Speech by Bundestag President Dr Wolfgang Schäuble

Day of Remembrance at the German Bundestag

for the Victims of National Socialism


31 January 2018


President Dr Wolfgang Schäuble:

Federal President,

Madam Chancellor,

President of the Bundesrat,

President of the Federal Constitutional Court,

Honourable Members of the Bundestag,

Mrs Lasker-Wallfisch, Mrs Lasker-Harpprecht,

Ladies and Gentlemen,


Ausschwitz has shattered every certainty. Auschwitz – a synonym for the systematic, industrialised genocide of the European Jews. For the National Socialist crimes. For man’s inhumanity to man.

On 27 January 1945, Red Army troops liberated the concentration and death camp. Seventy-three years ago.

What does that have to do with us today? That question was answered in no uncertain terms by Federal President Roman Herzog in 1996, at the first Ceremony of Remembrance before this House. And his answer is still valid today:

“We do not want to preserve our horror. We want to draw conclusions which future generations, too, will have as an orientation. The intention is thus to have remembrance serve again and again as the basis for a living future”.

We are not remembering because we bear personal guilt. But the guilt that Germans incurred in the twelve years of National Socialist dictatorship has imposed a particular responsibility on us, as succeeding generations. On all of us. Not because history repeats itself, for it never does, but because Auschwitz has shattered every certainty.

The course of history is neither random nor inevitable. What our common past is today was once shaped by people as their own present, for good and for ill.

Eighty-five years ago yesterday, Hitler was put in power. Within a short time the National Socialists succeeded in destroying the first German democracy. They were now able to turn their racial ideology into public policy – in the supposed interest of a proclaimed Volksgemeinschaft, the idealised community of the German people. The principle was as simple as can be: it was all about us and the others. And the others did not belong, were not allowed to belong. Simple, yet murderous in its implications.

Jewish Germans were categorised on the basis of an imputed ‘racial’ identity. Neighbours, colleagues, fellow pupils and students were excluded, deprived of their rights, dispossessed, maltreated – exterminated. They vanished from their own surroundings. Most of society condoned it. Some helped by hiding friends and acquaintances, by assisting them. Most were silent.

How would we have acted? This question is addressed to our consciences and is put anew to each succeeding generation. Cultural anthropologist Aleida Assmann once asked what would have happened if tens or hundreds of thousands of people had demonstrated after the pogroms of 9 November 1938, if they had publicly proclaimed “We are all Jews”. In the context of the Nazi dictatorship, that is undoubtedly a hypothetical question. Nevertheless, it illustrates what a society needs to safeguard its freedom, namely consistent opposition to any form of exclusion – before it is too late.


Today we remember the victims of National Socialist crimes: he murdered Jews of Europe, the Sinti and Roma peoples, the sick and disabled, those who were persecuted for their political views, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, forced labourers, prisoners of war, the Slavic peoples, who were degraded to Untermenschen. And we honour today the courage of those who would not accept the destruction of freedom and humanity, who could not accept it, who helped those who were being persecuted and harassed, who resisted.

At the invitation of the Bundestag, young people from various European countries and from Israel have been spending the past few days examining the motives, forms and effects of resistance. In particular, they have focused on the White Rose, the student resistance group in which the siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl played a leading role. Seventy-five years ago, both of them, along with four other members of the group, were executed in Munich.

Who would, who could expect others to show the courage to speak out when opposition has become a matter of life and death? That is why empathy, solidarity and moral courage are all the more important before that point is reached. To take the permanence of established institutions for granted, and indeed to rely on their continued existence – we can no longer have that certainty after Auschwitz. The rule of law, the separation of powers and democracy itself depend on our commitment.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We remember the dead and pay homage to the survivors. We think of the victims all over the world who are still among us. We think of their families and descendants, for whom this chapter of history is deeply personal. That, too, is forgotten by those today who say that enough is enough.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and her sister Renate survived: they survived forced labour, detention by the Gestapo, the Auschwitz death camp and the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. After these experiences, Mrs Lasker-Wallfisch, you most certainly wanted to take control of your life again, to lead a ‘normal’ life. Not until many years and decades had passed did you decide to write and speak about what you had experienced. Your life has been featured in a powerful documentary film about Jews in Breslau/Wrocław. You have said that talking about and reporting on that time in your life has become, in a sense, a duty for you – an obligation to serve as the “voice of those who can no longer talk about what happened to them, because they were killed”.

