If you walk the streets of Berlin, you will come across the famous “stumbling stones”, or Stolpersteine. They will not literally make you stumble - but they are meant to make your mind stumble.
Just under 10 sq cm, easy to miss, they are small brass stones, embedded underfoot in the cobblestones of the street. Each commemorates a Holocaust victim in front of their last-known freely chosen place of residence. Stolpersteine are meant to commemorate all victims of Nazi Germany. The stones honour Jews, Sinti and Roma, and other people who the Nazis labelled “asocial”.
The inscription on each stone begins “Here lived”, followed by the victim's name, date of birth, and fate: internment, suicide, exile or, in the vast majority of cases, deportation and murder.
To read the inscription, you must bow before the victim, as one of the project initiators emphasises. Gunter Demnig, the German artist behind the grassroots project, has, over more than two decades now, laid more than 70,000 “Stolpersteine”, making them the world's largest decentralised monument to the Holocaust.
Among the many monuments linked to Holocaust remembrance, this is probably the initiative that links commemoration closest with everyday lives in Germany.
The Holocaust refers to the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of about six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. And this also must be said: The perpetrators were human beings. They were Germans. The worst crime in the history of humanity - it was committed by my countrymen.
This heavy, historical burden of guilt brings about a responsibility that does not expire. There cannot be an end to remembrance. This collective responsibility was woven into the very fabric of the Federal Republic of Germany from day one.
At the international level, the United Nations has designated Jan 27 as a day of remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust. The date marks the liberation of the Nazi concentration and extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945.
DANGERS OF FANATICISM
The international day is not only an opportunity to commemorate the victims but also a means to raise awareness around the world, especially among young people, of the danger that persists still in the form of racist and fanatic ideologies targeted against ethnic or religious groups.
From the horror of Auschwitz, the world learnt lessons. The nations of the world built an order of peace, founded upon human rights and international law. Germany is committed to this order and determined to defend it, together with people across the globe, including in Singapore.
Germans are grateful for the spirit of reconciliation that has allowed their country to form strong and peaceful relations with other nations.
We wish we could say that remembrance alone confers immunity to evil, but it does not.
Evil comes back in different forms in different eras. This is why the Holocaust commemoration is not just about the past but also the present and the future. By our present efforts to protect and promote the dignity of all human beings, we seek to ensure the horrors of genocide do not happen again in any part of the world. “Never again! Nie wieder!” is a watchword with universal significance.
As Mr Kofi Annan, the late UN secretary-general, once explained, education on the Holocaust is being promoted internationally not just for its historical significance, but also “because, in our increasingly diverse and globalised world, educators and policymakers believe education about the Holocaust is a vital mechanism for teaching students to value democracy and human rights, and encouraging them to oppose racism and promote tolerance in societies”.
THREE REASONS WHY
Here are three examples why teaching and learning about the Holocaust remain meaningful and essential today.
First, this can prompt learners to develop an understanding of the mechanisms and processes that lead to genocide, in turn leading to reflection on the importance of the rule of law and democratic institutions.
This enables people to identify circumstances that can threaten or erode these structures, and reflect on their own role and responsibility in safeguarding these principles.
Second, people learn to more critically interpret and evaluate cultural manifestations and representations of the Holocaust and thereby minimise the risk of manipulation.
Time and again, German embassies, including those in South-east Asia, are alerted to the presence of Holocaust-related content - particularly on social media. Sometimes, it turns out to be thoughtless and not meant to offend, but sometimes it is deliberately provocative.
In many countries, the Holocaust has become a theme or motif in both popular culture and political discourse. Teaching and learning about the Holocaust can help people identify distortion and inaccuracy when the Holocaust is used as a rhetorical device in the service of social, political and moral agendas.
Third, while Nazi Germany may feel far away in time and space from Asia, the knowledge and insights gained from learning about the Holocaust can serve as a guide in unpacking and analysing the decisions and actions taken (or not) in times of tumult by a range of actors - from nations to communities to individuals.
The circumstances may be vastly different from the Holocaust but echoes may be found in the dynamics and calculations (fear, greed, peer pressure or indifference) driving these decisions and actions. To be able to discern them and know the possible trajectories of decisions taken is to be better armed against a revival of the conditions that led to the Holocaust.
Everyone can, and should, help build bulwarks against Holocaust denial, intolerance and hatred. These are international challenges, and countering them requires as much an international response as one that is on the spot.
Taking up this challenging subject in a global context provides a way for all to learn how to welcome and appreciate difference and diversity on the basis of respect and tolerance.
This article was written by Dr Norbert Riedel, German Ambassador to Singapore. Germany currently holds the presidency of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
It was first published in The Straits Times on 27 January, 2021.