The Present and Future of the Past
It’s difficult for me to write about it today. I was born in 1954, 16 years after the pogrom in the night of 9–10 November 1938. And yet I still wake up time and again from nightmares in which trains roll east—towards the extermination camps. I see people in gas chambers dying in agony. As happy as my childhood was, as seemingly carefree my youth, the horror was also with my generation—the generation of those whose grandparents and parents fled and survived. That was it—they had survived. Yet many, so many of their own parents, siblings, relatives did not sit at the family table; there were no graveyards in which their names stood on headstones. And the smoke of the crematories had drifted away.
It’s difficult for me to write about it today. But I have gratitude to express. Above all I’d like to thank that police officer from Berlin-Karlshorst whose name I don’t know and was not passed down by my father in his memoirs. I should have asked him once more. In 1934, this police officer warned my grandfather one hour before his planned arrest. It’s ironic that the underground Communist activities of my grandfather Arthur Brie forced him and his family to flee one year after Hitler and the National Socialists came to power, thus becoming the first step that made survival possible.
My grandfather and his family survived because many helped them. German-Czech Communists, Jewish friends, Polish organisations, the British Government that allowed him to immigrate in the summer of 1939. My grandfather was on the last boat that set off from Danzig before 1 September, the day on which the Second World War began. They also survived because the British workers—in a time in which bombs fell on their cities, food was short, and everything needed to be committed to the fight against fascist Germany—shared the little that they had with the refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.
Among all those who helped my grandfather and grandmother’s family in its long escape, I’d like to remember one woman in particular who—since I read my father’s memoirs—has been in my mind’s eye. In a cold winter night in 1939, my grandparents attempted to cross the border from occupied Czechoslovakia into Poland with their two young children. Betrayal was involved, there was no guide over the Beskid Mountains. They got lost. Completely exhausted and failing in strength, they reached a small village on the Polish side.
A peasant family took them in. However, an ordinance of the Polish government had established that anyone who was picked up near the border had to be turned back over to the German authorities. And this is exactly what the village constable wanted to do. As he entered the parlour of the peasant family to arrest the refugees, the Catholic peasant woman fell to her knees before him while casting her gaze upon the picture of the Virgin Mary, threw her arms around him and begged for mercy for the Jews. It was seen to that they came deeper into the interior of the country where they were safe for the moment.
Every one of us from families whose grandparents or great grandparents were persecuted under National Socialism for their politics, their so-called race or their sexual orientation are only alive because besides hate, envy and indifference there was also help, goodness, readiness to share, courage. Our contemporary society is also divided, even though now it’s so much infinitely easier to help, to support, to give something up.
It’s difficult for me to write about it today. The retrospective view of 1933–1945 often unfolds in reverse. In 1996, the Federal Republic of Germany declared 27 January, the day on which Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops, a national day of remembrance. To me, this was a bad decision. After all, where did the path to Auschwitz begin? The maxim “Thou shalt not kill!” is the foundation of every civilisation. How was it that this foundation could be so completely destroyed? Since Auschwitz at the latest, we know that the door to organised mass murder is opened when the value of human life is damaged by the actions of the state or by economic, political or cultural organisations that are tolerated by the state—when the state doesn’t intervene in a protective manner.
The first step on the path to murder was and is always the creation of social groups that are discriminated against legally or in other ways. On 7 April 1933 the government of the German Reich enacted the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service”, which made it possible “civil servants […] [to be] discharged from office, even when the necessary legal requirements are not present (§ 1, Paragraph 1). It read further: “Civil servants not of Arian descent are to be retired (§§ 8 et seqq.); in the case of honorary civil servants, they are to be removed from this position” (§ 3, Paragraph 1). The legal path to Auschwitz began with this “law”. Here, the gate to the extermination of European Jewry and to the Gleichschaltung—the enforced conformity—of the public sector was legally opened. When the fellow citizen is classified according to abstract categories and disadvantaged on this basis, a slippery slope emerges. With the classification into Arians, Jews, Half-, Quarter- and Eighth-Jews is how it began. People with disabilities, Roma and Sinti, Ukrainians and Russians, Commissioners in the Soviet Army, gays and lesbians—the list of such deadly classifications is long. Whoever ended up on this list would ultimately be exterminated.
