A key concept in post-war German has been “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” (literally “working through the past”), within which it is viewed as essential to study the past, and particularly the Holocaust, in order to learn to live with it. This concept is relatively new however, and historically Holocaust remembrance has not been an simple process within Germany. Perhaps most notably, during its existence between 1949 and 1990, the communist German Democratic Republic (the GDR or simply “East Germany”) did not accept culpability for the actions of the Nazis, which it viewed as a consequence of Western capitalism. While Western Germany confronted the past more directly during this period, it still struggled with the memorialisation and denazification processes. Nevertheless, since reunification in 1990, Germany has increasingly striven to ensure that the Holocaust is not forgotten, with monuments and museums serving to educate the public while also honouring the victims. Many of the famous Holocaust memorials within Germany (such as the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” in Berlin and the “Stolpersteine” across Germany and the rest of Europe) have therefore emerged in these 30 years.
The issue of how to appropriately remember the Holocaust in Germany remains a controversial issue. Germany has been careful to avoid creating sites that could be used as pilgrimage points for neo-Nazis, with Hitler’s Bunker (just meters away from Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) marked only with a simple placard that was laid in 2006. Other memorials, such as the aforementioned Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, have also proved controversial, and despite being designed over a 17 year process involving multiple design competitions, the final product still garnering criticism from some. Most famously, Bjoern Hoecke, a senior politician within Germany’s right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party condemned the memorial as “a memorial of shame” and argued that Germany should take a “180-degree turn” on how it remembers the past. However, Vergangenheitsbewältigung remains a huge part of German culture, and is therefore hugely influential in the way that the country approaches its history.
Given that the Holocaust was one of the most significant events of the 20th century, many visitors to Germany (and to other European countries associated with the Holocaust), feel compelled to visit these memorials and museums. The introduction of new German holocaust memorials has also coincided with a general increased engagement in and awareness of “dark tourism” (also sometimes called black tourism or grief tourism), a form of tourism which involves visiting places which are associated with death and tragedy. For example, the website http://www.dark-tourism.com/ (in operation since 2010), covers nearly 900 individual dark tourism destinations across 110 different countries. Dark tourism has been growing steadily more popular, with Auschwitz-Birkenau experiencing a steady rise in visitors since 2004, culminating in the site hosting its most visitors ever in 2018. Although included in some definitions, dark tourism doesn’t generally include voyeuristic destinations (such as slum tourism), or travel to current war zones, largely because the main attraction of dark tourism locations is their historical value. Dark tourism sites are varied, including locations ranging from the September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York to abandoned town of Chernobyl or even the excavations within Pompeii. However, “Holocaust tourism”, as it has become known in the media, remains one of the most notorious forms of dark tourism, with Auschwitz-Birkenau in particular often used as an icon for dark tourism, appearing on the cover of the book Dark Tourism by John Lennon and Malcolm Foley (the academics often credited with coining the term).
The expression dark tourism often triggers a negative reaction, largely because of the word “dark” carrying negative associations. Despite this, these sites can be hugely beneficial, with visitors encouraged to both pay their respects to the dead and to learn about history, with it often being stated that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. Actually, visiting the locations of atrocities certainly allows for a deeper understanding of historical events than can be obtained by simply reading or hearing about them. However, that means that these sites need to be understood in a larger context to ensure that those who lost their lives at these camps are remembered as more than just victims. Polish-Jewish journalist Konstanty Gerbert has therefore criticised Holocaust tourism with the argument that “people tend to forget that the important thing about Polish Jews is not that they waited 900 years for the Germans to come and kill them, but that they actually did something for those 900 years”.
Equally, the rise of dark tourism has also led to an increased criticism of memorials and museums due to disrespectful tourist behaviour, such as taking selfies or other inappropriate photographs at the sights of tragedies. While not limited to this demographic, this has been seen as a particular issue with young people, who are often more prominent on social media. Perhaps the most infamous examples of this were part of a project called YOLOCAUST by Shahak Shapira, an Israeli-German writer who combined selfies from the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin with images from Nazi concentration and extermination camps. The website was visited by over 2.5 million people, and the images were picked up by news organisations internationally, leading to widespread discussions on what is appropriate conduct for visitors to Holocaust memorials and museums.
It can only be concluded that as dark tourism locations are increasingly listed alongside “regular” attractions, increasing numbers of visitors to these sites have neglected to consider that they need to act with greater respect than they would at other locations. In particular, it has becoming increasingly important to consider the intent of those who visit these sites in the dark tourism era. Despite its popularity, dark tourism isn’t for everyone, and those who are considering visiting one of these sites need to make sure they are aware of your reasons for going. Are they travelling to heighten their understanding of what took place at these sites and to consider why and how these histories happened? Or are they visiting these sites to simply show off, or to indulge their morbid curiosities? It is up to each individual visitor to decide if these memorials and museums are something they would like to visit. If attending a guided tour, visitors should also research ethical tour companies, who are respectful to the people who lost their lives at the sites you will visit and who also encourage their group members to behave appropriately.
The 27th January is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and if you are going to visit a Holocaust tourism site either today or in the future, aim to be increasingly aware of the impact of your actions. It is imperative that the international community both remembers and reflects upon the holocaust, and dark tourism is an important part of that process. In particular, young Europeans who have grown up at a time when right-wing politics have been gaining popularity on the continent benefit from developing an understanding of the consequences of these ideologies. Nevertheless, when visiting a memorial or museum related to the Holocaust, it is important that you consider your intent, behave appropriately, and also seek out information about how communities lived before the events of the Holocaust. A visit to these sites can be life changing, but only if undertaken for the correct reasons.