Memorial Sites in Lower Saxony: Reminders of German Crimes during the Nazi Era

By Wiedemann, Wilfried | Midstream, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Memorial Sites in Lower Saxony: Reminders of German Crimes during the Nazi Era


Wiedemann, Wilfried, Midstream


As a result of the federal principle, the memorials in the German federal states have developed independently and in different ways. It is worth looking, above all, at both the circumstances and the long duration of the process that has led to the present stage of the culture of remembrance. I should like to outline this process, starting first with the example of the handling of the former concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen. After that, I shall sketch out some links with the development of the memorial on the site of the former Israelite School of Horticulture in Ahlem.

In the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp more than 50,000 people from more than 20 countries were the victims of mass murder. Most of them were Jews. On 15 April 1946, the first anniversary of the liberation, Jewish survivors erected a memorial in remembrance of the dead. It had the same inscription in Hebrew and English: "EARTH CONCEAL NOT THE BLOOD SHED ON THEE." The imploring force of its demand continues still today and in the present is even more effective than at other times in the past.

What happened before the liberation and on 15 April 1946? In October 1945, Bergen-Belsen's British liberators expressed the concern that the mass graves at the site of the concentration camp were in danger of being forgotten. In order to counteract this, they ordered that a suitable garden should be designed and a memorial erected by the appropriate German authorities. It might be thought that the establishment of a garden at Bergen-Belsen could be interpreted as a conscious attempt to shape the area in an aesthetic way in direct contrast to the violation of all the rules of civilization that had taken place there. However, the danger of forgetting, which existed in the removal of the remains of the camp buildings, ought to have been foreseen. At that time, the Central Committee of the Liberated Jews in the British Zone pointed to precisely this danger. It had developed its own ideas on the shaping of the memorial and had done all it could to have the remains of the camp buildings--watchtowers, camp fences, camp streets, and the crematorium -- left standing as a warning reminder.

The Central Committee was unable to push through its concept. Instead, the provisional government appointed by the British military government was largely given a free hand. It commissioned a landscape architect to draw up a design plan, which was very quickly put into action and has determined the look of the memorial to the present day. After the remains of the buildings had been removed or covered over, a large open area in the shape of an oval was created and planted with heather. The mass graves at the edge of the oval were connected by a circular path, and the entire oval was demarcated from the surrounding countryside by the planting of trees. Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn was the first to mention the not accidental similarity of this design with the SS memorial in Sachsenhain. The landscape architect Wilhelm Hubotter, who produced the design for the Bergen-Belsen memorial, had created a similar landscape concept for Sachsenhain near Verden -- an SS cult site -- commissioned by Heinrich Himmler in 1935. One must agree with Wolschke-Bulmahn, who criticizes the subjugation of the aesthetics of the Bergen-Belsen memorial to the "ideal landscape" of the culprits as a gross lack of respect for the victims.

After the remains of the camp buildings had been removed, covered over, and planted, there was no visible support left for memory. Only the survivors and the relatives of the victims could now grieve with their hearts at Bergen-Belsen and link the place in their minds with the events of history. Other visitors, and, above all, the generations that came later could find no information at Bergen-Belsen. Nor was there any information to be found elsewhere -- no information at Dachau, or at Ahlem.

It was only at the end of 1959 and the beginning of 1960, when the daubing of swastikas and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries made the continued presence of the Nazi spirit very obvious, that politicians began to take action.

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