Are mandatory visits to concentration camp memorials the answer?

Are mandatory visits to concentration camp memorials the answer?

Doreen Pastor

In response to an anti-Semitic attack in Berlin, Sawsan Chebli, State Secretary for Federal Affairs in the state of Berlin, suggested that visits to concentration camp memorials should be made compulsory in Germany. This suggestion is not only aimed at German school children, but also at new migrants as part of the integration process with the intention of fostering a better understanding of German culture and politics. This sparked hefty criticism in Germany, not least from the memorials themselves. Günter Morsch, head of Brandenburgische Gedenkstätten, which includes the sites of Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück, rejects what he calls ‘forced pedagogy’. The experiences in the GDR (German Democratic Republic), where visits to a concentration camp memorial were compulsory as part of the ‘coming of age’ programme Jugendweihe, have shown that these visits were counterproductive. The press officer of Buchenwald concentration camp memorial agrees and comments “that voluntary visits lead to a greater engagement with the site”. Currently, the federal state of Bavaria is the only state with mandatory visits to concentration camp memorials, all other states regard it as voluntary activity. Berlin itself recommends a visit to a site which commemorates the fascist past, not necessarily a concentration camp memorial, and it is the school’s discretion to implement such a visit.

The comments from the memorial sites do however not address the core argument which underpins such proposals: the fundamental belief that a visit to a concentration camp memorial is a life changing experience educating future generations to be responsible citizens. The idea that a visit to a memorial site can convert young people with extremist views is not supported by educational staff at memorials (Pampel 2011).  There are currently no studies which would endorse these assumptions as it would require research pre- and post-visit in addition to visitors vs non-visitors, an extremely time-consuming task. Various studies of school visits to concentration camp memorials, the most prominent one by Dr Herbert Hötte at Neuengamme, have shown that pupils often expect historical authenticity and a genuine presentation of the living conditions (Hötte 1982). The response from a 16-year-old pupil during a visit to Buchenwald is representative of so many school visits:

I thought there were barracks here, one could enter those and it might even still stink there. And there would be stuff lying around, which belonged to the prisoners (Fischer, Hubert 1992).

This pupil would have been gravely disappointed as Buchenwald no longer features barracks. During my fieldwork with individual visitors at the memorial sites Flossenbürg and Ravensbrück, I was confronted with similar recurrent sentiments. Flossenbürg, located in North Bavaria, opened its first permanent exhibition in 2010. It is estimated that 100,000 prisoners were at Flossenbürg and its sub camps, of which 30,000 did not survive. Ravensbrück was the location of the largest women’s camp on German soil. Located to the north of Berlin, it imprisoned approx. 130,000 women from across Europe including an estimated 880 children.

Although exhibitions at both sites document extensively the atrocities committed, the visit often remained an underwhelming experience. Visitors at Flossenbürg were frequently in disbelief that the barracks were destroyed in favour of a new housing development, where local people continued to live their lives with typical amenities such as a supermarket. The site itself resembled a parkland and was considered to be too picturesque. Equally, Ravensbrück with its lakeside setting was not ‘grim enough’. Even though visitors recognised the scale of the atrocities, more often they concluded that “Auschwitz was much worse”. The reasons for Auschwitz-Birkenau’s perceived greater darkness were the “barbed wire fences one is immediately confronted with” or “the shoes people walked in”. A couple I accompanied in Flossenbürg summarised it as follows: “At Auschwitz, I felt sick but here I quite happily go to the café”.

‘The banality of evil’, as Hannah Arendt called it in her report on the Eichmann trial, has spilled over from the court room to the memorial sites (Arendt 1963).  Auschwitz-Birkenau now stands for the epitome of the Holocaust and the German memorials cannot live up to the scale of violence which occurred there. Flossenbürg is acutely aware of this challenge and the management team confirmed that the ‘popularity’ of Auschwitz-Birkenau has affected them for years, increasingly also impacting on the larger sites such as Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. For visitors, the absence of Holocaust icons such as the Arbeit macht frei gate, gas chambers or glass cases with hair influence the aura of a site. They do not visit a memorial site for the historical facts – ‘reading fatigue’ was a quick outcome at Ravensbrück – they want ‘an experience’. At the Dutch memorial site Westerbork, an attempt to incorporate the wish for an experience has led to the creation of an ‘immersive app’ in order to compensate for the lack of authentic structures. Nonetheless, the most frequent question “Where is the gas chamber?” will probably remain.

One could assert that the universal recognition of Auschwitz-Birkenau as the centre of the Holocaust has been successful and therefore we achieved the aim of a collective remembrance of the worst genocide in human history. This is certainly true, yet I would argue that this collective remembrance is focused on key images which have been circulated as evidence for the atrocities committed. When visitors refer to the Arbeit macht frei gate, the barracks or the hair in glass cases, they seek validity for their preconceived beliefs. This does however not necessarily mean that they engage with the wider context of the site. Dr Hötte’s studies had made these difficulties already visible in 1982, and it seems, the situation has worsened. Indeed, my research has revealed that the overpowering image of Auschwitz-Birkenau looms large over the perceived lack of historical authenticity at the German sites. At Flossenbürg an American visitor typically declared when asked whether he was planning to visit any other memorials: “Auschwitz-Birkenau – it is the biggest and everybody knows it.” The Deutsche Welle Journalist Felix Steiner emphasised that “the raison d’etre for Germany’s culture of remembrance in its present form will cease to exist” and “more complex strategies are needed”. In a post-witness era, where people are saturated with daily media portrayals of violence, a repetitive exhibition purely based on scientific facts, as so often the case in Germany, will not be the answer to combat anti-Semitism or other hate-related attitudes.

Hence, the question we need to ask is not whether visits should be compulsory, but rather how do we make visits to memorial sites meaningful for future generations without crossing ethical boundaries? For the manager at the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, large queues at the entrance of the Ort der Informationen (the underground exhibition of the Holocaust memorial) is a sign of an uninterrupted interest in the history of the Holocaust. He does not believe in a discrepancy between the rising visitor numbers and the right-wing populist party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) gaining seats in the German parliament. Soaring visitor numbers alone however cannot be a measure of success.

Arendt, Hannah (1963) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking Press.
Fischer, C., Hubert, A. (1992) Auswirkungen der Besuche von Gedenkstätten auf Schülerinnen und Schüler. Breitenau-Hadamar-Buchenwald. Bericht über 40 Explorationen in Hessen und Thüringen. In: B. Pampel (2007) “Mit eigenen Augen sehen, wozu der Mensch fähig ist”: Zur Wirkung von Gedenkstätten auf ihre Besucher. Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag.
Hötte, H. (1982) Aktualisierte Geschichte. Über die Arbeit mit Jugendlichen im Dokumentenhaus KZ Neuengamme. Argumente zur museumspädogischen Praxis 1(1), 2-16.
Pampel, B. (2007) “Mit eigenen Augen sehen, wozu der Mensch fähig ist”: Zur Wirkung von Gedenkstätten auf ihre Besucher. Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag.


Doreen Pastor is a PhD candidate in German Studies at the University of Bristol. She researches the politics of memorialisation in Germany and in particular the visitor’s response to exhibitions. She has conducted fieldwork at Flossenbürg concentration camp memorial, Ravensbrück concentration camp memorial, House of the Wannsee Conference Berlin and Bautzen II Stasi prison memorial.