Why Holocaust remembrance is good for immigrants

In 2005, Germany officially became an immigration country. This happened with the passage of immigration legislation and the establishment of a federal office for migration (BAMF). A wave of corresponding laws and institutions were to follow, set to absorb those meant to stay – not just guest-workers, not temporary migrants, not comrades (so-called Vertragsarbeiter from communist countries), but immigrants. In turn, the question of who was or is allowed to be called (and call themselves) a German became a political one.

“If immigrants are allowed to come and remain, what will our society look like in 20, 50 years?” politicians, voters, media pundits asked of themselves and their neighbors.

This country and its residents have witnessed plenty of change and adjustment; 2005 was not necessarily an abrupt or uncalled for turning-point. Berlin, in particular, has certainly experienced one identity crisis after another, from the Berlin Wall’s division to counter-cultural battles in both East and West.

Yet redefining self and country after the fall of the Wall (even during the student protests of 1968) had little to do with defining oneself in opposition to a foreign but stationary Other. Although individuals and families with non-German origins have been coming for centuries, confronting what will be an official change in what it means to be German is rather fresh. Like many societal changes, the law, in this case the 2005 Immigration Act, came first.

Scene from the BBC series “Make Me a German”

The question – who are the Germans anyway? – becomes increasingly important when deciding what to impart to newcomers. Which traditions deserve saving? What is important to our national-cultural community? The answers to such questions are not as simple as artisanal baked goods or Pilser.

So-called ex-patriates, armed with a privileged outsider perspective, have not been shy in constructing simple German-ness for other Germans.

The BBC reality TV series “Make Me a German” plays with stereotypes and assumptions about what is typisch deutsch (typically German) through the eyes of Brits living in Germany. The viral blog post What I know about Germans is another example of temporary (or new) residents making trendy lists of all things “German”. Berlin-based comedy writer Adam Fletcher has even created an entire brand solely on the ironic and yet obscure categorization of German-ness. On a tote bag in Fletcher’s line of nifty merchandise: an engineer’s instruments, a watch, whole wheat, nudity culture (think so-called ‘naked beachs’), and white asparagus.

But where is the concentration camp in this TV series, these lists, or this fashion line? Where is the Holocaust?

Entrance to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Oranienburg, DE

One weekend in late spring I embarked on a day-long tour of the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp with my friend Max – a friend who just happens to be Jewish and a U.S. citizen, like myself, albeit via Ukraine. Sachsenhausen is the former Nazi-German concentration camp located just right on the northern edge of Berlin, reachable with the S-Bahn, i.e. public transit.

We were a small group for an English-speaking tour, minuscule in comparison to the many Italian and Spanish tour groups all heading to the same location. Two Taiwanese students, an American-Spanish couple on vacation from their residence in Saudi Arabia, a Brazilian student traveling Europe for the first time, a Bulgarian engineer, and Max and I (both Americans) made up our group.

We met our guide, Alex, at Potsdamer Platz and exchanged small-talk. The content of our banter: why we were all willing to commit seven hours on a Sunday to visit the haunted, vast expanses of Sachsenhausen.

The case is hardly made in contemporary political discussions that Holocaust education is imperative to the successful integration (that is, inclusion) of immigrants into German society. And yet, federal integration programs, combined with international perception of German-ness, tend to inch toward such a case.

The longer one lives in Germany and especially in Berlin, one thing becomes increasingly clear: The concept of public historical memorialization and its consequence, called Vergangenheitsbewältigung in the German realmis just as important to living in German society as vollkorn Brötchen or Oktoberfest. It saturates collective understanding of (and debates surrounding) a sense of common, i.e. shared, place.

On our tour’s long walk from Oranienburg station to the gates of the camp, we pass what one could describe as the neat homes of the petit bourgeoisie, colorful but clean gardens segregated from the street by high fences. Life here seems to have simply carried. It has, after all, been more than 60 years.

I begin a conversation with one of the other young women on the tour, Natalia, the student from São Paulo. I ask her what she thinks about Germany, the Germans, and the Holocaust, since this is, after all, her first time in Europe. She brings up an interesting point: “How do the Germans feel about this kind of tourism – that people go to Venice to see the canals and to Berlin to see the Holocaust? I can imagine they don’t like it.”

