How lovely it would have been, I think, as I write this on 8 April 2020. How lovely it would have been had the coronavirus not thwarted our plans, and that we could have come together again with those who lived through the liberation of the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora concentration camps on 11 April 1945. Aleksander Afanasev from Russia would have been the eldest survivor, born in 1922; he is now 98 years-old. The youngest survivor who yearned to attend is from Canada: Julis Idel Maslovat, born in 1942, and now 78 years-old. On that sunny April’s day 75 years ago in the Buchenwald concentration camp, a so-called prisoner evacuation transport took place shortly after midnight (in the early hours) via the Weimar train station. On account of the enforced SS Death marches, hardly any prisoners remained in the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, and those few who lingered there were already dying and wasting away. One of them was Aleksander, then a young man of twenty-three. Julis, on the other hand was a child at the time, a mere child of three years of age. How nice it would have been had the distance between then and now have melted, had the past protruded into the present, and personal life hi/stories once again have become a direct argument. How nice it would have been had we been able to get together with the forty other survivors who planned to return to Weimar and Nordhausen in order to revisit the sites of their planned annihilation, to share their experiences with us, to commemorate their murdered fellow prisoners, and—despite all the political and experiences of social injustice and violence in the wake of the war’s end in 1945—to reaffirm together that “never again!” That would have been an argument against trivialization and denial; that would have been an argument against the surging rehabilitation and mobilization of the radical right-wing, as well as all that inhumane thinking and action in a new guise. Being together with them would also have enabled us to directly experience how the concrete, genuine examination of the history of National Socialism and German crimes, including their genesis, has generated and continues to generate reconciliation and friendship. I was looking forward to once again come together with friends who have so enriched and enlightened my life as well as the lives of so many others here in Germany, in human, in cultural, and in political terms—and from whom we were able learn and be emboldened, and to recognize that the life of every single human being for what it is: unique, special, precious. Political order can only be legitimate and just if it builds upon, advocates, and protects this awareness. Against this background, we need to recall that the consolidation of democracy and the rule of law in the Federal Republic of Germany is based not least upon the self-critical examination of the crimes that preceded its foundation. Hence, we cannot make a clean break with our past; the scheduled events devoted to mark the liberation days would have focused on this point. The Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation chose “Endlich alles vorbei ? [Is it all over?]” as the key theme for these commemorative days, and specifically for the “Long Night” at the German National Theatre (DNT), an event jointly conceived with the DNT. And our answer would have been: Nothing has gone away! The nativistic, radical right-wing ideologies with their inherent hatred and violence have not been overcome once and for all, nor have we ceased—people everywhere—defending human rights, democracy and freedom, all while advocating a life of solidarity in diversity.
Two key points were decisive in conceptualising the events planned to mark the anniversaries of the liberation: On one hand, we wanted to remind everyone that the destruction of democracy does not begin from outside, but rather from within democracy itself, and notably today, at a juncture when anti-democratic, illiberal parties are entering parliaments across Europe and beyond, when we are increasingly witnessing a restriction of fundamental rights, and the blurring of the separation of powers. And at the same time, we also wanted to highlight the fact that despite the ineluctable farewell to the camps’ survivors as witnesses to human criminality—for the question arises as to how many of them will still be in our midst in April 2021, let alone in five years for the 80th anniversary of the liberation—(self-) critical historical awareness and social commitment have not come to an end.
Firstly: the success and reign of National Socialism in Germany were not based on violence and terror alone. In the Nazi’s worldview, democracy and the Constitution, the separation of powers and civil rights meant nothing. What consolidated and strengthened their grip, however, was approval—if not with all but with enough instances of their ideology and political practices—and the positive response their promises and social offers found among Germans at that time, irrespective of the fact that these and the associated benefits derived therefrom were at the expense of people who had been their neighbours, work-colleagues, or even friends. Put bluntly, National Socialism was also democratic yet in a sinister fashion. Not democratic in the true sense of the term, not in the sense of liberal constitutional democracy enshrined in the rule of law, embodying the separation of powers and guaranteeing fundamental rights, but rather democratic in the notorious sense as formulated by Carl Schmitt, the trailblazer who paved the way for Hitler’s conception of state and international law, and who nowadays is hailed as a hero by the New Right: “A democracy demonstrates its political power by knowing how to refuse or keep at bay all that is foreign and unequal that threatens its homogeneity.” A “democracy” thus understood as a populist acclamation, as a strident and repeatedly staged conflation of the so-called “comrades-in-arms” with their Führer, and ultimately as a violent exclusion machine that constructs concentration camps such as Buchenwald or Mittelbau-Dora—such a form of “democracy” does not mean solidarity and freedom, but rather is a devastating behemoth: In the words of the German Buchenwald prisoner and author Eugen Kogon “We have to expose terror in its beginnings, in its manifestations, in its practices, and in its consequences. For, then we have become witnesses to it, and will remain witnesses as to how it expands amidst today’s democracies, how it comes to power and feigns to embody democracy, almost as though it were a form of government of freedoms.” This is and remains a mission –and not alone of memorial work.
