Documents on the Nazi concentration camps at Buchenwald, near Weimar
"We now have many visitors to Buchenwald from the United States, and they are disappointed that there are no gas chambers," said the new director of the Buchenwald tourist site. "Before, people did not want to the see the truth. Now they want to see what they expect to see, and we have to disappoint them. . ."
September 12, 1999
The Germans Want Their History Back
By ROGER COHEN
BUCHENWALD, Germany -- The Buchenwald concentration camp, where the Nazis killed more than 65,000 people, later became one of the holy shrines of the East German Communist state. The camp was a statutory rite of passage for generations of schoolchildren, who learned here how the reactionary Hitler regime slaughtered socialists and Communists.
This version of history was not true. From its establishment in 1937, Buchenwald served to incarcerate leftists, including the Communist leader Ernst Thälmann, who died here in 1944 [Website note: shot on Himmler's orders with Hitler's authorisation] and became an East German icon, immortalized as "a great son of the German people murdered by fascism."
But the portrayal of the Nazi regime as the ultimate and most brutal stage of bourgeois capitalism, and the shaping of the Buchenwald memorial to that end, amounted to a distortion of history. The fate of the Jews was omitted, as was Hitler's wide appeal to the German working class.
Since the collapse of the East German state a decade ago, Volkhard Knigge, the western German historian who became the director of the memorial, has been working to create a more balanced picture of what happened at Buchenwald. But here, as elsewhere in Germany, history remains a charged issue. The squaring of eastern and western memory is elusive even as Chancellor Gerhard Schröder tries to make the recent move of the Government back to Berlin a symbol of reconciliation.
Another problem exists here, one sometimes referred to as the "Americanization" of German memory, a fixation on the Holocaust that some Germans say excludes an abundantly rich cultural and political history and oversimplifies the 12 years of Nazism.
Germans are grateful to Americans for productions like the 1970's "Holocaust" television series and the Steven Spielberg movie "Schindler's List," which have helped them feel the Holocaust in a uniquely immediate way.
But a certain exasperation has become apparent.
"We now have many visitors to Buchenwald from the United States, and they are disappointed that there are no gas chambers," Mr. Knigge said. "Before, people did not want to the see the truth. Now they want to see what they expect to see, and we have to disappoint them and show how rich and complicated history is."
Buchenwald, like Dachau and other concentration camps on German soil, was never an annihilation camp for the Jews. In this it differed from the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex built in Poland, one of the sites where millions were systematically exterminated. Though many Jews died at Buchenwald, particularly in 1945 after being forced to march from other camps farther east, its primary purpose was the imprisonment and torture of anyone opposed to the regime.
Does the distinction matter? All the Nazi camps were barbarous, and a Jew shot or worked to death in Buchenwald was just as dead as one gassed at Birkenau. Moreover, the enormity of the Holocaust is such that its dominant place in the history of Nazism is right and inevitable.
But another historical distortion would take root if Nazi crimes were to become synonymous in the popular American consciousness with only the murder of six million Jews, if all the camps were seen only as death factories for Jews and if there were no place in that consciousness for the millions of non-Jewish victims. Expecting gas chambers at Buchenwald is in many ways to be as misinformed as expecting only tributes to anti-fascist fighters.
"The current instrumentalization and trivialization of the Holocaust in the United States are a terrible mistake," said Fritz Stern, the historian. "Details do matter. The concentration camps were publicly established in 1933, and they were for all political enemies of Hitler. The gas chambers came later and were a universe apart. They were connected, yes, but distinct."
AT A TIME of increasingly difficult negotiations between the United States [Website exclamation: !!] and Germany over compensation for Nazi-era slave laborers and forced laborers, such issues of historical accuracy have acquired much more than academic importance. At stake are billions of dollars.
The talks involve the Jews who worked as slave laborers in the camps, and many non-Jews who were brought to Germany to work in factories. "The Nazi genocide system was complicated," said Hans Mommsen, a German historian. "To conflate the concentration camps and the annihilation camps, as Americans tend to do, or to fail to distinguish between Jewish slave labor and non-Jewish forced labor, is unhelpful."
For Mr. Schröder, now trying to project a forward-looking image, this rearing-up of a disputed history is unwelcome. The radically different history taught in the two Germanys over more than 40 years complicates unification. Eastern Germans tend to be more nationalistic; they were raised not to assume guilt for the Holocaust, but to see themselves as "anti-fascists."
The different mentalities are evident at Buchenwald. Disputes flare as eastern Germans note that when the memorial went up in 1958, western Germans were doing their best to forget the Nazi camps. The long-suppressed fact that Buchenwald was used from 1945 to 1952 as a Soviet internment camp (commemorated in a small museum at the site) is also controversial, with some right-wing western Germans trying to use this as evidence that Stalin was worse than Hitler.
At the same time, the question of a Jewish-American "takeover" of the narrative of German history is highly sensitive for the Government at a time when a vast -- and still disputed -- new memorial to the Holocaust designed by an American is to be built in Berlin, and when the forced-labor negotiations are at a decisive stage.
"We might do more to consider the German view," said Peter Novick, the author of "The Holocaust in American Life" (Houghton Mifflin, 1999). "What would we think if the Germans said the Holocaust is a terrible thing, but chose to build a museum in Berlin commemorating the American oppression of blacks? It would be grotesque. The problem is that an American encounter with slavery in a museum would make costly demands on our emotions, while the Holocaust is in danger of becoming an evasive route to bumper-sticker moral lessons."
© Focal Point 1998 write to David Irving