Srebrenica Remembered: 21 Years Later

Family members mourning in the compound at the Potocari Memorial Centre. Photo by: Marieke Zoodsma

 

Family members mourning in the compound at the Potocari Memorial Centre. Photo by: Marieke Zoodsma

Family members mourning in the compound at the Potocari Memorial Centre, July 2015. Photo by: Marieke Zoodsma

By Marieke Zoodsma

Yesterday, the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina and others all over the world remembered the genocide that took place in Srebrenica – a small town in Eastern Bosnia – in July 1995. As much as Srebrenica used to be famous for its thermal spa resorts in Yugoslav times, it is now known to the world as the place where one of the worst atrocities after the Second World War in the European mainland has taken place. During those dreadful days, approximately 8.000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were systematically killed by Bosnian Serb forces in the days following the fall of Srebrenica. Under the auspices of an UN peace-force, which was there to protect the large Bosnian Muslim population that sought refuge in and around town, the troops of Ratko Mladić carefully sorted out the men from the women – the men to be executed in the nearby fields or warehouses and the women to be bussed to the Bosnian Muslim safe area around Tuzla.

 

Of the estimated 8.000 victims of the genocide, so far only 6.615 bodies have been identified and buried at the Potočari Memorial Centre. Each year new mass graves are found from which the bodies are exhumed and identified. In case of a positive identification, these victims are traditionally buried by their families during the mass funeral that is part of the commemoration on the 11th of July. This year 127 victims were brought to their final resting place. The fact that this process of searching the lost is already taking over twenty years is not only because of the time-consuming task the exhumation and identification of bodies from mass graves take, but also because many mass graves simply have not been localised yet. As I wrote before, the mass graves are a testament to the genocide that was committed in Bosnia, as well as to the failure of the authorities of the Republika Srpska, as part of their genocide denial, to reveal their location.

 

Last year, WHN-colleague Koen Kluessien and I visited the commemoration in Srebrenica – during its 20th “anniversary”.  Srebrenica and its surroundings were for a couple of days the stage of an international media circus, with the coffins of the victims and the tears of their families as perfect attributes for clean shots. During last year’s ceremony, Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksander Vučić was chased away by a stone-throwing crowd because he – as well as many other Serbian officials – refused to acknowledge the massacre as genocide. This year, families of the victims demanded that those who deny the nature of the crime were not to be invited at the ceremony. As a result, no official from Belgrade or the Serbian part of Bosnia (Republika Srpska) came. Quarrels such as these turn the ceremony each year into a political game.

 

The events that happened in Srebrenica do not only keep a large part of the former Yugoslavia busy, but also those countries that were back then closely involved. Commemorations are being held in the United States, memorial sites are set up in the United Kingdom, law suits are started in the Netherlands against those that are deemed co-responsible, and investigations are conducted to shed more light on those crucial days in July. In March this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) sentenced ‘big fish’ Radovan Karadzić to forty years’ imprisonment in Europe’s biggest war crime trial since Nuremberg. The judgement clearly states Karadzić’s direct involvement in the killings:

 

“As the President of the RS [Republika Srpska, MZ] and Supreme Commander of the VRS [Army of the Republika Srpska, MZ], the Accused was the sole person within the RS with the power to intervene to prevent the Bosnian Muslim males from being killed. Yet far from intervening to prevent the killings from taking place at all, the Accused himself ordered that the Bosnian Muslim male detainees who were then being held in Bratunac be transferred elsewhere to be killed; they were then taken to Zvornik and killed.”
Karadzić’ Judgement Summary, 24 March 2016, p. 13

 

Karadzić’s appeal is currently under the jurisdiction of the Mechanism for International Tribunals, the follow-up of both the Yugoslav and the Rwandan tribunals.