Mrs Lasker-Wallfisch,

For a long time, Germany and the Germans were anathema to you. This makes us all the more grateful to you for accepting our invitation to speak to us in the German Bundestag today.


As regards your survival, you have said that you were simply lucky. It was coincidences that saved you and your sister from being murdered. Music played an important part in that – to be more precise, your ability to play the cello. A cello in Auschwitz! Music in Auschwitz! Scarcely imaginable though it may be, in the daily hell of the concentration and death camps there was music.

Many inmates made music and sang on their own initiative, in secret and in breach of the rules, though it was sometimes tolerated. Most of it was by order: singing on command, music to be broadcast over loudspeakers, camp choirs or orchestra – all initiated and ordered by the SS officers who ran the camp.

The musicians were both Jewish and non-Jewish inmates. They had to play marches for the departure and return of the work crews. They had to provide background music for punishments and executions. They played for official events and visits, to create an illusion on occasions such as Red Cross inspections and to deceive and reassure newly arrived inmates. And they were also at the disposal of camp staff, enabling those men and women to relax, if I may put it that way, to the sounds of Schumann and Mozart, to the latest hits and songs from operettas, from their duties of guarding, selecting and murdering inmates.

We think we know the difference between good and evil. These perpetrators managed to combine musical sensitivity and bestial cruelty. Auschwitz has shattered every certainty. Inmates being ordered to make music to accompany murder and extermination. Perverted though it was, this helped some inmates to survive, thank God.

Survival was not the intention of the camp authorities, but the fact remains that the ‘cellist of Auschwitz’ and other members of the Birkenau women’s orchestra could not easily be exchanged or replaced.

At the same time, Mrs Lasker-Wallfisch, music was an internal place of refuge. That is how you strikingly described it – as a place the Nazis could not take away from you, a place where you managed, thanks to your work on your instrument and in the orchestra, “to maintain a shred of human dignity”.

“We played for our lives” is how jazz musician Coco Schumann, who died on Sunday, once summed up his membership of the Ghetto Swingers in Theresienstadt and later in Auschwitz.

Art as a means of survival.

For Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who spoke here in 2012, it was literature. For others, it was drawing and painting. Israeli artist Yehuda Bacon, for example, said that art helped him to survive mentally in Auschwitz and after Auschwitz. At the age of 13 he had been deported to Theresienstadt with his family. That is where he began to draw. One of his pictures shows a face in the smoke rising from the crematorium in Auschwitz – a harrowing and touching image. It is his commemoration of his own father. Bacon had had to decide whether to stay with his father and die with him or try to survive without him. He was not yet 15 years old at the time. Beginning today, the Bundestag is exhibiting a selection of the works of that great artist.

Yehuda Bacon reconquered life through art. It took his drawings and paintings to provide him with a language to penetrate the invisible wall between him, the Holocaust survivor, and what he once termed “so-called normal people”.

We are aware of that invisible wall of which Yehuda Bacon and many other survivors have spoken. What they experienced defies our imagination. But the monstrosity of those crimes must not meet with resignation. Even if we cannot comprehend the extent of the extermination ordered by the state, we must keep trying to understand how it came about – the historical constellations, developments and factors that created a situation in which a democracy could capitulate; how society in a civilised, modern and diverse country began to exclude some of its own members; how crimes became the norm.

Auschwitz has shattered every certainty. As it shattered trust in human progress, in the significance of history, in the civilising power of culture; certainty as to how much suffering, pain and humiliation humans can endure and how much they can inflict on others. Our certainty about ourselves was shattered in Auschwitz. This is why we must be sensitive, vigilant and self-critical.