Secondly: In his speech to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald at the German National Theatre in Weimar in 2005, the resistance fighter, the former Buchenwald prisoner and author, Jorge Semprun commented in reference to the upcoming 70th anniversary of the liberation in 2015: “There will be no more first-hand memories, no first-hand testimonials, no living memories, the experience of that Death will have come to an end.” At that juncture—and some misunderstood his utterance—he was referring to the inevitable farewell to the direct testimonials and the living memory carried by those women and men from Germany and countries throughout Europe who, as with Semprum himself, had actively participated in political resistance, and thus were persecuted by the Germans and carted off to concentration camps. He thus formulated a foreseeable and dramatic loss not only for Buchenwald, but also and precisely for Buchenwald, for the Buchenwald concentration camp constituted a nexus for political anti-Nazi resistance behind barbed-wire, a resistance which, irrespective of the individual motives, even today, and especially now, can inspire and embolden. In his speech 15 years ago, Jorge Semprun not only addressed this inevitable farewell, but he also added: “The Jewish memory of the camps is becoming more durable and will be much longer-lasting. The reason for this is straightforward: Jewish children were deported, thousands and tens of thousands of them, whereas no children of those linked to the political resistance were deported. The most enduring memory of the Nazi camps will thus be the Jewish memory. Their memories are not alone confined to experiences in Auschwitz or Birkenau. Beginning in early 1945, on account of the advancing Soviet army, thousands upon thousands of deported Jews were evacuated to concentration camps in central Germany. Hence, the memory of those Jewish children and adolescents, who will probably be still alive in ten years, in 2015, will contain a comprehensive image of the annihilation, a universal reflection; it will still persist. (....) In ten years’ time, all these European memories about resistance and suffering will have only the Jewish memory as their ultimate shelter and refuge; it will be the oldest memory of that experience, for the Jews were the youngest to experience that Death.” So, to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation in April 2020—to repeat Semprún’s words—“the youngest to experience that Death” would have gathered in Weimar and Buchenwald, in Nordhausen and Mittelbau-Dora, and it would ultimately have now been our call to become “their last shelter and refuge” for the future. We—and I don’t just mean the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Sites and their employees, but also those from every walk of life in society: culture, the arts, the sciences, the churches and politics, and all those who would have helped to shape and support the events to mark the 75th anniversary, including the many who would have participated at the events—we all would have liked to yet again show the survivors, but also those who are clamouring that we bury our remembrance culture, that we take this task to heart and with conviction, and that we shall continue to do so. Not only do we owe this to the survivors who have become our friends: we also owe it to the women, men, and children who were persecuted and murdered by us. We owe it to ourselves as well as to those who will come in our wake.
And so I revert to Carl Schmitt, that political theorist with the Nazi Party. The Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora concentration camps, as with the network of the National Socialist concentration and extermination camps in general, were places and machineries for elimination and exclusion. From this inhumane perspective that was radicalized to an extreme by the Nazis, these sites were justified just as they were deemed necessary in order to forge the desired racial equality and homogeneity, initially across Germany and subsequently under German (occupation) rule throughout Europe. The German National Socialists propagated—building on the prevailing and radicalised ethno-centred mindsets—the ultimate political and social objective of an absolutely “racially pure” Volksgemeinschaft [people’s community], which, purified of all “foreign elements” through exclusion, would supposedly create a harmonious community, a paradise supposedly free of all social and political conflicts. In reality, however, this “paradise” the Nazis promised was built upon violence; it perpetually generated fresh and increased violence, committed as it was to the logic of political and racial cleansing. Hence, their promise was deceitful and poisoned from the outset. This is also borne out by the destiny of those 340,000 human beings who were bundled off to the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora concentration camps and to their sub-camps, where they were tortured. The more than 76,000 deaths in both camps testify to this torture. Whoever calls for an end to our acts of remembrance does not want to know about happened in the camps or wants to erase these experiences, in order that yesterday’s destructive political poisons be all the more easily touted as today’s panacea. And yet, we have to ask whether it would truly be desirable and would it vouch for a happy life to live under political and social conditions not based upon the tenet that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”?
