On visiting Auschwitz

Last week, I finally had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz while at the Interpret Europe conference [1]. I want to share some things I am thinking about in response to that experience, and draw on some of the conversations I had [2].

The importance of place

Every year of Secondary School, we discussed the Second World War. I knew that Nazi Germany invaded other countries. But nothing drove that fact home like travelling to Poland, being immersed in Polish culture and history, and coming across place after place that was touched and changed by past actions of Germany. This was even more deepened by that sense of ownership of a country that, for better or worse, has recently entered my thinking. I was not in ‘my country’. So what business had all these German signs and German actors popping up in the museums and sites of Polish history that I visited? This also relates to another thought that I had while Professor Dr Andrzej Leder in his keynote speech talked about the case of one Israeli couple taking items they found at Auschwitz. He related the argument that items from the Holocaust are best kept safe at Yad Vashem in Israel. There are many reasons why I feel this would be the wrong approach. But being deprived of that experience of travelling abroad to the site where things happened must be one of the most persuasive arguments for me. I needed to travel to and be in Poland in order to understand what invasion of another country actually means.

Language about the past frames the present

The interpretation in Auschwitz referred to the Nazis as ‘Germans’. I, like other Germans in our group, felt that this was wrong. This is not a matter of shedding responsibility [3]. Rather it is an argument borne from Discourse and Representation theory. Michel Foucault noted that discourse, or the language we use, does two important things relating to subjects: 1. Discourse produces the subject, in other words, until we find a word for a group, that group does not exist in that form; and 2. Discourse creates a subject position from which that group will from now on have to participate in the discourse [4]. Related to this is a ‘regime of representation’ [5] through which difference is communicated based on representational strategies that naturalize and thus fix difference. Put differently, once the representational machinery is in full swing, it is difficult for those being represented in a particular way to challenge and change the associated perceptions of themselves. So what does this mean regarding the use of ‘the Germans’ in interpretations of the Holocaust? I believe that it forces contemporary Germans into the role of perpetrators, and allows others to ignore the darker actions, past and present, of their own countries, since it is only ‘the Germans’ who have a dark past to confront at Auschwitz. I believe that this not only undermines powerful self-reflection for humanity as a whole, it also creates an obstacle to open exchange and ultimately peaceful futures. Getting back to interpretation, I believe it limits the power of Auschwitz [6].

The imperative of empathy

Professor Leder in his keynote also spoke about the imperative of empathy, the concept that we must not ignore the knowledge we share with others in order to protect our own social imaginaries, i.e. the way in which we conceptualize the world according to our own emotions and moral views. In other words, we must not insist on a particular way of viewing the world just because doing otherwise might require that we acknowledge some uncomfortable challenges to our own thinking. In some ways this is linked to the above; casting modern day Germans in the role of perpetrators ignores the achievements of modern Germany in terms of peace and integration. The use of more considered language might just be one way in which interpretation can encourage empathy [7].

History is not heritage

Some people referred to Auschwitz as German heritage. This really struck me as odd, more so than when reading similar suggestions in books [8]. Auschwitz isn’t my heritage. It is my country’s history, but my heritage related to Auschwitz and the Holocaust is what Germany did with that history (see below). Like material heritage, the historical events surrounding Auschwitz provide the framework for this heritage, but are not themselves heritage [9]. Heritage here is truly about future-making [10], not in the sense of selective inspiration but as a confrontation with truths from which a more critical and careful future must be, and has been, crafted.

My German Heritage

I want to end by sharing the following. I was taught to never say or feel that ‘I’m proud to be German’. You can be proud of your achievements and your actions, but never of your nationality. In fact, such was this cautious relationship to a concept of a ‘German identity’ that the first time I ever even realised that there was such a thing as a German identity in me was when I came to the United States. And it was through living abroad that I realised that the critical examination of national identity and official narratives that I had been taught was actually a rare thing. While Americans were happy to fly their flag, I was uncomfortable with this unquestioning patriotism. In England, while the whole square at the local prom in unison sang about Britannia ruling the waves while fervently waving British flags, I was deeply troubled by what they seemed to be saying about Britain and her relationship to other countries. This, I understand now, is a particular part of my German heritage. It comes from how my country has confronted a singularly horrible period of its history. Germans cannot flatter themselves into thinking that ‘such a thing could never happen here’ [11]. It can. It has. It can happen anywhere if we are not careful. And that is why many more Anti-Pegida demonstrators went onto the streets than did Pegida supporters, and why German institutions took a stance, because we know that this is how it starts. At the conference, a Swedish colleague told me that these actions against Pegida had inspired many in Sweden at the time. At that moment, for the first time in my life, I felt given the permission to feel, for all the right reasons, proud of my German heritage [12].


[1] This meant that I experienced the site in the company of other interpreters from around the world. That made an immense difference. I was able to unpack what I felt, discuss it with other people who are keen to analyse heritage, and reflect more deeply on my own feelings and thoughts because of their perspectives. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank them all.

[2] The conference topic was ‘Sensitive heritage – sensitive interpretation’, and we heard some very through-provoking papers around this.

[3] One of my German colleagues, upon sharing this sentiment with someone, was told that ‘of course’ she would feel this way as a German, but that there was such a thing as ‘national or state responsibility’.

