The Teaching of Human Rights in a Place of Remembrance of National Socialism – An Example from Nuremberg

Nov 17th, 2003 | By | Category: Human Rights Education

by Rainer Huhle

In many memorials to the victims of National Socialism (NS), or Nazism, and other places of remembrance of the NS era, using the past as a reference point has become a pressing question. This is due to the growing percentage of visitors who do not experience the emphatic anti-fascist impulse that many members of the first postwar generation experience, because they have grown up in a completely different world, with other important issues. As the 37th Day of Remembrance in Weimar in May 2002 demonstrated, the staff at the numerous memorials respond differently to this challenge, which in the end questions the meaning of historical memorials.

A comprehensive exhibit of the NS buildings and their role in the general system of National Socialism was opened in Nuremberg at the end of 2001on the Party Rally Grounds (Reichsparteitaggelaende) in a section of the so-called Congress Hall designed for this purpose. It was developed from a simple pre-existing exhibition within the “Zeppelin Grandstand” that was only open part of the year.

Also integrated into the newly opened Documentation Center of the Party Rally Grounds is a “Learning Forum” which offers a number of public and private conferences and discussions on more than twenty topics touched upon in the exhibit. Next to topics closely associated with the location, such as NS propaganda, NS architecture, or “Nuremberg Laws”, some lectures directly related to human rights are also developed and presented by the Nuremberg Human Rights Center and the Youth Center for Cultural and Political Education. These lectures constituted about ten percent of the over 300 lectures held or being planned after the first six months of operation. Human rights are therefore a theme that has been taken on as a meaningful offering in this former NS location.

But human rights also have their own independent history completely independent of the NS places of remembrance, memorials and education. Arising from numerous initiatives in countries with massive human rights violations, for example in Latin America, human rights work has been

supported worldwide by the United Nations and its specialized organizations such as UNESCO. Germany, however, has until now been relatively uninvolved in this global network.

In Nuremberg it was the Israeli artist Dani Karavan who pushed for the awareness of human rights as an answer to National Socialism with his prizewinning proposal for a “Street of Human Rights”, which in 1993 became a reality in a prominent public location. Since the opening of this impressive row of columns, each of which contains an article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), human rights education has become an important part of extracurricular education as well as a part of school curriculum in Nuremberg. The Nuremberg Human Rights Center and the Youth Center for Cultural and Political Education can look back upon ten years of continuous work in this area. Central to this work is the link between the Street of Human Rights location and the most important human rights document, the UDHR.

Human Rights as a Reaction to National Socialism

The step from general human rights teaching to the specific offering of the Document Center of the Party Rally Grounds follows a logical path that was foreseen during the preparation stage. A glimpse at the historical context of the drafting of the UDHR shows the close connection between this universal human rights document and the crimes of National Socialism. The Human Rights Commission, which was entrusted with this task by the United Nations after its founding in June 1945, took up this work in January 1947, barely a quarter of a year after the end of the Nuremberg Military Tribunals with their extensive evidence of the Nazi war crimes. The shock over this unimaginable barbarity was still fresh and was by no means felt only in those states that were directly affected by the war and occupation. As demonstrated by Johannes Morsink in his basic studies of the origin of the UDHR, the delegates from the Arab, Asian, African and Latin American countries also expressed their horror as the extent of the crimes and the destructive intent behind them came to light. The crimes of National Socialism were thus understood worldwide as providing an impetus for a global human rights response. The second sentence of the preamble makes such a direct reference when it lists among the reasons for the necessity of the UDHR, that

“disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind . . .”

Hitler had denounced “the conscience” in “Mein Kampf” as a “Jewish invention” and a category of no use to a master race. To Hitler human rights were for “notorious weaklings” who moan and complain over the Nazi interference with sacred human rights. He further wrote, “No, there is only one sacred human right, and this human right is at the same time the most sacred duty, namely: to ensure that the blood remains pure . . .”

Perhaps in Hitler’s conscious and radical denial of human rights is the contrast between barbarity and humanity expressed in its simplest and at the same time deepest form, which all human rights teaching can use as its starting point.

