Prof. Harold Marcuse
Dept. of History
University of California
Santa Barbara, CA 93106
Tel: (805) 893-2635


Paper for the Conference
"Geteilte Geschichte-A History Shared and Divided: The Two Germanies 1945-1990,
Seattle, 16 May 1997; panel: "A Shared Past and its Meanings"

please do not cite without permission of the author

Dachau and the Memory of National Socialism
by Harold Marcuse,
May 1997


"Memory" has become a rather overused term in recent scholarly discourse. I would like to clarify my terminology before beginning a discussion of the ways in which the National Socialist past has figured in the West German present since 1945. I reserve the term remembering for the individual process of recalling to mind actual experiences of or acquired information about past events. To denote the group or collective action of remembering, I use the term recollection, which has the additional meaning of "gathering together again," as in a collection of potentially varying memories. Recollection may take the concrete form of commemoration, the symbolic, ritual recollection of an individual or event. Or it may take a more decentralized form as in the sharing of individual memories within certain groups, which I will call memory groups. I will employ the term collective memories to describe the more diffuse images which are influenced by both commemoration and the information about historical persons or events disseminated in the public realm, for example in the mass media, popular films and novels, school instruction, or scholarly histories and documentaries. Public memory can be defined as the collective memory (or memories) that predominates in the public sphere at any given time. Commemoration is an indicator of public memory, since it is practiced with the express intent of establishing or reinforcing one official memory from among the various competing collective memories. The precise nature of a given commemoration will usually reveal whether it is attempting to establish a new public memory, or whether it is reinforcing an established public memory.

Public memory is a contested terrain, especially when the past event is as highly charged as National Socialism. I have studied Dachau and other former concentration camps in West Germany as symbols of the National Socialist past. This limitation to one aspect, which arguably might not even include the Holocaust (in practice I have found that the systematic extermination of the Jews of Europe is indeed subsumed under the concentration camps), is motivated by my interest in the development of what I call moral culture. Moral culture can be conceived as the nature of the moral principles which govern what is commonly termed political culture. My central questions: What public memories of the Nazi camps have their been, how have they evolved over time, and how have they shaped the nature of West German political life?

I will begin by describing some of the memories I have found, and the periods of time in which they existed. One of the early group memories of the concentration camps after 1945 was based on its public portrayal during the Nazi era, namely what I call the "clean camp," where asocial and racial parasites were isolated from the Volk and either retrained as useful members of the national community, or permanently isolated from it. Evidence suggests that during the early 1940s this image was neither particularly widespread nor convincing-people feared the concentration camps precisely because they knew that isolation meant elimination, which had become the primary function of the camps. However, at the end of the war, the victorious Allied armies massively confronted the German populace with a competing image of the camps, namely the pestilent "death camps" they had liberated during the final phase of the war. The propaganda image of the "clean camp" was resurrected as a mechanism to justify their past behavior by the many Germans who had actively or passively acquiesced to Nazi policies.

By early 1946, even before the end of the first Nuremburg trial, the western Allies began to jettison the public propagation of this image in their zones of occupation. The fate of the film "Mills of Death" (Todesmühlen), released for viewing in January 1946 as part of the punitive reeducation effort born in the shock of the discovery of the camps, is indicative of this change. Already at its release the directive for its compulsory viewing was withdrawn (which, as anecdotal evidence suggests, did not prevent many Allied authorities from compelling Germans to view it), and it was withdrawn from circulation in 1947. Both didactic insight and a desire to gain the western zone Germans as allies in the emergent conflict with the Soviet Union moved the western Allies to withdraw from the memory creation business in Germany. Abroad, however, this public memory of National Socialist Germany has persisted relatively unchanged right to the present day, as visitors to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington will attest. Scenes from the liberation of the camps are replayed as visitors begin their tour with an obligatory elevator ride. In 1985 Ronald Reagan was compelled to visit Belsen before his commemoration at Bitburg.

In West Germany, the image of the clean camp predominated until 1955. From 1947, when plans were drawn up to convert Dachau and Neuengamme into model prison camps for the resocialization of "asocial elements" (I quote the term from the minutes of the Bavarian Parliament), until 1949, roughly when the two German states were founded, attempts were made to create this image; after 1950, efforts concentrated on removing evidence to the contrary. In other words, selective recollection changed into eradication and denial. I choose 1955 to mark the end of this period for several reasons. That year West Germany became a sovereign state and negotiated the return of the last German POWs being held by the Soviet Union. The economic miracle was well underway, enabling some Germans to refocus away from the misery of the postwar period, which, as I will argue below, had helped to displace memories of National Socialist horrors. Not coincidentally, in 1955 the Diary of Anne Frank was republished in a popular paperback edition, which rapidly became a runaway best-seller. Soon afterward "Night and Fog," a French film documenting the elision of the clean and dirty camps, started a tour of West Germany's schools and movie theaters. Last but not least, 1955 was the tenth anniversary of the end of the war, and an unusually large number of survivors of the camps reconvened to commemorate and take stock of public memory.

What had become of the Dachau camp during this decade? Immediately after the war it was used by the US Army to intern German suspects under automatic arrest provisions: members of the SS were held there, in a symbolic reversal of the Nazi-era relations. As mentioned above, while the denazification and war crimes programs were being wrapped up in 1947, the Bavarian parliament made plans for its continued use as a prison for "work-shy" and "asocial elements." The rapidly emerging Cold War made that uncontroversial plan (it passed the parliament unanimously) obsolete before it could be realized. As the trickle of refugees from Eastern Europe swelled to a flood, the Bavarian parliament decided instead to use all labor, transit and concentration camps reverting to its control to house refugees. The Dachau concentration camp became one of the largest facilities of this kind in all of West Germany. As economic conditions improved during the early 1950s, the infrastructure of this settlement of about 400 families was augmented, and it moved toward becoming a permanent suburb of the town of Dachau. That is the how the returning survivors found it in 1955.

The next phase in the history of German memories of National Socialism runs from 1955 to the late 1960s. In addition to a number of popular and didactic publications, the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961 and the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt in 1964 brought National Socialism and the Holocaust back into the realm of public memory. During this period a number of institutions for the public recollection of National Socialism were created. Dachau, Neuengamme and Belsen, the three largest former camps in West Germany, were turned into memorial sites. Dachau received a temporary museum in 1960 and a permanent one in 1965, while an exhibition was opened in Belsen in 1966. The Dachau refugee settlement was dissolved after intense lobbying efforts by survivors, and programs to bring school classes to the sites were mandated by the state government. At the same time, organized political and religious groups established memorials representing the holocausts they wished to recollect. I will briefly describe the three most salient.