 

For the people of Srebrenica, life goes on as a divided town under poor economic and social conditions (Bosnia has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world: 42%), with many abandoned skeletons of houses of those who didn’t return. Last year, I asked a restaurant owner – who earned his year income only during the commemoration – about his thoughts on the turmoil, media circus and political games that were being played. He told me: “We can turn Srebrenica into a museum which will only be opened around the 11th of July, that’s fine. But then we have to decide that that is the course we want to take”. That is what is happening now in Srebrenica.

 

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

05_10_kniefall_brandt

 

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.

“Our Political Frankenstein Constitution” – The Dayton Agreements Twenty Years Later

President Slobodan Milosevic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, President Alija Izetbegovic of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and President Franjo Tudjman of the Republic of Croatia initial the Dayton Peace Accords.

 

President Slobodan Milosevic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, President Alija Izetbegovic of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and President Franjo Tudjman of the Republic of Croatia initial the Dayton Peace Accords. 14 December 1995

President Slobodan Milosevic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, President Alija Izetbegovic of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and President Franjo Tudjman of the Republic of Croatia initial the Dayton Peace Accords – 14 December 1995 – Picture taken by: U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Brian Schlumbohm

 

By Marieke Zoodsma

 

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreements, which ended the wars in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. It was November 1995 when the peace conference took place in Dayton, Ohio, and where the representatives of the parties to the conflict (see the image above) were coerced by mediators to participate. Coerced, because none of the parties really wanted to participate nor really got what they wanted. The Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims, fought for a unified state, while the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats both fought to annex those parts of the Bosnian territory that respectively were believed to belong to Serbia or Croatia. The compromise that was made decided that 49 % of the Bosnian territory remained Serbian (the Republika Srpska) and 51% would belong to the Bosniak-Croat federation – thereby cementing the country’s divisions among ethnic lines, as this infographic shows.

 

Although Dayton did put an end to the fighting in Bosnia, an ‘uneasy cease-fire’ is perhaps a more apt description of the circumstances in Bosnia-Herzegovina today. It is ‘a truce’, enforced at a crucial moment by the international community – and the military power of NATO. Or, as Ɖermana Šeta – one of my research respondents in Bosnia – firmly stated, “our main problem is our political Frankenstein constitution”. When I was doing fieldwork in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2013, many of my respondents would refer to this problematic political constitution as being a serious obstacle to the rebuilding of Bosnian society and the reconciliation process. Dissatisfaction with the political and economic situation was often voiced by my respondents. This discontent was exemplified during last year’s protests in many of Bosnia’s greater cities. The official unemployment rate in Bosnia and Herzegovina is around forty percent, with over 57% youth unemployment. Shady privatization schemes have left thousands of workers jobless and pensions have dropped while the wages of Bosnia’s many bureaucrats have grown.

 

One of the most obvious explanations for this general dismay with the current state of affairs in Bosnia is the overly bureaucratic political system that is implemented through Dayton. To begin with, Bosnia has a tripartite presidency with each of the three members being from the constituent nations. They are in charge of foreign affairs, diplomatic and military affairs and the budget of state-level institutions. However,  many important subjects such as the educational system, healthcare or police affairs are being decided on at the entity level. Since competing memories of the war and a profound lack of trust still run strong between the three ethnic groups, an elaborate system of political control ensures that each ethnic group has a veto. Within the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, ten cantonal governments were created under which 142 municipalities were established. The 3,8 million citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina are thereby governed by 168 ministries consisting of 70,000 employees on four governing-levels. Time has shown that this system is not only highly expensive but also completely ineffective for governing.

 

The ineffectiveness of this system for governing is exemplified country’s educational system. In the Republika Srpska, school curricula is decided on at the entity-level and in the Federation, the courses and content offered differ per canton. Which classes are offered, what the content of these classes is, or how it is being taught can therefore vary on one’s geographical location within the country. One of the most devastating effects of this policy, as this article fittingly describes, is the “two schools under one roof” system in the Bosnian-Croat Federation, whereby students of different ethnicity are kept completely separate during their education. Bosniaks enter the school through a different door than the Bosnian Croats, they are taught in different classrooms and receive different curricula – particularly with regards to the wars of the 1990s.