But the debate of the drafters of the human rights declaration of 1948 was not limited to this general level of confrontation between barbarity and humanity. The members were on the most part schooled in international law, and thus their natural aim and mission was to formulate as clearly as possible the inalienable rights of man, thus leaving no doubt in the future over which rights were protected.

The comprehensive body of evidence assembled by the United Nations War Crimes Commission for the Nuremberg Trials was available to the delegates of the Human Rights Commission and its staff. Nearly every article of the UDHR shows that individual delegates referred to known Nazi crimes during the debates, and that they sought a formulation that appeared to them at least normatively capable of precluding this type of crime in the future. One of the most difficult lessons for the by then adjourned Nuremberg Military Tribunals was the lack of norms under international law for many factual scenarios that “modern civilization cannot tolerate”, as expressed by the American prosecutor in Nuremberg. To him, “the true complainant before the chambers of this court . . . was civilization.”

One can observe a similar learning process by looking at a biography linked to another prominent NS name: that of Martin Bormann, the son of Hitler’s Head of Office and private secretary. Martin Bormann describes how his reaction to his father’s (particularly anti-religious) NS ideology led him to Catholicism and eventually to the discovery of human rights as an alternative worldview:

For me, just 15 years old, and for many people my age who had grown up in the NS ideology, it was a complete collapse, not only a lost war. It was the collapse of our worldview and our system of values. The following weeks were horrific, because we had to confront all the truths that some try again to suppress. We could not hide, for the photographic evidence and the surviving witnesses, victims as well as offenders, confronted us in their immensity, with that horrific, unimaginable gruesome side of the NS ideology, full of contempt for humanity, in action.


From the experience of the collapse, the sentiment of safety grew slowly in the presence of the Christian community, and through it the feeling of being led by the nearness of God. This was necessary for a critical and fearless confrontation of the past. The collapse of 1945 was the beginning of a liberation from an ideology of hatred that divides people into Master humans and slaves, a way towards love for all people as children of a Heavenly Father. For me, the general recognition of human rights and freedoms as they are formulated in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights from December 10, 1948 emerged from this. Their recognition by all people for all people is the foundation for the possibility of peace.

If one is to understand the historical process that led to the formulation of the UDHR as a direct reaction to the NS crimes, one can critically analyze this process, and then use this analysis in the teaching of human rights. The crimes of National Socialism can be seen first in light of the UDHR as crimes against humanity and in a second sense as a human rights violations. A visit to the permanent exhibit of the Document Center of the Party Rally Grounds that precedes every “Project Day Human Rights” leads in this sense to a list of human rights violations. Even without any previous knowledge about human rights declarations and covenants, one can transform this list into a prototype of a human rights declaration. A visitor at the exhibition finds himself basically in the same situation as the authors of the UDHR in 1948.

A part of this process is historical, but it also involves the recognition of the legal nature of human rights, which is not always evident in the teaching of human rights. The rejection of the NS crimes happened and is still taking place in many instances and situations: in the pure horror, in the desire for vengeance, in the creation of counter-ethics, in the wide field of political democratic alternatives, in the remembrance of the victims and so on. Human rights teaching must acknowledge and appreciate all these forms of reaction to injustice, but at the same time it must emphasise the specifics of the human rights answer and its significance from a current perspective.

Human rights have arisen only where people have discovered them on their own, in philosophy, in practice and eventually in the legal system. The assumption that people have become aware of their rights and have therefore developed self-awareness is still today, despite the dozens of human rights conventions worldwide, by no means obvious. The answers to the simple question that we ask during our “Project Day Human Rights” makes this fact clear: Did the prisoners in the concentration camps actually have human rights?

Most participants answer “no” on the spot, and justify their answer with a long list of rights that the prisoners did not have: from the right to private correspondence all the way to the right to life. The question about the human rights of the prisoners, in view of the reality before our eyes, can only appear absurd.

Through the verb “to have” and its hidden double meaning, one can develop an understanding of a fundamental dimension of the idea of human rights, which is also one of the most important goals of human rights teaching: the inalienability of human rights:

The prisoners of the concentration camps were de facto deprived of all their human rights, which they could in no way enforce against the brute force. In this sense, they “had” no rights.

