There are some odd places in Germany’s Deep South that are strangely attractive to American tourists. For one, there is the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s Alpine refuge, which, not too long ago, one of my university colleagues cheerfully described as the high point of his German sightseeing tour; on TripAdvisor the Eagle’s Nest gets just as many thumbs-up as Austria’s Sound of Music tour. Growing up in 1970s Germany, I don’t remember anyone using the term “Eagle’s Nest” or Adlerhorst, probably because political winds were steadily blowing left and pilgrimage to Nazi remnants wasn’t a thing. Another southern tourist attraction—less creepy but still weird enough—is Bavaria’s fairy tale castle Neuschwanstein. A kitsch monster from the 19th century, it was designed by Mad King Ludwig who never, even in his wildest hallucinations, imagined that one day it would be lifted into the corporate logo of the Walt Disney company and become the go-to castle for Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

It was only recently that northern Germany came up with an answer to these architectural challenges from the south, which is no less Disneyesque than Neuschwanstein and historically at least as unappetizing as the Eagle’s Nest. It’s a replica of the Royal Prussian Palace planted in the middle of Berlin, home to Germany’s last kaiser whose madness was far more consequential for world politics than Ludwig’s. Kaiser Wilhelm’s passion was world domination, not building fairy tale castles, and WWI was a direct result of his imperial hubris. In the end the Kaiser’s empire collapsed, but his palace didn’t. It even remained more or less intact through the next world war and another failed attempt at world domination, this time by the owner of the Eagle’s Nest. And yes, this all sounds like the typical plot for 007 movies: supervillains living in fancy hideouts trying to bring the planet under their control. Even the grand finale could have been taken from a James Bond novel: the Kaiser’s palace was spectacularly blown to bits with dynamite like Auric Goldfinger’s volcano lair in You Only Live Twice. The palace’s lucky streak was over when it ended up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, in Berlin’s Soviet Sector, where feudal architecture didn’t have many fans. Later, the communists would proudly claim responsibility for the Big Bang that finished off Prussia’s history and its most visible symbol. Once and for all, so they thought.

You could argue that predicting history and getting it wrong is what Marxists do. But a sequel to the palace’s story in which the German taxpayer is willing to pay half a billion euros for a tacky remake—70 years into the federal republic and with no monarch in sight—would have been even beyond Ian Fleming’s imagination. How did that come about? How could a group of wealthy ultraconservatives, some with close ties to Germany’s far right and antisemitic AfD, lead the entire country by the nose and make parliament agree to pay the bill for a palace look-alike that had virtually no artistic merit? With pockets as deep as their minds were shallow, these businessmen were running campaigns in Germany with Trumpian slogans at a time when Donald Trump was still running casinos into the ground. “Let’s make Berlin beautiful again” was one of those slogans. And it caught on. Hard to believe this happened in the same country that, just a few years earlier and a few blocks away, had reserved prime real estate, bigger than three football fields, for its Holocaust Memorial.

To top it all off, as a finishing touch the palace received its shiny dome again bearing the exact same inscription as in the 1850s. It’s printed in flashy golden letters on a blue ribbon that runs around the dome’s base and demands that “in the name of Jesus all of them that are in heaven and on earth and under the earth should bow down on their knees.” This made clear that Prussia was a Christian state with its king solely reporting to God and certainly not to his underlings. And to leave no doubt about which faith is the right faith, the dome was topped with a glittering giant cross that sat on a tiny orb and sent yet another message of world domination. This particular piece of roof decoration has been remade from scratch and reinstalled as well. For what? As a nod to American tourists from the Bible Belt? While the glaring resurrection of cross and orb may warm the hearts of Christian nationalists from all around the globe, it keeps sending chills down the spines of Berlin’s Jewish community who, along with many other groups, protested against the uncontextualized display of religious supremacy.

The palace is no longer called the palace. It’s now a public building named the Humboldt Forum, which at first didn’t have a real function beyond pretending to be the palace. Then, in another breathtakingly callous move, it was decided that the Forum should house Berlin’s Ethnological Museum. Many of its artifacts and treasures are from the heady days when the Kaiser’s navy was roaming the seas, making landfalls in Africa and Asia, massacring the population and mopping up what other colonial powers had missed. Putting the stolen artwork back in the Kaiser’s palace is like decorating the Eagle’s Nest with Nazi plunder. As a result, curators at the Humboldt Forum have a lot of explaining to do right now. There is a good chance that eventually, when claims are settled and things returned to their rightful owners, all that’s left to curate is a Potemkin palace.

So, should you decide to invest your soaring US dollars into cheap euros during the next travel season, there is nothing wrong with spending them on a trip to Mad King Ludwig’s and Walt Disney’s Neuschwanstein. It is, after all, more than a hundred years old and a real castle.

Christian nationalism made—and remade—in Germany: the original palace around 1900 and its doppelganger in 2021. (Top image via Album von Berlin; Globus Verlag, Berlin 1904/Wikimedia Commons; bottom image via Dosseman/Wikimedia Commons)

Henning Schroeder is a professor at the University of Minnesota and currently teaches in the Department of German, Nordic, Slavic & Dutch. His email address is schro601@umn.edu and his Twitter handle is @HenningSchroed1.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Luxembourg Agreement, the resulting agreements from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, commonly known as the Claims Conference. The meeting, held just six years after the Holocaust, negotiated tens of billions of dollars in compensation for survivors of the Holocaust, implemented the following year. Each year, the Claims Conference continues to support survivors in dozens of countries around the world. Just last month, the German government pledged another $1.2 billion in funding, including funds explicitly for Holocaust education for the first time. 

The staggering level of support from the German government is in line with the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi government between 1933 and 1945. The Claims Conference, while clearly unable to atone for the past, is an attempt by the German government to answer to crimes committed against European Jews under the Nazi regime. On a recent trip to Berlin, I was reminded that signs of this culpability extend all the way down to the streets, where memorials, placards, and other public history displays make clear the role of the National Socialist government in perpetrating the Holocaust.

