Amid continued domestic political controversy over the meaning of the end of World War II for Germans, several thousands former prisoners of the Sachsenhausen and Ravensbruck concentration camps gathering during the weekend to mark the 50th anniversary of the camps’ liberation.
The political controversy injected itself, but did not overshadow, the ceremonies at the two Nazi concentration camps.
The controversy was originally sparked by statements from German right-wing figures who said the fall of Nazi Germany on May 8,1945, not only marked the start of Germany’s liberation from the Nazi tyranny.
It also represented the start of a reign of terror by the Soviets, who occupied the eastern half of Germany and drove some 12 million ethnic Germans out of Eastern Europe after the war’s end, they said.
The controversy intensified after the publication earlier this month of a newspaper ad that expressed similar views.
The ad, signed by hundreds of Germans, some of them well-known figures who do not represent the extreme right, said May 8 marked the beginning of “expulsion, terror, a new repression in the East and the beginning of the division of our country.”
Carl-Dieter Spranger, Germany’s minister for economic cooperation and development, and Alexander von Stahl, a former federal prosecutor, were among those who signed the statement.
Since the publication of the ad, German newspapers have reported nearly daily comments from prominent politicians and personalities about the issue.
Many, but not all, have condemned the statement. Ignatz Bubis, chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said it is inappropriate to use World War II as a basis of comparison for anything.
Rita Sussmuth, the president of the lower house of the German Parliament, devoted part of her address Sunday morning at the Ravensbruck camp to attack those who want to compare the atrocities of World War II with what happened to the country under Soviet domination.
“No one disputes what happened to the Germans,” she said, referring to Soviet killings of Germans after the end of the war. “But one should not confuse cause with effect.” Sussmuth, considered one of Germany’s most popular politicians, called for an end to all the discussions about how to interpret the May 8 anniversary.
The issue camp us again later on Sunday, when German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel made it clear during an address at the Sachsenhausen ceremony that his views differed from those of Sussmuth.
Noting that the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, which opened in 1936, was not shut down after the war, Kinkel said that “new suffering occurred here” after the war.
Kinkel’s comments elicited a torrent of boos from the audience, which called on him to stop speaking.
The minister was also greeted with cries that he was a hypocrite.
Despite the political controversy, the ceremonies included some moving speeches and acts at both camps.
At the Ravensbruck concentration camp, which served as a camp for women and acts at both camps.
Some women wore their former prison garb. Others covered their heads with clothes bearing the blue and white national colors of Israel.
More than 132,000 women and children were sent to Ravensbruck, which was originally a slave labor camp. The main employer of slave laborers from the camp was Siemens Electric, which manufactured electric parts for German armaments, including the V-2 rocket program.
Gas chambers were later built at the camp, where more than 6,000 women were killed. Their ashes were flung over a lake within the camp’s grounds.
On Sunday, as they have at past gatherings, former inmates threw flowers over the lake in remembrance of those who were murdered here.
Rose Guerin, president of the International Ravensbruck Committee, said the lesson from World War II was that “war is not a means to solve problems.”
But despite some positive developments in the world — such as the end of apartheid in South Africa and the signing of accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization — pressing human rights problems remained, as reflected in recent events in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda.
Also on Sunday, a ceremony was held at the Sachsenhausen camp, which was built near Berlin and served as a kind of training center for SS officials and other Nazi henchmen, who often used the genocidal skills learned there at other death camps.
Some 100,000 people — including Jews, Communists, Gypsies and union activists — died at Sachsenhausen, where they were shot, gassed or starved to death.
During Sunday’s ceremonies at Sachsenhausen, several speakers condemned the September 1992 neo-Nazi arson attacks on Barracks 38 and 39, which were burned to the ground.
One of the most moving speeches before the audience of some 20,000 came from Andrezj Szcypiorski, a Polish writer who was prisoner No. 95936 at the camp.
“When I was asked to come here I thought I would say no,” he told the audience. “But here I am at this roll call place. Why am I here when I didn’t want to be? I was lucky. I came away alive. Thousands of others stayed forever in Sachsenhausen.”
Szcypiorski warned his audience against complacency and understood the importance for individuals to take responsibility for their acts.
At times, he said, “it appears as if only unconscious people supported” the Nazi regime.
“State violence is not a natural catastrophe, but the result of a willingness to engage in it.”