The largest memorial to the underground factories in Germany is near Nordhausen, at the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial. I was able to visit with Jens-Christian Wagner, the director of the memorial. We had a great discussion on the importance of memorials and the purpose they have in contemporary Germany. We spoke on the many different meanings of “Gedenkstätte”, how there are political, social, emotional and economic meanings and reasons for creating a monument or memorial site. One interesting, and sad, fact is, that much of the financial support for the memorials throughout Germany that commemorate the Holocaust is provided by survivors or their relatives. Dr. Wagner also noted how it was not until 1998 that a German Bundesregierung took national responsibility for their Nazi past in the form of financially supporting memorials and monuments. Before then, “cultural” aspects of the national past were left to local and state governments.
One question I asked of Dr. Wagner was how many memorials are needed. He replied that it is impossible to construct one at each location where people were unjustly kept prisoner or executed. It should be enough to use one ore two locations as an example, as in the case with Auschwitz and Dachau. Those sites with multi-regional, or national importance, though, should be funded by the national government. Local population and authorities should determine what is adequate and appropriate for them. Dr. Wagner warned that care must also be taken due to issues that can arise when there is good intent, but no input from survivors or those affected. He was adamant, though, that something should be done. Dr. Wanger said that they also offer their services as editors and advisers on how to construct an appropriate memorial, but are limited themselves as to the financial contributions they can make. We discussed that the reason for memorials should be for social history, and only as it relates to the concentration camp inmates. The use of forced labor can never be separated from the technological and scientific discoveries made by the Nazi engineers and scientists. For example, you can’t separate the technical aspects of the V-weapons and tunnel building from the forced labor and the laborers. Doing so leads to disconnect from the laborers and leads to right wing Nazi fascination.
There is a problem even nowadays with people seeking to clear the Nazis of wrongdoing, looking to find Nazi secret weapons or proof of Nazi creation of an atomic bomb. Dr. Wanger was quite emphatic that the German war production and armament program was a fantasy. The only thing the projects produced was the death of thousands. The role of the memorial at Mittelbau-Dora is to show how completely fantastic and impractical the plans were that the Nazis had made. There is no way to separate anything they did from the reality that what they did was kill people. Everything they did here was well documented and well known. There were no secret atomic bombs here, or at any of the other tunnel projects.
We also discussed the looming issue that within 10 years, all of the living Holocaust survivors will pass on. In the past they have successfully lobbied to have the German national government fund some memorials, but within 10 years they will all be gone and the leverage they could extend will no longer exist. One question that arose was, what happens when nobody feels responsible for the history? In the 1990s and early 2000s there was a “bloom” of memorials as the government and citizens came to a “reawakening” of the horrors perpetrated during World War II. During that time there was finally a political party in power that wanted to take responsibility of the past. We also discussed that how the past is remembered is a generational issue. The question that memorials should answer is: For the youth of today, what connection do they have with the past, and why does it matter? For teenagers today, World War II is as far in the past as the Middle Ages. The Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial tries to teach the visiting youth that the structure of today’s society, with racism, political ideologies, and class separation are still in existence, just as they were in the 1930s, and that the choices their grandparents or great-grandparents made over these same issues is what lead them to a society that allowed such atrocities as the Holocaust to exist. The question then becomes, how do we learn from that past? Or, getting more to the heart of the matter, how do we deal with the “others”? How do we deal with differences of culture and class, religion and gender, and a host of other issues in our society? When youth realize that they face the same issues, as did their ancestors who allowed for fascism, then the past is no longer distant. It is relevant to them and the situations they face now, and becomes a learning tool to shape their future.
One final point of discussion was how much the people in Nordhausen knew about the concentration camp. Dr. Wagner was direct in stating that everyone at the time knew what was happening, and that they knew that forced laborers were used and abused. It was directly in front of them every day. For example, the hospital for the concentration camp was in the city, near the main train station. There were businesses in town that would “rent” inmates for war production jobs. It was similar in nearly every city in Germany. They knew what was happening.