Most prisoners who survived Dachau had been political prisoners. These included many German and Austrian Communists and Social Democrats, as well as members of Polish and western European resistance movements. Some of the nearly 11,000 Jews who had been imprisoned in Dachau after Kristallnacht in 1938 and had been able to emigrate belong to this memory group. They are the ones whose efforts led to the creation of the didactic memorial site, which was frequented primarily by foreigners and increasingly by Germans who had come of age after 1945. This memorial stressed the political persecution practiced by the nazi regime, although a section on the Jewish Holocaust was added early on. Catholic priests-Dachau had been a central camp for the internment of clergy-were able to establish several memorial structures. I have argued elsewhere that their group memory of the camps conceived of them as part of a divine plan. In this view, the suffering of the inmates was linked to the suffering of Christ. More towards the end of the 1960s a memory image of the West German Protestants began to take shape. It saw the camps as something to atone for, both through education and "peace work." In 1967 the Protestant youth group Aktion Sühnezeichen, recently founded to send young Germans to Israel, helped to construct a Protestant chapel in Dachau.

This type of memory of National Socialism is already typical of the next phase, which I would date from about 1970 to the late 1980s. During this period a much younger generation of Germans played an increasing active role in the recollection of National Socialism. Throughout the 1960s increasingly large numbers of young Germans were attending annual commemorative events sponsored by the German trade unions. After a brief lull during the student movement, in 1970 the Dachau chapter of the Social Democratic youth group Jusos made headlines with a list of demands about how official commemoration was to be conducted in Dachau. During the 1970s and 80s those demands, ranging from he inclusion of the memorial site in the town's tourist brochure to the construction of an educational youth hostel, have gradually been realized. This generation has also been sensitive to the public memory of the Jewish Holocaust, of the extermination camps, which began to increase in the 1970s and has led to, among other things, "Dachau" being supplanted by "Auschwitz" is the paradigm of a concentration camp. I think that this phase has reached a preliminary peak with the current debate about a national Holocaust memorial in Berlin, and with Daniel Goldhagen's "triumphal procession" through Germany last fall.


At this point I would like to offer a more qualitative analysis of what I see as the main changes in public memory as they relate to West German moral culture. To this end I would like to introduce what I call the three myths of postwar West German identity: the myths of victimization, ignorance/innocence, and resistance. I think these three myths guided memory politics in West Germany until 1955, and that they have remained influential in West German politics at least until the "Historians Debate" of 1986-87. The three myths are:
1) the desire to have fallen victim to outside developments;
2) the wish to have been ignorant about what was happening in the concentration camps and extermination centers, and thus to be innocent of responsibility for what transpired there; and
3) the sanguine vision of an unsullied "other Germany" which had done its best to resist domestic rioting and foreign barbarians, or at least to curb their excesses.

An early commemorative speech by Josef Schwalber, a Weimar-era Bavarian politician who was appointed and then elected first postwar mayor of Dachau, illustrates these myths. This speech was held on 9 November 1945, at a ceremony in Dachau castle attended by high-ranking Allied military officials and broadcast internationally:

Ladies and Gentlemen!
How peaceful life once was here! Dachau, once the epitome of rural stolidity and earthiness, closely bound to its artists and their noble cultural efforts for more than a century! To mention only a few of the names that carried Dachau's reputation into the world: Christian Morgenstern, ... Karl Spitzweg, Wilhelm Leibl, Lovis Corinth, Slevogt, ...
That was once our Dachau!
But then non-local sadists came and settled on the outskirts of our city, and with horror and fear we had to watch as they defiled the name Dachau in the eyes of the entire civilized world.
For twelve long years the concentration camp weighed like a nightmare upon us.
At the beginning sparse reports about the inmates of the camp leaked out to us. But after construction was complete the hermetic isolation left us with only dark premonitions about the fates and human suffering behind the concrete walls topped with barbed wire. ...
And the name of our beloved Dachau is associated with all of these cruelties!
But the real Dachau was different!
Today, with pure hearts and clean hands this "other Dachau" commemorates all of the victims whose blood has soaked our native soil and whose ash covers the paths within the camp.
You dead, however, who have been taken up by our native soil, rest there in peace! Your memory shall not only be honored by a monument in stone, but we will carry it in our hearts as long as the heavens allow us to breathe the air of freedom, and allow the sun of peace to shine.' [emphasis in original]

Let us examine this key document more closely. Mayor Schwalber first effusively evokes a positive image of Dachau before describing how Dachau citizens "had to watch," transfixed by "horror and fear," while outsiders created the camp that was to defile their reputation. Then began the town's 12-year "nightmare." The phrases "sparse reports," "hermetic isolation," and "dark premonitions" conjure up an aura of ignorance about what was actually taking place in the camp. Finally, Schwalber returns to the image of a pure "other Dachau," the "real Dachau," as he puts it, which embodies the higher values of "rural stolidity" and "noble cultural efforts." He implies that only extraordinary circumstances, such as dictatorship (figuratively rendered as a lack of the "air of freedom") or war (darkening of the "sun of peace"), will prevent the citizens of Dachau from fulfilling their obligation to remember in the future.

To recapitulate the acts of Schwalber's drama in a slightly more general form: in the first act Dachau, and by extension Germany, was the victim of "non-local sadists" (perhaps a "strange race of Eskimos from the North Pole," as one American major describing typical behavior in denazification hearings put it) who committed the atrocities, whatever those may have been. In the second act, in spite of this tacit admission of at least limited knowledge of what transpired, ignorance of the enormity of the crimes prevented the German citizens from taking action. However, thirdly, as the barrier preventing contacts between the populace and the crimes began to crumble, long-standing higher values prevailed and the citizens did what they could to mitigate the brunt of the outside sadists' misdeeds.

The Myth of Victimization

The myth that the Germans had been victims of the Nazis was transformed into the perception that they were being victimized by, first, their Allied conquerors, who wrongfully held them accountable for crimes and atrocities they had not committed, expelling them, for instance, from Eastern territories where they had lived for generations. Additionally, they were deprived of the national unity for which the German lands had strived since the French Revolution. Second, many Germans also felt victimized by the survivors, who demanded material compensation for sufferings for which most Germans felt no responsibility. Finally, many Germans-it is difficult to quantify how many with any precision, and especially since the 1980s a substantial group did not and does not feel this way-nonetheless: many Germans feel victimized by visitors to the concentration camp memorial sites, who show no appreciation of the finer sides of German culture but, in the eyes of such die-hards, harp on this distasteful past. Foreign reports about Dachau are replete with stories of visitors turned away by the Munich tourist office when they asked for directions to Dachau.