These only apparently small steps lead to barbarism. The foundations of a civilisation oriented around the value of human life are destroyed when such classifications determine welfare and suffering, and ultimately life and death. It would therefore be correct to declare 7 April a day to remember that the vast majority of Germans at that time did not resist civilisational rupture caused by classifying people from racist and politically totalitarian perspectives.
On 3 October 1990, the German Democratic Republic joined the Federal Republic of Germany. For the first time after the defeat and unconditional surrender that ended the horror of German National Socialism on 8 May 1945, the partition of Germany was finally overcome, the Federal Republic released by the four victorious powers of the Second World War into full sovereignty. It became according to international law a “normal” state again.
With that, however, the responsibility for this ‘normalcy’ lies entirely with the citizens of Germany.
Yet in what did the “abnormalcy” of the Federal Republic consist prior to 1990? Among other things, it consisted in the enactment of the constitution with Article 16—“the politically persecuted are entitled to the righty of asylum”. In light of the responsibility of Germany for the state-organised extermination of many millions of people; as a sign of gratitude towards the international community that accepted 800,000 German citizens regardless; in recognition of the unique obligation to protect people from dictatorship, discrimination, torture, persecution, displacement and extermination, new ground was broken internationally. In the words of Herbert Leuninger, “[I]t can be said without exaggeration, and certainly without national arrogance, that the Federal Republic set a new standard that surpassed all existing human rights conventions with the article, insofar as it doesn’t simply accept and protect individual humans as refugees without making categorical distinctions between them, but also shapes their acceptance into a right that is provided with all legal guarantees that a contemporary constitutional democracy grants its citizens.”
In May 1993, two and a half years after the release of the Federal Republic into normalcy, the 1949 constitution of the Federal Republic was modified with a significant restriction on the right to asylum. Most importantly, the “individual rights concept of awarding asylum” was repealed in the new Article 16a and the human rights basis of the right to asylum largely abolished.
With its resolution on 14 May 1996, the Federal Constitutional Court approved this change to the constitution. Once legal subjects, refugees increasingly became mere objects of state action. Already at that point, driving back a so-called “flood” of asylum applicants was given priority over protecting the value of human life and the implication of human rights. Under the auspice of “European harmonisation,” a historical achievement of the constitution was sacrificed. As Wolfgang Schäuble, at that time chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, remarked as a justification for this constitutional change, “even the asylum politics of Germany should not heal the world.” With reference to unique crimes, the aspiration to a particular responsibility and exemplary status was not justified, but abandoned!
Immediately after the change of the constitution, the Asylum Applicant Entitlement Law [Asylwerberleistungsgesetz] was passed, legally creating for the first time in the postwar era a group of people residing in Germany who weren’t equally entitled to bare necessities of existence as German citizens. Up until 1980, equality applied without qualification to social standards, healthcare and other basic social rights.
Until 1993, the same set of federal laws regarding welfare applied to all people residing in Germany. While the first cuts had been made before 1989, these intensified after German unification to a system of ever progressing disenfranchisement, reduction of refugee entitlements to 70% to 80% of those of citizens, a transition to vouchers or even to mere benefits in kind, limits to freedom of movement, and so on.
Since 1977, there have been more than thirty changes to laws and regulations that have led each time to a worsening of the position of asylum seekers.
These changes are problematic for human rights and democracy, not simply because they legally discriminate against people while merely conceding them social and cultural rights that are more meagre than those of citizens, but even more so because they create a privileged “majority society” that enjoys better and different social rights as asylum seekers, and because this majority society has willingly accepted this situation. The National Socialist distinction between “national comrades” and “social foreigners” that was introduced in 1933 is being made with another terminology. Yet according to the UN Declaration of Human Rights after 1945 and the Constitution of the Federal Republic, this is exactly what should have been made definitively impossible.
It’s difficult for me to write about it today, as my fear is growing that we have again stepped onto a slippery slope and are leading the way to the destruction of the civilisational inhibitions that keep us from open barbarism.
Modern civilisation set up early warning systems for tsunamis and yet really needs above all an early warning system for every barbarism that emerges within itself and threatens to overwhelm it.
And while the generations of those who experienced the total breakdown of Western civilisation in the 1930s and 1940s, or at least their best representatives, appreciated this fact, the subsequent generations have not taken this experience with them as a given on their journey through history. Because of this, they can like their forefathers fall victim to the terrible disparity between causes and effects.
