Guest Blogger Karianne Hansen: Describing Concentration Camps (Part Four)

Challenges

One of the main purposes of history is to establish the context for past human behaviour to provide an understanding of the present. I believe there are two factors which make this topic extremely difficult, and I wish to discuss them in the framework of concentration camps. Ian Kershaw writes in his book The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation the difficulty of the historian to tackle the subject of Nazism in an adequately and objective way precisely because of the horrors of the regime (2010:4). Such a notion also applies to concentration camps memorials; there is a historic necessity behind telling the truth as objective as possible, the question is, is this possible in such places? I believe we must ask ourselves what the purposes of these camps are now: should they be a proclamation of human evil and suffering or should they be a warning to the potential lethal outcome of indifference and racism? It is unfair to the legacy of the survivors to think of them only as a testament to tragedy.

The focus should undoubtedly be on creating a narrative as close to the overall understanding of the subject. All of the camp memorials we visited are highly modern, equipped with auditory effects, artefacts from the camp and prison art aiming at conveying the history of the site: daily life in the camp, its history, the prisoners, etc. These are all topics that are not too controversial and easy to present to the public. Albeit problems might arise when the camps are to be portrayed as part of the framework of the Third Reich; how much information should be included? In Dachau, a general exhibition on the Nazi regime is available and Sachsenhausen has embraced other relevant themes; the exhibition housed in the new museum deals with the development from street terror to concentration camps, whereas Flossenb├╝rg and Bergen-Belsen focus explicitly on the camps themselves, with relevant facts added where it is appropriate. The only problem is that scholars continue to disagree on what appear as the basic principles for understanding the Third Reich, such as establishing the historic context for the origins of the Final Solution: pre-planned state action or pragmatic solution to a self-imposed problem of resettlement in the East? Factors shaping Nazi foreign policy and resistance within the regime are only some examples of current scholarly debate. Not to mention that there is a fundamental difficulty in explaining the nature of Nazism. In other words, themes dealt with at camp memorials and those up for discussion are interconnected. One cannot present a narrative of the Holocaust without discussing Hitler’s role, and one cannot attempt to explain the existence of the camps without addressing relevant debates on motives behind Nazi decision-making. It is not of my opinion that by omitting such debates that the memorials are in conflict with the search for understanding. However, due to the topic’s sensibility and experts still disagreeing, I believe camp memorials ought to enlighten the public of such difficulties of interpretation.

As much as the scholarly aspect is problematic, a possibly greater challenge is that of emotions – we are dealing with sites of mass murder, of extermination; of torture and inhumane treatment. In Ravensbr├╝ck, a female visitor cried, surrounded by faces of sorrow; some might argue that these places are nothing but tragic. Understandably, the negative emotional response like the one we witnessed is a part of the experience for a lot of people. The dilemma is thus: is it possible to create an educational atmosphere in such an emotionally challenging place? The answer may be found in the varying attitude towards the Third Reich and how we wish to remember. Amongst my German friends I found primarily two views. Whilst all were opposed to the nature and ideals of the regime, some had reconciled their ancestor's involvement through a degree of emotional distancing. Others, meanwhile, were still struggling with this knowledge.

Despite being only one of several factors shaping how we relate to the Second World War, camp memorials are overwhelming. With this viewpoint in mind, focusing on relating the experience to the individual and their own life could be a more constructive way of establishing the war's relevance in today's world. We must never underestimate the power of knowledge and understanding; the past is a powerful tool.

We owe it to everyone affected, and those who perished, to tell the truth.

*****

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Karianne for writing this four-part blog on her experiences of concentration camp sites. I have not visited any of the places mentioned thus far, so it has been very educational for me, as I'm sure it has been for other readers. This final part in particular, I feel, raises some important issues and questions that will inevitably come up in the planning and construction of memorial sites dedicated to victims of the Holocaust, and there certainly aren't clear-cut answers to any of them. How to educate others about the Holocaust is also a topic for discussion that is becoming increasingly relevant, as those who survived the Holocaust leave us; memorialisation, though, will undoubtedly continue to be a large part of this.