But while these memorials to the Holocaust ensure that it can never be ignored or forgotten, not all of German history is on public display. There is a story that is conspicuously absent; Germany’s role as a colonial power. The country’s colonial aspirations began even before it gained overseas territories—through merchants who profited off slave labor in other European colonies. It wasn’t until 1884 when the Berlin Conference established the rules for the European colonization of Africa, that the newly formed German Empire established colonies in East and West Africa and the South Pacific. Like their European counterparts, German officials brutally exploited its colonies. Many of the hallmarks of genocidal oppression elsewhere in African colonies could be found in Germany’s colonies as well, including the violent campaigns of retaliation against tribes asserting independence, most notably the 1904-1907 genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples in what is now Namibia. The legacies of German colonialism run much deeper than what can be presented in a blog article, but they still reverberate across the African continent and Germany today. 

The German government has accepted responsibility for its colonial crimes, but only somewhat. In May 2021, Germany formally apologized for its treatment of the Herero and Nama peoples, officially labeling its actions as genocide in a statement read by then Foreign Minister Heiko Maas:

We will officially call these events what they were from today’s perspective, a genocide. In doing so, we acknowledge our historical responsibility. In light of Germany’s historical and moral responsibility, we will ask Namibia and the descendants of victims for forgiveness. 

In December, the agreement was finalized. In addition to a formal apology from the German government, Namibia will receive more than a billion dollars in aid meant to support Namibia’s infrastructure and public services over the next three decades, which amounts to just under $37 million in funds annually. While the funds appear low, Namibia’s Human Development Index is ranked 139th out of 191 nations, meaning there is a great need for support in the country. 

The apology has significant symbolic value and aid for Namibia is much-needed, but I couldn’t help but notice the absence of acknowledgment of Germany’s colonial past in its public history. Berlin’s Tiergarten, which features Holocaust memorials to the Persecuted Homosexuals Under National Socialism and the Roma and Sinti, still includes a statue of Otto von Bismark, the architect of the Berlin Conference. These histories are seemingly at odds with each other and are representative of a country willing to confront the horrors of one past while ignoring another. It’s important to remember that like the Holocaust, Germans of the colonial period would have been exposed to colonialism directly; it wasn’t restricted to overseas territories. Many Africans settled in Germany and, in some cases, even married white German women. However, the experience of Afro-Germans and those in the former colonies don’t seem to be a part of mainstream discourse from the German state. 

The Bismarck Memorial in the Tiergarten in Berlin.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
The Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism.
Image via the author.

In light of this erasure, several groups across Germany are working to raise the profile of the country’s colonial past in the public consciousness. Located in Berlin, the organization Dekolonialetests how a metropolis, its space, its institutions and its society can be examined on a broad level for (post-)colonial effects, how the invisible can be experienced and the visible can be irritated.” In so doing, the organization aims to shift the public discourse away from the history of the oppressors to the story of the victims. Some of its work has included the exhibition Looking Back, organized in conjunction with the Treptow Museum. When the museum wanted to revisit the problematic 1896 colonial exhibition in Berlin, Dekoloniale stepped in, helping organize an exhibit that tells the story of the more than 100 African and Pacific Islanders sent to Germany to serve as a human zoo. For me, a particularly astonishing project is its mapping project, connecting the stories of Afro-Germans with Berlin and former German African colonies, bringing the story of the city’s ties with colonialism home.

DeKoloniale’s mapping project via the Dekoloniale website

In Hamburg, Afro-German activists have opened Arca – Afrikanisches Bildungszentrum, an African-focused library, helping to fill a need they felt public libraries would not and providing a cultural hub. The library itself is housed in a former prison (and before that, military barracks) that’s now being used as an artist commune. It’s one of a number of education centers opened across Germany showcasing Black, Afro-German, and Afro-diasporic perspectives and resources. Coming from the United States which incarcerates its Black population at a staggering rate, the symbolism of a former prison now housing an organization that celebrates African & Black identity cannot be missed. 

Despite the many groups working across Germany to raise awareness of its colonial past, it’s an uphill challenge. For instance in Berlin, attempts to rename M-Street (M being a racial slur commonly used during the colonial past) have been rebuffed by residents, echoing a similar unwillingness to rename sites across the Twin Cities (see the debate around Bde Maka Ska and, more recently, Historic Fort Snelling). The street name remains in place, despite continued efforts. In Hamburg, the city’s Speicherstadt district, a UNESCO world heritage site, is receiving millions of dollars in reinvestment in an effort to turn the area into a tourism destination. In spite of the city’s stated goal to create an inclusive space, many of the buildings in the area will now feature the names of European colonial explorers like Columbus, Vespucci, and Marco Polo. These names tie back to a glorified history of European exploration that Hamburg no doubt wants to connect itself to, but do not reflect the diverse population of the city today and serve to reinforce the legacies of colonialism. 

I wrote several years ago after the disappointing vote of Rep. Ilhan Omar on the Armenian genocide that recognizing one genocide doesn’t preclude acknowledging another. I can’t shake a similar feeling I have after my two weeks in Germany. The memorials, displays, and exhibitions across Germany serve as an important reminder to never forget the horrors of the Holocaust but also stand in stark contrast to the largely absent public memory of colonial history. I went to Germany expecting to examine how the Holocaust can serve as a catalyst to publicly present other difficult pasts but I left with the impression that many of the challenges we have in representing the legacies of colonialism in Minnesota are similar in Germany. It became clear that while in some instances Germany can serve as the prime example of a country reckoning with its difficult past, its lack of colonial awareness, at times bordering on denial, shows that it’s essentially no different than many other former colonial powers. 

Note: This trip was part of the “Building a Diverse and Inclusive Culture of Remembrance (DAICOR)” fellowship, a project hosted by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung in Washington, DC, and CulturalVistas and funded by the Transatlantic Program of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. 