In Dachau, the basic postulate of the myth of victimization is that the Dachau concentration camp was forced upon the town against its will. It is supported by several subsidiary claims, for instance that the camp was not within the city limits, and that the town had no economic gain from the camp. Neither the central tenet nor the supporting claims are historically correct. In late January 1933 the town fathers expressed their 'great interest' to the Bavarian government that the unused munitions factory complex from World War I be used as a 'state militia or work service camp.' In anticipation of economic benefits camp business would bring to the town, the city council saw this as a positive development. At that time the Nazis were not yet in power, and only Nazi insiders could have imagined what type of camp their ilk had in mind. However, even after it was quite manifest what kind of camp had been set up, and even though local business increases were sharply curtailed after 1934 when the SS set up their own shops and factories in the camp, throughout the 1930s the town still actively lobbied to have the camp included within its territory, since that would have brought in additional tax revenues from the SS men living there (3300 in 1939, ca. 20% of the total city population). The camp was indeed incorporated into Dachau township in 1939; before, not after the war, as local memory, represented for example by a 1955 tourist bureau brochure, would have it. The exceptional wartime situation was an additional element of the argument that the inclusion was forced upon the town. I will skip descriptions of other manifestations of this myth, such as the feeling that the memorial site damaged the town's reputation, now, and return to them later when I examine how these myths changed in the 1970s.

The Myth of Ignorance

Ignorance of what transpired in the concentration camps implied that what presumptively happened, namely the Nazi propaganda lie of what I have elsewhere called the "clean camps," must have been true. Thus, perversely, the myth of ignorance resulted in the post-factum post-war realization and perpetuation of Nazi propaganda lies. It manifested itself in the retroactive creation of such "clean" camps for the rehabilitation of "dirty" elements in society. I have already mentioned the Bavarian parliament's unanimous 1948 resolution to convert the former Dachau concentration camp into a prison; in north German Hamburg this project was indeed realized with the creation of a "model" penal institution in the Neuengamme concentration camp in 1948, augmented by the construction of a high security juvenile detention center in 1970.

If the concentration camps were to have been legitimate prison camps, the inmates must have been common criminals, and the SS henchmen and Nazi bureaucrats had to have been honorable men who had faithfully served the fatherland. In consequence, the survivors were excluded from the guarantees and protections of civil society, while active Nazis were rewarded for their past service and allowed to participate in public life. As one indication of the subliminal criminalization of camp survivors, in West Germany they were called "former inmates" for decades; only in the 1980s did younger generations introduce the alternative term Zeitzeugen, 'historical witnesses,' to denote their new status. However, there are many examples of the judicial criminalization of organizations of concentration camp survivors as well. The judicial realization and bureaucratic implementation of §131 of the West German constitution, which governs the rights of Nazi-era state employees, is the primary evidence of the converse process of rehabilitation of former Nazis.

As we saw in Mayor Schwalber's first speech, the myth of ignorance was first formulated in the face of foreign accusations at the end of the war. The desire for self exoneration remained the driving force behind its use in West German identity politics. In the reasoning of the proponents of the myth of ignorance, not to have known about the events and conditions in the camp absolved them of responsibility. In the period directly after the war, when the experience of close contact with KZ inmates was still fresh in individual memory, it would have been absurd to deny knowledge to others who had had the same experience. This is evident in a commemorative speech Mayor Schwalber held before a local audience on 10 March 1946, the first 'Day of the Victims of Fascism.' Schwalber spoke openly of the KZ prisoners who had figured prominently in quotidian life in the town:

'On our soil these victims of fascism performed their drudging labor,
in our midst they suffered, they bled, and
in our native soil they found their final place of rest.'

The "hermetic isolation" he had spoken of before the international audience in the preceding November was a subterfuge that would not have been credible to listeners who had experienced the many town-camp interactions firsthand. Schwalber was even more explicit in a memoir he wrote for the local historical-cultural journal Amperland in 1968:

'... deliveries and some work details in the outer regions of the camp confronted the bulk of the population with the presence of the concentration camp behind the high cement walls.'

Even though individual memory groups within Germany had long since jettisoned the myth of ignorance in their group memory, it remained an important fixture of public memory for decades. Not until the 1980s did this myth face a serious challenge from within Germany. By that time the requirements of identity politics had changed: younger, postwar generations were not concerned with professing ignorance; rather, they wanted to emphasize that they personally had nothing to do with the events, implying that they bore no responsibility for them. The myth of ignorance gave way to what I call the "myth of innocence."

The Myth of Resistance

The consequences of the myth of resistance are more straightforward than those of victimization and ignorance; they correspond to the causes of the hypothetical victimization. To demonstrate the veracity of this myth, Germans offered resistance in the present: they doggedly fought to remove the remaining evidence of the atrocities, agitated for the return of German POWs in Soviet labor camps and of ancestral lands (now East German and Polish territory), and they conspired to prevent the survivors from receiving compensation or even recognition for their suffering. Later, and still today, many Germans resist just as doggedly the creation, recognition and maintenance of concentration camp memorial sites. Let us turn now to some of the actual manifestations of this myth in postwar West Germany.

In his 10 March 1946 commemorative speech in Dachau castle Mayor Schwalber explicitly linked the resistance of the political prisoners in the Dachau camp with the resistance of the non-Nazi populace at large:

'We commemorate our German brothers who, in the first six years of despotism, abandoned by their homeland and the entire world, became silent standard-bearers of the will to freedom and resistance; thus they secured the right of the antifascist part of the German people to raise its voice against the tyranny and non-culture of National-Socialism.'

As the years went by citizens of Dachau were more likely to emphasize the aid they had given to camp inmates, and to characterize such assistance as resistance. For instance, on 16 April 1950 the priest of Dachau's Catholic Church spoke at a celebration of the fifth anniversary of the camp's liberation. According to a police report, Pastor Pfanzelt emphasized that

'... the city of Dachau bore no guilt for what happened back then, and he stressed that various citizens of Dachau tried to ease the lives and suffering of the camp inmates. His words did not receive due recognition because he strongly emphasized his own meritorious deeds. Some listeners noted that they could not believe that.'

In 1955 the Dachau chamber of commerce published a brochure describing the tourist attractions in the city. Not until the last page (sic!) is the concentration camp mentioned; the text is typical in that it places the memory of resistance in the context of the victimization of the town:

'Unfortunately the name Dachau has a bad reputation in the world because of the erection of a concentration camp. However, a word of historical truth must be spoken. KZ Dachau was created without the assistance of the population by the power-holders of the Third Reich. It did not belong to the city; only after World War II was it included in the city limits and made into a refugee camp for 2000 persons. ... The population of Dachau had nothing to do with the occurrences in the concentration camp; on the contrary, the inhabitants tried everything humanly possible [sic!] to help the prisoners, which former inmates have explicitly emphasized at various commemorative ceremonies.'

