It is difficult to be German. To be German means to bear the history of the Holocaust and the massacres of the First and Second World War. There is no way to escape. The burden might become lighter with every generation – but it is a heavy burden.
On the other hand, there is a lot of ignorance here concerning the massacres of the past. I am educated as a historian, but my history lessons ended with the First World War. In my studies at the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s, there were no seminars or lectures about the time of the First or Second World War, the Weimar Republic or the Nazi regime. This was in West Germany. It definitely was different in East Germany – now in united Germany, the West German system is the ruling system. I heard of Lidice, but never studied it. I didn’t even hear of any massacre in Greece. So you might understand that it came as a shock to me: being a historian and being completely ignorant about such important events which are so decisive for the relationships of our nations.
I was 30 years old when I learned that there had been a beautiful synagogue right next to our high school. Not even my parents knew about it. There had been 166 Jewish inhabitants of my town. More than 50 of them had been murdered. None of my classmates knew about it. This was the time when I started to feel responsible for future generations not to suffer the same loss of memory.
How can we Germans bear this burden? Each time we meet Jewish people, there will be an association to horrible crimes. We cannot ignore the memory. And each time we meet French, English, Belgian, Dutch, and even more so Polish, Ukrainian, Russian or Czech people, there is a memory of destruction between us. The massacres of the Nazis, the Nazi system and the atrocities of the German army were appalling.
My deepening understanding of continuing massacres in general formed my wish to make people more aware. How can we ever have friendship between nations, peoples and people if we ignore this profound suffering. There is no way to erase such memories, not even after hundreds of years. So it is necessary to live with them and talk about them – in friendship and respect.
As a director of Ourchild, an organization which cares for children, I see a most important task for our European and the world’s future: we need to develop loving relationships. Adults need to show children how to do that. Love, compassion and understanding are qualities which are strongly connected.
In Germany, the country of the perpetrators, there is a tendency to ignore suffering and to instead call for strength and success. It is not comfortable to look at suffering, but the ignorance of suffering creates more suffering. The trenches between the perpetrators and the memories of the victims are deepening. Ignorance will lead to new suffering.
I think that the German nation – historians, scientists, politicians, teachers, trade unions, society in general – have worked a lot to overcome and understand our own history and to teach it to our children. But it is definitely not enough. The crimes committed in all parts of occupied Europe are not well known and often ignored in Germany. For the sake of
European collaboration and peace, it is important to teach the history of Lidice, to teach the history of Kommeno and the other villages and towns of Greece, and their suffering under the oppression of the German occupation.
How is reconciliation possible after serious human rights violations? Can reconciliation succeed without punishment? On the one hand, it is unacceptable that human rights violations remain unpunished. How else could the obligation to respect human rights be worth anything? On the other hand, the punishment of all perpetrators is often not possible. The prospect of punishment keeps people from laying down their arms and making peace. Is it better to draw a line and let the past rest? But what can be done to satisfy the victims and to reintegrate the perpetrators back into a society in which peaceful coexistence is possible? The fact that only very few Nazi criminals were punished in Germany and that we still are dealing with the war crimes of the Second World War shows that it is hard for any nation to deal with its own crimes.
The development of international law from laws between states to the protection of individual human rights has continued in recent years. After the war crimes trials held by the victorious powers in Nuremberg and Tokyo at the end of the Second World War, the Genocide Convention was passed in 1948 to prevent and punish genocide in the future. Attempts to pass international criminal law and establish an international criminal court led to the founding of the International Criminal Court in The Hague in 1998. These are important steps towards the forming of international law
Dear Mayor of Lidice, dear Mayor of Kommeno, thank you for inviting me to take part in your first official encounter as a part of the European Union. Thank you also to the MEPs Katerina Konecna and Stelios Kouloglu from the European Parliamentary Group GUE/NGL for organizing this important event. Thank you for helping us to understand that we are all united in the process of overcoming the wounds of the past. This will give us the chance to learn the lessons history requires of us.
I feel honored to speak for my country and for the German people, especially for the German children. Your invitation will help to deepen the understanding that children who are not taught about their past cannot be good citizens because they do not know how to be responsible. As the President of Ourchild, I can assure you of our support in this important process of understanding and compassion.
February 20th, 2019, speech at the EU parliament by Marion Schneider during the event “KOMMENO – LICIDE. An historic meeting of the massacres’ survivors”