The German ambassador on empathy, the past and being speechless
I have invited any survivors of the Holocaust living in South Africa to my home in Pretoria. Not many are still alive. Prisoners from Auschwitz were freed on January 27 1945, more than 73 years ago. Among them was Veronica Phillips. Veronica is 92. She was a young girl from Budapest when, from 1940 onwards, all hell broke loose. Her father, her aunts and uncles were incarcerated, tortured, brought to concentration camps, forced on death marches and eventually annihilated by the German Nazi regime.
Veronica survived, with luck and the help of many, and came, in the course of her tumultuous life, to South Africa. She will never forget the horrible images of those barbarous times, of her relatives she was never to see again, of the concentration camp. All that was done to her, and to her family, by Germans, by stooges of the Nazi regime.
What can I, what will I say to Veronica and the other Holocaust survivors that have similarly gruesome stories to tell? How will they react when meeting the official representative of the nation, the state and the people who did all that to them? Can there ever be real conciliation, partnership or even friendship over the destroyed lives and the graves of millions after such horror?
I hope there is, but I don't know. What I do know for sure is that as a German, even as someone who was born a generation after the Holocaust and who hence cannot possibly have any form of personal guilt, I carry great and unabated responsibility. What was done – waging a brutal and merciless World War, with millions dead and even more scared and traumatised, killing six million European Jews – that was done by my people, in the name of my country. This responsibility will be a part of my life, of the lives of all Germans – indelibly, inextricably, unalterably, eternally.
What I can and what I will tell the Holocaust survivors is that I will never forget what my grandfather's generation did to them. I will tell them that I feel deeply ashamed. That I bow my head before them. That I cannot change what happened, but that I will do my utmost to make sure that it never happens again. That we have learned from history.
My meeting with Holocaust survivors will take place in the place of gold, the economic heart of South Africa, in Gauteng. It was here that apartheid was invented and decided upon. It was here that it was implemented most ferociously. It was here that the black majority began their revolt and took to the streets. It was here that apartheid was finally overcome.
We must never relent and lose our footing on that path. That means we must stand up against all signs of anti-Semitism, all signs of xenophobia, and all hateful and spiteful rhetoric directed against particular groups.
Not that apartheid could ever be equated with the Holocaust. The deliberately planned and executed industrial annihilation of an entire people stands unique in the history of mankind, in its horror and evil. The Nazi regime and apartheid are concrete forms of the abhorrent totalitarian ideologies of the first half of the 20th century: authoritarianism, the concept of superiority of one race, the will to employ violent means to force an inhuman ideology upon an entire society, to denigrate, humiliate and eventually destroy the lives of others.
And one thing is clear: Members of the privileged, supposedly superior race benefitted from the privileges apartheid provided, even if they personally rejected or openly defied the ideology and its policies. This past cannot be changed. The past is the past. However, the past comes with responsibility for the present and for the future – for everyone, as an individual and as a member of a society, a nation.
Most importantly, I believe it is about empathy and compassion. It is about the willingness and the ability to feel the pain and the suffering of those who were not privileged. To acknowledge their agony, to share the truth, to recognise the feeling of anger of those who did not live on the bright side, but who had to live their lives under the yoke of harsh and ruthless apartheid rule, in poverty, inequality and misery.
In South Africa, the trauma is deep, and it is profound. Apartheid lasted for generations, and I believe it will take time to heal its wounds. But I am convinced that it will eventually happen. The beautiful idea of a South African rainbow nation is a wonderful ambition, a great objective. It is not a final product, but an everlasting process. Many components are needed for it to succeed: good governance, consistent and coherent transformation of the economy and society, lively and controversial debate in society and dialogue across all ethnic, religious and other groups.
And most of all, it takes empathy and the ensuing sense of responsibility of the formerly privileged. It is a long path. In Germany, we are still walking that path. And we know that we must never relent and lose our footing on that path. That means we must stand up against all signs of anti-Semitism, all signs of xenophobia, and all hateful and spiteful rhetoric directed against particular groups.
That is our responsibility. And that is my very own, my personal responsibility. I am looking forward to meeting Veronica and the other brave men and women who survived the Nazi barbarities. To listen to them. To hear them. To make sure that "never again" is not an empty phrase.