The Age of Apology: What Brandt’s Genuflection Can Tell About the Potential of Our Apologies

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Willy Brandt’s Kniefall. © ullstein bild/ Sven Simon

By Renate Vink (guest writer) – 

 

We are all sometimes waiting for a ‘sorry’. In our world of conflicts, historical wounds and complexities, it seems hard to overcome the legacies of conflict from our past. How to break these spirals of revenge, anger, and shame over past injustices? Authentic, spontaneous, well-prepared or not; in our current so-called age of apology it appears that apologies or reparations are increasingly becoming the norm for addressing historical injustices. Although political apologies are nothing new, their use in Western politics seems to have increased over the last few decades. Northern Ireland, Australia, Canada; throughout all levels of politics – be it in local, national or international politics – we can find the use of apologies or reparations to address the black pages in history in order to move on.

However the potential for these apologies, what value can they really hold in the tough environment of (the aftermath of) conflict? Can states, as an entity, actually practice forgiveness? Although the direct effect of an apology is very hard to measure, symbolically it can be a very powerful tool. But could it indeed provide a way to ‘solve’ the past – and prepare for reconciliation to take place? Or should we look at it with cynicism and dismiss its potential? As only time can teach us, we can learn a lot from one of the earliest examples of a public apology in our age, as shown by the German Chancellor Willy Brandt in Warsaw, 1970. As Brandt spontaneously fell to his knees in front of the Holocaust memorial, his Warschauer Kniefall marked the beginning of the current ‘wave of apologies’ sweeping over (international) politics.

 

Der Kanzler hat gekniet

On his knees, Chancellor Willy Brandt showed the world in 1970 what forgiveness and facing the past could look like. The almost Christ-like image of Brandt on his knees in front of a memorial for the Jewish Uprising in 1943 was never planned and Brandt himself left only few words on his motivation. ‘Unter der Last der jungsten Geschichte tat ich, was Menschen tun, wenn die Worte versagen. So gedachte ich Millionen Ermordete.’ (Under the weight of recent history, I did what people do when words fall short. This is how I remembered the millions of victims.)

Brandt had come to Warsaw as part of his Ostpolitik, which aimed at normalizing relations with Poland and signing the Treaty of Warsaw – and as a first official German visit since the war. When Brandt suddenly knelt down and in silence asked forgiveness for the wrongs of his nation – he set the tone for a Germany ‘which required that Nazism be remembered rather than forgotten’, according to historian Tony Judt. In other words, one of the first German steps towards facing its past.

It was the raw and uncomfortable version of what would later become a highly popular and much praised symbol of German Vergangenheitsbewältigung and provided an image of how Germany collectively faced its past. Der Spiegel reports after the event; ‘Dann bekent er sich zu einer Schuld, an der er selber nicht zu tragen hat, und bittet um eine Vergebung, derer er selber nicht bedarf. Dann kniet er da fuer Deutschland.’ (Then he commits himself to a debt, which he himself is not carrying, and asks for forgiveness, which he himself does not need. Then he kneels down for Germany.)

Although Brandt’s gesture today is literally set in stone, the response to his ‘silent apology’ has not always been positive. Apart from a few voices saying otherwise – the majority of Germans in 1970 found the Warschauer Kniefall exaggerated. Phrases such as ‘Wir liefern uns den Kommunisten aus’ (We are handing ourselves over to the communists) and listing Brandt as a ‘Verraeter’ (traitor) were no exception in the German press after December 10th, 1970. This is, however, not completely surprising, since Brandt’s Ostpolitik was heavily criticized in his homeland. In general, relatively little attention has been given to the Kniefall in the German press around 1970 – as it happened in the shadow of the signing of the Treaty of Warsaw, which was controversial enough in Germany at the time in light of the fate of millions of German Heimatvertriebenen.

‘Er kniete auch fuer uns’, headlines Die Zeit in December 2010, when the 40th anniversary of the Warschauer Kniefall is celebrated in the German press. A few decades after the event the critical tone is completely gone and hardly a single negative comment is written on Brandt’s Kniefall. Headlines such as ‘Eine Kniefall macht Geschichte’ (the gesture that made history) and ‘Willy Brandt’s Kniefall ist zur Ikone geworden’ (the gesture that became an icon) underline this dramatic change and stress the sense of uniqueness that comes with the image of the gesture nowadays. ‘Die Kraft der Demut’ is another title illustrating the change in the media from the Kniefall being a humiliating gesture on enemy ground into a symbol that stands for power and courage, an icon within 20th century German political history even speaking of a collective nation on its knees. One could say it is the childlike simplicity of the image, the complex history it was able to summarize in one picture and the room for interpretation it left that added to the popularity of the image in the media over the years.