Joe Eggers is the Interim Director of the Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies.

*Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published in the Oral History Journal.

Gelinada Grinchenko, Professor of History at Kharkiv National University, Ukraine, President of the Oral History Association, Ukraine, and Scholar at Risk at the University of Wuppertal, Germany, reflects on her forthcoming book and series of accompanying short films On Kharkiv and ourselves: the city’s fates and experiences in its inhabitants’ oral histories. Gelinada also discusses her experience and role in the context of the current conflict in Ukraine as an oral historian, survivor, and potential storyteller in the future.

Screen shot from the first short film to accompany the book: On Kharkiv and ourselves: the city’s fates and experiences in its inhabitants’ oral histories (Image via Gelinada Grinchenko)

‘On the evening of 23 February 2022, my colleagues and I recorded my commentary for a short film to accompany the second part of the book.  The book is in three parts: the beginning of the Nazi-Soviet war and the Nazi invasion in Kharkiv; the Holocaust and the Nazi crimes in the city; and life under occupation, liberation and the end of the war.  This second film focused on the Nazi persecution of the Jews of Kharkiv and its culmination in the execution of about ten thousand Jews in Drobytsky Yar in December 1941-January 1942 on the eastern outskirts of the city. Recording the commentary was hard and back at home, I was worried about how best to combine the voices of the narrators in the film with my commentary as the researcher, together with archive photographs, animation, sound effects, and music. I fell asleep late that night, and two hours later, I woke up from the sound of real explosions: at 5 am on the 24 February 2022 the Russians bombed my city.

‘I began my work on this book in 2021 with two groups of sources: the University of Southern California (USC) Shoah Foundation collection of oral histories of the Holocaust survivors’ from Ukraine – recorded in the mid 1990s, and those recorded by the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (Kyiv, Ukraine) between 2018 and 2021. Being recorded at different times, these oral histories provide an opportunity to analyse, among other things, changes in the official narrative of the war.

‘The book is dedicated to my mother. She was born and raised in Kharkiv and experienced the war as a little girl.  The most terrible thing that she remembers is how the track in which she and her mother and several other officer’s families, who were leaving the city, came under bombardment.

‘I am sure that when I am 86, I will also recall with horror the sound of a Russian plane over Kharkiv when my family fled. And now, I perceive the stories of many of the Second World War survivors in a completely different way. When they say that, according to their impression, the plane was flying to kill them directly, earlier I considered that as a hyperbole, an emotional exaggeration. Now I understand and empathise with them. Two months ago, when we fled from Kharkiv in March 2022, it seemed to me too that there were only three of us in the whole world: the Russian killer pilot, my frightened little son, and me.

‘Now that I am in a safe place, I think a lot about the parallels between my experience and the experience of those who survived the Second World War. The escalation of “never again” into “never? again!” turned my personal life and my research beliefs and priorities upside down.  From my own experience – no longer as a researcher but as a survivor – I see that we have very few ethical standards, and moral guidelines for conducting oral history research in times of war. This is a particular concern for people who continue to experience the trauma of loss, displacement, bombing, or flight. How should researchers approach fieldwork in times of continuously unfolding trauma? How can we conduct interview-based research in times of war without harming those with whom we work? These are the central questions of a planned summer institute: Witnessing War in Ukraine, Oral History and Interview-based research.’

For more information about the summer institute, click here.

To watch the first of the short films about the beginning of the war in 1941 in Kharkiv:

Community engagement is vital—now more than ever—for fostering a more inclusive understanding of the liberal arts and sciences in this current world. Following a brief hiatus during the early years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CLA Engagement Hub (located in Pillsbury Hall) began hosting residencies in 2021-2022. Scholars from the university have since partnered with community members to promote shared interests within the public spaces of both Pillsbury Hall and the larger Twin Cities metro.

In this piece, we are highlighting a recent public art exhibition that features one of the current Engagement Hub residents, Voice to Vision. Professor Feinberg also holds a CLA Engagement Hub residency for the 2022-2023 academic year, and is continuing his collaborative project with various storytellers with connections to the Twin Cities. 

The gallery exhibition included works from Voice to Vision, a series of collaboratively-produced works of art with survivors of genocide and mass violence from around the world. The various series bring together multiple artistic subjects simultaneously, and they put into dialogue different voices, historical events, and intergenerational memory. 

The Engagement Hub is not the only recent venue displaying Voice to Vision artworks. On September 9th and 10th, 2022, the East Side Arts Council organized the Solidarity Street Gallery in Saint Paul’s Payne-Phalen neighborhood. This year’s festival was the third of its kind, and the title, “Resilient Generations,” pointed to the lived experiences in East Saint Paul’s many Southeast Asian communities. As the event description also highlighted, the galleries, events, and culinary pop-ups not only feature the ways language, memory, and culture continue across generations; they also serve as a call for solidarity against anti-Asian violence that has only become more severe in the past several years. 

Payne-Phalen is the largest of Saint Paul’s neighborhoods. Located north and slightly east of downtown, the region has long been a center for migration, and the architecture, place names, and businesses reflect this history. The Solidarity Street Gallery included both a curated gallery exhibition as well as street galleries that profiled public art on display throughout the year. 

One of the most striking pieces from Voice to Vision that also appeared in Feinberg’s retrospective that marked his retirement was Voice to Vision XI. Consisting of twelve pieces that form the shape of a large boat, each panel is the product of an individual storyteller’s experiences shaped by the Vietnam War and its aftermath. No two panels being alike causes the viewer to confront the realities of survivor testimony: points of view are varied, subjective, and not monolithic, and only in recognizing lived, human experience as such can we grapple with the past often told through monumental narratives. 

