Should Germany House Asylum Seekers in a Former Nazi Barracks?

A glass-half-full take on the controversy

A former satellite post of the Buchenwald concentration camp is newly controversial.

European news outlets are abuzz over a plan announced by municipal authorities in the German town of Schwerte to house 20 asylum seekers–refugees fleeing violence in their home countries–in barracks once used by the SS. "The barracks are situated on the grounds of a Nazi-era railway repair workshop and some 700 forced labourers worked there until the outpost was closed in 1945," the BBC's news desk reports. "Refugee groups say the plan is tasteless and historians describe the site as a place of exploitation, oppression and violence."

A spokesman defending the plan noted that the building in question wasn't used to house the Polish slave laborers–guards are thought to have slept there–and has been used in intervening years "as a home for war wounded, a storage site and a kindergarten."

Opponents are taking a stand that most everyone can at least understand. There is a widespread consensus that certain World War II-era sites, especially places where Nazis conducted mass killings, ought to be removed from modern use, whether to preserve history so that it is not forgotten, to show respect for the murdered, or because people would be creeped out to inhabit such a fraught historical place. I'd object myself if a town planned to house people in a former gas chamber.

In this case, however, I'm inclined to defend the town, and to observe that while this story might seem as if it's primarily about atrocities perpetrated by Germany in its past, it's perhaps better viewed as a reminder of the country's staggering moral progress. Consider the context for housing people in such unorthodox quarters.

"Germany receives by far the highest number of asylum seekers within the EU, expecting 200,000 applications in 2014 alone. Generally, it is up to local authorities to find enough space," the BBC notes. According to a corroborating news item in The Telegraph, "Germany is facing an acute shortage of accommodation for asylum-seekers while their claims are assessed. A huge influx of refugees, many of them fleeing the violence in Syria and Iraq, has left official shelters overcrowded and forced local authorities to improvise alternatives." A third news report explains that the town in question, with a population of 50,000, has already filled all its vacant housing with 200 other asylum seekers, "and the town doesn't have the money to purchase temporary structures."

And let's be honest, vast swaths of Germany were, for a time, "a place of exploitation, oppression and violence." Retire them all and where would today's Germans live?

In the context of a Western world that consigns many refugees to death rather than take them in, it becomes absurd to criticize a town in the country accommodating the most refugees of anyone–a town accommodating so many refugees as to exhaust its housing options–for the subjective transgression of "bad taste." For refugee groups, in particular, to lob this criticism is counterproductive. Would it really be in better "taste" to deny this housing to destitute people fleeing violence? Isn't housing displaced refugees perfectly in keeping with Germany's duty to honor the historic debt it incurred during its Nazi era? Maybe the most appropriate use of former Nazi barracks is turning facilities that housed evil into places where humans at risk of  extermination are made safe.

A country that sought, within living memory, to exterminate or enslave all who fell outside "the Aryan race" now accepts more non-Aryan refugees than it can house "in good taste." Despite fully understanding the sensitivities associated with World-War-II-era sites in Germany, and wanting many of them preserved as places of historical remembrance, this ultimately strikes me as progress worth celebrating.