The radical change in meaning and interpretation of the Warschauer Kniefall over 40 years can be explained by a combination of two factors. Firstly, the German unification and the end of the Cold War allowed for a different way of looking at historical events without the context and influence of uneasy East-West relations. Secondly, new developments of facing the role and place of the Holocaust as part of German history had taken place over the years, leading from a place of collective ignorance and amnesia towards acceptance and memorialization, almost at mass scale - read more about post-war ignorance of the Nazi atrocities in this article by Laurien Vastenhout and Marieke Zoodsma. A renewed and more glorified interpretation of the Kniefall as the result.

Certainly these developments help us understand the process of image iconization, and how it allowed for the German public to reconsider its initial interpretation of their leader on his knees. However, perhaps most relevant within today’s age of apology is to look at the growing popularity of the Kniefall through the lens of politics of redress – a form of politics focused on making amends as a way of dealing with our dark past. This is often practiced through public apologies and showing remorse for the past, but also through making financial or material reparations.

Examples of recent apologies in international politics include British prime-minister Cameron officially apologizing for the role of the British army on Bloody Sunday in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. As with Brandt’s Kniefall, we see a political leader apologizing for the injustice caused by his nation in the past, even though he was not personally involved in the wrongdoings. Another example is the Canadian official apology towards survivors and descendants of the residential schools, which lasted over a long period from 1840-1990s. A similar public apology was issued in Australia in 2008, when prime minister Rudd apologized for the history of the ‘stolen generations’ in a well prepared speech and event in front of the entire nation. Furthermore, the mere fact that we live in an age of apology is marked by the very existence of the ‘truth and reconciliation commission’ in South Africa, which dealt with the wrongdoings from the Apartheid regime.

The fact that there is such an increase in issued apologies within Western politics since the 1990s and that they are valued nowadays as a sign of respectability can be explained by the slow shift from Realpolitik, a form of ‘hard’ diplomacy based on given factors and circumstances rather than ideological or ethical reasoning, towards a more emotional and ethical kind of politics over the last few decades. It reflects an increasing willingness to meet certain criteria of moral respectability within politics. However, despite the commonality of public apologies, and the fact that they are sometimes even in demand – how seriously should we treat them? Are they merely an act of self-reflection, or indeed a valid potential for reconciliation? Surely, it is difficult to generalize on the effect of apologies – and it would be too early to draw conclusions on the effect and outcomes of today’s reparations. Nevertheless, what the Warschauer Kniefall teaches is that we cannot simply dismiss the value and potential of such gestures or apologies by merely looking at our current (political) circumstances. Even though heavily criticized in 1970, the meaning of the Kniefall changed as history was reinterpreted over the years – and thus we can only start to understand the value and true impact of apologies and other forms of reparations by looking back.

Therefore, time will tell if our apologies today have the potential to heal old wounds and if we can indeed overcome the ugly parts of our history through our public outings of remorse today. But as long as the Kniefall is able to tell the story of how a small, quiet and humbling gesture has the ability to grow into a meaningful symbol of forgiveness, able to re-direct the course of history, it will most likely continue to inspire other leaders and their nations to show remorse for the past – in the future.

Housing for Refugees in the Netherlands: austere and just?

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Container homes – Inhabitat (CC BY-NC-ND)

 

By Arja Oomkens -

 

Last November, the Dutch government decided that housing for refugees with a temporary residence permit must be “austere and just”. In effect, this meant the development of austerity measures to regularize housing for these refugees in empty governmental buildings (e.g. former offices), in one of the (to be built) 14,000 small-scale homes (e.g. containers), or in homes where at least four households are able to live together (e.g. student rooms). In addition to these measures, the government plans to change the 2014 Housing Act – in specific the part that prioritizes refugees for social housing. This topic has been part of a heated public debate over the past few months, since the prioritization of refugees has made many low-income Dutch citizens feel disadvantaged for being on a never-ending waiting list for social housing. In this sense, the (planned) austerity measures seem a step in the right direction, as they both address pressure on the social housing market as well as relieve increased tension towards refugees.