Image: Professor Emeritus David Feinberg (right) in front of Voice to Vision XI that features Storytellers Vong Duong; Anh-Tuyet Tran; Thomas Cao; Luong La; Hoi An; Thanh H. Vu; Hien Vo; Hung Le; Danh Lam; Phuoc Bao Hoang; CamTu Nguyen and from visual artists Michelle Englund, Kimchi Hoang, Jennifer Hensel, Kristin Anton, Sima Shahriar, Paula Leiter-Pergament, Sara Feinberg, Julia Breidenbach, Jane Bollweg, and Annie Nickell

The galleries varied in terms of location. Some were located in former office spaces, while others could be found inside the many local businesses along Payne Avenue, which allowed visitors to not only engage with the diverse commercial spaces in the neighborhood but also see the ways art blurred the boundaries between public and personal. 

Above: “Cambodia: Caught Between an Alligator and a Tiger” (left) “Cambodia: 1975-1979” (right) with storytellers Bounna Chhun and Bunkhean Chhun; artists Ali Abdulkadir, Bonnie Brabson, Mary George, Jason Krumrai, Rachel Mosey, Rowan Pope, Ryan Rasmussen, Nicole Rodriguez, Adam Streeter, Stephanie Thompson

We at CHGS encourage you to browse the incredible roster of residencies for the 2022-23 academic year. For more information on Voice to Vision, please visit either our collections page, or the UMN LIbraries’ Digital Conservancy.

Meyer Weinshel is the Programming, Publications, and Research Fellow with the Center for Austrian Studies, and the Collections Curator for the Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies. In 2022, Meyer completed his PhD in Germanic Studies at the University of Minnesota.

This summer my tenure as director of CHGS comes to an end. Since the moment I arrived in Minneapolis from Germany in August 2012, I have marveled at the intellectual vigor, ingenuity, and enthusiasm for learning at the University of Minnesota. I feel honored and humbled to have worked alongside and with so many wonderful colleagues. What we have achieved here at the Center over the last decade in essence is due to the special bonds and partnerships forged between our inspiring faculty, tirelessly dedicated staff, and superb student scholars. Collaboration and timely exchanges at the local, national and international levels have also enabled us to develop an exceptional range of scholarly, teaching, and public engagement programs.

I truly take heart in the manner in which our team has upheld the Center’s strong tradition of outreach to educators and the public at large, affirming the legacy of the Center’s founding director Stephen Feinstein. To that end, it was imperative that we expanded the Center’s resources on the Holocaust and other genocides, including those that occurred on North American soil.  

These past ten whirlwind years have been a time of intense learning for me. I have been touched by survivors and descendants who confided in me their stories of loss and pain, but also resilience and hope. I was privileged to learn from artists whose work illuminated the past in powerful new ways, and from teachers seasoned in engaging creatively, learners with the difficult truths of the histories and lasting legacies of mass violence. In my classes, I was heartened by students who shared their deep convictions in ending hatred and embracing humanity’s fullness.

At the Center our goal has been to construct a platform to support and promote this spirit, knowledge, and skills, facilitating bridges between scholars, students, educators, advocates, and interested audiences community-wide. Our conference this July, Education after Genocide: Shifting Approaches to Conflict, Prevention, and Redress, the culmination of a year of careful planning, stands in tribute to the CHGS approach and philosophy.   After this conference, I am proud to hand the reins of our center to Assistant Director Joe Eggers who will serve for one year as the Interim Director of CHGS. I cannot think of a better fit for this transitional period than Joe, whose professionalism and commitment to the Center´s mission have proven pivotal for countless programs and initiatives. In addition to his many roles, Joe will coordinate the Center´s public programs with the counsel of the Advisory Board and continue providing opportunities for students, faculty, and educators.

I look forward to seeing the Center grow in scope and impact over the next years under new leadership. I am confident that many new opportunities and alliances await. For the upcoming academic year, I was awarded a fellowship to continue my current research in genocide memory studies at the Department of Social Anthropology and the Centro Internacional de Memoria y Derechos Humanos at UNED University in Madrid. Even though I will be based in Europe, I am only an email away and I look forward to advancing the cause of the Center in a different capacity.   The relevance of Holocaust and genocide studies and education to the realities that are unfolding in the US and globally cannot be sufficiently stressed. In the hopeful words of Spanish Buchenwald survivor and acclaimed writer Jorge Semprún:   The world doesn’t have to be unfair or unbearable…we can fix certain things. I still have those illusions, perhaps more than ever.  

Please continue supporting the Center through your engagement, expertise, and material assistance.

There are several towns named Wittenberg in the US, but there is only one in Germany. Growing up in West Germany I didn’t hear much about it because Wittenberg was in the East, on the other side of the Iron Curtain. We learned at school that Martin Luther taught there and kicked off the Protestant Reformation. However, that he personally nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg—as the story goes—is just as likely as Walt Disney having drawn the first Mickey Mouse draft himself. After the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain went away in 1989, Wittenberg awoke from its Dornröschenschlaf (Sleeping Beauty slumber), dusted itself off and emerged as a major tourist destination. Today it is the city with the highest density of UNESCO World Heritage sites, four in total and all connected to Luther’s life and the Reformation—must-visits in a Mecca for evangelical globetrotters. One of those sites received a lot of press coverage earlier this month that once again exposed the ugly underbelly of Luther’s teachings and the callousness of Germany’s highest court.

Judensau on display at an outside wall of the Stadtkirche (city church) in Wittenberg, Germany, February 4, 2020. (Image via Hendrik Schmidt/picture alliance via Getty Images/ via JTA)

The medieval Judensau sculpture placed on one of Wittenberg’s churches shows people identifiable as Jews suckling from a pig’s teats and a rabbi peering into its anus. It’s not the only antisemitic carving from ancient times still visible on German churches, but the importance of the Wittenberg relief lies in its direct ties to Luther. An inscription that was added to the sculpture in the 16th century quotes from one of several anti-Jewish tracts by Luther—which today sound like blueprints for Kristallnacht, the 1938 November pogroms in Nazi Germany. No wonder the Nazis had a sweet spot for the great reformer and even displayed Luther’s notorious pamphlet “On the Jews and Their Lies” during their Nuremberg rallies.