Indeed, on occasion former prisoners went out of their way to mention the help they received from townspeople. In 1955, for example, when Dachau survivors were trying to win the support of the townsfolk for the dissolution of the residential settlement and the creation of a memorial site, they distributed a flyer to 'all households in Dachau.' It read:

'Dear Citizens of Dachau,
For many who aren't familiar with your striving city on the outskirts of Munich, Dachau has an evil ring. They know nothing about the beautiful landscape surrounding your old Bavarian city, nor do they know that Ludwig Thoma lived and wrote many of his works here. For them, Dachau is inseparably bound to the Nazi concentration camp that held upstanding Germans and people from all European countries behind its electrically charged barbed wire fences.
Only when in 1945 the hour of liberation sounded were you able to recognize the entire extent of terror, horror and death. Today many former prisoners thankfully remember the help that was accorded them by citizens of your city during the years of oppression. ...'

Similarly, when the 'KZ Priests,' an organization of priests who had been imprisoned in the concentration camp, met in Dachau later that year, survivor Father Johann Lenz proclaimed in a public sermon in Dachau's Catholic church that 'the citizens of Dachau did much for the prisoners in the KZ.' The explicit recognition by former prisoners of aid from citizens contributed greatly to the solidity of the memory of "resistance," because when survivors made positive statements about the civilian population, they were not subject to criticism as apologists.

The unimpeachability of the opinions of anti-Nazis was not lost on local politicians. At another event in 1955, the annual Dachau regional fair (Volksfest), Bavarian cabinet minister of agriculture Baumgartner first declared that he had been imprisoned by the Nazis (he did not say when or where or why) before he launched into a harangue to have the crematorium torn down:

'"I was imprisoned by the Nazis myself, thus as a former prisoner I have the right to state my opinion. The crimes of the unfortunate [unselig] Nazi years cannot be made good again by looking at the crematory, so I take the position: The crematory has got to go! At some point we must put an end to the defamation of the Dachau region and its populace because it is impossible that ... due to an unfortunate past a region can continually be burdened by the concentration camp crime [das KZ-Verbrechen, a euphemistic singular].'

This call to resist clearly resonated with the audience: the applause for Baumgartner's speech lasted several minutes. This is an example of the myth of resistance in its most populist form: putative past resistance forms a justification for present resistance to the recollection of the concentration camp, which is intertwined with the feeling of victimization in the present.

The image of the 'bread giver' (this was the most frequently mentioned form of aid) gradually transformed into the inflated notion that such tokens of support were courageous acts of resistance. In the 1980s it emerged in the struggle by Dachau politicians to prevent the creation of a center for international youth encounters. After the formal establishment of a 'support group' (Förderverein) to promote the building of the center in Dachau in 1984, verbal conflicts with the local CSU became more and more heated. At a climactic public meeting in March 1987 the press quoted the head of the town council CSU as having declared that he would:

"... fight to the last drop of blood" against the construction of the center, and Dachau natives derived a "moral right to resist the center ... from the right to resist of their parents who helped KZ prisoners."


One might cite any number of examples where these three myths surfaced in local discourse in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1970, the year Willy Brandt initiated the demise of the myth of victimization with his celebrated homage at the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters memorial, the mayor of Dachau gave them their most exemplary, and, as we will see, last uncontested formulation. On the 25th anniversary of liberation in 1970, in the first major speech about the concentration camp by a Dachau mayor since 1946. Lorenz Reitmeier addressed a special commemorative session of city council. Reitmeier, who as a nonaligned candidate headed the town for 30 years, from 1966 to 1996, clearly represented majority opinion in the town. He began his speech with a narrative about how he had personally experienced Dachau's liberation in 1945 at age 14. One of his strongest memories was the change in the attitude of the occupation soldiers after they had seen the camp (p. 4). Two or three days later, when a liberated Polish priest took him to see the camp, Reitmeier saw what the Americans had seen:

'Instantaneously I realized what feelings had overcome the ... American officers during their trip through the camp .... I could not hold it against them that they, in the face of such massive horrors, simply could not believe that we Dachauer knew almost nothing about it.' [emphasis hm]

Reitmeier then narrated a long anecdote about the origin of a train full of corpses standing on the camp rail spur at liberation. He described with particular detail how, in the village of Namring, a local priest had collected 200kg. of potatoes and hundreds of kilograms of bread for the surviving prisoners while the train was held up in the village for four days (6). After establishing this example of assistance/resistance in the past, Reitmeier backtracked to 1933 to describe the initial victimization of Dachau:

'... with no consideration of our over one-thousand year history, without consideration of the centuries-old ... good reputation of Dachau, without asking the Dachau populace and quite contrary to their majority will, this first KZ was set up on the grounds of the former gunpowder factory.'

He then explained that the camp should not have been named "Dachau" at all, because at that time the property belonged to the community of Prittlbach; not until 1939 was it incorporated into Dachau township. Reitmeier then listed Dachau's famous writers and artists, adding a few to Schwalber's 1945 list (8f). After a long and imposing description of life in the camp and the impossibility of diminishing the horrors by comparing them to other atrocities and injustices, Reitmeier returned to the question of guilt and resistance (12). He repeated that the city of Dachau had no part in the decision to set up a concentration camp there, and continued:

'The many proofs of assistance, even under personal risk, have often been mentioned. I still remember very well with what persistence and willingness to help, even the children of the old city center tried all possible ways, in spite of prohibitions and the watchful SS guards, to give bread to the emaciated prisoners working outside the camp.'

After conjuring up this image of resistance through assistance, Reitmeier returned to the lament of victimization:

'In spite of this undeniable historical situation we Dachauer still suffer today as we did in 1945 because the city and its inhabitants are, again and again, thoughtlessly identified with the horrors and crimes of the KZ. Also, the attempt is continually made to burden our city with a special responsibility above and beyond the general guilt for the crimes of a whole state. ...
To burden Dachauers with a special responsibility would be genuine injustice: Injustice even for those citizens who lived in Dachau from 1933 to 1945. But still greater injustice for the younger generation ... and for the thousands of refugees and other new citizens who did not move into our city until after the war.' [13f; emphasis added]

The final sentence indicates a shift in local identity which mirrored a generational change in the West German public sphere in the late 1960s. An increasing number of Germans who had been very young or not yet born during the Third Reich were now participating in public life, so that the myth of ignorance declined in importance as a subterfuge of exoneration. In the early 1980s it was replaced by the 'grace of late birth,' a phrase coined by Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl (born in 1930, a year before Reitmeier) during his visit to Israel in 1984. In keeping with the terminology I have suggested, we might call it the "myth of tender age," or the "myth of innocence," which would preserve the original mnemonic VIR.

Both the blossoming of the myth of resistance since the 1950s and the jettisoning and refutation of the myth of ignorance in the 1970s and 80s illustrate the contingent and constructed nature of the memories upon which group identities are based.


