Teaching the Holocaust in Germany as a Resurgent Far Right Questions It

As those who lived through it are dying off, and some people claim it never happened, what will happen to sites of remembrance?

Visitors enter Sachsenhausen through a gate with the words "Arbeit macht frei" (works sets you free).
Visitors enter Sachsenhausen through a gate with the words "Arbeit macht frei" ("Works sets you free"). (Markus Schreiber / AP)

ORANIENBURG, Germany—Pulling their scarves and jackets tighter against the chill of a gray winter morning, 38 high-school students walked the grounds of the Sachsenhausen Memorial, a former Nazi concentration camp just outside Berlin.

They had come here to learn about the horrors and crimes committed at Sachsenhausen, where tens of thousands of people were murdered: the prisoners’ cramped quarters in the extreme heat or cold, their starvation after crushing hours of hard labor, the brutal treatment at the hands of their guards.

Even as the students’ tour focused on helping them understand the history of this place, however, the politics of the day inevitably crept in.

At one point, the students’ teacher, Matthias Angelike, interjected to ask their guide about a recent incident involving lawmakers from the far-right populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) and a group of their constituents. While on a tour here last summer, several members of the group interrupted their host to cast doubt on the existence of Sachsenhausen’s gas chambers and diminish the crimes committed in Nazi death camps. “They questioned whether people were actually killed here,” Angelike said to his students. “They questioned the Holocaust.”

Institutions of memory such as Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland play an important, and unique, role in educating people about the horrors of the Holocaust and of the Nazi regime. For millions of visitors annually, these institutions bear witness to the unthinkable crimes that took place on their grounds and expose people to the visceral discomfort associated with being in a former concentration camp.

But although Sachsenhausen and other such sites seek to stay above the fray politically, in recent years they have been confronted with politics—as the AfD incident here showed, sometimes even within their own walls. The rise of right-wing populist parties across Europe, coupled with growing anti-Semitism, puts places such as Sachsenhausen in a new and difficult position. These places teach about the horrors of the Nazi era with a message of “Never again,” even as some in the AfD, the first far-right party since the Nazis to sit in Germany’s Parliament, downplay or question the very history of the Holocaust.

What’s more, groups such as the AfD are debating the experiences of Holocaust survivors and minimizing the crimes they lived through just as the last of these survivors, who have been an integral part of preserving the experiences of this era, are dying out.

How, then, can Holocaust memorials balance their role as apolitical sites of memory with the responsibility to defend the values they represent? And how, in a broader sense, can they adapt their work as the events they chronicle recede further and further into the past?

“We’re not politicians,” Axel Drecoll, the director of the Sachsenhausen Memorial, told me recently in his office. “But the way we talk about history is massively affected by these movements. And I'm deeply convinced that our consensus for a peaceful and rule-based existence is strongly based on the fact that we keep our critical reckoning with the past alive."

For Drecoll and others in his position, the problem isn’t just that right-wing-populist rhetoric and actions at times echo the very rhetoric their institutions warn against. It’s also that reinterpreting history as a way to create a new nationalist narrative is a rhetorical hallmark of parties such as Germany’s AfD and Poland’s ruling right-wing-populist Law and Justice Party (PiS). For those who see protecting the integrity of history as their primary task, far-right rhetoric feels like a direct assault.

Here in Germany, AfD leaders have sought to diminish the importance of the Nazi era to produce an argument for renewed national pride: The party’s co-leader Alexander Gauland referred to it as a “speck of bird poop” in Germany’s otherwise admirable history, while Björn Höcke, who leads the party’s most extreme wing, called Berlin’s Holocaust memorial a “monument of shame” and has defended Holocaust deniers. (Höcke’s rhetoric led administrators at Buchenwald, a former concentration camp and memorial based in his home state of Thuringia, to ban AfD politicians from its commemorative events.)

“We not only have right-wing populist and right-wing extremist parties ... but they are deliberately taking on memory culture and historical themes,” Drecoll told me. “When it comes to historical revisionism, when it comes to the history that we want and need to explain here, we have a responsibility to speak out.”

