In Conversation: Prof. Dr. Jens-Christian Wagner, Historian and Director of the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation

Mr. Wagner, what is the reason for the increase in attacks on memorial sites?

Attacks on memorial sites are nothing new. Right-wing extremists were already planning to blow up the obelisk at the newly opened Bergen-Belsen Memorial in the early 1950s – just like the neo-Nazi Michael Kühnen did in 1979. Both plans failed. During the "baseball bat years", i.e. the 1990s, the memorial sites in East Germany were the main targets of attacks. That is why there was a permanent police station in Buchenwald at the time. After that, things calmed down a bit. However, since 2015 we have noticed a significant increase again, especially in the past two to three years – i.e. since the time when the extreme right and openly right-wing started staging their "resistance" against the supposed Covid-19 dictatorship at Monday walks, spreading antisemitic conspiracy theories and then soon also supporting Mr. Putin's war and inciting hatred against the supposedly "left-green mainstream" – by which they mean the concept of a diverse, cosmopolitan and liberal social order. This was when the AfD began to soar in opinion polls and in elections. In short: The attacks on the memorial sites reflect the political shift to the right in Germany and in many other countries, a shift to the right that is accompanied by shifts in discourse that are caused on the one hand by the fact that historical revisionist and racist narratives are being spread from parliaments by the AfD, but also by the fact that democratic parties, especially from the middle class, are increasingly taking up these discourses.


In your opinion, how can and should we oppose this?

First the democratic parties should stop copying narratives from the extreme right – in the mistaken assumption that they can win back voters. Secondly, by opposing the normalization of historical revisionist and extreme right-wing discourses in a historically aware manner and with a clear ethical compass. Thirdly, by not hiding behind a misunderstood neutrality in memorial sites and in our educational work. Our neutrality must end where the crimes of the National Socialists are questioned, trivialized or relativized. Those who hold such positions must not be given a platform at memorial sites. It is therefore not just legitimate, but also entirely in line with our statutory mandate, to prohibit AfD functionaries, whose Thuringian party leader Höcke attacks the culture of remembrance head-on and who wants to replace a reflective awareness of history with a nationalist narrative of pride in our history, from participating in events. Even as private individuals, we can oppose the normalization of extreme right-wing propaganda in everyday life by objecting loudly and clearly when someone incites racism on the tram or at a family event and whenever someone plays down the impact of National Socialist crimes. Civil courage is needed. This may be tedious and it takes effort. But in the absence of opposition in everyday life, we will not be able to prevent the extreme right from gaining cultural hegemony in more and more regions. And those who remain silent in everyday life should not expect those who are "up there" to take a stand. We all need to take responsibility!


You talk about a "climate change in the politics of remembrance". Can we put a hold to this change? If so, how?

At the moment, we are not only experiencing a climate change in the politics of remembrance, but also a comprehensive dissolution of the boundaries of the appropriation and distortion of history in the political discourse. Almost all political camps use references to National Socialism to legitimize their own positions – including in foreign policy disputes, for example with regard to the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine or the war in the Middle East following the Hamas massacre on October 7. We need to counter this with a scientifically sound recontextualization of National Socialist crimes. We need to have a greater impact on society with the aim of strengthening historical judgment as well as historical awareness. To achieve this, we cannot just wait for people to come to us at the memorial sites. We have to reach out to them, but above all we have to show our presence in the digital space. The acquisition of knowledge and the formation of opinions take place primarily there now, rather than in libraries or cultivated discussion groups. Fake history is spreading online, where historical revisionist narratives are spreading and radicalizing on an exponential scale. That is why we need to have a presence there and counter historical legends and the instrumentalization of history with serious, scientifically sound and didactically intelligent prepared information. This also means being active on social media – as well as making historical and political interventions in the public domain.

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