January 2015, the year of the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi camps, saw the launch of a new exhibition considering Germany’s Confrontation with the Holocaust in a Global Context. The exhibition is the result of an AHRC-supported, joint project between the University of Leeds, the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation, the National Holocaust Centre, and Nottingham Trent University, along with other partners in the UK and South Africa.

Drawing on the findings of the AHRC major research project ‘From Victims to Perpetrators? Discourses of German Wartime Suffering’ (2005-2008), the exhibition investigates how Germany has come to terms with its past, and encourages visitors to ask themselves questions such as how can we square historical justice with reconciliation? How are the experiences of different groups to be narrated without relativisation?

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin. Copyright: Victoria Nesfield. After many years of often-heated debate surrounding the establishment of a permanent memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust in the German capital, the memorial finally opens in 2005, by the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag Building. The memorial is built over a 19,000m2 site and cost €25 million to build.

Since 1945, Germans have had to face the uncomfortable truth that their parents, or grandparents, were aware of the atrocities taking place, or were even directly responsible for them, and that so few of them resisted. After the war, as West Germany was experiencing the economic miracle and East Germany was under communist rule, silence and denial were common responses. After the televised trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961 and amidst the culture of mass protests sweeping the world in response to such controversies as the Vietnam War, the children of the German wartime generation reacted to the silence surrounding the Holocaust with outrage. Over time, outrage gave way to efforts at reconciliation and restitution, the building of memorials, and commemoration of the victims.

Today Germany is an important nation in global and European politics; often leading the way, for example in the economically depressed Eurozone and in talks with Russia amid continuing violence in Ukraine. The exhibition does not shy away from Germany’s historical failures to confront the Holocaust, nor is it afraid to recognise the significant efforts it has gone to as a nation to accept and attempt to make amends for the crimes committed in its name.

The exhibition also looks at the global context when asking questions about how and why dark pasts are remembered. As the exhibition was developed in partnership with the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation, South Africa’s own dark history of apartheid is raised. The difficult transition from apartheid to democracy which – twenty years on from the country’s first democratic elections – is still ongoing, provides a comparison with Germany’s response to its history, and will prompt visiting school groups and the public in South Africa to question what, how and why they remember and publically recognize their heritage.

The project has not been afraid to tackle issues closer to home too, with examples of European colonialism and conflict and the legacies they leave behind them. With the exhibition open for students and members of the public in the UK, it is hoped that it provokes visitors to question their own attitudes to democracy, national history and public memory.

The Reichstag Dome, Berlin. Copyright: Victoria Nesfield. In the late 1990s the Reichstag Building – badly damaged during the war – is renovated. A large glass dome now sits over the debating chamber. The dome is open to the public and is a symbol of transparency in post-war German politics.

A few years ago, the academic Michael Rothberg introduced the term “multidirectional memory” to reflect the fact that memories of different atrocities, rather than competing, can interact positively. On Holocaust Memorial Day, to take the most obvious example, we now remember not only the Holocaust, but also the genocides in other locations such as Rwanda and Cambodia. Remembering one of these terrible events enhances our awareness of and sensitivity to other genocides.

With our exhibition, we want to raise awareness that coming to terms with genocide and racism generally is also a “multidirectional” process. We hope that the parallels we draw will encourage others to think things further. Thus when we think today of the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi perpetrators, our minds “fast-forward” to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Calls for reparations for victims of injustice, racism and genocide since 1945, bring to mind – and often explicitly reference – reparations paid by Germany to the Jews. Memorials to different types of genocide around the world are linked in a global topography of memory.

Jann Turner visiting Eugene de Kock in 1997. Copyright: George Hallett. Jann Turner’s father, Rick Turner, was a white anti-apartheid activist who was murdered in 1978, most likely by a member of the security services. Aparthed-era Police Colonel Eugene De Kock had operated a death squad at Vlakplaas, a farm near Pretoria, where he and his accomplices tortured and killed anti-apartheid fighters. In 1997 De Kock testified in front of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In 1996 he was tried in court and sentenced to 212 years in prison for crimes against humanity. In late January 2015 the South African government announced that De Kock was to be granted parole.

In some ways, of course, Germany’s approach to coming to terms with Nazism is distinct. But this is also true of South Africa’s approach to apartheid, Spain’s to the legacy of Francoism, or France’s to the history of Vichy. Each country has its own memory concerns, even as it participates in a transnational dialogue of memory. This is nowhere more clear than in eastern Europe, where countries formerly part of the Soviet bloc have to struggle with the double legacy of Nazi occupation and Soviet communism.

What links many diverse national memory cultures, especially but not only in Europe, is the centrality or at least significance of memory of the Holocaust. With the passing of the survivors, who are our link to the reality of the Holocaust, we will become more dependent on exhibitions, commemorative events, memorials, history books, films and educational materials generally than we already are. Communicative memory, as has often been said, will gradually give way to cultural memory. But how effective are these forms of representation? What can memorials do that history books cannot? What effect can exhibitions have? Is feature film and are novels an appropriate vehicle for representing the Holocaust? Our exhibition cannot answer these questions, but it does provide examples of what has and can be done, and what effect such efforts have had. We hope it will give pause for thought. 

By Professor Bill Niven, Nottingham Trent University and Dr Victoria Nesfield, University of Leeds