Christian Herrmann

Looking back and looking ahead

On 6 and 7 April 2016, 50 youth work professionals gathered at the Ravensbrück Memorial for a symposium. Organised jointly by the BMFSFJ, IJAB and the Memorial, participants addressed the subject of "remembrance work in German-Greek youth exchanges".

Ravensbrück Memorial
Ravensbrück Memorial BildImage: Christian Herrmann   Lizenz: INT 3.0 – Namensnennung – nicht kommerziell – keine Bearbeitung CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Why a Greece symposium at Ravensbrück Memorial? Why on the site of a former concentration camp? Greek prisoners, mostly women, were also held at Ravensbrück. People who were imprisoned for political reasons or "found guilty of wrongdoings" while working as forced labourers. But the symposium also focused on the issue of German-Greek relations and thus the question of how young people can grow up without developing a hatred of each other.

Who in Germany knows what Greek men and women experienced under German occupation? Who knows about the atrocities that occurred during the partisan war, about the annihilation of entire villages by the German army, the SS and Police Battalions, about the 100,000 people who starved to death? It is this lack of knowledge and the reluctance to address the issue of reparation payments that still pain Greece today when it thinks of its European partner Germany.

Concentration camp memorial sites have multiple tasks. One of them is to educate and inform people, especially the younger generation. "It's good that they come to us with their questions," commented Dr. Ina Eschenbach, Director of Ravensbrück Memorial. Dr. Matthias Heyl, Head of the International Youth Meeting Centre, confirmed the keen interest in new projects and approaches.

"International youth work cannot compensate for war crimes, this is not our goal," said Albert Klein-Reinhardt, Officer for European and International Youth Policy at the Federal Ministry for Family, Women, Senior Citizens and Youth (BMFSFJ), who presented the two-day programme together with Natali Petala-Weber of IJAB. However, he said that by planning a German-Greek youth office, it would be possible to network the civil societies of both countries, reappraise history more intensively and help prevent the reoccurrence of racial hatred. The Parliamentary State Secretary to the BMFSFJ, Caren Marks, and the Greek Deputy Minister of Education, Research and Religious Affairs, Sia Anagnostopoulou, agreed that talks about a youth office should be continued.

Looking back

Prof. Constantin Goschler of the Ruhr University Bochum looked back at the history of Greek-German relations, and made it clear how heavily past events weigh on the present. Divided between Bulgaria, Italy and Germany, Greece was exposed to systematic exploitation, a predatory war, between 1941 and 1944. The forced loans paid to the Germans by the Greek national bank were indicative of this, he said, even if this has not been legally clarified. Goschler also recalled that in many parts of Europe, the war was not over in 1945. Greece was one of the countries that suffered from a civil war until the end of the 40s, the consequences of which eclipsed memories of German occupation.

According to Goschler, German-Greek relations in the post-war period were asymmetrically in favour of Germany. Despite repeated attempts, Greece failed to obtain any noteworthy form of compensation. Moreover, on the German side, he said that the discussion was defined by stereotypes – in the eyes of the media and general public, Greek partisan activity legitimised German warfare, the desire for compensation was condemned as an unjustified attempt by "Levantine traders" to obtain money. In this context, German President Gauck spoke of a first and a second form of guilt – but Goschler pointed out that although Gauck offered an apology, there was no mention of settling German debts.
The aftermath of the war is still tangible today. In some villages where civilians were massacred, a German-Greek youth office is considered to be an alibi in order to avoid paying reparations. But some Greeks have a positive attitude towards a youth office and want to separate it from the issue of compensation. Everyone in the room was familiar with this discussion.

Looking ahead

In four groups of topics, participants addressed the subject of remembrance work in German-Greek youth exchanges and thus shifted the focus to the future:

  • Memorial site culture in Germany and Greece
  • Opportunities of multilateral youth exchanges
  • Conflict potential and the dynamic impact of German-Greek youth exchanges
  • Training of youth work professionals in remembrance work

In a workshop on memorial site culture led by Gunnar Zamzow of the German War Graves Commission, the first thing that became apparent were the differences between Germany and Greece – something that recurred in all workshops and called for responses. An institution like Ravensbrück Memorial does not exist in Greece and it makes little sense to transfer Germany's understanding of memorial site culture. What does exist are the places where German crimes were committed: villages where civilians were murdered, cities whose Jewish citizens were deported – especially in Thessaloniki. This is why Zamzow said he prefers to talk about a "culture of remembering" and to acknowledge and make use of the two countries' differences.