A number of public exchanges about the memorial site with explicitly public-didactic intent took place on the pages of the local newspapers during the 1970s (May 1971, March 1972, March 1973, January 1975, June 1977, March 1978, July 1981). The debates themselves, as well as the gradual shift in their parameters between the beginning and the end of the decade suggest that a transition from an older to a newer paradigm of identity with respect to the Nazi concentration camps and the Dachau memorial site was taking place. At the beginning of the decade, the local debates, fueled by the engagement of the editors of the Dachau edition of the Münchner Merkur, were clearly dominated by the older interpretative paradigm, in which the three myths were predominant.

Victimization and Resistance to it

On 23 May 1971 West German national TV channel one broadcast a film entitled 'DAH - Dachau's Mark of Cain' (DAH are the first three letters on the license plates of cars registered in Dachau county). In the following days the local newspapers and the mayor received what they called a 'flood' of letters from all over Germany. The main thrust of the TV report was twofold: to contrast daily life in the city of Dachau, as epitomized by the annual Volksfest in August, with the horrors of the concentration camp; and to show how the residents of the town 'suffer' from the consequences of most foreigners' equation of the town and the KZ. The title of the program was derived from stories dating back to the early 1950s, in which cars with Dachau plates were vandalized in foreign countries. The TV journalist interviewed several Dachau groups and businesses (e.g. the Boy's Choir and the Dachau Paper Works) who had to come to terms with the town/camp's negative image in foreign countries.

The mayor released to the press a selection of the letters about the film which he received. All of those published emphasized two main themes: 1) that the town of Dachau bore and bears no guilt or responsibility for the events in the concentration camp above and beyond that borne by any other German town, and 2) that the 'other' or 'actual' (eigentliches) Dachau as a residence of an early modern Electoral Prince (Kurfürst) and as an artists' retreat received too little coverage in the program. The published letters support aspects of a feeling of post-war victimization: Dachau township being unjustly vilified by foreigners and the national media. One of the letters invoked a newer version of the myth of resistance in order to highlight the injustice of the victimization. The local Social Democratic Party (SPD) organization claimed that support for the camp survivors' project of creating a memorial site was evidence that the townsfolk were not trying to cover up the unpleasant past. The SPD letter criticized the film sharply for neglecting to show the:

'countless instances of assistance for former KZ prisoners and especially, within the framework of the dissolution of the refugee camp [1962-64], how by its establishment of the East Dachau settlement [new housing to replace the settlement in the camp], the town of Dachau proved its will to practice genuine mastery of the past.' [italics added]

The next outpouring of popular sentiment still focused on Dachau's victimization, but this time the emphasis was shifted to the perpetrator of that victimization. The letters were prompted by the Munich Merkur's March 1972 request that readers respond to its report about letters written by Morton Frank, a US-American doctor who visited the camp, to the German Consulate in Washington and the Dachau Tourist Office. In those letters Frank complained about the town's lack of sensitivity towards the past. Frank noted that the city bus line that went by the memorial site ran only once per hour, that it was painted red and covered with advertising slogans, and that the main street leading to the site is named Sudetenlandstraße, after the area of Czechoslovakia out of which Germans were expelled after the end of the war. The Merkur's report did its best to trivialize Frank's letter.

Hitherto Dachau had tended to see itself as the victim of insensitive national news media and vaguely conceived foreign tourists. In this case, Morton Frank was branded as a representative of a country which had not only 'exterminated the native Indian population,' threatened to 'reduce [the town of] Dachau to ashes and rubble' at liberation, and eradicated Hiroshima, but also recently napalm-bombed Vietnam and perpetrated the massacre at My Lai, as no fewer than 6 of 18 letter-writers pointed out. Several writers noted that foreign, especially US-American visitors were as impious as Frank alleged the Dachauers were, wearing 'tasteless shorts' to the memorial site, and talking loudly there.

However, this portrayal of one of Dachau's detractors as a perpetrator in his own right was nothing new; the perception of victims of the Nazis as perpetrators was already common in the 1950s. This example shows that the transformation of "real" victims to perpetrators was a consequence of both the myth of victimization and the myth of resistance. For whether the Dachauers were victims or not, if they were to stand up for their morals, then there must be someone attacking those. The fact that the attacker was identified as a Jew and an American, on the other hand, had to do solely with the myth of victimization. The most startling feature of these letters was not so much their content, but their massive number: the readers explicitly understood the newspaper's call for responses as a call to resist the defamation of their city. Andreas Liegsalz wrote: 'People who think and make demands similar to those of Dr. Morton Frank should be decisively opposed.' And E. Schmalz enjoined his fellow citizens: 'We should finally muster the courage to face foreign troublemakers ... I think that it is finally time to emancipate ourselves from this collective guilt.'

The self-righteous tone in such exchanges became more strident over the next decade. In this 1972 exchange, the suggested solutions to the problems posed by visitors such as Frank were self-defensive, ranging from renaming the city "Stadt Thoma" (after the town's famous-son author) to expanding the memorial site to include all the massacres of history, so that foreign visitors would see that their countries were no more or less guilty than Dachau or Germany. At the same time, however, the portrayal of Frank's countryfolk as the perpetrators of mass murder in the American West, Hiroshima and Vietnam indicates that some Dachau citizens were attempting to take the offensive and imply that Frank, a Jew, was a perpetrator.

As the decade progressed the myth of victimization became less and less important, because members of a younger generation whose identity was not invested in this myth formulated their own relationship to the Nazi era. For example, in 1978 a local newspaper insert published by the Süddeutsche Zeitung published a 16-year-old schoolboy's report about his visit to the memorial site. In response a retired minister claimed that 'Dachau was a prison camp,' as the headline over the letter put it. A number of readers quickly responded that even if that had been true it was irrelevant; more important was the sure knowledge that Dachau concentration camp had been run by criminals who had wreaked heinous crimes on its inmates.

When a glass case in the Dachau train station displaying tourist information about the city was criticized for leaving out the Nazi period in 1977, the 'right' of the townsfolk to improve Dachau's image in the eyes of outsiders was the explicit theme of the champions of Dachau's honor. City councilmember Bernd Sondermann of the center-left party SPD pointed out that the SPD had spearheaded an initiative to put up new signs at the main bus stops directing visitors to the memorial site, and that Dachau had a 'legitimate right ... to call to mind not only the horrible events of the Nazi years.' A businessman claimed that he was easily able to 'straighten out ... the crooked image of Dachau that obviously exists abroad' in personal conversations with his business partners, but his private efforts were dwarfed by the prejudicial picture painted at the memorial site. He argued rhetorically:

'Why can't the other side be clearly shown, namely how the populace helped the prisoners and what the consequences for them were? The non-participant, primarily youthful visitors develop emotions and aggressions against the populace because they identify it with the KZ. Only with comprehensive information might the site serve to help prevent new injustice.'