In response to a call by a local Jewish man to remove the sculpture, Germany’s federal court of justice agreed that the sculpture is deeply offensive and “antisemitism carved in stone,” but denied his call for removal since the existing memorial and information board enabled “clarification” to help “counter exclusion, hatred and defamation.” So far, so good. One could argue that the inside of a public museum provides a better space for contextualization than the outside wall of a Christian church, but even there, one would think, placing explanations on an information board might put things in perspective. When I first read the supposedly clarifying text, however, I couldn’t help but feel that sometime in the 1930s a spaceship must have landed in Germany, with Nazi aliens who brought the country and its well-meaning people under control (im nationalsozialistisch beherrschten Deutschland). Not exactly what you’d want tourists to read during their tour through Wittenberg, or would you? The memorial was installed in 1988 when East Germany was still under communist rule. Communists in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) felt they had nothing to be sorry for. In their view, all the Nazis had fled to West Germany and East Germany was an enchanted garden full of righteous anti-fascists. Which, by the way, strikes me as an early version of the fairy tale Vladimir Putin likes to tell about the anti-Nazi mission of modern Russia. But I digress. The fact that the Wittenberg memorial dates from the late GDR might explain its weirdly detached language, which the court, as a compromise and for the sake of true “clarification,” could have asked to revise and make more explicit, but didn’t.

There are more unpleasant historical facts in and around Wittenberg that have been successfully kept under wraps for decades. It’s no surprise that the university in Wittenberg where Martin Luther taught is named after him. In the 1990s, when I had my first tenured appointment at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, I always assumed that it had carried his name for centuries. Later I learned that Luther didn’t become its namesake until November 1933—with the enthusiastic approval of Hermann Göring, Prussia’s freshly minted prime minister. That the second-highest ranking Nazi in the Third Reich acted, for obvious reasons, as the proud godfather at MLU’s christening wasn’t much talked about at the university. Scientists don’t like to publish negative results, but neither do Hallenser historians.

Wittenberg proudly presents itself to the outside world, online and in print, as Lutherstadt Wittenberg (Luther City) and Halle markets itself as Händelstadt because the Baroque composer Georg Friedrich Händel was born there. Although he left Halle at an early age and rose to fame in England, Halle makes enormous efforts to put the Händel brand on pretty much everything you can think of: music festivals, food, merchandise—you name it. Not even Salzburg does that with its very own Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. One reason why Halle tries to numb your senses with the constant Händel bombardment may be to distract from its other (in)famous son: Reinhard Heydrich. In contrast to Händel, Heydrich was born into a well-to-do family from the upper echelons of Halle society, and, ironically, with equally high musical ambitions as the Händel family. Heydrich’s father owned and ran the local music conservatory and young Reinhard was supposed to become an opera singer. While the English Wikipedia entry for Halle (Saale) lists him under “notable people” as “Reinhard Heydrich (1904–1942), one of the leading Nazis in World War II and main architects of the Holocaust,” you don’t find him at all in the German version, which in fact looks like it was written by the Halle tourist bureau. Heydrich is mentioned on a separate, German-language-only Wikipedia page titled “Sons and daughters of Halle (Saale)” with all his fancy Nazi titles—without comment or reference to the Holocaust. Given its ruling on the Judensau, would Germany’s federal court of justice settle for that level of “clarification” too?

Henning Schroeder is a professor at the University of Minnesota and currently teaches in the Department of German, Nordic, Slavic & Dutch. His email address is schro601@umn.edu and his Twitter handle is @HenningSchroed1.

*Editor’s Note: This piece was originally posted by the UMN Human Rights Program. Click here to read the original post.

In Serbia, since the wars accompanying the breakup of Yugoslavia ended in 2001, another battle has been waged over representations of that violence. Competing interpretations are advanced by state and non-state groups over what happened and who is to blame. This battle can result in denial of genocide and other atrocities, which causes pain for survivors and victims and can enhance risk of future violence. While some research has been conducted on this process, gender has been under-researched as an important corresponding dimension. Women have unique experiences and memories of war and violence which may not be included in dominant narratives. In Serbia, women anti-war activists like Women in Black have been leading efforts for genocide acknowledgment and post-conflict reconciliation between opposing ethnic groups. In collaboration with Professor Joachim Savelsberg and thanks to the generous support of the Human Rights Initiative, we are exploring the role of women in the cultural processing of the Yugoslav wars in Serbia.

Nikoleta Sremac in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

I was born in Yugoslavia, that country that no longer exists, and my family immigrated to the U.S. in 1995 during the wars. Since then, I have been asking questions about the links between my personal experiences and the broader forces at work in post-conflict societies, which eventually led me to pursue my PhD in Sociology at the University of Minnesota. My research focuses on the relationships between gender, activism, and collective memory of mass violence and genocide.

Here at UMN I collaborate closely with a community of scholars of mass violence and collective memory such as Alejandro Baer and Joachim Savelsberg, the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and the Human Rights Program. In my first year of graduate school, I was invited to collaborate with Joachim Savelsberg on a project about gender and collective memory in Serbia, which was gratefully funded by the HRI. This funding allowed me to travel to Serbia in fall 2021 and conduct four months of fieldwork through the project “History in Whose Hands? Gendering the Collective Memory of Perpetrators in Serbia.” 

Our project asks about the role of Serbian women in constructing collective memory of the Yugoslav wars. What role do women play in the cultural processing of past mass violence, specifically as members of the “perpetrator people” of that violence? We focused on Serbian women who are part of an organization dedicated to memory issues (Women in Black) and another group of women who are not organized and must process (or avoid) the past in their everyday interactions. We also decided to recruit a small group of six men to conduct comparative interviews, which validated our expectations that there are significant gender differences in collective memory construction in Serbia. I conducted four focus groups, 47 in-depth individual interviews, and ethnographic observations with activists in Serbia and we are now processing these data, analyzing it, and writing up our findings to submit for publication.