 

But how crucial and just are these measures really?

 

These measures cannot be deemed crucial simply by referring to the pressure of 24,000 refugees in need of housing. Especially since there is another important reason for pressure on the social housing sector: namely the decision of the government in 2013 to liberalize one million social housing facilities. In other words, of the 2,7 million houses available in the Netherlands, one million are to be sold – 2014 already saw the sale of about 7000 social houses. As a consequence, the liberalization of social housing facilities makes access to social housing more difficult for everyone, not just low-income Dutch citizens. It is therefore not rationally justifiable to develop office and container homes for refugees and present it as the sole solution to an already pressurized social housing market.

 

Furthermore, it is discriminatory to differentiate between refugees and low-income Dutch citizens by requiring refugees to live in austere, second-rate, housing facilities. In this regard, the UN Refugee Convention and European Union Law do not protect refugees’ interests sufficiently. Article 21 of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention indicates that state parties “shall accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territory treatment as favorable as possible” and the 2004 EU-Qualification Directive requires that refugees must “have access to accommodation under equivalent conditions as other third country nationals legally resident in their territories.” Both of these definitions are problematic as they leave room for differentiation between Dutch citizens and refugees with a temporary residence permit. This differentiation, in the form of austerity measures for refugees, is contrary to the obligations of the Netherlands under the International Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (ICERD). Under this Convention, racial discrimination occurs when a person or group is treated differently because of their national origin. According to article 5 of the Convention, states must guarantee the right of everyone to equality before the law in the enjoyment of the freedom of residence. It is therefore questionable whether it is possible to require refugees to live in offices, or containers.

 

Next to this legal issue, it is also important to explore the social impact of the austerity measures. Will they be effective in the long term?

 

In the short term, by depressurizing the social housing market and placing refugees in office or container homes, the increasing tension amongst low-income Dutch citizens towards refugees may be diffused. But from an overcrowded asylum-seekers’ center to an abandoned office building, refugees are required to live on the outskirts of Dutch society, making the integration process more difficult. Needless to say, this is detrimental to their livelihoods and wellbeing. Only after five years are refugees with a temporary residence permit eligible for permanent residency, but only if they can indicate that they are sufficiently integrated and pass all Dutch language exams. It is more likely that refugees who are isolated in office or container homes will be denied permanent residency. Accordingly, the austerity measures are problematic as they assume that conflicts in those countries where people are fleeing from will cease soon, yet all indications point to the contrary. Therefore, while the Dutch government on the one hand stresses the importance of integration, the austerity measures in place on the other hand do not reconcile with this important objective.

 

By July 2016, the government hopes to have amended the law that prioritizes refugees for social housing. This article attempts to show the illegitimacy of such measures and what this means for the integration of refugees in the long term. In short, pressure on the social housing market cannot solely be ‘blamed’ on the influx of refugees to the Netherlands; differentiating between refugees and low-income Dutch citizens is contrary to the obligations of the Netherlands under the ICERD; and placing refugees in offices and container homes is detrimental to the integration process. Refugees do not have a family network to resort to or depend on: their families have often been torn apart by war and persecution in their home countries. For the same reason, refugees will not be able to repatriate soon. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that the Dutch government, along with its citizens, starts to think about the implications and long-term effects of its austerity measures. Because sustainable peace in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, or Eritrea, is not feasible, and worldwide displacement has never been recorded higher than today, an open attitude towards the integration of refugees is imperative.

 

 

 

Ending Statelessness: the long road ahead

UN Photo/CC BY-NC-NC

UN Photo/CC BY-NC-NC

 

By Arja Oomkens -

 

Exactly one year ago, UNHCR launched a global campaign aimed at ending statelessness, a phenomenon that is often described as a “devastating legal limbo”. But what is statelessness exactly, and why is it so important to combat its consequences? The UNHCR report that came out yesterday explains the debilitating impact of statelessness on children. Today, I will use this report as a starting point to provide a bird’s eye view of the issues surrounding statelessness. How is it possible that this phenomenon excludes millions of people worldwide from a dignified and humane life?

