60th anniversary of the liberation of the National Socialist concentration camps
Speech by Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder at the commemorative ceremony in Weimar on 10 April 2005 marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the National Socialist concentration camps:
»Former prisoners of Buchenwald, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,
Many of you have travelled to Weimar today from Israel, the United States of America and from neighbouring European states. You suffered the hell of the concentration camps and you survived. Yet many of your fellow prisoners, loved ones and friends died in these camps, succumbed to hunger, disease, sadistic terror and systematic slaughter. Together we commemorate your lost comrades today.
You, who have come here today, are the guardians of authentic, first-hand experience. You have seen and suffered the worst of which inhumanity is capable when taken to its logical conclusion. I pay my profound respects to you, to the victims and their relatives.
Ladies and gentlemen,
At the beginning of Jorge Semprun’s excellent novel about Buchenwald, the narrator stands in front of a beech tree and, for a moment, contemplates its simple hibernal beauty. And then he is hauled back to the reality of camp life by the voice of an SS guard and the gun that is pointed at him. “Buchenwald” – “a wood of beeches” – is of itself a beautiful word, but that is deceptive, for the names of these places awaken many memories.
On the one hand, there is the name Weimar, which resonates with a history of incomparable cultural achievement. Weimar represents humanity, enlightenment and idealism, and – after 1918 – a new democratic beginning in Germany. And on the other hand, there is Buchenwald on the nearby Ettersberg hill – forty hectares of coldness and cruelty, the absolute negation of all that is civilized. The place represents inhumanity, spiritual darkness and barbarity. It is the close geographical proximity of civilization and barbarity that leaves us so speechless. This apparent contradiction makes us yearn to grasp the incomprehensible, which still transcends all human powers of imagination. We are dependent on the memories of the survivors to understand what happened. They are our link to this particular past.
The death of the millions, the trauma of the survivors, the tortures endured by the victims – these are the reasons for our mission to create a better future. We cannot undo the past, nor can we really overcome it. But we can indeed learn from history, from the darkest hours that brought shame on our country. We, the generations born thereafter, the representatives of a different, democratic Germany, are determined that we shall never again allow injustice and violence, anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia to gain ground in our country.
The memory of the National Socialist era, of war, genocide and infamy, has become part of our national identity. It has left us with an abiding moral and political duty.
We are guided by the values of the enlightenment and the French Revolution, the tradition of humanism, the ideal of a free and socially just society, but also by the experience of resisting all forms of tyranny. We must and shall defend these values anew every day. I am therefore glad that young adults from many different European countries are here today. They will meet people who witnessed these events at first hand, they will talk to former prisoners and in this way they will help preserve their memories for future generations.
But memories tend to fade with time, to lose their power, and can appear removed from today’s reality. That is why it is so important to have sites that are wholly dedicated to remembrance, that convincingly draw the past into our present. These sites enjoin us to resolutely resist the temptation of forgetting or suppressing the past.
Concentration camps were, as Eugen Kogon has said, an order where right was totally absent, into which the individual was thrown and forced to fight every day for a life that meant nothing to those who guarded him. The omnipresence of terror and death, despotism, maltreatment and humiliation was intended to rob the individual of his personality, his self-respect and indeed his dignity. Yet there was solidarity among the inmates. They clung fast to their humanity, their compassion, and remained ready to make sacrifices. Within certain limits, the daily resistance and solidarity among the prisoners from all over Europe undermined the efforts of those working the extermination machine. And after Stalingrad at the latest their confidence that Hitler would lose the war increased. One is hard put to imagine the avid anticipation, the hope with which each rumour of the war, of the Allies’ steady advance, was received in the camps. When, on 11 April 1945, the US Army reached Buchenwald concentration camp, it was simultaneously a liberation from without and – what must not be forgotten – a liberation and political uprising from within. It was constitutional lawyer Hermann Louis Brill who, together with like-minded comrades from across Europe, penned what he called the prisoners’ Buchenwald Manifest of the Democratic Socialists. The Manifest, and likewise the Oath of the prisoners of Buchenwald, are trail-blazing documents. They called for the creation of a new world in peace and a new Europe in freedom.
Former prisoners, politicians such as Brill and the great French Socialist Léon Blum, were among those who took the first steps towards creating a free post-war Europe. Writers, journalists and artists also played their part in those early days. To name but a few, who will stand for the many, let me cite the Nobel laureates Elie Wiesel and Imre Kertesz, the authors Bruno Apitz and Danuta Brzosko-Medryk, and the artist Jósef Szajna. We owe them, and all the others, more than words can say. They have had a large part in ensuring that the totalitarianism and contempt for human life symbolized by the concentration camps have indeed not been forgotten.
Honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen,
Buchenwald and all its horrors stand for the ultimate totalitarian regime of the 20th century, for National Socialism and for its victims. But it also has a second, less well-known history – a history under Stalin – that should not be forgotten. Buchenwald Concentration Camp became Soviet Special Camp Number 2, which it remained until 1950. In 1958 the former concentration camp became the GDR’s “National Buchenwald Memorial”. The first freely-elected People’s Chamber of the GDR later called for Buchenwald to be included in the Unification Treaty as a place of national remembrance.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The Europe of freedom, peace and democracy that we have created over the past fifty years certainly has many roots. But the deepest roots of all are embedded in the darkest years of the 20th century, the years when the silent terror of the camps held this very Europe in its grip. In these camps was born the profound determination to ensure that things never again go so far. From these camps came the most insistent appeal to oppose the forces of injustice and tyranny in whatever guise they may take.
The long-serving President of the International Buchenwald Committee, Pierre Durand, spoke these words on the 56th anniversary of the camp’s liberation: “Our long lives have taught us that one may never give up, that in one’s heart one must always carry the torch of hope and the will to build a better world, a world that is a worthy home to humanity.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is the mission with which we, the generations born thereafter, have been entrusted. That is our duty to those who suffered and perished in Buchenwald and the other camps.
This mission applies equally to all generations. It was the mission of those who bore responsibility before us. It is our mission, and will be the mission of those who come after us. In Germany, it is a mission that will endure for all time.«
Speech by Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder at the commemorative ceremony in Weimar on 10 April 2005 marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the National Socialist concentration camps; Translation