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Speech by Professor Norbert Lammert, President of the Bundestag, on 27 January 2016 in remembrance of the victims of National Socialism

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“Those who have known tyranny and arbitrary rule value freedom and the rule of law. However, our people enjoy freedom and the rule of law as a matter of course, giving them in some cases too little appreciation of the dangers of arbitrary rule and tyranny. This is the major problem faced by every country governed by the rule of law.”

Ladies and gentlemen, it was with these words, in an address to the German Bundestag in 1996, that Federal President Roman Herzog declared the 27th of January an annual day of remembrance for the victims of National Socialism – as an enduring admonition to pass on the memory of the tyrannical Nazi regime and its horrifying manifestations and consequences.

For twenty years, we have paused for reflection each year on the day on which, in 1945, Red Army soldiers liberated the Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp, where they found people who, in every single case, had suffered a scarcely conceivable extreme of “tyranny and arbitrary rule” – people who had been robbed of their rights, their physical integrity and their dignity, who had been tortured, exploited, and sent to their deaths.

“Every survivor has his or her ‘lucky accident’ – the turning point to which we owe our lives,” you write, Ms Klüger, in your autobiography Still Alive. The “lucky accident” which saved your own life took you, with your mother and a friend, to Christianstadt, a now all but forgotten sub-camp of Gross-Rosen, a concentration camp in Silesia, where the German arms industry, in particular, mercilessly exploited concentration camp inmates. You too were condemned as a child to perform labour that ended in fatal exhaustion for countless people. You were thus able to escape certain murder, but at that moment it was far from certain that you would truly escape death.

Ladies and gentlemen, today we remember the victims of the National Socialist dictatorship. We remember all the murdered Jews of Europe, the Sinti and Roma, the people with illnesses and disabilities, the homosexuals, and all those who were deprived of their right to life, who were tortured and murdered. We remember those who engaged in resistance, the dissenters who lost their lives because they did not submit, because they did not abandon their political convictions, their morals or their faith. We remember the prisoners of war and deserters, the countless civilian victims of the National Socialist dictatorship throughout Europe, and this year we also remember, in particular, the forced labourers. We remember inconceivable crimes against humanity, genocide, and what people did to other human beings. We pay our respects to the dead – and at the same time, we are conscious of the deep wounds, inflicting lifelong pain, suffered by the survivors of these horrifying events. “The sensation of torture,” Ruth Klüger writes, “doesn’t leave its victim alone – never, not to the end of life.”

In remembrance of the suffering of those scarred in this way, the dead and the wounded, and conscious of the crimes perpetrated in Germany’s name and the loss of humanity which extended deep into all sections of the population, we undertake to remain on our guard against inhumanity, and to stand up against exclusion, against anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia. Confronting “tyranny and arbitrary rule”, confronting inhumanity, a loss of morality, and the consequences of the injustice committed by Germans, which are still being felt today: all of this is and remains of fundamental importance for our country – all the more so in view of the humanitarian challenges facing us at present here, in Europe and around the world.

 

Ladies and gentlemen, in 1945, when the Allies liberated the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, Neuengamme, Bergen-Belsen and Gross-Rosen, to name just a few, they stopped a machinery of murder whose horror was unprecedented in history. At the same time, millions of forced labourers were saved, after having been deprived of their freedom by Germans who wanted to exploit their labour.

 

More than thirteen million people were forced to work in degrading conditions within the borders of the German Reich. Only a vague estimate, at best, can be given of the number of people who were required to perform forced labour in the occupied territories. Forced labourers, reduced to the status of the cheapest workforce, were at the bottom of the inhuman hierarchy of the Nazi state – their death “through labour” was knowingly accepted by their exploiters. Initially, the German Labour Administration still recruited foreign civilian workers who were supposedly volunteers, and it often achieved this by making false promises; yet the start of the war saw the establishment of a system in which people were recruited by force. These people from countries invaded by the German Reich, especially Poland and the countries of the Soviet Union, were condemned to extremely hard labour – to “slave labour”, as the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg later specifically found. German industry, in particular, which suffered from a constant shortage of workers, made use of concentration camp inmates, as well as countless prisoners of war and deported civilians over the course of the war. It was a perfidious system, in which people were forced to keep the economy and arms industry of their own oppressors running.

 

Forced labour was a mass phenomenon in the Nazi dictatorship, a crime committed in full view of everyone. All sectors – including civilian sectors – of the economy in the German Reich and the occupied territories profited from it. In July 1944, civilian forced labourers, prisoners of war forced to perform labour, and concentration camp inmates together accounted for a quarter of all workers in the German Reich. Forced labourers were put to work above all in the arms industry, but also in bakeries or market gardens, and a great many of them in the agricultural sector. This is the subject of an exhibition we have opened in the Paul Löbe Building this morning. The forced labourers worked for large companies and for craftsmen, for churches and for municipal services, in the mining sector and in private households. And even if a few of the former forced labourers recount that they did encounter in private the sense of common humanity that they were denied in public, this nonetheless remained a system of “tyranny and arbitrary rule”, which knowingly exposed labourers to hunger, illness, and violence or death.