 

The story of Rashid forms an illustrative example. Rashid, 27, was born in Maungdaw, Myanmar. He is a Rohingya, a Muslim minority that has faced decades of segregation. Since the 1970s, the Rohingya have been deprived of their citizenship, restricted in their movements, and have suffered en masse persecution. Rashid fled to Bangladesh with his mother, after his father, who was a Muslim rights activist, was killed and his sister was arrested. Because of a legitimate fear of persecution, and because he was explicitly deprived of his citizenship in Myanmar, Rashid could not go back to his home country when his temporary legal stay in Bangladesh expired. Therefore, he moved to the Netherlands to seek protection. He applied for asylum twice, but both of his requests were rejected.

 

As a result, Rashid is stuck in the Netherlands. On the one hand he is an illegal resident, while on the other hand, he cannot be expelled because neither Bangladesh nor Myanmar will accept him. Without a state to take responsibility for him, he lacks access to health care, education, employment opportunities, property rights and the ability to freely move around across borders. It is also impossible to get married, open a bank account or get a driving license. Unlike many others, Rashid cannot take these rights for granted.

 

Statelessness, as famously described by Hannah Arendt (2004), means the loss of the “right to have rights”. As the example of Rashid illustrates, stateless people lack the social and economic access necessary to fulfill their most basic human needs. Worse still, in the words of António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “statelessness makes people feel like their very existence is a crime”. Without citizenship rights, and no state to protect them, they are forced into a life of invisibility.

 

One can become stateless for a myriad of reasons. First of all, people may become stateless with the dissolution and separation of states. For example, the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 left large numbers of people stateless. Of these people, over 370,000 people still lack a nationality in Estonia and Latvia. Another reason for becoming stateless is because of conflicts of nationality laws between certain countries, which may cause statelessness at birth or later in life. This happens when, for example, two states claim that the other is responsible for the bestowment of a nationality. In addition, people are forced into statelessness as a direct result of discrimination (e.g. against women or other specific ethnic groups). The 1,2 million stateless Rohingya in Myanmar are a case in point of ethnic discrimination and the categorical denial of citizenship.

 

The relatively unknown concept of statelessness affects at least 10 million people worldwide – a number that excludes many people who might hold formal citizenship but are prevented from enjoying citizenship rights. Unfortunately, this number is expanding continuously; UNHCR estimates that one stateless baby is born every ten minutes. In addition, the conflict in Syria further exacerbates the problem. The mass displacement of four million refugees into neighboring countries places children at great risk of statelessness. For Syrians abroad, the possibility to register newborns is limited. Because most Syrians flee from the persecution by their own government, it is implausible that they will register a newborn in a Syrian embassy. Within the borders of Syria, discriminatory nationality laws ensure that Syrian children can only acquire nationality through their fathers. Since the conflict has left 25 per cent of Syrian households fatherless, this gender discrimination causes registration at birth to be an unattainable goal for many.

 

The global campaign launched by UNHCR last year aims to intensify efforts to end statelessness within ten years. The campaign was launched in light of the 60th anniversary of the 1954 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which, alongside the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, is to provide the international legal basis to end statelessness. With the campaign, UNHCR calls on nations to take on 10 actions to end statelessness.

 

During its first year, the campaign focused on ending childhood statelessness. The UNHCR report that came out today urges all states to allow children to gain the nationality of the country in which they are born if they would otherwise be stateless; to reform laws that prevent mothers from passing their nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers; eliminate laws and practices that deny children nationality because of their ethnicity, race or religion; and ensure universal birth registration to prevent statelessness. Because issues surrounding statelessness are often felt first during childhood, the report thereby aims to address the core of the problem.

 

There are three reasons why states are expected to cooperate. First, the two Statelessness Conventions require governments that have ratified to provide a minimum set of human rights (1954), and to reduce statelessness (1961). Second, international law recognizes the right of every child to a nationality; this is set out in Article 7 of the almost universally ratified United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Third, state cooperation is expected not only to be in the child’s best interests, but also in the interest of the state since the right to education, health, and work will contribute to the integration and social cohesion of any society.

 

With regard to those who have become stateless as a result of the Syrian conflict, the Jordanian government has already set a good example. To ensure that every child begins life with a birth certificate – which serves as proof of identity and a direct link to Syria – the Jordanian government established a personal status court and civil status department within the Zaatari refugee camp. In light of these developments, 3,597 Syrian children born in this camp have been registered over the past two years.

