March. Precisely 20 years ago, the IHRA emerged from the Stockholm Declaration in which participants from almost 50 countries pledged to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and to fight against antisemitism.

One focus of our Chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance will be on how we deal with declining historical knowledge, and also with the deliberate falsification of the Holocaust – in public, at memorials and also online. Although it has never been as easy as it is today to gain access to information, knowledge of National Socialist crimes is dwindling.

Memorial site directors like yourself, Dr Jasch, have reported that school groups are much less familiar with the facts than they used to be. And, according to a study, 40 percent of young Germans admit that they know almost nothing about the Shoah. It is therefore all the more important that there are people like you, Ms Fahidi, who have kept its memory alive for many years. I’m delighted that we have been able to make our acquaintance today. Your life story has moved me deeply.

I admire you for your courage to, once again, face what you experienced after so many years. And I’m impressed by the energy with which you tell this story. You said just now that even if people don’t like hearing certain stories, they have to be told. Without leaving anything out. Without sparing us any details. This is remarkable and is something that we should all be grateful to you for!

You tell of your own experience of these horrors and show what antisemitism and racism can lead to. And you also raise awareness, above all among young people. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer eyewitnesses out there who are able to tell their stories. Ms Fahidi, you once said that the time “afterwards” must usher in a new kind of culture of remembrance that “everyone must be involved in”. And that is so true! The House of the Wannsee Conference has taken up this challenge. One result is this exhibition. It’s now easier to access than the previous exhibition – and not only physically because accessibility was a priority. It also requires less knowledge and uses visual media. It makes remembrance not only a project of remembering events, but also of acquiring insights. This is the right approach. Remembrance must be the stuff of the present and not the stuff of museums – without relativising anything. Remembrance depends on exchange, awareness and questioning.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The composer Viktor Ullmann managed to hold firm to his belief in the good in people while at Theresienstadt. The positive forces, or so he hoped, would triumph over every tyrannical regime in the end. Today, we know that each and every one of us is needed to ensure that the positive forces prevail.

The crimes of our forebears give rise to a responsibility for today and tomorrow. That is also the message of this exhibition – the responsibility never again to be indifferent.

Thank you very much!

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