In Poland, attempts to shift the national historical narrative have even been enshrined in law. The government last year spearheaded its so-called memory law, which made it a criminal offense—carrying hefty fines or even jail time—to suggest that Poland was culpable for the crimes of the Holocaust. (After international backlash, Poland’s government amended the law to remove the possible imprisonment.)

Piotr Cywiński, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, told me that institutions such as his have a responsibility to speak out about unacceptable political discourse and rising anti-Semitism—but must strike a balance to avoid being dragged into the partisan fray.

“It depends on the situation,” Cywiński said, before adding, “Sometimes our mission means that we cannot be silent.”

The role of an institution such as Sachsenhausen or Auschwitz-Birkenau “is not to be a political tool—it is to in some way show the history of that site in a way that is a fair description, a fair understanding of what happened there,” says Robert Jan van Pelt, a history professor and Holocaust scholar at the University of Waterloo, in Canada, who has curated a series of recent Holocaust exhibits. Leaders of such organizations, he told me, “are facing constant pressures—and the pressures are not only of different governments that come into power in Poland.”

Visiting the site of a former concentration camp comes with a whole range of emotions, as the students I met, a 12th-grade class from the small western-German town of Brüggen, discovered. Though those who come here have surely learned at least an overview of the history of the site, and others like it, before arriving, being confronted with physical reminders of the scale of extermination—the mountains of human hair at Auschwitz, for example, or the mass graves at Sachsenhausen—puts that knowledge in an entirely new context.

“It’s important that we get confronted with situations like this so it will never happen again,” Ada, 18, one of the students, told me as we left the memorial. “I always imagine [the victims’] feelings and their thoughts … I’m just happy that we aren’t living in a time like this.”

Whether because of increased tourism more generally or particular interest in the memorials specifically, these institutions are receiving unprecedented numbers of visitors. In 2018, 2.2 million people visited Auschwitz; five years ago, that number was 1.5 million. And more than 700,000 people came to Sachsenhausen in 2017, double the number that visited a decade prior.

Germany is serious about reckoning with its dark past in many aspects of society, and education is no exception. High-school students are required to take classes on 20th-century German history, including the Nazi era and the Holocaust, though visiting the site of a concentration camp isn’t compulsory—the students from Brüggen had chosen to take a special course that offered this experience. (Their school is also part of a nationwide program called Schule Ohne Rassismus, or “Schools Without Racism,” whose more than 2,800 participating institutions pledge to offer additional study for students on such issues. This year’s focus for the Brüggen students is right-wing populism.)

What makes Holocaust education, especially with a rising far-right, more difficult is that memorials must grapple with the dying-out of Holocaust survivors. Where a tour of Auschwitz or a memorial event at Sachsenhausen might have featured a speech by someone who survived that respective concentration camp, precious few survivors remain (or are at an age at which they’re able to continue such work).

The fact that ever more time is passing between the events of the Holocaust and the present day has led some in German politics to call for an entirely new approach to memory culture.

“Our culture of remembrance is crumbling,” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas wrote in January in the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag. “Right-wing populist provocateurs diminish the Holocaust, knowing that such a breach of taboo will garner maximum attention.”

While Drecoll acknowledged the new challenges that memory institutions face in keeping history engaging for their visitors, he said places such as Sachsenhausen still have “a whole arsenal” of tools to keep history alive for new generations. “We would be bad historians if we could only share history and truth through eyewitnesses,” he said. Cywiński, the museum director at Auschwitz-Birkenau, told me that memorial sites will have to shift from educating people solely about history to helping them understand connections to contemporary politics and society.

Cywiński’s point was on display with the students from Brüggen, who piped up with questions. Why is it illegal to deny the Holocaust? one asked. What other remnants of Germany’s past are similarly guarded?

“Simply said, [these restrictions] are a result of our past,” Angelike told them, as he and the guide took turns explaining that it is also illegal to display Nazi symbols, for example, and to give the Hitler salute. “Anyone who denies the Holocaust positions himself on the side of the perpetrators, which means it could happen again.”