A guest commentary by Dr. Katja Makhotina, lecturer at the University of Bonn
The "Europe" funding priority reflects and documents the European dimension of National Socialist injustice. By means of their committed historical-political educational work, cross-country project networks contribute to the creation of a common European memory.
One of the challenges: In Eastern Europe, there are many places of National Socialist crimes that are almost forgotten today. How do people in such places interact with local history, and how can we close gaps in the German culture of remembrance?
On the 80th anniversary of the Khatyn massacre—on March 22, 1943, the German Wehrmacht killed all residents of the Soviet Belarusian village of Khatyn by fire—a new museum was opened in the local memorial. The goal was not to overload visitors with information, but to involve them interactively in the events, to let them feel the tragedy for themselves. The interactive exhibition tells the story of a little girl who is kidnapped and taken to a children’s home in Germany, to have her blood drawn for German soldiers. As a psychological and physical consequences of her ordeal, she would never have children of her own. Not only had the war indelibly marked her life; it also impacted the entire Belarusian nation, which suffered enormous demographic losses. This war, according to the message of the museum, was a genocide against the Belarusian population.
The new museum in Khatyn is just one example of the high demand for war remembrance in the post-Soviet area. The peculiarity of the remembrance cultural situation lies in Russia’s current war against Ukraine: A successor state of the once victorious Soviet Union, the Russian Federation, has attacked another successor state, Ukraine, and—with the support of yet another neighboring state, Belarus—is waging war against its people and its culture, invoking the heritage and memory of World War II. In Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, commemoration of the German-Soviet aspect of World War II is used for everyday political purposes, primarily to equate the "heroes of that time" with the "heroes of today.” The staple of memory politics in this region is national self-victimization through application of the term "genocide" to the past (genocide of the Soviet population 1941-1945) and the present (war in Donbas vs. Russia’s crimes against Ukrainians and their culture).
This extreme emotionalization of war remembrance presents Germany with a great challenge: How can one commemorate the victims of the German war of extermination in the East without taking into account the daily political distortions?
Meeting this challenge is no small task, especially since the history of German warfare in the East is largely unknown. Khatyn and other villages burned to the ground in the National Socialist occupied Soviet Union, such as Pirčiupiai, Korjukivka or Krasucha, are still largely unknown to the public. The MEMO V Study conducted by the EVZ Foundation in December 2021 shows that remembrance of the war is still oriented towards Western Europe: almost 75% named France as the country most strongly associated with the war. The MEMO Youth Study conducted in 2023 reveals similar gaps in knowledge about the war "in the East.” On the one hand, this is due to the westward orientation of German post-war remembrance policy; on the other hand, it is due to the continuing traditional image of the "enemy in the East" through the anti-communist stance of the old Federal Republic, which would also characterize East Germany after reunification. The long-standing unwillingness to learn about the deeds of the war generation and the failure to include the perspective of those affected in the culture of remembrance mean that these countries are still not on Germany’s map of remembrance.
Three main steps must be taken in order to correct this map:
1) Raising awareness that the actions of Wehrmacht soldiers in the East were not acceptable as "normal warfare" but involved several complexes of crimes;
2) Recognition of the fact that the German public knows far too little about these crimes—and that this must change;
3) Realization that this knowledge has been blocked for far too long, or that there is still a prevalent unwillingness to assimilate knowledge about NS violence "in one’s own backyard."
How can this task succeed? In my opinion, the form of remembrance should always be related to individual fates or to concrete places (of violence, suffering, resistance). This approach to remembrance sees people as individuals in their suffering and makes visible their terrible experiences of loss. This personal dimension of remembrance does not lend itself to incorporation into aggressive or even violent narratives. Such forms of remembrance, which recognize people in their temporal context and in their universal humanity, may escape the trap of "memory wars.”
In the project "Der Krieg und seine Opfer" [The War and its Victims], dekoder deals with the crimes against the civilian population during World War II in the territories of the Soviet Union under National Socialist occupation.