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Kunstfest Weimar opens with commemoration of Buchenwald concentration camp. Why this is important for us too

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"That we find today's culture of memory uncomfortable finds its cause already in the concept of 'remembering'. After all, in the strict sense of the word, we can only remember something we have experienced ourselves. But what should 16-year-old schoolchildren remember when they visit the Buchenwald memorial site? To them, the call to remember something that even their grandparents no longer experienced themselves comes across as exaggerated, to say the least, and highly moralistically charged in the process." These words were spoken by Jens-Christian Wagner at the memorial concert for Buchenwald, for years the traditional opening of Kunstfest Weimar.

Historian Wagner is director of the Buchenwald memorial centre, the concentration camp that between 1937 and 1945 in the hills northwest of Weimar meant the death of 56,000 "enemies of the people" of the Third Reich, also known as Nazi Germany.

Loaded ground

So Weimar is fraught ground. The city that has been a tourist destination since the 18th century, or perhaps earlier, is inextricably linked to the names of Goethe and Schiller, but was also the namesake of the Weimar Republic. That republic put an end to the civil war that broke out at the end of World War One. However, the name Weimar has also since then been associated - wrongly, it has turned out - with a weak government that paved the way for the rise of the National Socialists.

Today, the city, which remained untouched as a tourist attraction even during the GDR period, between 1945 and 1989, is especially popular with senior citizens, who let themselves be driven around in numerous horse-drawn carriages, while listening to stories about the illustrious history of this city of poets.

Money distributed

Kunstfest Weimar was conceived in 1989 and introduced as Germany's biggest arts festival in 1999, when Weimar was European Capital of Culture. It lost that position when, in the 10s of this century, the federal states no longer accepted that the federal government gave so much money to a single city. So in 2014, the national subsidy stopped and the money was divided among the federal states, of which Thuringia is just one.

It is thanks to successive directors that the festival, now under the care of the National Theatre of Germany, was able to survive, albeit with a fraction of the budget.

The current director, Rolf Hemke, these days exudes the fierce enthusiasm of a man bravely standing his ground in an increasingly culturally hostile world.

Not surprising when you realise that he was plagued by a CDU mayor who, during the opening and commemoration, thought he should also organise a cycling race through the historic streets of Weimar, including low-flying helicopters.

Moral uplift

So it is also an example of that discomfort that Jens-Christian Wagner refers to in his speech. He argues that we now use remembrance too much as a means of making the past the past. "It is easier," he argues, "to grieve along with the victims and in that way even elevate yourself a little morally, than to ask about the backgrounds of the crime."

"With the empty commemoration and indiscriminate bewailing of the victims of the 20th century, a kind of feel-good remembrance culture has emerged in the past 20 years. We look back on the past with sadness, mourn with and even identify with the victims and are happy that today everything is in the past. The shear function of today's remembrance culture is incalculable."

A little later, he states, "Memorials are not democratic purges. No one becomes a better person by visiting a memorial."

Greetings from Kassel

He also refers to the outcry that arose in nearby Kassel, where the 15th Dokumenta was overshadowed by unrest for allegedly or not allegedly anti-Semitic expressions on some of the works on display: "In any case, we should beware of false historical analogies (with greetings from Jana from Kassel), and we should be careful not to saddle our memorials with a very general form of human rights education. That would mean reading an unholy history into a religious, political or metaphysical sense, so that we move from a dark past into a brightly lit future, where we have learned the right lessons from the past. The people persecuted under National Socialism each had their own social and political ideas, and none of them died to protect the German constitution."

Wagner argues that we still find the Nazis' unparalleled violence unimaginable, especially when we consider that it did not come from pathological extremists or a small clique of Nazi officials, but that millions of Germans participated in it on their own initiative. Calling something unimaginable, according to the historian, is a form of self-protection.

Putin huggers

In his speech, which can be read in its entirety below, Wagner warns us not to compare the current upsurge of Putin huggers and Trump fans, along with the bizarre coalitions of vaccine doubters, farmers and supporters of the far-right that are also causing great unrest in Germany, to something as excessive as the Nazis. "Instead, we should realise that that extremism was able to emerge in the last century in a society-wide breeding ground of anti-Semitism, social discontent, exclusion of others and xenophobia, which has still not disappeared."

"This includes self-critically questioning - derived from history - our own political, ethical and social attitudes. An active, critical, present-centred and action-oriented confrontation with the Nazi past is much more difficult than indiscriminately bewailing the dead of the 20th century, or performing hollow pathetics."

"Thinking can be exhausting," he concludes his speech, "but that effort is worth it, for all of us."

More reflections on the arts on offer at this remarkable festival, which continues until 10 September, will follow later on this site.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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