Yoav Sapir

Germany’s Holocaust remembrance day: Is it really what it seems to be?

This week, on Friday, Germany will officially commemorate the Holocaust. It is done annually on January 27th, because on this date in 1945, Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz. Although the murders didn’t stop upon the liberation of Auschwitz, this date is, since 1996, Germany’s official “Day of remembrance for the victims of National-Socialism”. It predates the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is based on a resolution of the United Nations’ General Assembly from 2005.

The interesting thing about the German Holocaust remembrance day is that it actually isn’t specifically about the Holocaust, at least not in the contemporary, common sense of the word as referring to the Jewish genocide. Indeed, the ceremonies held on January 27th often focus on Jewish speakers (including myself a while ago) and address the Jewish victims. Yet the commemorative concept itself isn’t about the Jewish genocide in particular, but about the Nazi mass murders in general.

In legal terms, the German remembrance day was proclaimed by the German president in 1996, Roman Herzog. I didn’t find a translation online, so here is mine:

“In 1995, it was 50 years since the end of the Second World War and of the National-Socialist regime of violence. In that year, we remembered in an exceptional manner the victims of the National-Socialist racial fanaticism and genocide, and commemorated the millions of people, who were deprived of their rights, persecuted, tortured or murdered by the National-Socialist regime. This terror is symbolized by the concentration camp of Auschwitz, which was liberated on January 27th 1945 and where predominantly such people suffered, whom National-Socialism systematically murdered or wanted to exterminate.

Remembrance must never end; it must urge vigilance upon future generations too.

Therefore it is important to find now a form of remembrance that will affect the future. It should express grief over suffering and loss, be dedicated to commemorating the victims and oppose every danger of repetition.

I declare Janaury 27th as the day of remembrance for the victims of National-Socialism.”

Beautiful words… and yet it is obvious what isn’t mentioned here, namely the Jews explicitly. It is also interesting that Germany and the Germans are “forgotten” too, as if only the National-Socialists committed the murders (a very common misconception in Germany) – but that’s a different topic.

01 Roman Herzog

Former president Roman Herzog
Credit: Euku/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Let’s compare this concept to Israel, where Yom ha-Shoah is dedicated specifically to the Jewish story: In Israel, the Holocaust isn’t understood as a general human tragedy that unfortunately happened to include Jews, but as a specific assault against the Jewish people. In this perspective, the Holocaust shouldn’t be understood as a general term for “the victims of National-Socialism”, i.e. for all the people that were killed by the Nazis regardless of who they were and why they were killed. The Hebrew term “ha-Shoah” doesn’t – and can’t – stand for anything else but the specific Jewish experience. As my thesis supervisor, Prof. Moshe Zimmermann, once put it: This word is, in itself, a memorial to the Jewish victims as such.

For obvious reasons, one might expect Germany to have done the same and, while not forgetting about any of the other victims that were murdered in Auschwitz and elsewhere, to have dedicated a remembrance day specifically to its Jewish victims. In other words: One would perhaps expect Germany to have a remembrance day for the Holocaust in the sense of the Shoah. Yet it hasn’t. That’s not a coincidence, as it illustrates well Germany’s conflict in acknowledging what it did. Yes, what Germany did – and not just some unfriendly ghost called “National-Socialism”.

Such differences in remembrance result from differences in how the Holocaust is perceived and understood: Unlike the Israeli remembrance day, which – in accordance with the common Jewish perspective – recognizes the Holocaust as a particular crime against the Jewish people, the German equivalent perceives the Jewish victims as one out of several aspects of a larger, more general crime. In this perspective, the Jews were not victims of a crime specific to them, but of the same crime that also included many other people.

This distinction isn’t so much about the facts as it is about what the facts should mean to us. Hardly anybody would deny the Holocaust in Germany (probably also because it’s illegal). But many Germans, including the educated class and even people in political circles, understand the facts differently than we do – namely not as an assault against “the Jewish people”.

So what exactly is this alternative understanding of the Holocaust (which is quite common in Germany, but isn’t my own)? In my next post, I will explain it and its reasoning. It will cast some light on the lack of a German remembrance day explicitly for the Jews.

About the Author
Yoav Sapir is a guide with Berlin Jewish Tours. He studied German-Jewish history in Jerusalem, Vienna, Heidelberg and Berlin.
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