The preservation and interpretation of Second World War memorials of the Holocaust, such as concentration camps, varies across Europe, Catherine Hokin tells Historia. Decisions on what – and how – to preserve depended on the politics and beliefs of those in power at the time.
I have spent much of the last two years researching concentration camps, in particular Sachsenhausen, which featured in my novel The Fortunate Ones, and Ravensbrück, where part of my latest release, What Only We Know is set.
Writing anything about the Holocaust demands accuracy and tact. Both the conditions and practices in, and the geographical placement of, the camps, varied enormously and what is true of one is often wildly inaccurate for another. The two camps I have come to know in detail do, however, share commonalities which have shaped how they are now presented and remembered.
Firstly, both were built in close proximity to Berlin: Sachsenhausen adjoins the small town of Oranienburg, about an hour’s train ride from the city; Ravensbrück is forty-five minutes further on in the same direction. Neither camp is isolated. Officers lived in the mansions around Sachsenhausen and a large SS housing estate bordered the camp – local girls married the men who served there and families lived within earshot of the camp’s brickworks and ‘shooting gallery’ where prisoners were executed.
Ravensbrück nestles in the shadow of the picturesque town of Fürstenburg, with its cobbled roads, church spire peeping over the tree tops and peaceful lake. Inmates arrived in both places via the local train station and were marched past the homes of local residents. It is fair to say that, socially, and economically, the two camps were part of the fabric of the area they stood in.
Following the end of the war and the division of Germany, they were both also situated in what was to become the DDR, a geographical re-writing which has had profound implications for how the memory of what happened in them was shaped for future generations.
The preservation of former concentration camps did not simply happen. Given the state of Europe in 1945, it required deliberate decision-making on the part of governmental bodies and private agencies; as did the placing of memorial plaques and statues. The first memorial was established at the Majdanek extermination camp on the outskirts of Lublin, when the Soviet Army liberated it in July 1944. Three years later, the Polish parliament proclaimed that Auschwitz would be “forever preserved as a memorial to the martyrdom of the Polish nation and other peoples.”
What would be preserved, and how it would be memorialised, also required deliberate decision making, and these decisions were made within very different post-war political systems and sensibilities. In Israel, for example, the Holocaust is seen as part of a continuum of antisemitic persecution; in Japan it is presented with a link to the nuclear apocalypse at Hiroshima.
“In Eastern Europe the memorials were usually seen as forms of symbolic politics under the direction and financial patronage of the central government. In Western Europe the memorials were usually left to private and local initiative and thus developed in an ad hoc and piecemeal fashion.”
Sachsenhausen has two monuments to the dead, both placed in 1961. The smaller of the two is a traditional pieta-style depiction of two inmates carrying a corpse. The larger, which at almost 5m tall dominates the camp, is a tower topped with eighteen red triangle badges – to commemorate the nationalities of the political prisoners held there. The statue at its base, entitled ‘Liberation’, depicts an idealised Russian soldier with his arm round two strong inmates. Critics of the tower’s central position and subject matter argue that it marginalises the Jewish experience.
Ravensbrück also became essentially a communist shrine. Its chief monument Tragende (Bearing) shows a strong woman carrying a far weaker one. According to Sarah Helm – whose If This is a Woman is the definitive Ravensbrück history – the statue was inspired by Olga Benário Prestes, a German communist militant who was imprisoned at Ravensbrück and gassed at Bernberg and subsequently became a DDR heroine. That she was also Jewish, and murdered because she was Jewish, does not appear in the official history.
The often very difficult conversations about how we remember the places of the Holocaust are ongoing, particularly in countries which were occupied by the Nazis. France, for example, built a memorial at Natzweiler-Struthof – the only concentration camp built by the Germans on French soil – in 1964. The museum at the internment camp at Les Milles, which was run by the French and therefore raises questions about collaboration, wasn’t, however, opened until 2012.
In 2018 – after repeated public references to the concentration camps sited there as ‘Polish camps’ – a law came into effect in Poland which threatens up to three years’ imprisonment to anyone who “publicly and untruthfully assigns responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish Nation or the Polish State for Nazi crimes.”
In many of the places I visited, including Sachsenhausen, the question of why these memorials exist remains under constant scrutiny – particularly as the sites increasingly become part of the tourist trail. The historian Gunther Morsch, a previous director of the Sachsenhausen memorial, has been vocal about the need to re-examine our approach, particularly in a political climate which is seeing a rise in populism and the far right.
“We want to keep honouring the victims. And most exhibitions are about their fate. But it has become clear that the emphasis must be shifted to the perpetrators’ motives and the structures that enabled these crimes to be committed [because] more and more visitors are rightly asking, ‘How could such a thing happen?’ and ‘Is it possible today?’”
Unfortunately, in the interview this was taken from, he had to answer the second question with “yes.”
If I can add anything, other than that we should keep talking, it’s this. If you are able to visit either camp, don’t take a tour – they’ll whisk you through and serve up a potted history. Take the train, walk the short walks. You’ll need the space to think.
She has also reviewed several books and films.