This project has greatly contributed to my academic and professional development. I had the opportunity to collaborate with Professor Savelsberg on every stage of the project, thereby gaining skills in proposal development, development of research instruments, and conducting fieldwork in Serbia. I am now involved in processing, analyzing, and writing up the data, which will result in co-authored presentations and publications. Finally, the data collected in Serbia will contribute importantly to the empirical foundation of my doctoral dissertation on gender, feminist activism, and collective memory of the Yugoslav wars in Serbia.

In addition to the personal and professional benefits, this research has already and will continue to help build academic and practical knowledge in the field of human rights. Though we are still in the data processing and analysis stage and have not yet reached final conclusions about our findings, preliminary analysis demonstrates clear connections between gender and collective memory of the Yugoslav wars in Serbia. The two key dimensions of the relationship are: 1) gendered inequality in access to and participation in collective memory processes, and 2) the nature of the narratives that women and feminist activists interviewed articulate, which are more inclusive, empathetic, and peaceful than the nationalist narratives of the Serbian men interviewed and the Serbian government.

For example, in terms of the first dimension of inequality in participation in collective memory processes, the men interviewed shared that they speak openly and often about the wars in male-dominated spaces such as pubs, social clubs, and public squares. In contrast, almost none of the non-activist women interviewed said that they ever speak about the wars, not even in their families or friendship circles. The wars are seen as a men’s topic, with women having nothing to contribute. When I told men I was speaking to women about the wars, they were astonished and dismayed, saying things like, “Well what are you asking them for!”

In contrast to the lack of participation among non-activist women, the activists of Women in Black and other groups defy these expectations in speaking out against the wars and the ongoing denial in Serbian society, and they are vilified for their activities. They are ostracized, rejected, and attacked partially because, through engaging in their activism, they are not conforming to the gendered expectations in Serbian society for appropriate behavior for “normal women.” While I was conducting fieldwork in Belgrade, the offices of Women in Black were attacked and defiled twice, needing to be repainted. The graffitied insults are always gendered, calling the women witches and even worse feminized insults.

The personal narratives that men and women (both activist and non-activist) shared about the wars also differed across gendered lines. The men repeated the Serbian government’s nationalistic narrative of Serbian suffering and heroism during the wars. They minimized Serbia’s crimes, denying any collective responsibility for them, and justified Serbian military intervention in the other Yugoslav republics as necessary to defend “our” people and our territories from foreign attackers. In contrast, women expressed empathy for the victims of the other ethnic groups and pain regarding the violence that tore apart their country and continues to breed resentment in Serbian society. Several of them expressed fears as mothers for their children growing up in such a society and being taught to practice hatred and violence towards people of other ethnic groups.

These findings are relevant for academic audiences interested in denial and acknowledgement of genocide and other atrocities and gendered power relations in post-conflict societies. But they are also relevant to human rights practitioners who seek to challenge these harmful denialistic narratives, and who can draw on the more inclusive memory practices exhibited by these women interviewees. I believe that women, their activism, and their memories, have important contributions to make towards post-conflict reconciliation if they are more included in official processes. They inspire me to continue producing research that can hopefully illuminate and advance the important memory work of women and feminist activists in post-war societies.

Nikoleta Sremac in front of the Museum of Yugoslavia in Belgrade, standing with a fountain of five female figures, representing five peoples of Yugoslavia, produced by Sreten Stojanović in 1947.

Nikoleta Sremac is a PhD Student in Sociology and a Research Assistant at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota. She studies gender, social movements, culture, and genocide and mass violence. Her dissertation focuses on gendered memory politics and activism related to the 1990s Yugoslav Wars in Serbia.

The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the UMN School of Music had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Badema Pitic in March for a talk titled “Remembering Through Music: The Srebrenica Genocide in Bosnian izvorna Songs.” Watch a recording of the talk here. I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Pitic about her research on music, transitional justice, and reconciliation in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Dr. Badema Pitic is a Head of Research Services at the USC Shoah Foundation – Institute for Visual History and Education. She earned her Ph.D. in ethnomusicology in 2017 from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research focuses on the intersections of music, memory, and politics in the aftermath of war and genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Her research interests also include oral history and testimony, transitional justice, and perpetrators’ music.

A cello player in the partially destroyed National Library, Sarajevo, during the war in 1992. (Image via Mikhail Evstafiev/Wikipedia)

What has been the role of music in the post-war transitional justice and reconciliation processes in Bosnia-Herzegovina? 

​Music has been an important element in these processes, both formally and informally, and through several aspects of what we refer to as transitional justice processes: top-down and grassroots inter-group reconciliation initiatives, so-called “individual reconciliation” processes or individual coming to terms with a traumatic past, and public memorialization and commemorations, to name just a few. There are several relatively known examples of such a use of music, such as the case of Pontanima, a Sarajevo-based inter-religious choir that gathers singers from different religious denominations in Bosnia to perform musical works from diverse religious and other traditions in order to promote coexistence and inter-religious reconciliation. In the early 2000s, Women for Women International, for example, featured music as part of their program offerings to support Bosnian female survivors of the war – women would sing or listen to Bosnian sevdalinke as part of their “individual reconciliation.” An oratorio Srebrenicki Inferno, a musical piece commissioned and written to commemorate the Srebrenica genocide, regularly accompanies annual genocide commemorations on July 11. There are also more grassroots practices, including the izvorna commemorative music that has been the subject of my research, which has been used to not only commemorate the war and genocide in Bosnia, but also to comment on genocide denial and specific transitional justice processes and mechanisms, such as the issue of return or the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

You spoke in your talk about how the Bosnian izvorna songs act as a form of survivor testimony and witnessing about the Srebrenica genocide and the ongoing suffering in its aftermath. Do you see these testimonies as a force for countering genocide denial in Bosnia-Herzegovina, or is there any potential for them to do so if they were given more public prominence?

