Buchenwald concentration camp quietly marks 75th anniversary of its liberation

With the coronavirus pandemic wiping clean most public events in Germany, the memorial at the Buchenwald former concentration camp marked the 75th anniversary of its liberation on Saturday in a new way.

Buchenwald concentration camp quietly marks 75th anniversary of its liberation
Flowers were placed beside the barbed wire fence of Buchenwald concentration camp. Photo: DPA.

It published online a “Declaration of Thuringia” – in German, English and French – warning that “human rights, democracy and freedom can by no means be taken for granted” as “right-wing radicalism and authoritarianism are on the rise”.

Signed by figures from politics and civil society, including Thuringia state premier Bodo Ramelow and Auschwitz and Buchenwald survivor Ivan Ivanji, the text described as a grave threat “a form of populism emboldened by a racially motivated superiority complex, nationalism and the undermining of European unity”.

“Racism and anti-Semitism are openly propagated and have led to acts of violence in Germany that would have been inconceivable even several years ago,” it stated.

“Yesterday's destructive poisons are once again being touted as a universal remedy for society's ills.”

“It can happen to you, too”

The website also published brief statements from people who survived Buchenwald, in the eastern German state of Thuringia, where around 56,000 people perished in the main camp and 20,000 in the satellite installation Dora between 1937 and a prisoners' uprising in April 1945.

“Not everybody can be a hero, a politician, a philosopher, a helper. But each and every one of us can respect the dignity of every other individual and give someone in need a helping hand,” wrote Jack Unikoski, a 93-year-old Polish former inmate who today lives in Australia.

“Be friendly and tolerant of other people. Hatred for one group can easily spread to the others. We learned the hard way – 'It can happen to you, too',” wrote Chava Ginsburg, a 90-year-old Hungarian woman who survived Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and women's camp Markkleeberg, another satellite camp of Buchenwald.

READ ALSO: Germany fears 'mass exit' of Jews if hatred persists

Gernot Süßmuth, of the Staatskapelle Weimar, plays the violin on Saturday in front of the Buchenwald Memorial for victims of the Nazis. Photo: DPA

Along with 40 more people from 14 countries who lived through the concentration camps, the two were among those invited to the commemoration originally slated for April 5th and 7th in Buchenwald and Dora.

Public events planned over several days to mark the liberation have all been cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But memorial director Volkhard Knigge said they would all be rescheduled for next year.

Meanwhile, he asked members of the public to place flowers at the entrances to both camps Saturday – “while respecting social distancing rules”.

Rise in far-right violence

Other memorials around Germany, including Ravensbrueck, Sachsenhausen and Bergen-Belsen, plan similar online events in the coming days.

READ ALSO: Germany increases police presence amid 'very high' security threat from far-right

“The good thing to be found amidst every evil is that we humans rediscover ourselves,” wrote Hungarian philosopher Eva Fahidi-Pusztai, 94, another Buchenwald and Auschwitz survivor.

“We can once again do things for ourselves; we can help each other, have fun with each other,” Fahidi-Pusztai said.

“We can more easily get through even crises with humour and good cheer. Believe me. I know only all too well.”

The 75th anniversaries of the liberation of the camps falls in a year when Germany has seen a string of far-right and anti-Semitic attacks.

In February, a far-right extremist conspiracy theorist shot nine people dead, in a rare mass shooting that shocked the nation.

READ ALSO: After Hanau: How can Germany deal with extreme right wing terror

Last autumn, another shooter killed two in an attempted attack on a synagogue in Halle, a city in Germany's former communist East.

And in June 2019, a pro-refugee local politician from Angela Merkel's conservative party was shot at his home.

Germany's VS domestic intelligence service has warned that far-right terrorism and violence represent “the greatest danger to democracy” in the country.

By David Courbet

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German justice contaminated by Nazis in post-war years

Germany's justice system was still filled with former Nazis well into the 1970s, as the Cold War coloured efforts to root out fascists, according a damning official inquiry presented Thursday.

Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report
Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report "State Security in the Cold War". Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

In the 600-page collection of findings entitled “State Security in the Cold War”, historian Friedrich Kiessling and legal scholar Christoph Safferling focused on the period from the early 1950s until 1974.

Their research found that between 1953 and 1959, around three in four top officials at the federal prosecutor’s office, which commissioned the report, had belonged to the Nazi party.

More than 80 percent had worked in Adolf Hitler’s justice apparatus, and it would take until 1972 before they were no longer in the majority.

“On the face of it they were highly competent lawyers… but that came against the backdrop of the death sentences and race laws in which they were involved,” said Margaretha Sudhof, state secretary at the justice ministry, unveiling the report.

“These are disturbing contradictions to which our country has long remained blind.”

‘Combat mission’

It was not until 1992, two years after Germany’s national reunification, that the last prosecutor with a fascist background left the office.

“There was no break, let alone a conscious break, with the Nazi past” at the federal prosecutor’s office, the authors concluded, stressing “the great and long continuity” of the functions held and “the high number” of officials involved in Hitler’s regime.

Chief federal prosecutor Peter Frank commissioned the study in 2017. The federal prosecutor’s office is one of Germany’s most powerful institutions, handling the most serious national security cases including those involving terrorism and espionage.

With more than 100 prosecutors, it is “the central actor in the fight against terror,” the report authors said, underlining its growing role in the decades since the September 11th, 2001 attacks in the United States.

The researchers were given unfettered access to hundreds of files labelled classified after the war, and found that rooting out alleged communists was often prioritised over other threats, including from the far right.

“In the 1950s the federal prosecutor’s office had a combat mission – not a legal but a political one: to pursue all the communists in the country,” the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said in a summary of the report.

‘Recycling’ Nazis

The fact that West Germany widely used former officials from the Nazi regime in its post-war administration had long been known.

For example, Hans Globke served as chief of staff and a trusted confidant to former conservative West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer between 1953 and 1963 and was responsible for recruitment to top posts.

However, Globke had also been a senior civil servant in the Nazi-era interior ministry and was involved in the drafting of the 1935 Nuremberg race laws that imposed the first dramatic restrictions on Jews.

In recent years, systematic digging into the past of key ministries and institutions has unearthed a troubling and previously hidden degree of “recycling” of Third Reich officials in the post-war decades.

A 2016 government report revealed that in 1957, more than a decade after the war ended, around 77 percent of senior officials at the justice ministry had been members of the Nazi party. That study, also carried out by Safferling, revealed that the number of former Nazis at the ministry did not decline after the fall of the regime but actually grew in the 1950s.

Part of the justification was cynical pragmatism: the new republic needed experienced civil servants to establish the West German justice system. Furthermore, the priorities of the Allies who won the war and “liberated” the country from the Nazis were quickly turned upside down in the Cold War context.

After seeking to de-Nazify West Germany after 1945, the aim quickly shifted to building a capitalist bulwark against the communist threat. That approach often meant turning a blind eye to Germans’ previous involvement in the Third Reich.

In recent years, Germany has embarked on a twilight attempt to provide justice for concentration camp victims, placing several former guards in their 90s on trial for wartime crimes.