 

Forced labour in the German Reich was a mass phenomenon and visible to all. Every morning, columns of forced labourers made their way under guard from the camps to businesses – in Berlin alone, there were around 3000 camps for around half a million forced labourers. The idea that no one knew that they were being forced to perform labour or about the exploitative conditions in which they were required to work has long been exposed as a myth. And yet for a long time, forced labour was not accorded the place its victims deserve in the German culture of remembrance. It was not until the 1980s, when more and more local history societies or school groups in the Federal Republic of Germany began researching the history of their own neighbourhoods, that remnants of Nazi forced labour camps, in many cases, gave these civil-society initiatives the impetus to undertake further research. They ultimately helped to refute the common, apologist myth that “nothing was known about all that”.

This was still far from meeting the need for official recognition of the suffering of millions of forced labourers. Years passed before German companies which had profited significantly from forced labour were willing to face up to their responsibility – and the Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future”, which was entrusted with making symbolic compensatory payments, was not established until the year 2000! That already came too late for most of the former forced labourers. Nevertheless, more than one and a half million people from Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic and other countries did at least receive compensation from the Foundation’s endowment, which was financed half by the state and half by the private sector. And with the 2011 reform of payments in recognition of past work in the ghettos, together with the payments for former Soviet prisoners of war agreed last May, it has been possible to take further victims into consideration. We are conscious of the irremediable fact that forced labour ultimately remained without recompense. “Compensation” can be no more than a gesture, a signal to the few survivors that we have not forgotten their suffering and that their history is part of our history.

If we take remembrance seriously, then we must allow and expect every era, every generation, to pose its own questions and develop its own form of commemoration – not forgetting, but remembering: with ever-new empathy and reflection. “But those who want to empathise or reflect need interpretations of what happened,” as you write in your autobiography, Ms Klüger. Particularly people born two, three, or now four generations after the liberation of Auschwitz, or who have grown up in a cultural tradition where remembrance of the Holocaust is not enshrined in the historical and political consciousness, are dependent on interpretations, on the findings of historians’ research and the authentic accounts of those who experienced these events. That is why meetings with contemporary witnesses are one of the major elements of the Youth Encounters which the German Bundestag has organised annually since 1997. This year’s participants, who come from Germany and from eastern and western European countries, are focusing in particular on the fate of forced labourers. I would like to wish you a warm welcome; and I also welcome, with particular gratitude, the guests here today who, as contemporary witnesses, have answered the young people’s questions. With your own, very personal histories, you are enabling the young people to gain direct insights into the experience of forced labour and the suffering involved.

Ladies and gentlemen, following Ms Klüger’s speech, this Ceremony of Remembrance will end with the RIAS-Kammerchor performing “The Peat Bog Soldiers”. This song has become musically synonymous with the will to persevere, even under the extreme conditions of “tyranny and arbitrary rule”. It rang out for the first time in August 1933 – when inmates of the Börgermoor concentration camp in the Emsland region sang its verses, which were penned by Wolfgang Langhoff, an actor imprisoned for political reasons, and his like-minded fellow inmate Johann Esser, and which were set to music by Rudi Goguel, a Communist from Alsace. The SS evidently failed to recognise the song’s power and catchiness at first, and it spread rapidly through the camps. By the time it was banned, it had long since become the anthem of those who – as Wolfgang Langhoff wrote after fleeing the country in 1935 – were “trapped behind barbed wire in their own country”. The song captures the agonising monotony of extremely hard labour. At the same time, it keeps alive the hope of an end to “winter”, of a spring which promises a return to a liberated world.

Is it mere coincidence that you too, Ms Klüger, were helped by the image of the liberating power of rays of warming spring sunshine? When your mother managed to smuggle an old, tattered schoolbook into the camp for you, a thirsty and starving young girl, your imagination transported you far away – you read in that book, of all things, Goethe’s Osterspaziergang: “Valleys, green with Hope’s happiness, dance”. Looking back, you write in your autobiography: “The withdrawal of winter (‘to the harsh mountains’) and the withdrawal of the German army (…) were one and the same”.

Ms Klüger, your scepticism and distrust of rituals of public remembrance are well known. We are therefore all the more appreciative of the fact that you have accepted this invitation and travelled here from the United States to address us. We thank you for your willingness to recount what you experienced and to interpret the significance which these events still have today, especially today, for you and for us.

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