On Tuesday Germany commemorated the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army 70 years ago. The German head of state, President Joachim Gauck, held a speech in front of the parliament, reminding everyone that there is no German identity without Auschwitz. President Gauck is right. President Gauck acknowledged that every generation seeks and finds its own approach towards this period of German history. Because of that he feels certain that there will be no forgetting. He was wise enough to caution the current generation of Germans against contenting themselves with repeated rituals of commemoration. These rituals are not an excuse to shy away from a continuous self-interrogation of each new generation.
His own speech was such an example of how a continued self-interrogation of a nation leads to new perspectives. Gauck recognized that German citizens with a immigrant backgrounds may have a different relationship with this part of their identity and this period of German history. By saying that there is no German identity without Auschwitz he also made it clear that this aspect is non-negotiable.
A concept that looks to the future
This leads to the question of responsibility and where it comes from. Where does the personal responsibility of a German with an immigrant background come from? How is this person connected to what happened 70 years ago in this country? If the responsibility is to extend to every German citizen today, then that responsibility cannot be derived from what Gauck called a community of common experience. Instead, he suggested a concept that does not look to the past to find its justification, but to the future: he called the German society today, including everyone, a community bound together by a common responsibility. This stance should not be misunderstood as a rejection of new more hybrid German identities. It should rather be seen as a new door opening, allowing access to an old German place that has so far felt almost inaccessible for Germans whose bloodline does not reach back three generations.
This may be the next phase of understanding the Holocaust but also of envisioning a new German identity – by ridding both of their essentialist aspect of blood-ties. It is to say that commemorating and remembering the Holocaust is not a task of those Germans whose families committed the atrocities. It becomes the task of all those living in Germany and wanting to call themselves German. It is a compromise between the established, old part of the German people and the “new” German citizens. If two parties enter into a relationship, both will bring with them their histories and matters that are crucial to them. Germany is entering the relationship by saying Auschwitz is not negotiable, the memory and responsibility are for plain moral reasons not negotiable. It is the duty of the German people – whoever the German people were, are or will become. This change of perspective away from the past and towards the future is an offer to the current generation that includes so many with immigration background. Belonging to a society is then no longer a question of biology or having been part of the club for enough generations. Belonging becomes a conscious act of taking up responsibility for a collective issue. This model of German identity is much more open, allowing more people to be German and be accepted as German based on their behavior rather than their biology.
What is Auschwitz to me? I can never talk about it or listen to stories connected to it without feeling a deep sadness and pain. This is an example of how human beings just like me can fail morally on an individual level, of how an entire society can be complicit as a collective, of the insanely disproportionate power the state has and how in a democracy our states fail if we as individuals fail in our daily emotional and moral judgments.
What I am proud of as a German is the continuous remembering and acknowledgement of responsibility for this most dark moment of the German, European and human condition. What fills me with hope and pride is the attentiveness of the German people and its institutions today towards any sign of organized discrimination – be it in the form of a problematic government law barring homosexual couples from adopting or the manifestation of xenophobia in the form of a citizen-organized group like Pegida. This attentiveness is what may be the German people’s daily enactment of the bitterly learned lesson of “Never again.”
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