For this very reason, the centrepiece of events to mark the 75th liberation of the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora concentration camps is the “Thuringian Declaration,” which representatives from the highest constitutional organs of the Free State of Thuringia, namely, the First Minister, the President of the State Parliament, the President of the Constitutional Court of Thuringia, and the Buchenwald Memorial Foundation and Mittelbau-Dora jointly launched. Initially, it was to be presented in public at the German National Theatre in Weimar as part of the grand ceremonial commemorative act scheduled for 5 April 2020 in the presence of the survivors. This Declaration should serve as a concrete, self-binding and direction-giving signal that the historical memory of National Socialism and of the human beings who fell victim to its crimes must have a future, and shall have a future even after all those who carry those living memories are no longer in our midst. Among the Declaration’s first signatories were the three surviving witnesses who were scheduled to speak at the commemorative act at the National Theatre—at that very site where the democratically elected Constituent German National Assembly drafted and passed the Constitution of the Weimar Republic back in 1919. Given that the commemorative act could not take place on account the corona pandemic, this Declaration was published nationwide on the historic day of the liberation, 11 April 2020—and is also to be found on this website. We hereby invite all persons of good will to sign this Declaration and thus send a clear signal—for a democratic future based upon solidarity in which hatred, racism, and authoritarian politics find no comfort.
The website also features, insofar as is feasible, the speeches that were to be delivered during the commemorative act as well as at the subsequent wreath-laying ceremony on the site of the Appellplatz at the former Buchenwald concentration camp on 5 April and later during the commemoration in front of the crematorium at the former concentration camp Mittelbau-Dora on 7 April. It cannot, however, report on the multitude of events that were scheduled to take place across Weimar and Nordhausen, as well as at both memorials sites from mid-March thru May in conjunction with numerous participants and contributors: exhibitions, readings, lectures, film evenings, discussion groups, thematic tours and much more. The broad spectrum of society that would have supported these events features under the heading “Contributors”.
Two particular events, however, deserve mention, for they represent something paradigmatic. On 4 April 2020, the launch of the renovation of the former Nazi “Gauforum” in Weimar was due to be celebrated in-situ, with a procession through the city. In the “Gauforum,” the exhibition “Forced Labour, the Germans, the Forced Laborers and the War,” jointly developed by the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials, will be on permanent display—as an elementary contribution to raising awareness about one of the Nazi’s major crimes. This criminality was only first officially recognized as such by
Germany in 1999: Some twenty million people were victims of this crime, a crime administered by Fritz Sauckel, the Gauleiter of Thuringia in his function as General Plenipotentiary of Manpower under the Nazi regime. In tandem with the Bauhaus Museum, opened by the Klassikstiftung in 2019, and the Neue Museum that was designed in connection with it, this exhibition will constitute a cornerstone in the new museum district on the—ambivalent—modernism in Weimar. It is entirely in keeping that this exhibition will shed a completely different light on the “Gauforum.” Its close proximity to the state administrative office that is housed within the “Gauforum” and the fact that is being developed in conjunction with the Klassikstiftung and the city of Weimar, corresponds to the significance of the “Thuringian Declaration” as well as the motto “Is it all over?”—thereby sending a tangible signal.
Following the scheduled celebrations to mark the launching of the “Forced Labour” exhibition, the “Long Night” for the commemorative events was due to begin at the German National Theater in Weimar. Five years ago—to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora—the German National Theatre and the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation had already joined forces to conceive and organize a “Long Night,” at that juncture under the motto “Alles wieder gut [Is everything all right again?] ”Over a thousand people, especially young people, participated—seriously and happily, thoughtfully and touchingly, emboldened to hoist their colours to the mast and to be counted. We would have liked to again use this innovative format to continue, as part of their prerequisite ritual character, to take commemorative events very seriously, and yet not allow them to ossify and to come undone. If they are to be credible and effective, and wish to remain so, acts of remembrance can never be separated from the self-critical examination of the inhuman potential and tendencies of the times in which we’re living. In this sense, we are delighted that the Foundation’s sponsors and donors—namely, the state of Thuringia and the federal government—have agreed with us without hesitation that we make good on our commitments to the survivors as soon as possible. They will once again make available the special funds set aside for this year for the 76th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps in April 2021—in order that we can reschedule to the best of our abilities all that could not take place this year.