Finally, Mayor Reitmeier himself felt obligated to present his views on the issue. He emphasized his own "resistance":

'As first mayor I have worked intensively to restore the good name of the city of Dachau since I took office in 1966, and at every opportunity I emphasized the "other Dachau." I hardly need to name further details.'

He went on, however, to name quite a number of other measures he had taken to reestablish Dachau's good reputation: posting welcome signs on the city limits and a special sign 'near the KZ' (sic) referring to the 'other Dachau;' also gaining permission to distribute an 'elegant brochure' at the exit of the KZ museum, in which the 'true relationship between the town and the horrors of the camp are explained.' The latter was, as he pointed out, an especially difficult feat given the attitude of his bargaining partners, whom he, in a formulation reminiscent of the Nazi propaganda stereotypes of the arch enemies 'International Jewry' ("Internationales Judentum") and 'International Bolshevism,' named the 'International KZ Committee.' (Their name was actually Comité International de Dachau, in German Internationales Dachau-Komitee.) At the end of his letter the mayor took refuge behind the perception of (present) victimization: no other changes in the memorial site could be made because, according to his knowledge of the situation, the 'KZ-Committee' 'would unfortunately not permit us to undertake them.' Thus, he concluded, 'we must reconcile ourselves to the realities.'

The Myth of Ignorance Disappears

The myth of ignorance began to take on a new form in the 1970s. Its consequence, the removal of evidence of atrocities, however, lived on well into the 1980s, perhaps because of the continuing strength of the myth of resistance. The beginning of its demise can be dated to 1970, when Mayor Reitmeier publicly admitted that the townsfolk had known something ("almost nothing") about the events within the camp. It did not disappear completely until the early 1980s, however. The work of a local history workshop founded in 1981 clearly illustrates the events that catalyzed its ultimate abandonment. Hans-Günter Richardi, a journalist from Berlin who had settled in Dachau in the early 1960s, organized local historians into an association first named 'Why Dachau of All Places' (Warum gerade Dachau?). Its intent was to show that Dachau had been no different (at least not more pro-Nazi) than other German cities during the Nazi period. Based on that presumption, its members hoped to make the local populace amenable to learning more about the Dachau camp. The Dachau conservative party CSU invited Richardi to present his research findings after a local party gathering in October 1981. In a classical formulation of the myths of VIR Richardi argued three theses: 1) it was absolutely false that anyone in Dachau had any financial advantages because of the existence of the concentration camp -- on the contrary, the SS had taken advantage of Dachau's 'dire situation' and high unemployment; 2) prior to 1942 the Dachau citizens could not have known what happened behind the KZ walls; and 3) especially in Dachau there were a multiplicity of activities demonstrating the will to help and solidarity with the prisoners. After the presentation the Cultural Coordinator in the Dachau city administration, Heinrich Rauffer, contradicted the first two of Richardi's theses by relating his personal experience. He told how his own parents' store near the camp had profited from the camp's business, and how customers in the store had talked, albeit mutedly ("hinter vorgehaltener Hand"), about what went on in the camp.

Thus discredited by a powerful and therefore essentially unassailable source, over the following two years Richardi tacitly jettisoned the myth of ignorance and concentrated on buttressing the myth of resistance. He collected anecdotes about instances where townspeople had helped camp inmates, and published them as a series of articles in the major Munich newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, where he worked, early in 1983, then as a booklet, and finally, with the support of his history workshop (which had been renamed 'For Example Dachau'), as an exhibition in the foyer of city hall. The inherent contradiction between the myths of ignorance and resistance are revealed by Richardi's collection, since each anecdote makes quite obvious how public the conditions in the concentration camp were. It would have been absurd to attempt to uphold the myth of ignorance in light of that material.

Although the myth of ignorance disappeared from public discourse by the mid-1980s, the eradicatory impulse it engendered remained strong, even among members of the younger generation whose identity was not invested in the claim not to have known. Two exchanges of letters to the editor in the 1970s illustrate this. In a column in the national weekly paper Die Zeit reserved for letters from young people under 20, a 17-year-old wrote in February 1973 that it would be better to "totschweigen" (hush up; literally: 'kill by silence') the crimes in Dachau because they evoked bitterness and hatred in foreign visitors such as those he had accompanied there. In a subsequent issue of the newspaper two peers contradicted this proponent of eradication, arguing that openness toward the past would be a better policy. Instead, they advocated a more universal context of comparison of German crimes. Covering up the guilt, claimed the first, 'would certainly not contribute to understanding between peoples,' and manipulating information would only take advantage of the mental immaturity ("Unmündigkeit") of visitors. The other printed response suggested that mentioning a 'common feature' such as the Boer War (in which the British used concentration camps to combat the guerrilla warfare of Dutch settlers ca. 1900) might have led to a 'productive discussion' with the foreign visitors. Since such comparisons serve to identify the visitors as perpetrators, this suggestion can be interpreted as one of the legacies of the myth of victimization. The old myths persisted even in the minds of a younger generation interested in defining a new relationship to the past.

A local debate in Dachau two years later shows these links more clearly. In January 1975 a letter to the editor calling for the eradication of the memorial site was printed in the format of a news report with a by-line and illustrations under the headline 'End the Shameful Spectacle.' This publication triggered the longest and most variegated public debate about the uses and abuses of the memorial site since the war.

While the initial responses employed the standard arsenal of mythical arguments to make their point, their phraseology was a step more explicit than in the responses to Mortimer Frank in 1972. The perpetrators of Dachau's victimization were most colorfully portrayed. In his appeal for 'mercy' from the 'sons and daughters of Israel,' the first author complained that the 'brats of civilization' with their 'flaccidly bored faces' were coming to Dachau, 'voracious for adventure,' to see a 'chamber of horrors.' When they were finished, he noted, they would eat 'hot dogs with lots of ketchup.' However, Hentzschel's primary concern was to resist such impiety, to put an end to the victimization of Dachau's reputation. He established his own legitimacy as a critic in the opening of his letter with the younger generation's version of the myth of ignorance, namely the blessing of tender age. He, too, explicitly contradicted the myth of ignorance. As a 'squirt' standing at the side of the road, he said, he not only saw the cattle cars with 'clawlike hands' and 'white faces' in the ventilation slits entering the camp, but also the oxcarts full of corpses leaving it for the Leiten gravesite. It was 'indebtedness to these dead,' he claimed, that obligated him to advocate the eradication of the memorial site.

