The need for wide-ranging dialog

4 Nov 2019

On the occasion of the international “Lessons & Legacies” conference, historian and Holocaust researcher Kim Wünschmann discusses the goals of the event and the political challenges raised by the resurgence of nationalism and antisemitism.

The conference “Lessons & Legacies of the Holocaust”, which takes place in Munich this week, will be attended by some 200 specialists, including academic researchers, historians, educators and curators of museums and memorials. The biennial conference series began in 1989, and this is the first time it takes place outside the US. Was the choice of venue controversial, given that the Nazis regarded Munich as the ‘capital city’ of their movement? Wünschmann: Our American, European and Israeli colleagues were quickly convinced of the venue, in light of the direct link between the location and the historical process that culminated in the Holocaust, the diversity of the memorial landscape in and around the city, and the significance of the contributions made by Holocaust researchers in Munich to their field. Munich was a city in which the National Socialist movement established itself very early. The concentration camp in Dachau, in the immediate vicinity of the city, was in operation by March 1933, and it was the only one that remained active throughout the 12 years of Nazi rule. In a speech given before an audience representing the top echelons of the Nazi regime in Munich’s City Hall, Joseph Goebbels gave the go-ahead for the destruction of Jewish businesses, homes and places of worship during the November Pogrom of 1938. Georg Elser attempted to assassinate Hitler here in November 1939, when the war was already in progress. And the efforts of the students in the White Rose group to galvanize resistance against the regime – which is very important to us at LMU – also took place under wartime conditions. Today Munich is a center of research on the Holocaust. The Conference can draw attention to both of these strands.

You have organized an extensive program of visits to historical sites associated with the Holocaust. How does this part of the program relate to the purpose of the Conference as a whole? This is an innovation for "Lessons & Legacies". Our intention was to connect the historical sites with the ongoing research activities and educational work in Munich. The Conference will also provide the many participants working at memorial sites and museums with a platform for discussion and the exchange of ideas. In addition, it gives them an opportunity to raise issues that are of immediate concern to them. Conference delegates will, for example, be able to gain firsthand impressions of the DenkStätte Weisse Rose, the Dachau concentration camp memorial site and the Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism. Other tours are designed to provide insights into Jewish life in Munich today, and participants are also invited to visit the synagogue Ohel Jakob. Our goal is to catalyze dialog, a conversation that begins with academic research and extends outwards to educational establishments and into the broader non-academic public.

In a recent statement, Frank Bajohr, Director of the Center for Holocaust Studies, stated that the results of historical research on the Holocaust must be more effectively communicated to the general public. How do you view this issue? The continuing study of the Holocaust remains indispensable, and is highly relevant for us today. Within the field itself, however, there is a growing trend towards specialization. In other words, we are acquiring ever more detailed knowledge of the historical events. But it is also our task, as researchers, to translate and systematize the results of these highly specialized studies and convey them to the general public. This means that we must step outside the narrow confines of research circles, and enter into conversation with those who are directly engaged with the wider public – in schools, in adult education and in museums and memorial sites.

In Germany, there is a lack of teachers equipped to teach the subject in schools, for example. How can this problem be tackled? Together with the Center for Holocaust Studies, we in the School of History at LMU now organize courses on Holocaust history for teachers. We are also considering the potential of new digital learning tools in our field. In this context, we have initiated a collaborative project with the Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb), which has developed a wide range of teaching strategies, also using social media. We offer seminars for trainee teachers and excursions to Eastern Europa – where the overwhelming majority of Holocaust killing sites are located.

Up to now, the testimony of eye-witnesses to the Holocaust has played an important role in civic education. Very soon, this generation will no longer be with us.  Here too, we as researchers are urgently needed. We have to think hard about ways to ensure that these authentic voices remain audible, so that their individuality and power can still be experienced by future generations. During the Conference, there will be a workshop on 3D presentations of the testimonies of survivors – an idea that has been developed primarily in North America. This initiative basically uses three-dimensional projections of individual witnesses, together with a mode of presentation of their personal life stories that allows the viewer to put questions with the help of speech recognition software. The result is a kind of ‘interactive biography’. In an interdisciplinary research project at LMU, Anja Ballis and Markus Gloe are now studying the potential of these novel methods, and they will critically evaluate what such digital testimonies on the Holocaust can actually achieve in education.

We are now experiencing a resurgence of aggressive nationalism. Jews are again being threatened with verbal and physical attack. The history of the Holocaust is publicly downplayed by some people. How do you as a researcher react to this phenomenon? The upcoming Conference has a clear political intent. We want to point to the challenges that arise from the growth of right-wing populism. In some European countries, colleagues are being faced more and more often with restrictive research conditions. The Conference will assure them that they are not alone. We will hold a public discussion on what it means when research comes into conflict with the political line of a government. In Germany, we also find ourselves confronted with a rise in right-wing extremism and antisemitism, and we must clearly define our position.

Is this making the work of Holocaust researchers more difficult? Do you yourself now receive more hate mail than before? For many of us, the effects have been quite substantial. This will be one of the themes of the Panel Discussion in the Great Aula. For instance, Andrea Pető from the Central European University in Budapest will report on how her own work is restricted and curtailed. Unfortunately, hers is no longer an exceptional case. What is at stake here are research grants and positions, and sometimes one’s professional survival. The discussion will be chaired by Christopher Browning, who is widely known as the author of the book Ordinary Men. In our research we continue to explore the contexts in which violent behavior comes to the fore, and to ask the question “what causes people to act with violent intent?” Holocaust research is always concerned not only with the victims, but also with the perpetrators of violence.

In your own research, you have investigated the early stages of the Holocaust, in particular, the first concentration camps, like the one in Dachau. What have you learned about the origins of the system? I have studied the pre-war concentration camps that the Nazis set up in the midst of German society; the places where terror first made itself felt. The purpose of these early camps was to divide German society into two categories – friends and foes. They fixed new social coordinates, serving to demarcate and exclude those who did not belong to the ‘people’s community’ as defined by Nazi ideology. There were hundreds of these early camps, distributed all over the country, some of them in the middle of cities. It is crucial to understand the early forms of oppression in order to comprehend how a dictatorship establishes itself.

The Conference officially ends on November 7th, but post-conference events will continue until November 9th. Was this date chosen deliberately? Yes. We wanted to give our international guests an opportunity to experience how Munich commemorates the past, in particular the victims of the November Pogrom. Here, I want to makes special mention of the ceremony in honor of Georg Elser on November 7th and the central act of remembrance on November 9th. Both events will be held in the historic Council Chamber in Old City Hall on Marienplatz.

Dr. Kim Wünschmann is a Research Fellow at the Department for Modern and Contemporary History at LMU and Coordinator of the LMU and the Center for Holocaust Studies at Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History (IfZ). She is one of the organizers of the “Lessons & Legacies” Conference. The Conference is organized jointly by LMU, the Holocaust Educational Foundation of Northwestern University, the Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb) and the Center for Holocaust Studies at the Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History (IfZ).

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