Holocaust memorial sites fight new threat from far right

BERLIN: From swastikas sprayed on the walls to Hitler's salutation selfies, far-right provocations are a growing problem at the sites of ancient in Germany.

Museum directors have raised the alarm over an increase in incidents, which include visitors who write denial messages in the guestbook and challenging tour guides about the facts of the genocide.

Messages that glorify Nazism or demand the reopening of camps for foreigners have become more common, Volkhard Knigge, director of the museum at the former concentration camp in eastern Germany, told AFP.

There have always been incidents at memorial sites, but we have noticed an escalation due to far-right violation of language taboos, he said.

In Buchenwald, where 56,000 people died between 1937 and 1945, the number of reported incidents has doubled since 2015.

Right-wing extremists are also known to take smiling selfies in front of the ovens used to incinerate victims and leave stickers that glorify fellow revisionists, Knigge said.

More recently, a growing number of tour guides have been interrupted by extremists who spread revisionist theories.

Uwe Neumaerker, director of the Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, said his museum faced similar problems.

Visitors question the truth of the genocide. That is something we did not experience a few years ago.

This year marks 75 years since the liberation of most of the Nazi death camps in Europe.

The rise in memorial site incidents also comes as the generation of Germans who lived during World War II is beginning to disappear and attention is turning to ensure the horrors of the Holocaust, in which six million Jews they were systematically killed, not forgotten.

But in recent years, the anti-immigrant AfD party established itself as the most successful electoral far-right movement in post-war history in Germany.

Founded in 2013, the AfD is now Germany's largest opposition party in parliament, and many of its key figures have attacked the long-standing culture of atonement for Nazi crimes.

The regional leader has called for a 180-degree investment in German souvenir culture, calling the Berlin Holocaust Memorial a monument of shame.

The former AfD president has dismissed the Nazi dictatorship as a speck of bird shit in German history and has asked citizens to be proud of the soldiers who fought for the Wehrmacht or Nazi army.

The extreme right and the AfD always adopt a push-to-limit strategy to normalize their thinking, said Bianca Klose of the Berlin-based organization Mobile Counseling Against Right-Wing Extremism (MBR).

Since the party won seats in all of Germany's regional parliaments, several AfD parliamentarians have also tried to influence the cultural-historical programs of the memorial sites, he added.

They question pedagogical options and try to erase certain historical aspects. Worse yet, they intimidate people by demanding information about their private life or political orientation, Klose told AFP.

There are 15 former concentration camps on German soil that have been converted into memorial sites.

The best known among them, Dachau, Neuengamme, Bergen-Belsen, Ravensbrueck and Buchenwald, received almost three million visitors in 2018.

But faced with the new challenge from the far right, many of the sites have been forced to adapt.

In Berlin, Neumaerker allows its tour guides to choose whether or not to accept AfD groups, and has provided staff with special training on how to react to provocations.

Like his colleague Knigge in Buchenwald, he has blacklisted certain members of AfD.

In Neuengamme, all AfD delegations are accompanied by additional tour guides.

Certain sites have also introduced a so-called extremist clause, which prohibits access to anyone who wears clothing that refers to the Third Reich.

However, funding CCTV cameras and security personnel diverts funds that would be more useful in education ... especially for younger people, Knigge said.

The Buchenwald principal also said he regretted that schools have cut back on lessons devoted solely to teaching the history of Nazism on their busy schedules, a subject of concern in Germany and a parliamentary study two years ago.

Monuments cannot make up for what schools are no longer doing, he said.