The previously suggested comparison to other mass murders and the suggestions for reconceiving the memorial site were also phrased more precisely than in earlier debates. A Dachau reader who responded critically to the letter-article opening the debate was in turn reprimanded by another reader who pointed out that, in his opinion, 90% of the visitors were indeed rubbernecks looking for gruesome thrills, and, in light of Vietnam and 66 million victims of Soviet concentration camps since 1918, that those foreigners (or their countries) were no better than the Germans. If the memorial site should continue to exist, he concluded, then it should be given a primarily religious character with chapels and convents, in which literature about all crimes against human rights the world over should be available. One reader (Edmund Kuna) who as an internee and employee of the US Army claimed to be intimately familiar with the camp, described Dachau as a 'reception and transit camp for other KZs and not an extermination camp.' He claimed to be 'for the memorial site in Dachau'­­but only if everything shown there reflected the truth. Yet another reader suggested that Dachau be turned into a 'memorial park' with 'quiet playgrounds for small children, flowers, bushes, trees ...'. The former central KZ building and the museum in it were to 'disappear'--the documents and pictures could be 'summarized in a book.'

Acceptance and Eradication

This forcefully repeated demand to do away with the documentary memorial site prompted some former Dachau prisoners to request a 'clear statement' from city council. The council's declaration, which passed unanimously in the wake of the 1975 debate, was very judicious. It began by noting that the debate about removing the didactic facilities was 'purely theoretical' because only the Bavarian government and the International Prisoners' Committee could implement changes to the memorial site, and that its own respect for 'the fundamental right of freedom of opinion ... for every Dachau citizen also with respect to the KZ memorial site' was 'very high.' But the council immediately qualified this position of tolerance: 'Every opinion expressed about the international KZ memorial site in our city should, however, take the well-being of the city of Dachau and its citizens into consideration.'

Given that qualification, the councilmembers concluded that as long as the international public [i.e., the perpetrators of Dachau's continuing victimization] was apt to misunderstand the local desire for eradication, residents should keep quiet:

'The way things are and in consideration of the symbolic power of the catchword "Dachau" in the larger framework of the worldwide media, a demand for the eradication of the KZ memorial site voiced in Dachau appears to be extremely damaging for the other Dachau, for the upright Dachau. ... Such ... damaging demands should be made all the less when there is no objective reason for them.'

This 1975 resolution presages a forced but unequivocal recognition of the memorial site as a positive feature of Dachau's identity in 1985. Mayor Reitmeier, a consummately adaptable politician who held his office for 30 years, continued to reconcile himself to the realities of local identity politics as they were abandoning the myths of victimization and ignorance. By the middle of the 1980s Reitmeier was ready to count the concentration camp memorial site among Dachau's positive assets. In mid-August 1985 United States presidential aide Michael Deaver visited Dachau to see if the memorial site would be suitable for a visit by US President Reagan in order to 'balance' his stop at the Bitburg military cemetery. Shortly after Deaver's visit Mayor Reitmeier wrote to President Reagan:

'When you come to Dachau to pay homage to the victims of the KZ you should also visit the other Dachau, the honorable [anständig] Dachau, the ancient city with its 1200 year history.'

The chairman of the local trade union association reacted to this letter by writing an open letter to Mayor Reitmeier criticizing his remark because it implied that the camp/memorial site was part of a 'dishonorable' (unanständiges) Dachau. The mayor responded immediately, again in an open letter, that the memorial site 'certainly' belonged to the 'honorable' Dachau. However, such recognition was still contingent upon the watchful eye of international public opinion, as a final series of events in the 1980s shows.

Several examples of the clandestine removal, in the 1980s, of major remnants of the former concentration camp complex outside of the grounds of the formal memorial site demonstrate that in spite of the official acceptance of the memorial site, eradication remained a strong factor in the local relationship to the Nazi past well into the 1980s. In March 1983 the West German association of Dachau survivors, the Lagergemeinschaft ('camp association') Dachau, requested that the city council preserve the section of railroad track leading into the concentration camp as a memorial. At that time, the council took no action, but in 1985, after an association of pro-memorial-site interest groups began to lobby for the creation of a bicycle path from the town to the memorial site along that section of track, it was quickly and quietly torn up. Two years later, however, after another initiative by the West German survivors in 1987, a different section of concentration camp track leading along the outer limits of the former SS complex was preserved as a memorial.

That small victory still did not mean the town fathers were willing to preserve remains if they did not have to. In 1987 the villa constructed for the camp commandant in 1938 was considered as a potential site for an international youth hostel and education center. It was soon torn down without prior public notification. At approximately the same time a row of multi-family houses built for the managers of the Dachau armaments factory during World War I and later used to house SS officers stationed in Dachau was also torn down, although the houses could easily have been renovated to alleviate Dachau township's grave shortage of housing, as various initiatives had suggested.


In 1985 Ronald Reagan was booed by crowds of Germans after he commemorated German soldiers buried at Bitburg as victims of World War II. In the "Historians' Debate" beginning in 1986 a clear preponderance of German historians "resisted" a last-gasp attempt by older generation historians such as Nolte and Hillgruber to mythologize the Nazi-era Germans as victims of Bolshevist incursion.

If since ca. 1990 the myths of VIR have no longer been part of German public memory of National Socialism, what direction is German public memory taking? The creation of an extensive commemorative culture of the Holocaust, including the creation of a German national day of commemoration of the Holocaust on the 51th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1996, and the strong grass roots interest in the expansion and reconceptualization of concentration camp memorial sites during the 1990s, are indicative of an orientation towards universal ethical principles. The overwhelming popular success of Daniel Goldhagen's indictment of Nazi ideology and German behavior during that period is a further indication that the old myths have been jettisoned in the search for a new identity orientation.


A comparison with Buchenwald, situated in the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany (after 1949 East Germany), shows how a different emphasis from top-level policymakers gave public memory a very different course. Initially in both eastern and western occupied Germany Nazi concentration camps were used as internment camps. Just as the US Army allowed former prisoners to install a concentration camp museum in the Dachau crematory, there is evidence that Soviet authorities established a holocaust museum in Buchenwald. And similar to the apathetic neglect of the Dachau mass graves before 1949 in the West, former Buchenwald inmates were demanding in 1949 that a January 1948 promise by Thuringian officials to care for mass graves at Buchenwald be fulfilled. But there the similarities end.

Denazification in Soviet-occupied Germany had been structural, not personal, meaning that the former Nazis were removed from the powerholding elite and replaced by Communist functionaries who had survived the Nazi period in the camps, the underground, or in exile. These post-war elites, many of whom had been anti-Nazis since the 1920s, knew all too well the political functions of the early concentration camp system, and supported efforts to create an educational institution there. When former inmates requested 1.5 million Marks for the construction of a memorial grove in December 1949, Thuringian officials passed the request on to Berlin, where Prime Minister Grotewohl approved it. The project was not immediately realized, however, because neither building material nor construction capacity was available.