These narrative, neotraditional songs witness about the genocide by narrating about the genocide and its aftermath and, more importantly, by narrating about individual victims of the genocide. However, I would take it a step further and say that we can also observe these songs as a literal witness in itself: they were part and parcel of the wartime life in Srebrenica, during which time izvorna musicians documented the war events and victims in the area. When it comes to genocide denial, this is a complex issue. Rather then saying that I see izvorna songs as a force for countering genocide denial, I would say that I see them as another “tool” among many tools that genocide survivors employ to comment on and counter genocide denial. What is important here, at least in my view, is not so much whether these songs are successful in countering genocide denial (and we know too well that there is no proven tool to do so), it is really what they do for genocide survivors who employ and listen to them. In other words, they provide an important and needed space for expression: expression of pain, sadness, frustration, and anger that plague genocide survivors in today’s Bosnia.

You mentioned in your talk that some perceive the izvorna songs as not the most appropriate way to commemorate the genocide. Could you please say more about why that is the case?

This has to do with the relationship between religion and tradition. As you know, what we today call the Srebrenica genocide refers to the mass murder of over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys from Srebrenica and its surrounding area in July 1995. The war and genocide in Bosnia had a religious component, which also translated into their commemoration – the annual commemoration of the genocide has strong religious overtones, for example. Many genocide survivors themselves have turned to religion or became more religious after the genocide. The fact that the question of music in Islam is contested (allowed vs. prohibited), and that music does not accompany Islamic rituals, including burial, complicates the way the Srebrenica survivor community perceives the use of izvorna music to commemorate the genocide and its victims. 

I think a lot about potential ways to foster more inclusive or complex narratives about the Yugoslav wars within the Balkans. Do you see potential in the izvorna music to do this or are you aware of other artistic interventions doing this?

Yes, that is indeed something important to address. However, I am not sure that we have reached the point when this is possible, especially in the region with a long history of competing narratives and victimhoods. Cases from other contexts also point to the danger such initiatives carry with them: the danger of relativization of victims and perpetrators and even the danger of deepening the divide, so this is truly something to be approached in a very thoughtful way. I do not think that izvorna music has this potential, especially because this is a very local practice with a very limited appeal.

Could you please tell us a bit about the new Srebrenica survivor testimonies that have been added to the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive? How did the Shoah Foundation partner with the Srebrenica Memorial Center to collect the testimonies? 

​We’ve been very fortunate to partner with the Srebrenica Memorial Center to bring in a pilot collection of 20 testimonies of Srebrenica survivors and witnesses into our Visual History Archive, and we hope to add many more in the future. The Institute has been invested for a long time into acquiring the testimonies about the war and genocide in Bosnia. With the Memorial’s support, we are now in the process of indexing the testimonies and adding English subtitles. By being in our globally-accessible Visual History Archive, these testimonies are now available to educators and researchers worldwide as an important source for expanding our knowledge about the events in Bosnia. I am especially humbled by the opportunity to contribute to this project and to apply my subject matter knowledge in the best way possible: by elevating and preserving the stories of the survivors. 

Nikoleta Sremac is a PhD Student in Sociology and a Research Assistant at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota. She studies gender, social movements, culture, and genocide and mass violence. Her dissertation focuses on gendered memory politics and activism related to the 1990s Yugoslav Wars in Serbia.

April 27th is Yom HaShoah, one of several Holocaust remembrance days observed around the world at various points in the year. It is also Genocide Awareness Month, which marks the anniversaries of the Armenian Genocide (which began on April 24th, 1915), the Holocaust (or, namely the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on April 19th, 1943), the Cambodian Genocide (on April 19th, 1975), and the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda (on April 7th, 1944), As I mentioned in January, dates such as these mark a need for a collective memory, even as dates and temporal boundaries often fail to account for the long-term effects of genocide and mass violence. 

As a Jew, and at this particular moment during the ongoing war and mass violence in Ukraine, I struggle in 2022 (as in most years) to reconcile the official calls to remember with the more subjective, personalized constructions of memory that inevitably emerge from events such as these. I am reminded that public displays of memory, though central, can be brittle, and often serve contemporary state politics. Yom HaShoah is no exception, as a holiday directly tied to the State of Israel’s larger memory projects. The “complications” this date entails for both Jews and non-Jews alike, who are critical of Israeli domestic and foreign policies, also pertains to my specialized knowledge Yiddish history and culture that often gets left out of Zionist narratives. Days such as Yom HaShoah should in theory be encouraging a broader, more inclusive definition of collective memory, but we know that these calls often fail to reach beyond the limits of nationalism and geopolitics. 

Over the past few months several parties have asked me whether I could comment publicly on Ukraine. I continue to be reluctant for several reasons, none of which have to do with my unequivocal condemnation of the Russian invasion and the war crimes being committed. I realize this hesitance might also sound self-effacing, and it might appear to some as a form of cynical disavowal or scholarly isolationism. It might also exacerbate the noted absence of the humanities in many of the recent academic roundtables contextualizing the war. It is important, however, to note that the causes for this absence are numerous. The dearth of scholars with stable employment after decades of budget cuts is one reason. There is also a continued belief (wrongly, I might add) among many humanities academics that scholarly inquiry is supposedly divorced from the political forces affecting our (and our students’) work and lives. My hesitance, however, stems from an earnest self-critique of what my biography and expertise mean.