 

The UNHCR campaign has received a great deal of international attention, and has even culminated in thorough cooperation with civil society initiatives – see for example the recent report by the European Network on Statelessness. Hopefully, these efforts will have a positive impact on the millions of stateless people worldwide. For Rashid, and many others like him, there has only been the promise of the establishment of a statelessness determination procedure in the Netherlands. Because the Dutch government is a state party to the two Statelessness conventions, the recognition of Rashid as a stateless person means that he is entitled to a secure legal status and enjoyment of the rights afforded under these conventions, such as the right to education, employment, and housing. Furthermore, the recognition of Rashid as a stateless person would mean that he has the right to an identity document under article 27 of the 1954 Convention. This is of great importance, because carrying identification is mandatory at all times in the Netherlands (since 2004). At this moment, stateless persons are often unable to meet this requirement, and, without being able to identify themselves, they risk arbitrary detention. Therefore, to ensure that he is not left invisible – without equal rights and any sense of human dignity – it is imperative that the Netherlands will follow up on its promise to develop the long-awaited procedure to determine statelessness, including a procedure to provide ID documents for stateless persons.

 

Overall, the situation of Rashid in the Netherlands illustrates how pressing the need is to address the plight of stateless people worldwide. Not only the Netherlands, but all state parties to the 1954 and 1961 Convention must follow up on their obligations under these conventions. If states would do so, UNHCR’s global campaign to end statelessness within ten years may suddenly become a feasible goal.

 

 

 

 

 

From nitrate bombs to parties on a farm: the migrant crisis is causing a fault line through the Netherlands

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WIEN_-~1

Refugees at Vienna West Railway Station. CC BY-SA 4.0

 

By Marieke Zoodsma

“Why did you come tonight to this meeting?”, an AT5 reporter asks one of the visitors of an information evening in Amstelveen, a municipality in the suburbs of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. “To defend my neighbourhood. This has scared me to death. Well, the whole thing is all of a sudden very near you.”* It is one of the many reactions to the opening of an emergency asylum centre in Amstelveen, which in this occasion is more emotionally charged due to the large Jewish community living in this neighbourhood.** However, it is not an uncommon reaction of inhabitants of any Dutch town, village or municipality confronted by the influx of asylum-seekers*** in their neighbourhood. Quotes such as “I cannot let my daughter outside alone at night anymore” or “All they do is come and take our money and houses”, are frequently heard in the media.

 

And then, unavoidably, come the ‘incidents’. First in Oranje, a small village of 140 inhabitants in the east of the Netherlands, where the decision was made that in total 1.400 asylum-seekers will be sheltered. When the Dutch State Secretary of Security and Justice came to explain the reasoning for this decision, his car was blocked and attacked by the angry residents of Oranje. A nitrate bomb is what scared the inhabitants of Woerden, a small city close to Utrecht, on Friday evening 9th of October. A group of about twenty men with black coats and balaclavas broke into the gates of the recently opened emergency asylum centre and threw nitrate bombs, fireworks and eggs at the facility. The shaken group of 148 asylum-seekers, many of who came here to escape violence, have been relocated to a different location four days later. This week, councillors of the municipality of Rijswijk (close to The Hague) have received threatening letters in response to the announced opening of an asylum centre. One of the letters read: “First of all, what a lovely daughters you have… Mmm. If that asylum centre will come, I will go and look for them at school.”****

 

So far, it have been mostly Dutch citizens who publicly exercised, or threatened with, violence – not those feared refugees. While they are being portrayed as criminals, racists and free riders, a fair share of Dutch society is getting more and more anxious with ‘such people’ living around ‘their’ corner. It is as correspondent Rob Wijnberg rightly puts “the fear of high numbers”. If the news tells you every day that there are “ten thousand refugees” here and “millions of refugees” there, the whole subject will dehumanize eventually. In the end, one does not notice that those numbers actually represent individuals. Fortunately, there are also positive reactions to the influx of refugees. Last Saturday, the people of Onnen (a small village in the north) organized a party for asylum-seeker who were sheltered in the neighbourhood and in Woerden, after the attack, there were so many people bringing food, clothing and flowers that the municipality was overrun by the donations.

 

Short to say; the European migrant crisis is causing a fault line through the Netherlands, dividing its people as well as its politics. There is a clear divide between those that would like to discourage or even block asylum-seekers from coming to the Netherlands (or Europe for that matter) and those looking for a solution within the framework of European cooperation and who are working for a sustainable solution to this issue. But the protection of refugees, as stipulated in the 1951 Refugee Convention, entails more than only their safety. It also pertains a perspective to rebuild or continue to build a life for themselves and their families. If that is still not possible, as is often the case with sheltering refugees in ‘the region’, then the actual protection of refugees is in the end not guaranteed (see also: protracted refugee situation).