Only months after the Soviet internment camp was closed in February 1950, Prime Minister Grotewohl toured Buchenwald to prepare for a national cabinet decision on the creation of national memorials at all major sites of National-Socialist persecution. At the time when in Dachau and West Germany government officials were boycotting and sabotaging efforts by survivors to create institutions of holocaust education, in East Germany these initiatives were taken over by top-level decisionmakers. In the summer of 1952 the autonomous former prisoners association VVN installed an exhibition costing 447,000 Marks in the camp gatehouse, and published a guidebook. But a year later, when the Bavarian government was removing the Dachau exhibition, the East German VVN was disbanded, the East German government commissioned a new official guidebook for Buchenwald, and it approved M611,000 for the creation of a revised and expanded exhibition.

Although education about the holocaust began in East Germany just as it was ending in the West, in both cases the survivors, its natural advocates, were excluded from determining what forms it would take. For Buchenwald a series of topics was formulated which became the binding canon of holocaust education in East Germany until the 1980s:

The history of the Holocaust in the narrower sense as we conceive of it today: the systematic extermination of the Jews of Europe, was included, albeit briefly. According to official publications, the 'main goals' of this program were: 'unmasking imperialism' and 'demonstrating ... the final break of our people with the militarist-fascist past.'

This curriculum was implemented as the major East German concentration camp memorial sites were completed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and it remained relatively unchanged until the mid-1980s. In September 1958, the Buchenwald memorial ensemble was dedicated as a 'National Site of Admonition and Commemoration;' the dedication of official national memorial sites at the former concentration camps Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen followed in 1960 and 1961. Buchenwald and the other national memorial sites became integral parts of a comprehensive program of holocaust education. Not only were visits by school classes before 9th grade compulsory, initiation ceremonies for boy scouts ('young pioneers') and for the Party youth organization FDJ, for college students, and for army recruits were performed there as well.


In East Germany efforts to include the holocaust in public education had been taken over by the national government in the early 1950s and developed into a standardized, well articulated program by the early 1960s. Few changes were made until the mid-1980s, but they were quickly overtaken by the demise of East Germany in 1989. With unification have come several new problems for holocaust education in the 'Five New States,' as the region which was East Germany is now called. The first pits anti-Stalinist against anti-fascist commemoration. Throughout occupied Germany after the war, former concentration camps were converted to internment camps where tens of thousands of German suspects were held. In the Soviet occupied zone conditions were substantially worse than in the western zones, and by the time the camps were dissolved in 1950, thousands of prisoners had died of malnutrition and disease. In the Buchenwald internment camp, for example, from 1945 to 1950 about 7,000 of 30,000 inmates died, compared to about 56,500 of 240,000 for the Nazi camp from 1937-45. When the official repression of the discussion of the post-war Soviet camps and the mass graves ended in 1989, concern for the 'victims of Stalinism' briefly eclipsed interest in the Nazi camps. The competition between the two was compounded by the proximity of the mass graves of the victims of the Stalinist camp to the existing memorial sites.

A comparison of the annual number of visitors to Dachau and Buchenwald over time illustrates the different trajectories (graph 2 on handout).

The numbers are roughly equivalent until 1955, when the Buchenwald curve rises sharply to peak in 1959, shortly after the dedication of the memorial site in Sept. 1958. After the sharp rise in Dachau in 1960, the two lines remain roughly equivalent until 1975, when the Dachau curve climbs steeply again. Dachau's aggregate number fluctuated at a high level since 1982, while Buchenwald showed little change from 1960 until the precipitous descent in 1990-91 (the 1991 Dachau decline was temporary and due to the Persian Gulf war). The bar graphs of the number of visitors in youth groups are revealing as well. In Buchenwald the numbers are roughly constant from 1958 to 1985, but in 1990 they plummeted. In Dachau the rise is very slow from 1961-75, but by 1980 Dachau overtook Buchenwald and is remaining at a comparative high level.

A second post-unification problem derived from the decades of state directed educational and commemorative activity in the East. Whereas in West Germany in the 1960s former inmates had joined forces with local initiatives to pressure the state governments to create educational programs and memorial sites with educational facilities, in East Germany these local and regional support groups never developed. In the East there was thus a double burden of competing interests and a lack of organized advocates who were familiar with taking part in the political process. Since in the West German model, and now in united Germany, cultural activities, which include education, fall within the competence of the individual state governments ("Kulturhoheit der Länder"), a crisis concerning the future of h/Holocaust education developed in the five new states.

This crisis is being met by the national coordination of local initiatives rooted in West Germany. In the late 1980s in West Germany, the 'Action Sign of Atonement/Service for Peace,' a group within the German Protestant Church which had been created to organize practical acts to atone for the Nazi period, had begun to sponsor meetings of representatives of memorial sites and history workshops in West Germany. In 1990 the annual (now semi-annual) meetings were expanded to include East German memorial sites, and a movement was started to lobby for the creation of a national foundation which would be responsible for all German memorial sites. In March 1994 a public hearing was held by the Committee on Domestic Affairs of the Federal Parliament. Eleven experts had been asked to respond to the following five questions:

  1. What is the political, cultural and educational importance of [concentration camp] memorial sites in Germany today? What role should the commemoration of the victims of National-Socialist terror and Stalinist and East German violence play in public consciousness and in political education?
  2. Which forms of commemoration and memorial sites are possible? ... Which forms are suitable for reaching especially young people? ...
  3. How should we deal with the memorial sites in the [five] new states which have been shaped by East German anti-fascism? ...
  4. How should memorial sites be designed to commemorate both the National-Socialist terror and the Stalinist violence? ...
  5. Which memorial sites should, because of their national importance, be supported by the Federal government? ... Is there a danger that the acceptance and interest of the populace will decline because a large number of memorial sites are created?

On 29 June 1994 the committee's proposal was debated by the parliament. Against the opposition of the minority Social-Democratic Party, which wanted a more comprehensive program of assistance, it was resolved to give national financial support only to the memorial sites in eastern Germany, and to limit that support to ten years.

This most recent debate thus reproduces features typical of the history of Holocaust education in West Germany since 1945. The development of materials and institutional support has been fueled by local initiatives, which have met with moderate responses from the educational establishment. The official implementation of new programs has taken place with a time lag, and has depended primarily on deeper changes in public interest and opinion. It remains to be seen whether the current high level of interest will lead to further improvements in Holocaust education, or whether interest will decline and lead to a dismantling of the institutional infrastructure already in place. The 10-year funding horizon set by the Federal Parliament is clearly intended as a test period.

presentation by Harold Marcuse on May 15, 1997 in Seattle, page updated 3/13/04
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