A man jogs past us in bright running-gear, his dog trotting behind him, just passing the entrance to the camp.

“This is just part of being German”, I posit – that is, accepting that this is how you are seen in the world, that this history is an indivisible part of any sense of belonging to German society.

For new residents of Berlin, the past certainly matters and should continue to matter. However, is it possible that this history and its significance matters more than federal integration programming can provide for?

Through his personal history and that of his grandparents Max is familiar with the debate between living in so-called contemporary German society and seeing the present as being forever entangled with the Holocaust. Max and his family left Kiev when he was five, in part due to Antisemitism, and his great-great-grandparents were killed in the Babi Yar massacre of 1941.

Many Jewish immigrants to Germany have certainly been posed this question before, but I ask it anyway: “How does it feel to be a Jew in Germany, now?”, recognizing the change in the air from the friendly chatter we usually exchange to a certain viscosity. “Antisemitism is more the exception than the rule. I don’t feel confronted by it in daily life… but I know it’s there,” he says. He is supportive of Antifa movements, he continues, but is aware that being Jewish in Germany “is complicated… though totally do-able”. It does, however, require a little finesse. Berlin, of course, allows for all kinds of finesse.

Our tour enters Sachsenhausen through the renovated watchtower and its metal gates, a construction bearing the architectural legacy of the post-war custodians of the camp – the (East) German Democratic Republic. A stream of other visitors follows our trail, audio devices pressed to their ears.

A montage of languages can be heard as we move from one monument within the camp to another – Swedish, Japanese, British English, French – all reading the same saddening information on plaques or exhibition panels, all bearing witness to tragedy and an integral part (if not the deciding event) of this country’s history and present identity dilemma.

We moved to the far edge of the camp, heading toward the restored Barrack 38, the Jewish barrack – in a camp originally designed only for political prisoners, i.e. dissenters – that has since been converted into a memorial documentation center. As we enter the small structure, the unmistakable smell of charred wood stings the nose, paint peeling from the siding of the latrine and sleeping porch. Arson.

In 1992, the fate of the Germans as a pseudo-nation was thrust under international limelight after reunification and the growing pains that followed. This existential crisis was further exacerbated by the rise of Neo-Nazism in the former East. The same year of the attack on Barrack 38, Neo-Nazis set fire to a refugee housing facility not too far from Berlin, terrorizing residents in the riot of Rostock-Lichtenhagen. Arson was a key expression of the tensions between East and West, and thus the Neo-Nazi weapon of choice, as it were.

Xenophobia is part of many nation-building and rebuilding projects, as the Yugoslavian example demonstrates. In Germany, its residue has lingered on long past WWII.

The political activities of parties and movements, such as the NPD (German Nationalist Party with strong Neo-Nazi ties), as well as the recent Neo-Nazi terror-cell and its string of xenophobic murders across Germany, point to a contemporary relevance of the Nazi past to Germany’s future as a country of immigration. The Holocaust and its constitutive role in German identity has been part of the country’s historical development ever since. What to teach immigrants? – remember the Holocaust.

We leave the camp in a drizzle of rain, boarding the S-Bahn back to Berlin. As our guide Alex (speaking a high variety of the King’s English) begins to share an illustrative vignette about the end of the war and the deterioration of Nazi moral power in Germany, passengers in the train begin to appear perturbed.

A woman with fiery hair shakes her head in disgust; she furls insults in German in our guide’s direction (understood only by me at the time). Another stern-faced German woman enters the train shortly after, then raises her voice to replace that of red-haired woman, who has since moved to a different car.

The woman’s lips quiver, the veins in her neck traumatically flinching, exposed. She looks to be about my mother’s age. “Why don’t you just stop talking? It is rude what you are doing. It is not right what you are doing. We don’t need to be lectured to! You must stop,” she says abruptly, and in English.

German trains and buses are anything but loud; each passenger keeps to his or herself in a very strong show of privacy. This is indeed a common stereotype of Berliners, but it illuminates the particular conflict that ensued here quite well – for this intervention by passengers was nothing short of extraordinary.