How do we prevent bipolarity in youth exchanges, escalations that lead to mutual accusations and misunderstanding? Multilateral youth exchanges could be an opportunity. Carolin Wenzel of the Kreisau Initiative explained what is meant by "history of interdependencies". It is way of approaching history from many different perspectives. The plurality of perspectives should create a moment of reflection. This plurality of perspectives is not limited to the nationality of youth exchange participants but also embraces religion, gender and cultural or social background. Carolin Wenzel hopes this approach will foster empathy, self-reflection, understanding and tolerance.

"We need professionals to teach history," said Dr. Matthias Heyl, who discussed conflict potential in German-Greek youth exchanges with workshop participants. But he also stressed the need for cultural mediators, people who understand how the two countries tick and are at home in both cultures. Not least of all, we need professional organisers who are sensitive to the imbalanced resources and incompatible schedules – young people in Greece have less free time than their German peers – and the different degree of organisation among young people in the two countries. A clear concept for a collaborative project is also key: Where should the focus be? On youth exchanges, remembrance work or current topics?

It should not be taken for granted that professional youth workers are available to organise international projects. A situation educator Panos Poulos has lamented for years. Together with like-minded colleagues, he set up an association in Greece that advocates professionalisation in the field of youth work. He introduced his association in a workshop organised by Matteo Schürrenberg of Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste. Professionalisation in youth work is indeed one of the imbalances in the relationship between the two countries. But Greece is rich in other resources: grassroots initiatives that have emerged out of the country's crisis and are building a new civil society. Such groups can be committed youth exchange partners who progress according to the principle of learning-by-doing.

Good practice

Rita Loumites, head of the Youth for Peace project, is the kind of qualified professional many participants at the meeting long for. At home in both countries, she is an educator and a cultural mediator. With the peace-building organisation Friedensgemeinde Berlin-Charlottenburg and a cultural association based in the community of Lechovo in northern Greece, she has organised youth exchanges, interviewed witnesses of history with young people – but first and foremost offered young people the opportunity to get to know each other. "Learning about each other's countries, having fun together and making friends, this is a prerequisite for remembrance work," she said. After examining the past, it is then possible to cover such controversial issues as reparations.

Her knowledge of both countries helps her in her work. "In one interview, we had a situation where a child started shouting. Germans get annoyed by this, the Greeks don't – if a child shouts, it shouts," she recalled. We need people who can mediate in situations like this.

During a youth exchange programme in Berlin and Lechovo, Rita Loumites' colleague Xenia Fastnacht produced a video, making the exchange experience available via various forms of media.

Aktiv für Frieden und Toleranz from xfastnacht on Vimeo.

For the two presenters Natali Petala-Weber of IJAB and Albert Klein-Reinhardt of BMFSFJ, the video was one of the symposium's many sources of inspiration. "I'm curious to know what you'll show us when we meet again next year," said Klein-Reinhardt, turning to the participants.Throughout the symposium, participants were very aware of their location in Ravensbrück, and the concentration camp was discussed during breaks and explored individually. It was thanks to Dr. Matthias Heyl, Head of the Youth Meeting Centre, that the guests were able to understand the significance of the site. "We have a forensic approach," he said, referring to the changes made to the site since the days before it was a concentration camp and barracks used by the Red Army after the war. The site is also a lesson in the different ways of remembering. As head of the Youth Meeting Centre, Heyl knows of the impact encounters with witnesses can have. On young people, but also on the witnesses themselves. He talked about friendships that have developed out of the encounters, about the changes people have experienced, and also about the curiosity that was aroused. Anyone questioning the validity of remembrance work today only needed to listen to Heyl to understand the opportunities it involves.

Lizenz: INT 3.0 – Namensnennung – Weitergabe unter gleichen Bedingungen CC BY-SA 3.0

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