[4] see Hall, S., 2013. ‘The Work of Representation’. In: Hall, S., Evans, J. and Nixon, S. (eds), 2013. Representation. London: Sage/The Open University. P. 1-47

[5] Hall, S., 2013. ‘The Spectacle of the “Other”’. In: Hall, S., Evans, J. and Nixon, S. (eds), 2013. Representation. London: Sage/The Open University. P. 215 – 271

[6] An Israeli colleague who was also on the tour and at the conference told us that Israeli groups are not ‘allowed’ to mingle with others at Auschwitz. My reaction to this was one of immense sadness. My experience of and engagement with Auschwitz was profoundly deepened by the ability to speak not only to him, but also to other people from other countries. Through our conversations I felt an immensely uplifting sense of gratitude for what we have achieved in Europe since, and a wonderful sense of community. What a shame to lose out on that.

[7] Gretchen Jennings has blogged about empathy for a while now – do give her blog a read!

[8] Sharon Macdonald’s book about the Nazi Rally grounds in Nuremberg is called ‘Difficult Heritage’, for example.

[9] See Laurajane Smith’s book Uses of Heritage, 2006, London and New York: Routledge.

[10] See for example Zetterstrom-Sharp, J., 2014, ‘Heritage as future-making: aspiration and common destiny in Sierra Leone.’ International Journal of Heritage Studies 21(6), pp. 1-19.

[11] I have had very dear friends in Britain tell me just that in response to my profound discomfort with other friends freely sharing Britain First polemic on Facebook. The explanation of the BF phenomenon is that it is a ‘harmless message’ wrapped up to make BF seem more popular when people share it. I do not accept that explanation. The mere name, Britain First, should set off anyone. The ‘harmless messages’ are not, in fact, harmless in their connotations. The fact that people do not realise this, and instead share the nonsense, is the first step toward radicalisation. It’s that simple.

[12] But I still could not quite bring myself to write, ‘Proud to be German’.

7 thoughts on “On visiting Auschwitz

  1. Great post, Nicole, thank you! After reading it, I kept thinking of the fact that you and your colleagues did not like to see the Nazis referred as “the Germans”. As I am not a German, I admit that I might sound totally unsympathetic or insensitive and if I do, I apologize. But, weren’t they “the Germans”? The Nazis had a specific ideology and they were the ruling party at the time, but they were “the Germans” in the conflict, as this was a war among nations. I can´t think of any other way of referring to the parties involved. We may also talk about Vichy, and we say “Vichy”, but we also say “the French” when discussing the time of their rule and we say the “French resistance”. We also say “the Japanese” and not the “emperor”. I really can’t see a different way of referring to all this, but I’ll give it more thought. What would the alternative be for you?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Maria. The points you raise were heavily discussed in many conversations I had also. In Germany, one often hears ‘Nazi Germany’ or ‘the Nazis’, to mean not only the actual NSDAP party and its members, but the country as a whole at that time. This, in my mind, acknowledges the state/nation argument of Germany having been a party in the conflict. And referring to ‘the Nazis’ or ‘Nazi Germany’ works well in this instance, I think, because it *was* the Nazis – we have a name for them. This is of course only a strong argument if one accepts the other points I have made. If not, then the Nazis were of course also Germans, the country *was* Germany, and setting aside the feelings of modern day Germans one can with perfect logic assert that therefore, we should say, ‘the Germans’.

      I’m intrigued about your mention of ‘the Japanese’. Incidentally I studied Japanese in my first university career, and this never came up – although we did at length discuss the feelings in relation to contemporary references to the use of atomic bombs against Japan. I would have to say that I would need to be guided by modern day Japanese in how they would prefer us to refer to the historical Japan that participated in the war.

      1. Thank you, Nicole, you gave me many more things to think about!After commenting yesterday, I thought about the role of common citizens in contexts like that of Nazi Germany, Khmer Rouge Cambodia or Hutu Rwanda, to name a few. Who are those common citizens, do they take a stand, do they (passively or actively) collaborate or do they resist? And what should they be called? I recently started reading Sharon McDonald’s “Memorylands: Heritage and Identity in Europe Today”. If you haven’t read it already, I think you might like it.

      2. Thanks again, Maria! Those are again big questions. On our trips during the conference, we spoke a lot about when and how people should begin to ‘resist’. It’s a difficult one, for being in that situation, feeling the fear, or maybe just even hoping that it’s a passing phase, is different than looking back through history. I’ve also become really interested in Rwanda, and South Africa too, to understand how people moved forward while leaving previous divisions behind. What role does heritage and interpretation play in that?

        I have read Memorylands, thanks! It is a great book. Do let me know your thoughts when you’re finished!

  2. Attending the same visit, I was struck by the fact that our guide always referred to the guilty as German Nazis….not just as Germans. As a non German I did not burden the entire German nation with this weight from the past . It is interesting that Nicole didn’t ‘hear’ it that way.

    1. There were two guided tours of Auschwitz itself. I was with the woman, who mixed how she referred to the perpetrators. She never once used ‘German Nazis’ though, which I did hear the man refer to during his sermon on the bus on the way to Auschwitz. Presumably he continued this on the tour he took. I am still not clear what he meant though; ‘German’ as opposed to ‘British’ Nazis? Or ‘German Nazis’ as opposed to ‘Germans’? The two represent different arguments in my mind.

      As it were, the very few pictures I took of panels at Auschwitz show the use of ‘Nazi Germany’, ‘the Nazis’, or ‘the SS’, which I think is most appropriate, and mirrors how we in Germany speak about it. I can well believe that one has to be German to be fully aware of the many ways in which Germany, to this day, is framed by references to the Nazis. No doubt it makes Germans more sensitive to this, and isn’t this what Dr Leder meant? Empathy is about taking into account how others perceive the facts, and find a way of dealing with this that brings the best outcomes for all concerned.

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