 

For my research into the reconciliation process in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I interviewed a high-school teacher at his school in Sanski Most, northeast Bosnia. During this meeting with him, I asked if he ever talks about the war during his classes. He firmly responded: “No, I do not talk about the war in class. That topic is too sensitive. … You never know how people are going to react”. Since he had just told me that ‘dialogue is the future’ and that it is the only way to ‘give up weapons and avoid violence’, I was confused with his answer. Recognizing his contradictory answers and thus having trouble to find words, the teacher tells me that he does not feel comfortable speaking about the war since he is afraid the students will misunderstand him:

 

Unfortunately the problem is, maybe even in the West, school is not the same as life. So within the walls of the school, some things are losing because you cannot express them as you wish. Maybe outside the school in some sessions, when you do not have to think about some things because there are some laws or some rules. … I had a situation that when you speak about something, that children misinterpreted it. It is too early I think. You speak about something, but every child accepts that a little differently.

 

Commentators praise Dayton for its effectiveness of creating peace in the violent political stalemate that the countries of the former Yugoslavia ended up in. According to British politician Paddy Ashdown, who served as High Representative of Bosnia; “Dayton was regarded as an outstanding international agreement … and many now look at Syria, and think Dayton might be a model for that war-torn country.” Dayton, in the end, has left Bosnia and Herzegovina in a political, economic and socially divisive malaise. And now, twenty years later, Bosnians want more. After the first steps towards rebuilding their livelihood have been taken, the Bosnians want a functioning country. And yes, European Union membership.

 

 

Restricting our Right to Freedom of Expression in name of Security and Stability -The Issue of Ethiopia

[CC BY-SA 4.0 ]
[CC BY-SA 4.0 ]

Blogger Endalk shows support to Ethiopian Bloggers group Zone 9[CC BY-SA 4.0 ]

By Iona Mulder -

The right to freedom of expression was first recognized in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1949) art. 19 and established as binding international law in art. 19 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (1976). In the last 66 years since the international acceptance of the right of freedom of expression, many states have limited this right in name of transition, stability and state security. In past two decades state security has focused mainly on ‘the war against terrorism’, which will likely increase after the attacks in Paris. Some of these limitations are reasonable and legitimate. Still, it is very important to draw a line on how far we are willing to let our freedom of expression be limited  in the name of transition and state security. The aim of this article is to provide food for thought on where the line should be drawn. In addition, an analysis of the current status of the right of freedom of expression in Ethiopia will be provided, in which the balance between on the one hand transition, stability and state security and on the other the freedom of expression will be under investigation

The right to freedom of expression is considered by many as a fundamental condition for democracy, because it includes the right of an individual to express his opinion, but also the right to have an independent and impartial media. Thus, without this right, people will not be impartially informed and fair elections would not be possible. Nevertheless this does not mean that freedom of expression is an absolute right. There are situations in which it is legitimate under international law for governments to restrict this freedom, either with the aim to protect the rights of others, for example right to privacy,  or to protect national security, public order, and public health, or morals. In order for a court to decide whether or not the government righteously limited the freedom of expression, it must make a balance between the importance of expression and the rights of others, national security or interests. This balance is not the same in every state and every situation.

First of all, in the United States the freedom of expression is almost absolute: hate speech is not restricted. The philosophy of the US behind this is that an open debate is more effective than regulation. In Europe, by contrast, there is a stronger restriction of hate speech. Holocaust denial is for example criminalized in many countries in Europe; it is not in the US. Secondly, a differentiation can be made for new fragile state democracies. In fragile democracies the need to protect national interest, stability and security  in contrast to the freedom of expression, will be higher than in stable states. This concept has also been accepted by the European Court for Human Rights. In the case Rekevenyi v Hungary (1999) a Hungarian police-officer complained that his freedom of expression was denied, because he was not allowed to take part in political activities and debates. The court stated that within Hungary’s transition from a totalitarian (Communist) regime to a pluralistic democratic society, this restriction of expression was legitimate in order for the police to regain the public trust ‘as defenders of democracy rather than tool of the state’. Thus, in this case because of a ‘pressing social need in a democratic society’ the freedom of expression was further limited than would legitimated in other European states. (James A.Sweeney, The European Court of Human Rights in Post Cold-War Era, Universality in transition).

