Speech by Dr. Wolfgang Schäuble at the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum exhibition "Some Were Neighbors / Einige waren Nachbarn" on the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of National Socialism at the German Bundestag
[Check against delivery]
Saul Friedländer concluded his moving speech today by recalling the words of Hans von Dohnanyi, who, when asked about the reasons for resisting, spoke of the “path that a decent person inevitably takes”. One month before the end of the war, Hans von Dohnanyi was sentenced to death in a summary trial and executed at Sachsenhausen concentration camp in the environs of Berlin.
A decent person.
Had they been asked in 1945, most Germans would probably have described themselves as decent. Awareness amongst people of the personal responsibility they bore was rare – and expressions of remorse even rarer. Instead, for a long time, people saw themselves as victims. They felt that they had been seduced by Hitler and his propaganda. That they had been forced to take part by means of repression, threats and violence. Many Germans at the time were able to salve their consciences by pinning the blame for war and genocide, for the total political, economic and moral collapse of their country, solely on the National Socialist leaders.
But decency is about more than simply the absence of legal guilt or political responsibility. Indeed decency is more than just an ethos. Decency means acting according to a set of firmly anchored and internalized benchmarks defining what is right and proper. One of the characteristics of oppressive regimes it that they manage to dislocate these benchmarks.
Today, we have a fairly accurate picture of the support which existed for the National-Socialist dictatorship – and also of civil resistance. Yet – according to a study carried out – the belief that members of one’s own family were amongst the helpers is just as widespread as the acknowledgement that one’s own family members included perpetrators.
Perpetrators, tacit supporters, profiteers. It is the seemingly total lack of empathy which most shocks us when confronted with the deeds of perpetrators and tacit supporters amongst “normal people”. It seems to us beyond comprehension: people denouncing neighbors, acquaintances, colleagues, taking part in boycotts and looting, exploiting the situation to their own financial advantage. People complicit in persecution, deportation and killing.
Whatever the various motives may have been in individual cases and regardless of whether those concerned were Germans or accomplices in the territories under occupation or in allied states – the cause was always the same: the war of aggression and annihilation unleashed by Germany. The systematic mass murder of the European Jews, motivated by a racial ideology, was conceived and its implementation planned here. Along with the murder of all the other minorities and ethnic groups viewed as “unworthy of life” by the National Socialists.
At the same time, there were those who helped the persecuted. They hid Jews and their families, facilitated their escape, protected them. These were the “silent heroes”. They are estimated to have numbered several tens of thousands across the German Reich – they were many, yet still far too few. They were not morally infallible and not all of them were driven by the purest of motives alone. They were people who had retained their inner compass. Probably only a minority defined what they did in terms of political resistance. And yet, through their actions, they defied the despotism of the National Socialist regime. They are so important as role models today because they show us the good of which humans are capable – even when faced with the threat of evil. They remind us that we always have a certain scope of action available to us. That taking the path of decency is sometimes difficult and, in the context of a dictatorship, even dangerous: but it remains possible.
Ms. Bloomfield, I would like to thank you and the Holocaust Memorial Museum and I would also like to offer my thanks to all those who helped make this exhibition possible.
From today, it is on show for the first time in Germany, having previously been successfully displayed on a number of occasions in the USA. The exhibition is thus shaped by an outside perspective on German and European history. In some places, this may distinguish it from our specific German perspective. Yet its message is unequivocal. This message is summed up by a sentence from Elie Wiesel. As a Holocaust survivor and one of the founders of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, he stressed in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech that “One person of integrity can make a difference.” That one, all-important difference. The responsibility for making that difference lies with each one of us.