With eyes closed in shock, our guide explains that we are part of an educational tour of the concentration camp, that he has been doing this for years and has never had such a negative reaction. He keeps calm. No sign of anger fills his face, though anxiety can be spotted in the creases of his face.

The female companion of the pulsing-veined woman responds loudly with perhaps the only words in English she knows: “Shut uppp!” – the “p” popped for emphasis.

Max intervenes, giving up his seat for our guide, so that we might continue our tour more discretely. With hands shaking and eyes still pressed closed, Alex continues his narrative, now leaning in to our huddle. “The time after the war was characterized by the so-called de-Nazification of educational and political institutions, albeit unsuccessfully, as the student protest movements of 1968 indicate. The 68er generation of protestors was also a generation of guilt-ridden and disullisioned young Germans. It gave way to today’s Antifa movement and to general skepticism toward patriotism in Germany that has more or less continued into the present-day.” This trajectory forms a continual history that has yet to come to a close, he shares.

As we exit the train, the pulsing-veined woman runs to Alex, extending her hand to graze his: “I agree with everything you said!” she says, “but you were just speaking so loud for a public place! It is a train, not a classroom. Your voice was just a bit oppressive. So, next time, just speak quieter.” She pauses, waiting for his response, and Alex thanks her.

With one last quiver of the lip: “I was one of those Germans you talked about, one of those students with guilt for something I wasn’t even old enough to have participated in, let alone to have remembered. So thank you for what you said… I don’t want anyone thinking ‘oh these horrible Germans’. I don’t want you all leaving thinking that”, this last sentence uttered just as the doors close behind us.

Education about the past does more than just memorialize or work to prevent reoccurrence: It avoids the essentialization of historical events, by preserving their complexity.

With the new immigration status of 2005 and the integration programs that immediately followed came the creation of an ‘integration curriculum’, including cultural orientation covering this very facet of Germanness: the Holocaust.

Immigrants participating in these so-called integration courses visit historical institutions designed to communicate the significance of the Nazi period for Germany as both a reconstructed state and a presently diverse society – diverse in ethno-cultural, religious, and linguistic terms.

Of course, official curriculum that incorporates Holocaust-centered field-trips cannot prevent all problems that arise in attempts to include immigrants in society, let alone answer all questions regarding history and its present continuation.

Politicians are still scratching their heads at the ‘German question’ – each party choosing which elements it wants to claim for the imagined ‘nation’, some famously campaigning for a Leitkultur or one central ‘guiding culture’ authored by traditional Germans for all of Germany.

Immigrants are often left by the way-side in these discussions, told to assimilate rather than to be a part of something new (and better).

Because of its tendency to exclude, the assimilative approach has been heavily criticized by most politicians outside of the leading conservative party (CDU), though even CDU members have begun to change their tune.

The head of the Jewish Council of Germany, Paul Spiegel, has vocalized his thoughts on the issue of German culture and immigrant inclusion. His words cut to the core of this article’s topic and the general debate about what German culture should transmit and whom it should serve. In a speech to Parliament, Spiegel said “Ist es etwa deutsche Leitkultur, Fremde zu jagen, Synagogen anzuzünden, Obdachlose zu töten?”: “Is it ‘German culture’ to hunt down foreigners, to light synagogues on fire, to kill the homeless?”

The Holocaust is not far from these debates about German-ness. And, as Paul Spiegel might have phrased it, German society needs these debates both for the sake of its own growing diversity and for the sake of itself.

Just as Great Britain is a country built on colonialism, so today’s Germany is a republic built on moral disruptions like the Holocaust. This is not to say that countries and their residents are reducible to history. Rather it is to say that institutions and individuals are still intimately connected to what came before. Becoming German* is about understanding history and what it might mean for the present, regardless of ethnicity.

By Kelly Miller at Collidoscope Berlin, where this story was first published in 2013.

Our free tour to Sachsenhausen concentration camp was provided by Vive Berlin Toursmeeting Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays at 10am at Balzac Coffee on Potsdamer Platz year-round. Our guide, Alex, comes highly recommended, as does this cooperative-style tour company which prides itself on expertise and narrative, as well as fairness for its employees. 

*Not sure, if you are German? Take this funny quiz from none other than Adam Fletcher here.