In another sense, which also lies at the heart of the legal understanding of human rights, they did have human rights, which nobody could take away from them, because these rights were a part of their humanity.

The UDHR insists on the inalienability of human rights starting with the Preamble when it says that

…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

Article 1 of the Declaration contains this sentence about the innate dignity and innate rights at the foundation of all human rights:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Arising with the birth of every human being is his own human dignity and another basic principle of human rights, their indivisibility. A defining feature of the indivisibility is the ban on any kind of

discrimination. This rule is suggested in the article quoted above, but in Art 2 it is stated plainly and clearly, together with a full list of grounds on which it is not permissible to discriminate:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

This special emphasis on the equality of all human beings sets the UDHR apart from earlier declarations, most notably those of the French and American Revolutions. This new emphasis was also the result of the extreme consequences of the policy of systematic discrimination during NS rule. The exhibit at the Documentation Center of the Party Rally Grounds devotes considerable attention to the topic of racial discrimination. This can also be linked to the teaching of human rights, which becomes all the more relevant and at the same time disturbing, since the best known manifestation of racist NS policy is again tied to Nuremberg: the so-called “Nuremberg Laws”.

We devote considerable attention to these Race Laws, which were passed in Nuremberg (through a completely illegitimate procedure) during the NS-Congress in 1935. Nuremberg was also the site of the trial against Leo Katzenberger, businessman and chairman of the Israeli Congregation. This trial, which became well-known through the movie “Leo and Claire”, was based on the Race Laws and on the “Ordinance Against the Parasites of the People”. He was condemned to death and executed in 1942. In the center of Nuremberg, on the site of a destroyed synagogue, a path was named in his honor.

In these examples, we are concerned both with:

the connection between the early “civil” death of the Jews and other outcasts and their later physical destruction. The distinction made by the “Law of the Citizens of the Reich” between “Citizens of the Reich” and “Citizens of the State” is not only discriminatory. Through its subjective definition of the “Citizen of the Reich”, it opens the door to total arbitrariness over all citizens under Hitler’s rule.

Discrimination is always a double-edged sword that in the end affects everyone. Not only Leo Katzenberger stood before Judge Rothaug in Nuremberg, but also the German Irene Scheffler. Discrimination affects all those who do not want to discriminate, or do not want their personal freedom to be ruled by discriminatory laws. The Race Laws affected Germans and Jews alike, if only with dramatically different consequences.

This fact can be applied very well to present-day issues of discrimination. Many young participants have seen or are aware of discrimination. Unlike other Human Rights issues such as torture or the death penalty, discrimination is a subject about which the young people have their own experience and often their own thoughts. Learning about the brutal interventions of the Nazis in the private life of “normal” citizens because of their race or ideology, allows young people to see connections to their own world. These connections will constitute the foundation of their understanding of the human rights concept. There is a danger of downplaying the racial crimes of National Socialism, but this can be countered by providing factual information that builds upon the powerful impact created by the Exhibition itself.

At this point within human rights instruction, it is appropriate to consider the basic mechanisms of a discriminatory policy and its potential consequences. A universal principle of “Indivisibility of Discrimination” is contained in the Nuremberg Laws. This principle describes negatively what

we positively would like to convey as the “indivisibility of human rights”. One cannot uphold human rights only for a certain group of people and deny them for others. The rights denied to some are always violations of everybody’s rights, including one’s own.

When we work with schoolchildren, we often finish with this theme by reading a short paragraph from the book Daddy, What is a Foreigner?- a Conversation with my Daughter, written by the Moroccan poet Tahar Ben Jelloun. The book deals from a positive perspective and in a contemporary way with the two sides of discrimination versus respect for others:

“Look around you at school, and you will see that all faces are different, and that this variety is beautiful. (This is a chance for humankind. These pupils come from very different worlds, they can give you things that you don’t have, as you can give them things that they don’t know. In this way, we complete and enrich each other.) Each human being is a wonder. It is unique. You’ll never see two identical faces. What does Beauty and Ugliness really mean? (These are relative concepts). Each face is a symbol of life. Each life deserves respect. No one has the right to humiliate another human being. Everyone is entitled to human dignity. Who respects others, honors life in its entire beauty, its wonder, its variety and its unexpectedness. And who treats others respectfully shows respect for oneself” (This last sentence is the most important for us).