In 1966, Theodor W. Adorno formulated in a radio text: “The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again. Its priority before any other requirement is such that I believe I need not and should not justify it. […] To justify it would be monstrous in the face of the monstrosity that took place. […] One speaks of the threat of a relapse into barbarism. But it is not a threat—Auschwitz was this relapse, and barbarism continues as long as the fundamental conditions that favored that relapse continue largely unchanged.“ But what are “the conditions” of barbarism in modern societies?
Turning toward Auschwitz enlightens and resets our view of history. It enlightens because it unveils the secret of processes that preceded the National Socialist extermination wars and camps. Auschwitz is its last consequence. Yet this view also resets our perspective because this extermination of people as an end in itself appears to be so completely separate from all else that happened before or after, and to this day appears to have had a “ratio” as its “ultimo”. According to the Jewish German philosopher Hannah Arendt, the causes appear mere “trifles” in comparison to the effects. Apparent trivialities make the monstrous crimes possible. A “grotesque disparity” separates all processes that led to the “breakdown of all Western traditions and a threat to the existence of all European peoples” posed by this breakdown.
In her famous study The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt distinguishes processes through which elements of total domination and barbarism are unleashed from those through which domination “crystallised in the novel totalitarian phenomenon.” The former are non-intended side effects of strategies that by no means aim at the total domination of human beings let alone human extermination. These constitute the “collateral damage” of other processes that are all too easy to justify. The latter involve the setting up of systems that are based directly on total power and subject people to deliberate, state-organised murder. With the former, it’s the case that “even atrocity and cruelty stuck to particular rules, didn’t cross certain lines, and one largely could evaluate political occurrences with common sense.” With the latter, the possibilities of a sensible interpretation break down completely.
Be it remembered that the pogrom in the night of 9–10 November 1938 cannot not be reduced to the persecution of fellow citizens who were Jewish. It was also about getting their money and fortune, getting the houses, apartments and factories in order to finance the German war economy, as the national debt was increasing, the credit rating of the German Reich was falling. Austria had just been annexed, and large parts of Czechoslovakia had been occupied. The preparation for the war of expansion and extermination had entered into its ultimate phase. The plans to exploit Europe and enslave Eastern Europe and Central Asia had been fleshed out. The German corporations had clear visions of how all this could be converted into to profit and an increase in power. The Holocaust was part of an expansive project of power, enslavement and extermination larger than human history had ever seen.
It’s difficult for me to write about it today, as elements preparing an open civilisational rupture are mounting. The war in Afghanistan has already lasted forty years. North Africa, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe—the wars are spreading. Today there are more refugees than there were after the Second World War. Inside the European Union people are losing hold, are worried about decline, hate and envy are spreading. Terrorism in the name of Islam and right-wing terrorism in the name of the fatherland and the race meat head-on.
As King Solomon allegedly said: When people have no hope, they turn vile and savage. Today, as we remember the pogrom in the night of 9–10 November 1938, we must speak about hope. So much can be done to resist the elements of barbarism, to stop another civilisational rupture. We are being tested and cannot be found to be too meek. There are very, very simple truths that nonetheless must be remembered time and again—especially in times of emergency and distress:
It is true that humanity makes us human and hate and envy destroy us. Of course it’s easier to hate and to take than to commit oneself and to give. But we only grow richer and more blessed through humanity.
It is true that—as hard, arduous and inconvenient as it is, and as costly as it can be: the individual human must always be seen. The value of human life can not be distributed according to classifications. It must be afforded to every single person so that it is assured to all of us.
It is true that when it comes to questions concerning the value of human life and humanity, it is the small things that are important. That is where the major questions are decided. We cannot begin to accept the small injuries, as in doing so we allow large crimes to become possible.
As hard as it is, we need to talk about these very simple truths.
Translation by Adam Baltner
 Herbert Leuninger, “Das Grundrecht auf Asyl. Zur Geschichte seines Aus- und Abbaus.” (Emphasis mine, M.B.).
 Cited in: ibid.
 Theodor W. Adorno, Erziehung zur Mündigkeit, Frankfurt 1969, p. 88. Translation: Joss Winn (https://josswinn.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/AdornoEducation.pdf).
 Hannah Arendt, Elemente und Ursprünge totaler Herrschaft. Munich and Zurich: Piper 1986, p. 231f. Translation: Adam Baltner.
 Ibid., p. 14.
 Ibid., p. 217f.