All human beings
are born free and
in dignity and

1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 1

11 April 2020 – 75th Anniversary
of the liberation of the
Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora concentration camps


which could not be held on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora concentration camps

Günter Pappenheim, born in Schmalkalden in 1925, was deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1943 because he had played the Marseillaise on his accordion for French forced laborers. His father, a member of the state parliament for the SPD, had already been murdered in the concentration camp in 1934. In the GDR he was, among other things, chairman of the council of the Potsdam district and member of the central party control commission of the SED. Today he is Germany's representative in the International Committee Buchenwald Dora and Commandos. Günter Pappenheim would have given his speech at the wreath-laying ceremony near the memorial to all of the victims of the Buchenwald concentration camp.

To mark the 75th Anniversary of the liberation and self-liberation of prisoners from the Buchenwald Concentration Camp on 11 April 2020

Dear comrades,
dear friends,
companions, ladies and gentlemen!

I am expressing myself in an extraordinary situation. The corona-pandemic has the world in its grips. Various measures have been implemented in order to protect us all from the COVID-19 virus. I’m faced with an unfamiliar situation: to speak under such circumstances about the liberation of prisoners of the German fascist Buchenwald concentration camp, without being able to see the faces of those very people whom I should address. We won’t be able to share any warm, comradely greetings and conversations, or get-togethers with one another.

Whenever in the past I have spoken about my life’s trajectory, experiences and life story, it was always vitally important for me to look my audience in the face, and to foster social contact in this way as well.  Social contact is paramount to me, for it was to be my saviour following my internment in the Buchenwald concentration camp. I, an inexperienced, nineteen-year-old political prisoner, would have been ruthlessly thrown at the mercy of the SS had I not been helped by my experienced comrades. To this day I salute the social democrat Hermann Brill and the communist Eduard Marschall, who spotted me in the Little Camp and ensured that I ended up being transferred to the Main Camp. I also pay tribute to Hermann Schönherr and Walter Wolf, who, as solidary Kapos, bravely and unselfishly protected the lives of other comrades––and my life, too. And I gratefully remember the barrack-room duty in Block 45, the Austrian inmate Fritz Pollak, who found me a place to lay my head. They were all political prisoners who belonged to the organized political resistance in the Buchenwald concentration camp; with utmost secrecy they strove to create a humanistic international shield against those SS brutes.

Our comrade and long-time president of the International Buchenwald Dora and Commandos Committee, the French communist Pierre Durand stated: “There was not just one Buchenwald.” Yes, it should never be forgotten there was also that Buchenwald of organized antifascist resistance. This warning-call on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation and self-liberation of prisoners from Buchenwald concentration camp is more important than ever.

On 11 April 1945, as Lenhard, my foreman, and our Jewish comrade from Dresden, burst into the mechanical workshop with the news that he had seen prisoners with weapons in the camp heading toward the main entrance gate, I didn’t believe him at first. But after seeing it with my own two eyes I thought I was dreaming. The word Kameraden from the loudspeakers snapped me out of my dream state, in fact from those very loudspeakers over which orders were yelled that could have spelt death for some. The camp-elder Hans Eiden then spoke: “Comrades! We are free!” These few words shook me to the core. I walked, no, I strode for the first time as a free human being through that open main gate with its cynical motto Jedem das Seine [to each his own]. The motto was to boomerang on the SS-perpetrators. Ultimately, it was not possible to hold all of them accountable and no small number of them went unpunished.

Afterward, on 19 April 1945, we commemorated on the Appellplatz all those who had perished at the camp. A simple wooden obelisk was erected on the site where today the Memorial Plaque is located. Block by block, the 21,000 survivors filed past in order to swear the Oath in remembrance of the 51,000 dead (subsequently the number had to be increased to 56,000). The Oath included the basic tenets:

"Our watchword is the destruction of Nazism with its roots. Our goal is to build a new world of peace and freedom."

For many of us former prisoners, this pledge was to become a lifelong commitment, a compass for our future lives, a program that marked our attitude toward life. I took the pledge and made a three-finger salute. And, let me state here without any reservation: Nobody has the right to misconstrue the wording of the Buchenwald Oath! Nobody! Just as nobody has the right to re-arrange the curtain in Raphael’s Sistine Madonna.

Thanks to my experiences at Buchenwald and armed with an awareness of solidarity’s great potential, I  joined the inter-zonal association, the Union of Persecutees of the Nazi Regime (VVN) on 1 August 1947. Its political objective was to foster the programmatic statements embodied in the Buchenwald Oath –– and to this day it remains so. It is an outright scandal and a shameful mockery of any understanding of democracy that seventy-five years on from the liberation from German fascism that the Berlin Tax Office could withdraw the charitable public-benefit status of this largest German association that represents the interests of the persecutees on the basis of disgraceful allegations pitched in the vilest anti-communist tones. I lodged a protest against this decision with the Federal Minister of Finance. He duly informed me that he was equally as taken aback as I was by the decision taken by the Berlin Tax Office and that he would never have entertained any doubts concerning the constitutional allegiance of the Association of Those Persecuted by the Nazi Regime–League of Anti-fascists (VVN-BdA). At the same time, he reiterated that tax administration is a matter for the German Federal states and that everything had been executed in accordance with the law. The minister, however, had requested an explanation from Berlin. That happened back in November 2019. As it currently stands, all financial claims against the VVN-BdA have been suspended, yet the withdrawal of charitable status remains in effect, thereby hampering this anti-fascist organization and effectively rendering it incapable of pursuing its activities.

