The past is always contested. The question is who defines the narrative? Whose memory is it and how is it displayed? On a bright summer day in Munich, Mirjam Zadoff, historian and director of NS-Dokumentation Centre, a multi-storeyed museum and learning centre that houses the history of National Socialism (NS), poses the questions. The answers can be found on the streets of Munich. The wide streets converging at Königsplatz was once called the “Forum of the (NS) Movement”. This was the organisational heart of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), or Nazi Party, with all their important offices and buildings.
Munich was the “capital of the Nazi movement” where Adolf Hitler and members of his inner circle, people like Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Göring, began their political careers; where the wealthy bourgeoisie financed the Nazi Party; where even the Bavarian People’s Court, ultimately, stood by him. After the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, a failed coup d’état to take control of Munich, Hitler had been accused of high treason. The judges in the courtroom were so impassioned by Hitler’s defence that they sentenced him to five years of imprisonment, instead of the mandatory deportation or capital punishment. He served only 10 months in prison and during this time, became a national figure.
In Germany, the past is a warning, repeated and fostered by erinnerungskultur, a culture of remembrance, that is an important element of its society, politics and architecture.
Cross the Isar river towards Rosenheimer Straße street, and you find a modern cultural centre, Gasteig, which came up in place of the Bürgerbräukeller — the beer hall where Hitler launched the unsuccessful Putsch.
A little further down on the same road is the bronze plaque, Georg Elser-Gedenktafel, dedicated to a young carpenter, Georg Elser, who tried and failed to assassinate Hitler in 1939 by planting a bomb in the Bürgerbräukeller. On Bayerstraße, there is a tall, intricate mural of his portrait.
Behind the grand gallery of Feldherrnhalle, a monument commemorating Bavarian military leaders, is the pedestrian-only street of Vicardigasse, which marks the first silent revolt against Hitler and his party. In the 1930s, all those who wished to avoid delivering a Hitler salute to the Nazi memorial adjacent to Feldherrnhalle took this alley. Since then, it has been nicknamed Drückebergergasse (Dodger’s Alley). A trail of faded golden cobblestones is used to commemorate all those who were a part of this resistance.
The most prominent of resistance movements was a group of students (Willi Graf, Hans Leipelt, Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Hans and Sophie Scholl) and Professor Kurt Huber from Munich University who had distributed anonymous pamphlets under the name “White Rose”. The flyers spoke of humanistic values and expressed outrage against Nazi crimes. In 1943, the Scholl siblings were caught while handing out the leaflets. They were executed. The others met the same fate.
Inside Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität is the DenkStätte Weiße Rose (White Rose Memorial) exhibition. Even though there are many sites commemorating the student rebels, the most famous is the one in front of the university, where the Scholl siblings were held. Their protest is remembered by bronze flyers permanently scattered on grey cobblestones. Coloured tiles on streets are common in Munich. Stolperstein, or stumbling blocks, is an ongoing project of artist Gunter Demnig, which began in Berlin in 1992. Demnig remembers the victims of NS by engraving their name, date of deportation, deportation camp and date of death on brass tiles in front of their places of residence or work.
Germany’s culture of remembrance, however, did not develop organically in Munich as it did in other places, like Berlin. Here, after the end of World War II, many Nazi Party members, accused of serious crimes, were accepted back into society. Until the generation of 1968 began breaking this silence. “The second generation was taking on responsibility for dealing with the Nazi crimes that the older generation had circumvented. The sons and daughters accepted and embraced what their parents had dismissed and negated. In doing so, they became the founders of what is today called ‘German memory culture’,” writes Aleida Assmann, eminent German professor, in an essay which appeared in Eurozine last year. Hence, dialogue became an important part of the nation’s culture of remembrance.
“Dealing with the past is one thing but what about dealing with the present?” asks Rachel Salamander, a German-Jewish journalist who was born in Deggendorf Displaced Persons (DP) camp to Russian parents in one of these camps and moved to Munich when she was seven, after having lived in two more DP camps. Given that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Germany, her idea of erinnerungskultur is that of more non-Jewish families coming out and having conversations about the past: what are the lessons learnt from history? Do we return properties and possessions that once belonged to the Jews? How can we never repeat these atrocities? How do we interpret and contextualise history to study the logic of exclusion today?
Apart from being the founder of Literaturhandlung, a chain of six bookstores which specialise in Judaism and Jewish literature, Salamander facilitates talks and sessions on Jewish topics. “In these sessions, more than two-thirds of participants are non-Jews. You have little stones. Put it together and you have a culture,” she says.
Only 20 km from the Bavarian capital is Dachau, where the Nazis established the first concentration camp in 1933. Today, it is known as Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. As I walked through the iron gate which reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work sets you free), my guide, Antje Roser, echoed Salamander’s words, “The distinction should be made between feeling guilty and feeling responsible.” Roser tours with groups of students who have asked her: “This happened 70 years ago. Why should we be bothered?” She believes such questions open the floor for deeper discussions and “it is even more urgent now than ever.”
With the rise of Germany’s far-right political party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), Erinnerungskultur is under threat. Last year, their co-leader Alexander Gauland played down the brutality of the Nazis by saying that the regime was like “bird poop in more than 1,000 years of successful German history.”
During our meeting, Zadoff says, “As a historian, I believe history gives a lot of orientation. It does not repeat itself but it does rhyme. Strategies of exclusion are based on the same ideas. It helps us to see what is going on.” In Germany, history is a warning that says “nie wieder”. Never again.
Amrita Das is a Kolkata-based travel blogger and freelance writer