‘Shouldering the burden’: US and Germany launch plan to combat Holocaust denial

The US and German Foreign Secretaries gathered in Berlin on Thursday to announce a new initiative to tackle anti-Semitic hate and conspiracy theories online.

'Shouldering the burden': US and Germany launch plan to combat Holocaust denial
German Foreign Secretary Heiko Mass (SPD) and US Foreign Secretary Anthony Bilken lay a wreath at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe on June 24th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

The United States and Germany on Thursday urged greater efforts to combat the denial and diminishing of the Holocaust, warning against complacency as conspiracy theories thrive online and survivors pass away.

The top diplomats of the two allies announced a new initiative involving policymakers and Holocaust museums that will look for more “innovative” ways to teach about the genocide that killed six million Jews as well as Roma, LGBTQ people and other minorities.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the stepson of a survivor of the Auschwitz and Dachau death camps, said the Holocaust was a “gradual descent into darkness” made possible by “countless individual steps designed to vilify and dehumanise people”.

READ ALSO: ‘We will fight for our Germany’: Holocaust survivor issues warning to far right

“That understanding is particularly urgent today as survivors pass from us and those who deny the Holocaust are getting louder and finding insidious new ways to spread their lies,” Blinken said in Berlin at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, pointing to a sharp rise in anti-Semitic content online.

Blinken was visibly moved as he heard from 99-year-old Margot Friedlaender, a camp survivor who still speaks several times a week of her experiences, including how her murdered mother left her with a necklace and the message, “Try to make your life.”

“You’ve done a remarkable thing with your first 100 years. We’ll wait for the next 100 years to see what you do next,” Blinken was heard saying as he squatted by her seat to chat with her under light rain.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas voiced outrage at protesters against Covid vaccines and mask-wearing who have donned the yellow Stars of David forced on Jews by Nazi Germany and he linked the rise of conspiracy theories to the January 6 mob attack on the US Capitol.

READ ALSO: Alarm as German anti-maskers co-opt Nazi resister Sophie Scholl

“The strength of America, Germany and Europe does not come from glorifying history or glossing over the mistakes of the past,” Maas said.

“Our strength lies in shouldering the burden of historical responsibility, without any ifs or buts. Our strength lies in joining forces in search of the best way forward.”

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Inside Germany’s secret Cold War cash bunker

For many years, the residents of the leafy town of Cochem in the German Rhineland went about their daily business with no idea they were living on a gold mine.

Inside Germany's secret Cold War cash bunker

During the Cold War, the German central bank stashed away almost 15 billion marks’ worth of an emergency currency in a 1,500-square-metre nuclear bunker beneath the town.

A closely guarded state secret, the currency was codenamed “BBK II” and intended for use if Germany was the target of an attack on its monetary system.

After the Cold War, the bunker passed into the hands of a regional cooperative bank and then a real estate fund. In 2016, it was bought by German couple Manfred and Petra Reuter, who turned it into a museum.

A staircase with a secret exit in the former vault of the Bundesbank Bunker Museum in Cochem, western Germany. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

Today, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stoking fears of nuclear conflict, interest in the bunker is growing again.

“Many people we know have pointed out that we have a safe bunker and asked whether there would be room for them in case of an emergency,” said Petra Reuter.

On tours of the bunker, “questions are naturally asked about the current situation”, which feels like “a leap back in time 60 years”, she said. “The fears are the same.”

Inside, behind a heavy iron door, long corridors lead to decontamination chambers and offices equipped with typewriters and rotary phones.

Petra Reuter, owner of the Bundesbank Bunker Museum, walks through the working room in the former vault of the museum in Cochem, western Germany on February 8th, 2022. Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

The main room consists of 12 cages where, for almost 25 years, some 18,300 boxes containing millions of 10, 20, 50 and 100 mark banknotes were stored up to the ceiling.

Hundreds of trucks
On the front, the banknotes were almost identical to the real deutschmarks in circulation at the time, but on the back they were very different.

Starting in 1964, the notes were delivered to the bunker by hundreds of trucks over a period of about 10 years, with no one suspecting a thing — not even the East German Stasi secret police.

The bunker was accessed via a secret passage from what was ostensibly a training and development centre for Bundesbank employees in a residential area of the town.

Cochem, located about 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the border with Belgium and Luxembourg, was chosen because it was such a long way from the Iron Curtain.

“The citizens of the community were astonished to discover this treasure, which had been hidden for so long near their homes,” said Wolfgang Lambertz, the former mayor of the town, which has around 5,000 inhabitants.

This picture shows a working room with decoding devices in the former vault of the Bundesbank Bunker Museum in Cochem, western Germany. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

Along with the 15 billion marks stored in the bunker, just under 11 billion marks’ worth of the alternative currency was also stored in the vaults of the central bank in Frankfurt.

Altogether, this added up to around 25 billion marks — roughly equivalent to the total amount of cash circulating in the German economy in 1963.

Facsimiles of former banknotes of the substitute currency are pictured in the former vault of the Bundesbank Bunker Museum in Cochem, western Germany on February 8th, 2022. (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

Operation Bernhard
Perhaps an extreme measure to ward off a merely hypothetical attack, but the German authorities had been guided by lessons from history.

During World War II, the Nazis had launched “Operation Bernhard”, in which prisoners in concentration camps were forced to manufacture counterfeit pounds with the aim of flooding England with them.

“The most plausible explanation was probably the fear that counterfeit money would be smuggled through the Iron Curtain in order to damage the West German economy,” according to Bernd Kaltenhaueser, president of the Bundesbank’s regional office for Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland.

This shows a picture of the original and substitute 100 Mark notes in the former vault of the Bundesbank Bunker Museum in Cochem, western Germany.  (Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP)

But creating a backup currency today “would no longer make sense because there is less counterfeit money in circulation and there are fewer cash payments”, according to Kaltenhaueser.

In the 1980s, with the Cold War winding down and technology evolving, it was decided that the replacement currency no longer met Germany’s security standards.

By 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, all of the notes had been taken out of the bunker, shredded and burned.