For example, I struggle with the ways my personal profile supposedly serves as a source of clarity when: the brittleness of memory if I’m not careful can serve as a source of power and control. It is why, and contrary to what many of my American Jewish peers seem to believe, I don’t feel my ancestral ties to what is today northwestern Ukraine, where in 1942 nearly all of my ancestors remaining in the multi-ethnic town of Ustile were murdered (along with 90-95% of the Jewish population), provides me with any more than an impressionistic understanding of the suffering we are seeing in 2022. Furthermore, I argue that the doctoral dissertation I am defending in a few weeks does not offer much clarity for recent events either—at least in the way some currently envision. It is true that, in addition to learning an ancestral language of Yiddish to fluency, I have spent years tracing the various ways Yiddishists from what is today western and central Ukraine, hailing from multiple locales and subscribing to differing political ideologies, translated German verse texts into Yiddish throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. It is true that this literary productivity was often the product of, or at least indirectly affected by, collective trauma. It might be true that the past hauntingly echoes the present, as regions once part of the Habsburg and Russian Empires remain central to current events. However, I as an American Jew must instead find ways to address the needs of refugees and the victims of war crimes in Ukraine today without centering myself or my intergenerational trauma. I say this as an American citizen, whose sole source of memory politics should not be Ukraine of a century ago. As I write this, I fear that the brittleness of memory in the United States has made our frames of reference so narrowly selective and competitive that it is not sustainable. We are seeing this play out in multiple arenas in frightening, reactionary ways. 

But back to my previous point: these conundra among academics are also directly related to memory politics more broadly. Who gets to speak, and who does not, on issues of local and global importance are central questions to larger institutional and societal reckonings in the United States and abroad. What are we “remembering” currently as a collective, and why? Inversely, and more importantly, what are we choosing to forget? What makes it easier to harken back to a particular genocidal event (i.e, the Holocaust, or even the 19th- and 20th-century pogroms that preceded it) than to more recent violence and human rights abuses in Eastern Europe and elsewhere? What are we claiming responsibility for remembering on national(ist) days of remembrance?

Working for a Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and as an expert in modern Jewish cultures (which, I will continue to emphasize, stretches beyond the specific episodes of mass death and destruction during the Holocaust), I am troubled by the dubious ways various world leaders and cultural figures continue to evoke Holocaust memory and victimhood. Explicitly referencing (or eliding) a historical event serves as a powerful political tool that shapes collective understanding of mass violence past and present. I am disheartened by the casual evocations of genocidal acts. For one, the millions of victims deported and murdered—that include Jews, Roma, Afro-Germans, Queer people, people with physical and intellectual disabilities, and others—by Nazi Germany and its collaborators should neither serve as rationale for further violence (as Russian officials have stated in their supposed quest to “De-Nazify” Ukraine), nor become symbolic pawns in state diplomacy when most acts of genocide have gone untried and reparations remain an open question. States thus fail to provide justice for genocidal acts, even as the memory of past traumas are currently distorted to justify war and human rights violations. This is a sad fact that extends beyond the current war between Russia and Ukraine. 

This all might sound deeply cynical, but I promise there are ways to overcome the challenges we face regarding public memory. Like always, now is the time to make conscious and conscientious political and ethical choices about the media one consumes, and about the stances one chooses to take. It is my hope that, in addition to (paying what is a high price for) sound journalism, if we are to truly engage critically with the humanitarian crises and devastation this war is causing, we can start by engaging in whatever way possible with non-Anglophone sources—either in other languages or in translation. This includes the diverse cultural responses from people in Ukraine. As my own background is in foreign languages, texts, and media, we should engage deeply with individualized responses to the violence unfolding, which in turn complicate the ways memory is already being co-opted and mediated.

Meyer Weinshel is a Ph.D. candidate in Germanic studies at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, where he is the educational outreach and special collections coordinator for the UMN Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. In addition to being an instructor of German studies, he has also taught Yiddish coursework with Minneapolis-based Jewish Community Action and at the Ohio State University.

As far as I can think back, an odd-looking, faceless porcelain bunny has been part of the Easter decoration in my parents’ house in Remscheid, Germany. It has an artistic twist to it with a coat that shimmers in purple, blue and red. Originally it must have looked just like his fellow rabbits, but it no longer does. That’s because it got a second glaze in the early morning hours of July 31, 1943, when the house it lived in was burnt to the ground during an Allied air raid on my hometown. As my grandparents sifted through the rubble a couple of days later, that bunny was pretty much the only thing that emerged intact. 

“Der Angriff” (attack) and how my grandparents miraculously survived the fire under some wet blankets in the backyard became part of our family folklore. My mother who got the bunny as an Easter gift earlier in 1943 still has a hard time dealing with sirens after spending too many nights in bomb shelters as a child. During her first visit to Minneapolis, an unexpected tornado siren test sent her immediately looking for the basement—unfortunately without success since our house is one of the few in Minneapolis that doesn’t have one. That story is now also part of our family folklore.

What struck me recently is that as often as the “Angriff” story has been told in our family, by either my parents or grandparents, blaming the bomb dropping British or American pilots was never part of it—despite the fact that one of my great-grandparents didn’t make it to the bomb shelter on time and died. The “Amis,” as the Germans would call the US troops, get their first mention in the family folklore as benevolent occupiers when my mother’s younger brother starts making daily trips to their headquarters to get his ration of Hershey’s chocolate and chewing gum. Sounds cheesy and cliché, yet it’s true. To put the record straight, my grandparents were never part of any resistance scheme against Hitler, but deep down they must have realized that 1945 was indeed more liberation than defeat. That denazification had to happen in post-WWII Germany was never questioned by them.

I am writing this while flying from Amsterdam to Minneapolis on Easter Sunday after spending Good Friday in Remscheid with my now 92-year-old mother and her double-glazed Easter bunny of 1943. Here is what I can’t get out of my mind: the absurd notion that a Hitlerian thug like Vladimir Putin who lives in a world of racist, pan-Russian fantasies now assumes the mantle of the great “denazifier.” I doubt that family folklore in Ukraine will have any of it.

Henning Schroeder is a professor at the University of Minnesota and currently teaches in the Department of German, Nordic, Slavic & Dutch. His email address is schro601@umn.edu and his Twitter handle is @HenningSchroed1.