In the “Memory Workshop” everything revolves around how individuals and society deal with history. Kolja Buchmeier and Sjoma Liederwald, student assistants and co-directors of the “Memory Workshop – Shaping the Future of Remembrance Culture” at TU Berlin, are committed to ensuring that the culture of remembrance grows alongside social developments. They want to give memory more space and provide contemporary impetus for exchange with society.
Was there a specific reason for establishing the Memory Workshop?
Sjoma Liederwald: We have both been active in the areas of memorial work, Nazi history and research since 2017. We started at the Sachsenhausen Memorial, where we gave tours, among other things. We noticed that our know-how is in high demand with fellow students. We organized a workshop at the Sachsenhausen Memorial, which was well received. This gave rise to the idea of founding a project laboratory. The range of courses on pedagogy in memorial work is not very extensive. So we were able to fill this gap.
The project laboratory is called the Memory Workshop, which is intended to help shape the culture of remembrance. Do you see a difference between remembering and remembrance?
Kolja Buchmeier: Everyone can remember for themselves, that is something the brain does. Remembrance is something collective. That has to come from a society and is an attempt to create something common from a wide variety of perspectives.
Sjoma Liederwald: Our project laboratory focuses on remembrance. It is very practice-oriented and aims to help participants acquire methods of memorial education. It is important for us to deal with empirical knowledge. For us, the basis is the three principles of the “Beutelsbach Consensus,” which arose at the interface between theory and practice. (Editor’s note: The Beutelsbach Consensus was developed in 1976 at the Conference of the State Office for Political Education in the Swabian town of Beutelsbach. Since then, it has served as the theoretical basis for political education. These principles are as follows: not overwhelming the students, i.e., students should be able to form an independent judgment; presenting controversial perspectives in science and politics in the classroom; and enabling students to analyze political situations and their own interests.)
What happens in the Memory Workshop?
Kolja Buchmeier: Using various memorials as examples, we address the pedagogical communication of the history of National Socialism. The participants first get to know the methods and content of historical-political educational work and deal with the history of the culture of remembrance in Germany and its current challenges. Trips to memorial sites were also planned, but, due to the pandemic, we have only been able to conduct these online so far.
In the main part of the workshop, participants develop their own projects dealing with the politics of memory and the pedagogy of history. For example, last semester, two students discovered that a number of former TU Berlin professors had been involved in organizing the deportation trains of the Nazi regime. They viewed the relevant files, contacted Deutsche Bahn, and developed a website, where they documented the various involvements. (Editor’s note: see article “Sonderzüge in den Tod”).
What impetus do you provide? Can you illustrate this with a specific project?
Kolja Buchmeier: The participants in the course also act as disseminators. Many of them will later work at memorials or in other areas for historical education. So this impetus will continue to have an ongoing effect. For example, one project group uses the Olympiapark Berlin as an authentic educational site. By visiting the actual site, the participants seek to critically comment on what actually happened through the lens of Nazi architecture, sport under National Socialism, and sites of horror. They research the facts and summarize the results in a flyer that can be distributed to tourists and visitors attending sporting events.
There are also plans to work with a school on the premises to develop an educational program with the aim of inspiring students to deal with the surroundings and their uncomfortable history. In addition, the project group aims to organize the implementation, including the necessary materials. Possibilities include developing an app for an interactive site tour.
The participants want to name the horrors of the Nazi era and ask openly how they should be dealt with. They shed light on the aesthetic and emotional components of Nazi architecture and examine whether the Nazi aesthetic exudes a seductive power and whether it is acceptable to see it as “beautiful,” for example. They deal with the Nazi cult of the body, which incidentally also existed in antiquity, and the instrumentalization of sport, as depicted by Leni Riefenstahl in her film about the 1936 Olympics. They call to mind the fact that the Murellenschlucht, near the Waldbühne amphitheater, served as a military training facility from 1944 to 1945.
Sjoma Liederwald: In the 2020 summer semester, guidelines for exhibition curators were produced on how to deal ethically and sensitively with the portrayal of people who were gender-nonconforming under the Nazi regime. Today, these people would be categorized as “transgender” and “intersex.” Different terms were used at the time, but the emotions involved were probably very similar. We presented the brochure for this at the Sachsenhausen Memorial. At a workshop as part of the “Young Interventions” project, participants will explore how these guidelines can be applied in Sachsenhausen.
Exhibitions on queer Nazi history are often not very critical of their sources and are sometimes intended to scandalize. Sometimes, there is simply a lack of prior knowledge of queer history. We recommend that people critically question the gender concepts of the Nazi ideology. To do this, the sources and ideologically skewed ways of thinking must be analyzed in a nuanced manner and placed in the proper context. Personal ideas about queer identities have to take a back seat and should not be projected onto history. In order to present the facts objectively, it is important to be aware of one’s own learned ideas about gender and sexuality so that they are not bubbling under the surface. If the Nazi ideology is to be deconstructed, it is important to know the history of certain concepts and forms of resistance and to be able to correctly classify queer people among the other groups persecuted by the Nazi regime.
What challenges do you see facing the culture of remembrance?
Kolja Buchmeier: The culture of remembrance must keep up with the digitization of society. A generation is coming of age that uses media differently. We have to think about how we can work with Twitter, Instagram and maybe even virtual reality, and which methods and media-specific approaches we need. To do this, people who are familiar with these forms of media need to get involved. We cannot simply transfer the existing museum and exhibition concepts into digital formats as one-size-fits-all solutions. Experiencing a fully digital semester forced us to grapple with this to a certain extent. In addition, the AfD is voicing opposition at the political level about whether a culture of remembrance is needed at all and whether memorial sites are justified. We have to work to ensure that there is a humanist consensus on this.
Sjoma Liederwald: Another challenge is professionalization. Some smaller memorial sites are initiated by citizens’ initiatives. But the memorial landscape is continuously expanding. In Berlin, for example, two large institutions are planned – the Exile Museum and the memorial to the victims of the extermination war in Eastern Europe. There is a new-found demand for memorial work. The requirements placed on educational and scientific know-how are growing. The institutions tasked with training the relevant staff are, however, reacting very slowly to this. We acquired our knowledge at the memorial sites – i.e., first-hand, not at university. The increased institutionalization has grown out of voluntary groundwork, which is now being paid more often, but still remains rather precarious, with most positions only temporary. It is a question of the political will to improve working conditions in the field of memorial sites and museums. The financing options, which are certainly available in some cases, could be used to support continual professionalization with more socially acceptable working conditions.
Should remembrance also be associated with current events?
Sjoma Liederwald: The memorial sites as institutions are resistant to the idea that a tour of a concentration camp memorial can replace proper political education on current events. They are also not the right place for this, as past crimes and the suffering of victims under National Socialism would be relativized, so to speak.
Kolja Buchmeier: But if visitors cannot relate what they learn at memorial sites to their lives, then the events are historicized. There is a risk that they will no longer mean anything to people today. It makes sense to think about what the things we learn about the past can teach us about the responsibility of academia today, for example.