 

In my opinion, anyone who thinks that the solution to this problem lies in the closing of the ‘gates of Europe’, does thus not understand the core of the migrant crisis that we are facing. The solution lies in European cooperation, similar as to what the unfortunately heavily criticized German Bondskanselier Angela Merkel has been propagating. Responding to the critique to her stance toward the crisis, Merkel said that “slamming the door ‘shut in the 21st century of the Internet era is an illusion.’” For instance, one of the options for European cooperation would be to broaden the possibilities for legal seasonal labour within the EU for people from Eastern Europe. This would be in order to confront or even avoid the misuse of our refugee policy by economic migrants from, especially, the Western Balkans.

 

Perhaps it is important to keep in mind that this is not only an abstract issue for politicians in the European Parliament, the Dutch government or town municipalities to act upon. ‘The whole thing’ is literally ‘very near you’, as the visitor of the information evening in Amstelveen told us. When the Dutch Red Cross called out for help two weeks ago, I signed up to volunteer – and with me, as it turned out later, 10,000 other Dutch citizens that week. The day after they asked me if I could come and help at a recently opened emergency asylum centre in Amsterdam. Already 600 asylum-seekers were sheltered in the huge building on the outskirts of Amsterdam and when I arrived, busloads with new arrivals kept on coming. Because there was such a large influx at the moment, it was deemed impossible to register all the newcomers and it was decided they first had to be given food, water and a bed. In this chaotic setting, I cleaned used camp beds from dirt of their previous users, handed out food that was donated by the catering of Schiphol Airport, explained to people where they exactly were (address? city? Amsterdam?), and played with the children that gathered in the recreation room. There was a mobile shower-facility outside the building that looked like the showers after a multiple-days-music-festival and the food for babies was too little. What I am trying to portray here is the situation that these people, these families like yours and mine, ended up in. Not for us to pity them, but to realise that this is not only happening somewhere on television and is for politicians to deal with. This is what is happening now, right around your corner.

 

* (Newsreporter) “Waarom bent u op deze bewonersbijeenkomst?” (visitor) “Nou, om onze wijk te verdedigen. Nou je schrikt je eigen de pest. Het komt dan wel heel erg dichtbij”. News item AT5, 13/10/2015

** According to several Jewish organisations, it unwise to locate refugees (400 in total), “many of whom have grown up with the idea that Jews are their enemy”, in one of the only municipalities in the Netherlands with clearly recognizable Jewish inhabitants and institutions.

*** Although a large part of the immigrants that enter the Netherlands would be considered refugees, such as people from Syria or Eritrea, there are also those to be found who cross our borders due to economical reasons. Economic immigrants are officially defined as asylum-seekers. For the sake of generalization, I therefore decided to use the term asylum-seekers instead of refugees. Please see the definitions for asylum-seeker and refugee in the conflict dictionary for more information.

**** “Ten eerste wat een heerlijke dochters heb je… Mmm. Als dat azc er nog komt, zoek ik ze nog wel eens op op school.” NOS News, 14/10/2015

 

 

Film Review: Im Labyrinth des Schweigens – “The Disclosure of a Disturbed Past”

Copyright: Beeldbank WO2- NIOD

 

Main defendant Wilhelm Boger, on the photo left, awaits the beginning of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial in April 1964. In the background a map of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. Copyright: Image Bank WW2- NIOD

 

By Laurien Vastenhout and Marieke Zoodsma – 

 

It was not the handsome leading actor on the promotion poster of the film Im Labyrinth des Schweigens (Labyrinth of Lies) that stirred our young historians’ blood. This was rather caused by the endless number of high-up filling cabinets with documents and dossiers surrounding him, perhaps sloppily archived, but a dream for any historian to dig into. These dossiers are the thousands and thousands of personnel files of the Schutzstaffel (SS), the major paramilitary organization that was, under the command of Heinrich Himmler, primarily responsible for many of the crimes perpetrated during the Nazi-regime. The poster depicts the Berlin Document Center, the central collection point of the American administration for documentation from the time of Nazism. Here, our leading actor, the Frankfurter prosecutor Johann Radmann, initiates his major investigation into the crimes committed at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The film starts at the end of the 1950s in West Germany. Radmann is startled by the fact that no one ever seems to have heard of Auschwitz concentration camp – let alone of the atrocities committed there.

