Since 1996 Germany has observed a National Remembrance Day to commemorate and pay tribute to the victims of the totalitarian regime during the 12-year Nazi rule: Jews, Christians, Sinti, Roma, disabled, homosexuals, political dissidents, men and women who fought in the Resistance, scientists, artists, journalists, war prisoners and deserters, old people and children. Under the National Socialist dictatorship millions of people were stripped of their rights, persecuted, tortured, assassinated, or killed in the battle.
In his speech marking the institution of the Day of Remembrance, Federal President Roman Herzog said: “Remembrance never ends. The next generations must always be reminded that they must remain vigilant. Finding a form of memory that exerts its action in the future is a never-ending commitment. It must express mourning for the pain and for the loss; it must be dedicated to the victims whilst being mindful of the danger that what happened in the past could happen again.”
Those heinous crimes originated in Germany; they were committed in the name of Germany. The involvement of Germany’s population bears significant relevance. There ensues that
they should feel responsible and acknowledge their extraordinary obligation to prevent the reasons and the causes, the events and the developments that ensued, from being forgotten,
ensuring that – mutatis mutandis – the due consequences are always drawn. Historical research has always provided us with consequential contributions in this respect, that include the controversial debates on the possibility of historicising the Holocaust or those focusing on its uniqueness.
The process and the tragedies of that dramatic past are commemorated not only with the dedicated Days but also with Holocaust remembrance sites, found throughout Germany and across Europe, notably the concentration and extermination camps of Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau in Germany; Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic; Natzweiler-Struthof in France; Trieste in Italy; Auschwitz in Poland…
Some monuments were installed in specific sites to keep alive the memory and prompt reflections on those unprecedented events, such as the Holocaust Memorial in the centre of Berlin. The culture of Remembrance in Germany marks a radical departure from the crimes of National Socialist dictatorship. This distance reflects the social and political attitude of Germany in the post-war years. Scarred by the terrifying events of the world war, which wiped out the Third Reich, and after the humiliating experience of a totalitarian dictatorship, the German population took a radical stand against Nazi ideology, against the scornful dehumanization of the human person, and against the anti-Semitic, racist madness that planned to exterminate the Jewish people. An overarching, long-lasting consensus – substantially thriving still today – thus started to take shape, aimed at banishing all those ideas that are somewhat connected to that period – including traditions, as well as ancient or otherwise faultless concepts, manipulated by Nazi ideology.
This applies also to all forms of nationalism underlying the atrocities of the first half of the 20th Century. Even though the criminal nature of Nazism is ultimately rooted in an insane biologically-grounded form of racism, the related ideology sprung from ,the nationalistic drives that had spread like a virus after the First World War, contaminating all of Europe.
The establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, understood as a political project that opposed the concept of a State controlled by a single man, the Führer, in the Third Reich, was a positive, concrete token marking the rejection of that ideology.
Significantly the Grundgesetz, the program of the German Constitution founded on a specific set of values, was conceived as a break from Nazi ideology. Art. 1 affirms: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority. The German people therefore acknowledge inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every community, of peace and of justice in the world.”
Representative democracy replaced the authoritarian principle of a Führer, a Federal State replaced a levelled unitary State. In brief, Federalism was meant to be the principle regulating order and organization whilst ensuring unity, solidarity and pluralism, simultaneously leaving room to individual autonomy. In addition to the vertical division of institutional powers, the Constitution thereby also ensured the horizontal division of powers among the State, the Regions, and the local administrations.
Among the lessons that Germany learnt from the Nazis’ biased interpretation of the concepts of the people and the State, and from the ensuing tragedy, figures the openness to collaborate as partners with their European neighbours along with the willingness to actively cooperate in the project – enshrined in Germany’s 1949 Constitution – for the unification of Europe’s nation-States with a view to their aggregation.
That goal, along with the underlying principles of the European project, is being called into question today by a new populist movement that is hostile to Europe.
In times of crisis, the demagogue birds of ill-omen hold out for a “strong man” and promise simple solutions. They have a relatively easy job in ensuring that a consistent part of the population will find nationalism alluring. We can only hope that today’s social and political circumstances will prevent those individuals from being victorious again. Our Countries’ democratic institutions are stronger and sounder than they were at the time, as a result of the experience of past century’s dictatorships. But nationalism, that largely stems from xenophobia, can have a devastating impact, obstructing and hampering the European unification process that laid the foundations of our present freedom and peace. All the democratic forces in Germany oppose those repulsive nationalistic drives with determination. As Germans, in remembrance of the victims of the dictatorship, we have the moral obligation to uphold and defend the values of democracy, of the rule of law and of the Federal State; and to firmly support the continuation of Europe’s unification process.