Which leads me to the present day: I have skipped over the Cold War years, which we assumed were history, though it is now enjoying renewed vibrancy. I find myself in a present which, apparently, is incapable of learning from the past. We are confronted with emboldened forces that have been ideologically promoting nationalism and ethno-centred thinking; they are fuelling racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-Ziganism. These forces are exploiting political stagnation and adverse social developments in order to mislead by means of populism. Unfortunately, they have been successful in their attempts in parliaments at every level – here, right across Germany. The breaking of that taboo––namely, the post-war consensus to shun the far-right–– that occurred in Erfurt on 5 February 2020 was an attempted putsch in the context of the given options. It’s now out of the question that we point the finger at other nations.

We have been constantly dished up the fable about perpetrators acting alone, and not just since the uncovering of the terror perpetrated by the so-called National Socialist Underground (NSU), which decade-long was allowed to murder undetected and unhindered. Into the bargain, the perpetrators are supposed to suffer from impaired psychological development, thus deliberately overlooking the fact that the perpetrators’ motivation were decisively impacted by a social background and an ideological environment that was allowed to develop. Invariably, the assassination of Walter Lübcke in Wolfhagen, the murders in Hanau and Halle, as well as the attacks on or the torching of refugee shelters (the list doesn’t stop here) all have political goals. At a time when some openly clamour to flip Germany’s remembrance culture 180 degrees and seek to play down the crimes of the Nazi era as “a speck of bird poop,” we find ourselves confronted with spiritual arson and the creation of an ideological environment conducive to politically motivated violence. Even had all those perpetrators of the 209 murders linked to right-wing extremists since1990 acted individually, but yes, their motives and their victims are very similar. It is wanton to allow those who manipulated them to escape surveillance and not to call them out.

Recently, we learnt that the Federal Criminal Police Office had determined that the murderer in the Hanau shootings was not an “adherent of a right-wing extremist ideology,” for he had after all helped “dark-skinned neighbours” on several occasions, and moreover used to play on a soccer team that included several other players with emigrant backgrounds. That’s how simply they view matters at the German Federal Criminal Office; they will somehow justify their approach after listening to criticism. Is this a case of a genuine right-wing extremist act, but yet a blameless and not a real perpetrator?  Our history is not lacking in such examples. Given that such strident efforts are being made to equate left and right extremism, why then hasn’t it struck those responsible that there have been  209 victims of right-wing extremists violence, and yet no known fatalities linked to left-wing extremist violence? The polemically charged question thus arises as to whether anti-fascists should be prosecuted on account of crimes committed by right-wing extremists.

I, personally, and my comrades-in-arms in LAG Buchenwald-Dora e.V. have consistently placed great emphasis on dialogue with young people in order to to transmit our knowledge and life experiences. We have come across great receptiveness at the various discussion rounds, project weeks in schools, guided tours in Buchenwald, and so on. And at the same time, we could confirm that the transfer of knowledge about the fascist era and the crimes perpetrated during this period is in sharp decline in schools and even in some instances no longer available. We see a link that needs to be taken very seriously between an increase in right-wing extremist activities and this non-transmission of historical knowledge. Urgent action is called for in this respect. In the 27 March 2020 edition of the daily newspaper neues deutschland, the journalist and writer Daniela Dahn called upon German federal politics to at long last actively make determined efforts. Our fundamental anti-fascist attitude corresponds to her demands to take this situation seriously and to act swiftly .

The fact that we are unable to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the liberation and self-liberation of the prisoners of the Buchenwald concentration camp in our customary way is distressing, especially for us few remaining survivors.

For my part, I want to resoundingly emphasize yet again, that the Buchenwald Oath was binding for life. I know that there will be those in future generations

 who will not cease toiling to implement the pledge we made. Even if a lot needs to be rethought and done once the corona-crisis has subsided, I call upon those coming after us:

  • Ensure that what happened in Buchenwald never be forgotten and classify it among the heinous deeds that those Hitler fascists inflicted upon the world.
  • Remember and commemorate those April days in 1945 in Buchenwald.
  • Remember and honour the Buchenwald Oath, for, if humanity wants to survive, there is no alternative to a world of peace, freedom, and without fascism.
  • Spare no effort whatsoever when it comes to revitalizing the anti-fascist consensus, on an international level as well.

My thoughts are in Buchenwald, with you, and with those departed

Günter Pappenheim
Buchenwald Prisoner No. 22514
First Vice-President of the International Comittee Buchenwald Dora and Commandos (ICBD)
Chairman of the LAG Buchenwald-Dora e.V.

Günter Pappenheim during his speech on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp on the former roll call square

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