 

This idea of (willful) ignorance of the atrocities committed during the Second World War by the Nazis in the post-war period has been thoroughly investigated by Dan Stone in his recent work Goodbye to all That (2014). He underlines that a consensus on the memory of the Second World War was formulated in Germany. In the communist East-Germany, the capitalist system was blamed for this dark period in German history. In the West, there was a tendency to remain entirely silent on the period. Instead of finding a way to deal with the difficult past in which particular groups had suffered tremendously, the idea that this history had already been sufficiently dealt with prevailed, particularly in the West. Those that were deemed guilty had received their punishments through the Nuremberg trials and, from this perspective, the country had been completely denazified.  Stone has argued that this was a constructed consensus that was necessary in order to restore the country, allowing the German citizens to go on with their lives rather easily without having to think of the disturbing past. This can be seen as the central starting point of Im Labyrinth des Schweigens, with an ambitious young prosecutor who, as the story continues, slowly and painfully opens up this disturbing past.

 

In his publication Legacies of Dachau (2008), Harold Marcuse has also illustrated this deliberate silencing of the past by describing the way the Dachau concentration camp was viewed by German society in the post-war period. The municipality of Dachau refused both to construct signs indicating where the camp was located as well as the construction of a metro stop when a new metro line was built. All efforts were directed to make people remember the ‘good’ things of Dachau, for example that it used to be a place with a significant community of painters before the war. The war period was, in short, entirely ignored. This unwillingness of authorities to investigate the past, or even to pay attention to it in the first place, is a reoccurring theme in Im Labyrinth des Schweigens. Johann Radmann and his prosecuting team become visibly frustrated with the fact that the authorities they have to work with, refuse to actively help find the alleged Nazi perpetrators.         

 

The film neatly portrays how politically charged this search for, and the eventual arrest of, alleged Nazi war criminals has been. Even though 50 years have passed since the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials (1963-1965) and international law has quickly developed afterwards, with international tribunals sprouting up like sunflowers in the sun, the politicization of the arrest of alleged war criminals is still as relevant today as it was then. As Radmann digs further in the evidence on crimes committed at Auschwitz, he learns about Joseph Mengele, the infamous Nazi-doctor of Auschwitz who performed medical experiments on the camp prisoners – at that time Mengele is at large and living in Argentina. Radmann decides he wants to bring Mengele to justice, that he ought to be the ‘big fish’ of these trials; “Mengele is Auschwitz”, he claims. The unwillingness of the West-German authorities to arrest Mengele, even when he visits his family in Germany, is reminiscence of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) 2009 arrest warrant of Omar Al-Bashir – the still presiding Sudanese president who is indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity (see Iona’s recent interview with professor Samuel Totten on the Sudan-conflict). When the Mossad (the Israeli intelligence agency) captures Adolph Eichmann in May 1960, Mengele flees to Paraguay and eventually dies a free man in 1979.

 

As the film is largely based on events that have actually taken place, it is a decent and thorough portrayal of the difficulties faced by anyone who wanted to call attention to the troubled past in a period (1950s and early 1960s) when the large majority remained silent. The historical accuracy is praiseworthy, despite the dramatization of some events – with arrests of suspected Nazi criminals taking place even while they are in the dentist’s chair. The film ends with the actual start of the trials which could leave the viewer feeling somewhat unsatisfied. However, the director’s choice not to focus on the perpetrators and the trial itself but mostly on the pre-trial period, where the silence and lies present in German society are most visible, is a favorable decision. This story is not about the war criminals and the actual trial, it is about the difficult disclosure of a disturbed past.

 

Only last week, the 93-year old “Accountant of Auschwitz” Oskar Gröning, who was assigned with the confiscation of luggage of prisoners at Auschwitz, has gone on trial in Germany. Of the approximately 7,000 SS-officers who served at Auschwitz and its sub-camps, no more than a hundred of them have faced trial and even less went to prison. On January 27th of this year, the 70th commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz was held. Next week on the 5th of May, the Netherlands will celebrate their 70-year liberation of Nazi-occupation. Let these trials, how belated and perhaps incomplete as they might be, be a remembrance of the stories untold by the thousands of victims of dictatorial and genocidal regimes. Perhaps not justice but the opening up of silence, of the labyrinth of lies as the film cleverly portrays, is thus primarily served.