Last week, I made a pilgrimage to Buchenwald Concentration Camp on the Ettersberg hill overlooking the town of Weimar, Germany. ‘Pilgrimage’ may be an odd word to use to describe a visit to a former Nazi Concentration Camp, but it’s an appropriate one. Each year, survivors, family, friends and engaged individuals gather on Buchenwald’s Appelplatz to remember the dead and renew our commitment to combating Nazism and the xenophobia, brutality and inhumanity that led to so much death and suffering.
Sadly, there are elements in our societies that would rather forget the Holocaust. Their logic, though unstated, seems pretty clear – ignore the lessons of the past, so that we can repeat the same xenophobic, hateful and inhuman mistakes without accountability.
Björn Höcke is one of these. He believes that the pilgrimages of remembrance should end, that Germany should be able to move on from its past. He also has multiple arguments against refugees, believing that they undermine the stability of the German state and dilute the purity and strength of the German people.
Ask him if he’s a Nazi, and of course he’ll say no. However, the “but” will linger in is tone none the less.
While Höcke has been rightfully barred from attending remembrance ceremonies, they remain open to the general public. Anyone who wants to attend is welcome to. This is why you’ll see members of the local Communist Party waving their flags, themselves ignoring the GDR’s own crimes against humanity committed on the same spot in the early days of the cold war. You’ll also see locals, family members and survivors from across Europe and beyond, hordes of media, politicians, etc.
I was surprised and honoured to meet the two fellows in the picture below at this year’s ceremonies. Both are Iraqi refugees who lost their families, lost everything to war, and now are trying to set up new lives for themselves in Germany. They have done a great job learning the language and are doing their best to integrate themselves into their new community.
Why did they come to Buchenwald? No one asked them to; indeed, there are plenty of locals who make a point of not coming, because “it’s too unpleasant” for them.
We too often look at refugees as “war people”, somehow different than us, part of some different that is more prone to war, violence and brutal acts of humanity than ourselves. Keeping refugees out, the logic goes, is to preserve the well-being of our own tribe, our own nations.
This is an illusion, and an ignorant, self-serving one at that.
Refugees are people, just like us, just like our grandparents. To be a refugee isn’t to be part of a different tribe; it’s to be a human being seeking refuge from inhumanity. Refugees may be educated or uneducated; they may be bigoted or may embrace diversity, may be prone to violence or determined to foster a peaceful world.
They are us, except perhaps they know where the effects of exclusiveness and xenophobia can lead better than most of us.
These young Iraqi Germans chose to honour and remember the past in part because it reflects their present. They can relate in ways many of can’t.
As we remember the horrors of the Holocaust and say “never again”, it matters that we recognize that inhuman brutality on a massive scale and even genocide are still with us today, taking human lives in corners from the world we often feel are “over there.”
And as these refugees pay homage to those who suffered the Holocaust, we owe it to them and to our grandparents to hold deniers and history white-washers, like Höcke, to account. Addressing this historical amnesia is essential so that we don’t reintroduce past mistakes on our children and grandchildren.
Craig Carter-Edwards is a co-founder of Welcome Home TO