Renowned for its relentless confrontation of its Nazi past, Germany’s culture of remembrance faces new 21st-Century challenges as survivors of World War II and the Holocaust disappear and far-right politics reemerges.
“This is my birth certificate, with the Nazi swastika on the bottom,” white-haired Ralph Dannheisser tells a class of rapt teenagers, passing the document around the packed library at Frankfurt’s Liebig secondary school.
Born in 1938, less than two years before his parents fled Europe for the United States, Dannheisser grew up speaking German and praying for the survival of relatives left behind as World War II and the Holocaust savaged the Old Continent.
The students press 80-year-old Dannheisser with questions for more than an hour, asking how the loss of his grandparents in the camps at Sobibor and Auschwitz-Birkenau affected his childhood, or how American children reacted to German-Jewish refugees.
“My mother never got over the murder of her parents and her brother… I also felt a real loss because I grew up without an Oma or Opa (granddad or grandma) and grew up knowing no uncles, aunts or cousins,” Dannheisser recounts.
“It was really detailed, we didn’t learn things this way in class,” 15-year-old Ronan Chollet-Richard says afterwards.
“You could see clearly in his eyes how it felt. It’s unimaginable for me as a pupil, as a child.”
Dannheisser, smiling from behind his glasses and neat beard, declares himself “impressed” by the students’ engagement.
“They had intelligent questions and gave me a lot of hope,” he says.
“I think it’s important to tell our stories and to keep the memory alive in newer generations while we’re still around,” he adds.
The dwindling number of survivors makes the question of how to pass knowledge of Germany’s totalitarian past on to future generations more acute now than it has been in decades.
“As we draw further and further away from the Holocaust and World War II, it’s all the more urgent to find new ways of communicating this,” says Stephan Peters, who has taught history at the Liebig school since 1992.
– ‘180-degree turn’ –
Germany broke free of the post-war decades of silence and repressed memories to probe the depths of its Nazi past in the late 20th Century, a process imitated in places like South Africa.
But last year the far-right nationalist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) surged into parliament with 12.6 percent of the vote, turbocharged by the arrival of more than one million mostly Muslim refugees since 2015.
Ahead of the election, regional AfD leader Bjoern Hoecke called for a “180-degree turn” in the country’s “daft policy of coming to terms with the past”.
And party leader Alexander Gauland has said “we have the right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars”.
AfD’s contempt for the culture of remembrance stems not from hatred of Jews so much as from its rejection of many lessons post-war Germany drew from its history.
The 1949 Basic Law, later adopted as united Germany’s constitution, is anchored around a deep concern for individual rights, with clear limits to state, police and military powers and a commitment to host refugees.
Away from the far-right, Germany’s 200,000-strong Jewish community fears growing numbers of anti-Semitic crimes by Muslim perpetrators, from the burning of Israeli flags at protests to street violence or bullying in schools.
“I would advise individual people against openly wearing a kippah (traditional Jewish skullcap) in big German cities,” Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said in April after a spate of such incidents.
– No ‘inoculation’ for extremism –
As Holocaust survivors gradually vanish, the focus of remembrance culture is turning towards the physical evidence of Nazi crimes at former camps and other scenes of atrocities.
Some politicians have even called for obligatory visits to Holocaust memorials.
Teacher Peters cautions that the encounters can be “psychologically very, very difficult to bear for some pupils, to withstand the pressure they feel at this place”.
What’s more, many sites are “at the limits of our capacity,” says Stephanie Billib, a spokeswoman for the Holocaust memorial at Bergen-Belsen.
“We have more school groups than we can manage, we are always having to turn down requests.”
While memorials hope for more state funding, the disappearance of those who lived through the Holocaust as adults means “important advocates for the memorials will soon no longer be there,” Billib laments.
In any case, she says visits are not so effective that “you can give people some kind of inoculation, that all the young people will be good democrats” afterwards.
That hasn’t stopped people trying — most notoriously in the case of German rappers Farid Bang and Kollegah.
After the duo’s top-selling album, which features anti-Semitic — or at least extremely tasteless — lines about Auschwitz inmates, won Germany’s biggest music award, the Echo, the resulting scandal lead to the prize being scrapped earlier this year.
Now the apparently contrite pair are set to visit the former Nazi German camp in Poland.
“They’ll be paying homage to the victims and the survivors,” said Christoph Heubner, vice-president of the International Auschwitz Committee.
“It will be a retraining course in humanity.”