When further analysing the 30 Articles of the UDHR — articles permanently on display in the Center of Nuremberg on the “Street of Human Rights”– we work on the second aspect of “indivisibility”. Just as human rights lose their validity when they are enforced for only a group of people and not for all, it is impossible to strike some of the human rights and leave others in place. Dealing with this aspect in a game called ” The Balloon Trip” brings often new and surprising insights. The participants are divided into small groups, “Balloon Crews”, and are given the task of choosing half of the human rights from those analysed and throwing them overboard in order to keep the balloon afloat. The results of the different crews are then compared. Lively debates among the participants about which one has come to the “right” decision will often follow. The results are always fascinating. Basically, one can recognize three strategies of the “balloon crews”:

Some human rights are rated as less important and are “thrown away”, sometimes using very insightful arguments, which leads to a long discussion and requires a deeper analysis of certain rights. The Indivisibility of human rights is often little understood during these “survival strategy” exercises.

The “Package Principle”: the group analyses the content of each right and determines that the content of one article is already included in another, that the prohibition of slavery in Article 4, for example, is already contained in the Right to Life, Freedom and Security in Article 3. The participants therefore throw away rights that they see contained in others. In this way they develop on their own an understanding of the mutual relationships between human rights. The topic discusses is then the need to interpret and define human rights.

The uncompromising: The group decides to risk crashing the balloon, rather than throwing out any one of the human rights. Although a violation of the rules of the game, it gives rise nevertheless to lively debates.

There is thus adherence to the principle of indivisibility of human rights, an important goal of the exercise. The question of one’s own possible courses of action arises, especially when the third balloon crew’s strategy comes into play. Here again, the documented human rights work at the historic NS site can be used as a historical reference. Through the notions “resistance and civil courage”, one can bridge the gap between the facts presented in the exhibit and the visitor’s reality.

The exhibit commemorates the topic of resistance. It is nevertheless about politically organized resistance, which was not possible for everyone. But resistance in a broader sense could be accomplished by people in different situations and through different means. We want to demonstrate that resistance is related to human dignity. In this context we show two short clips from the movie “No! Witnesses of Resistance in Munich 1935-1942” by Katrin Seybold. The movie portrays two women that have resisted the NS oppression, each in her own way, and namely acting out of “respect for themselves” as stated in the above mentioned quotation from Tahar Ben Jelloun: a Jehovah’s witness, who denounced no one despite being tortured, and a catholic nun who risked her life by smuggling letters from prisoners out of the Dachau concentration camp. Both women express the fact that, for them, this resistance and the courage involved came from a belief in oneself, in one’s own rights and in those of others.

We come finally to another important topic: the recognition of the special character of the human rights as rights. Some of the specifics of human rights instruction are here somewhat in contrast with the religious or ethical teachings.

The human rights approach starts with the concept of rights, i.e. from a normative entitlement recognised by society. The central issue of human rights is not, however, that we enforce only our own rights. The question is not whether we are right, but rather whether we have rights, and thus can formulate our needs, requirements, desires and interests such as to make them compatible with those of others, thereby making them generally accepted and thus enforceable. This is why it is called the “Universal” Declaration of Human Rights. This is why in 1948 a comprehensive international system of human rights instruments was created, which has also been incorporated into most national constitutions and codes of law.

The application of human rights is therefore not primarily an act of charity, but necessary to defend our own human rights and dignity. The violation of the human rights of others always amounts to a general violation and a violation of our own rights as well. Human rights are therefore not, as Hitler said, for “weaklings”. They are the expression of the self awareness of humans that are capable, thorough communication and cooperation, to harmonize their own interests with those of others. The message of human rights education should also make this clear: repression and violence are the strengths of the weak. True strength is the courageous and conscious safeguarding of human rights – for oneself and for others.

(translation from German: Moira Fisher)


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