The more time that passes since the National Socialist era, the more importance attaches to remembrance. This is because we tend to take for granted what are actually exceptional occurrences on the vast canvas of history, namely freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

We need to be collectively disturbed by encounters with historical experience, as Volkhard Knigge, head of the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora memorials, once said. And there is good reason to feel disturbed. Brutalisation is on the increase, particularly on the Internet and through social networks, but not only there. The number of offences and acts of violence classed as hate crimes has doubled over the past ten years. Most of them are driven by xenophobia. Every day people in our country are attacked because they look different or speak differently, because they look foreign – and their vilifiers would have them remain so.

The great majority of people in this country are not xenophobic and most certainly not violent. It must disturb us, however, when attacks on immigrants, on refugees and their accommodation are tacitly condoned or even openly approved.


It must disturb us when people yield to the temptation to express the view that it would solve our problems if “those others” were to disappear. They are mistaken. And we must spell this out to them time and again.

It must disturb us when a large percentage of the Jews living in Germany today report exposure to anti-Semitic hostility in their everyday lives; when a rabbi and his children have to wear their kippa hidden under a hood or a baseball cap; when anti-Jewish slogans are chanted and Israeli flags burned, as we experienced again only recently. These things are unacceptable.


Any form of anti-Semitism is intolerable – all the more so in our country. That applies to everyone who lives here, including those for whom Germany’s past is not their own. It also applies to those who may have been subjected to rejection and discrimination themselves, either here or elsewhere. They have migrated into a community bound by shared responsibility. That is how Federal President Joachim Gauck put it in his address to this House. Migration brings obligations. Whoever wishes to live here must accept them. We insist on that.


It must also disturb us that, besides synagogues and Jewish facilities, dozens of mosques have been subjected to desecrations and acts of aggression; that Muslims are subjected to hostility, or stereotypes of them as criminals propagated; that people’s capacity to belong is being dismissed because they practise a particular religion.

There must be no place in our society for hate speech and violence – whoever their target


and whoever the perpetrators. Stirring up hatred means exploiting people’s uncertainty and fears. Anyone who speaks of the people but only means certain parts of the population is threatening our democratic order.


This free, democratic, constitutional and peaceful Germany in which we have the good fortune to live today has been built on historical experiences of immeasurable violence. The authors of our Constitution drew conclusions from that history. This is one reason why many people in the world have come to yearn for a home in our country.

The Basic Law guarantees rights, but it cannot guarantee values such as consideration, decency and respect; respect for the fact that all people are entitled to live their lives as they wish, to express their opinion, to live out their faith, to be free – as long as they do not thereby impinge on the freedom of others, and as long as they do not infringe the law or endanger public order.

That may sometimes seem to be a lot to ask, it is true. But without such high expectations, tolerance would be a cheap virtue. By the same token, tolerance without clear limits would simply be the random fruit of ignorance.


How brittle freedom is, how fragile civil society is – that is the lesson of our history. Human dignity is vulnerable. That is why Article 1 of our Basic Law postulates that “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” That is the standard by which we must measure ourselves – in our country and as a responsible partner in Europe and in the global community.

Mrs Lasker-Wallfisch,

You owe your life to music. And music owes a lot to you. After the war, in your new home city of London, you were a founder of the English Chamber Orchestra, one of the leading chamber orchestras in the world. You have passed on your passion for music and cello playing to your son. I thank you, Professor Wallfisch, for agreeing to provide part of the programme of music for this Ceremony of Remembrance.


This music was composed by Ernest Bloch, who came from a family of Genevan Jews. During the First World War he resettled in the United States. In his music he seeks to express his cultural identity and what he called “the Jewish soul”.

He wrote the two pieces we are about to hear in the 1920s. At that time no one could have foreseen the extent of the destruction that Jewish culture would undergo in Europe. The failure of the attempts to annihilate it completely is a great blessing. It is also flowering again in our country, and for that we are grateful.



Ernest Bloch
From Jewish Life: Prayer (1924),
Performed by Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
and John York (piano)