During his visit in Ethiopia in July 2015 president of the United States Barack Obama –the first American President ever to visit Ethiopia- stated: “We are very mindful of Ethiopia’s history – the hardships that this country has gone through. It has been relatively recent that constitution that was formed and that elections put forward a democratically elected government.” Though critical about the question of good governance in Ethiopia, Obama stated that the power of the democratically elected government should be acknowledged and when criticizing its policy its difficult history and its democratic juvenileness should be considered. (The Guardian, ‘Obama criticized for calling Ethiopia’s government ‘democratically elected’’27 July 2015).

Ethiopia is a country with a rich history. Most people in the West, however, associate it with the famine in eighties, a disaster of which devastating pictures of starving people went worldwide, resulting in a wave of aid relief to Ethiopia. In contrast to the image that was often presented, the famine was not mainly the result of natural disaster but the effect of the policy of Ethiopian government converting to communism.  In 1974 the Derg, a communist organization, came into power. The Red Terror they spread cost the lives of 500.000 people, excluding the victims of the ‘famine’ that was a result of communalizing the Oromo’s, a large ethnicity of Ethiopia. They were forced into large controllable work communities.  In 1991, the Derg was defeated by an insurrection of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), who claimed to bring democracy to the country. In 1995 the first election were held.

During his visit, Obama also made clear that Ethiopia is the biggest ally of the United States in its fight against the Islamic military organization Al-Shabab. Between 2006-2009 the Ethiopian government led a big military campaign against Islamic rebel groups in Somalia, including Al-Shabaab. Two of these groups committed a number of attacks in Ethiopia in 2008, claiming 23 lives. As part of Ethiopia’s so-called battle against terrorism, the state introduced an anti-terrorist legislation in 2009. In this legislation terrorism is imprecisely defined, as including “disruption of public service,” which can also include non-violent actions or demonstration. In addition, “encouraging,” “advancing,” or “being in support” of terrorist acts’ would also be defined as terrorism. Thus, merely expressing support for groups that are defined by the Ethiopian regime as terrorist, under the broad definition, could in itself also be defined as terrorism under this legislation, possibly leading to prison sentencing between 10 to 20 years (Analysis of Ethiopia’s Draft of Anti-terrorism Law, 30 June 2009, Human Right Watch).

Under this legislation, many journalists and bloggers have been arrested in Ethiopia under the accusation of terrorism and assaults against the state. An example is the arrest of six bloggers of Zone 9 and three other journalists on 25 April 2015. Zone 9 is an internet blog on which nine educated Ethiopians write about social and political issues, often with a critical stance towards the government. Their slogan is “We blog because we care”. They were charged with sabotage of the state under the anti-terrorist law. Two of the journalists and two of the bloggers were released a few weeks before the arrival of Obama to Ethiopia. The others afterwards in October. They had been imprisoned for more than a year. (It is possible to read their account of their imprisonment and their current life on the blog).

With these arrests the Ethiopian government restricted its population’s right to receive and seek impartial information in public interest.  Despite the fact that the restrictions are prescribed by law in the anti-terrorist legislation, it does not serve the purpose of national security as the blog of Zone 9 did not incite any violence, or supported groups who do so. Although the Ethiopian state might be a relatively young democracy in relation to many European states, even a young democratic state must be able to accept forms of social or political criticism if its restrictions do not serve any other democratic purpose. It is clear that in Ethiopia the government has crossed the line in its restriction of the freedom of expression. Unfortunately, they are not the only ‘democratic state’ to do so.

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.