'The Grey Masses are Exciting'

79 years ago, something dreadful was discussed in a villa at lake Wannsee in Berlin: the systematic organisation of the mass murder of Europe's Jews. How do you communicate this crime to today's generations?

ifa: Mr. Haß, you work intensively with the historical fundamentals of the policy and culture of remembrance. Why is it so important for a society to remember?

Matthias Haß: Remembrance is part of a social understanding of identity. Every debate about the past is always also about understanding who we as a society are and who we want to be. It is never about history as an end in itself, but about which parts of history we wish to keep in mind because we believe they are important: in Germany's case, for example, it is about remembering National Socialism and the Holocaust.

ifa:You have been working for the Holocaust in a central memorial and educational site, the House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin, since 2015. Who visits your exhibitions and takes advantage of the education programmes you offer, such as seminars and workshops?

Haß: Basically, those people who are interested in the history of the persecution of European Jews. Since we're located on the outskirts of the city, we're normally not the first point of contact for people who are generally interested in the topic of National Socialism, unlike, for example, the 'Topography of Terror' documentation centre. Our visitors include tourists from all over the world as well as school classes and students, but also different professional groups, such as people from the field of nursing and geriatric care and employees from German federal ministries, the police force and the German Armed Forces.

ifa: What motivates these professional groups to visit you? What kinds of questions do they ask you?

Haß: It varies, but generally speaking they are interested in the history of their professional group under National Socialism and how this history is relevant for their profession today. We don't hold lectures; instead, we urge participants to discuss ethical issues related to their profession. Let us take, for example, nurses and geriatric nurses who visit us during their training. When discussing the topic of euthanasia, the rather cautious stance taken in Germany can only be understood by taking a look at history, because there were times in which the state destroyed 'life unworthy of living' and decided on which life was 'worth living'.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and his Israeli counterpart Gabriel Ashkenazi on a tour through the House of the Wannsee Conference in August 2020. Matthias Haß (left) explains the details, © picture alliance/dpa/Reuters/POOL/Michele Tantussi

Offenders, victims, bystanders?

ifa: And what kinds of questions do you discuss with professional soldiers from the German Armed Forces? Do the crimes of the Wehrmacht, the German Armed Forces at that time, play a role?

Haß: Yes, it's about continuing to critically examine the image of a 'clean Wehrmacht'. Most of today's participants are aware of the German Wehrmacht's involvement in Nazi crimes. The objective of these seminars is also to fundamentally question the system of command and obedience. Can soldiers plead that they were merely following orders when we are talking about such criminal orders? How much freedom of choice does a soldier have who is forced to fight in a war? We believe that it is important to get away from hasty judgements and to sensitise our visitors, to make them realise that categories such as 'offender', 'victim', 'bystander' fall far short of understanding human agency and, thus, the Holocaust.

We should be careful about forming hasty opinions.

ifa: And how do you make this visible in your seminars?

Haß: I believe that the offenders can be clearly grasped within the legal dimensions of their crimes, as can those who were made victims and who, as a rule, were left with far fewer options for action. But what is exciting are the 'grey masses' in between: those who make things possible, those who look on or away, those who oppose and those who help. The options for action are not always easily recognisable here. Does 'watching' automatically mean that someone supports a criminal regime? Or could it also be a kind of tacit solidarity with those who are arrested or other victims? How do customers behave towards a Jewish company that comes under pressure from the state? Do they continue to shop there, even at the risk of being denounced? We raise all of these questions for discussion. It then becomes clear to most participants that we should be careful about forming hasty opinions and that nothing is unambiguous, particularly within the grey zone of bystanders. We want to enable the participants to form their own well-founded judgements.

ifa: The European dimension of the mass murder of Jews also becomes visible in the permanent exhibition in your memorial site. What role does the Holocaust play today in those states which collaborated with the Nazi regime?

Haß: For the past few years, many European societies have been taking a closer look at how their own country was involved in the Holocaust. This applies for both Eastern and Western Europe. Let us take, for example, the 'Résistance' in France. According to the official memory narrative, which was repeated until the 1990ies, practically all French people were part of the Résistance. They blended out the collaboration between the Vichy government and the National Socialists. But during the past 30 years, this topic has undergone a very painful renegotiation. The same applies for countries which have only become nation states relatively recently, such as the former Yugoslavia. The challenge there is to go beyond the satisfaction and pride of finally becoming an independent country so as not to lose the self-critical view of themselves – and thus to take a hard look at their collaboration with the Nazi regime.

The permanent exhibition in the House of the Wannsee Conference has been extensively revised until January 2020. The new exhibition is barrier-free and multimedia-based. In nine rooms, it tells the story of exclusion, deportations and mass murder – through the prism of the meeting at Wannsee 1942, © Gedenk- und Bildungsstätte Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz

The dark sides of the past

ifa: How is that done, specifically in Croatia? For the conference programme, you spoke with pupils from Zagreb about the Holocaust. How are the Holocaust and the Ustasha1 collaboration regime communicated there?

Haß: I gave my lecture as part of the international 'Zagreb Jewish Film Festival'. It was one of the 'Educational Mornings', an education format for young people. As far as I know, the Croatian curriculum includes a limited number of teaching hours on the Holocaust. I cannot say whether collaboration is a topic in schools, but merely the fact that this festival exists and that school classes take part in it shows that something is happening in Croatian society. On the other hand, the fact that my lecture took place during this festival rather than during regular school lessons also shows that people are still struggling with their own attitude towards this part of the past.

ifa: Was collaboration a topic in your lecture?

Haß: My lecture was about the Wannsee Conference in general; I briefly mentioned the collaboration of the Ustasha1 regime. The pupils dealt surprisingly openly with this topic. For example, they did not justifiably defend the collaboration, but asked critical questions about it, responding to the answers with more in-depth questions. During the past few years, Croatian society has begun to deal with the dark sides of its own history. Otherwise, it would not be possible to pose these questions. A lot happens due to social pressure, possibly also to international alliances such as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)2, of which Croatia is a member.

National memory narratives in dialogue

ifa: Among other things, the objective of the IHRA2, to which 34 countries now belong, is to promote the education, research and commemoration of the Holocaust worldwide. Where do you see the opportunities for and restrictions of this intergovernmental body?

Haß: Such international alliances are meaningful and important, but there is always the danger that they will become independent or unified – and that is exactly what should not happen in a culture of remembrance. It's not about nations providing one another with 'development aid', but about the different perspectives of the Holocaust being heard on an equal footing. The opportunity lies in the fact that different national narratives meet in dialogue, in controversial dialogue as well. It can and should never be about pointing a finger, especially since our own national debates are just as restricted. Let us take, for example, Germany's colonial history, which I also lost sight of for quite a long time. Now this debate has started and we are addressing the issue, and that's a good thing. Moral indignation about the fact that it wasn't like this for a long time won't get us anywhere.

Interview by Juliane Pfordte

About Matthias Haß
Matthias Haß
Deputy Director of the Memorial and Educational Site 'House of the Wannsee Conference'

Matthias Haß is the Acting Head of the Department for Education and Research at the Memorial and Educational Site 'House of the Wannsee Conference'. He studied political science at the Freie Universität Berlin and was awarded a doctorate for his work on memorials to National Socialist mass crimes in Israel, the USA and Germany.

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