Curtain lifts on Buchenwald 'Gulag'

After the SS came the KGB. Steve Crawshaw visits a site that poses difficult questions for Germans
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The Independent Online
It looks like some kind of modern art installation. Hundreds of gleaming steel pillars - six-feet tall, a few inches across - are scattered among the beech and birch trees, as far as the eye can see. Simple, elegant, tranquil.

But the slight depression in the ground next to each of the pillars indicates that they have not been erected for aesthetic pleasure. And at the bottom of a path that leads through the woods stand dozens of simple crosses, each with a name and a brief epitaph. The signpost that points into the woods makes the context clear: "Special camp. Field of graves."

These are not the graves of those who died in the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald, but those who died in a secret Soviet camp that opened on the same site shortly after the last prisoners left in 1945. The KGB continued where the SS left off. At least 7,000 people died. In many cases, their families were not even informed.

The graves are still hidden, in the literal sense - half-covered by undergrowth. Until recently, they were hidden politically too. This week, at a ceremony at Buchenwald, the curtain dropped in East German times began to be lifted. The bulldozers moved in, to lay foundations for a new museum building that will describe for the first time Buchenwald's "Special Camp No 2" - where 28,000 people were imprisoned from 1945 to 1950, in a mini-Gulag on German soil.

The main exhibition about the Nazi camp at Buchenwald, where more than 50,000 died, underwent a radical recent transformation, in time for the 50th anniversary of the camp's liberation. The propaganda of the East German era gave way to a version of history that does not shy away from painful questions.

"If Buchenwald is reconstructed as a former national monument for the GDR, then the German crimes can be seen all the more clearly,'' said Volkhard Knigge, the museum director.

Thus, the new exhibition about the Nazi camp leaves little room for comforting claims of ignorance. The display includes a 1943 telephone directory, where "Konzentrationslager Buchenwald" (tel 6311) is openly listed, between "Konradi, Lina", and "Kopf, Arno". A bus timetable shows the times of regular buses between Weimar and "Buchenwald camp".

Buchenwald means "beech forest". In these woods, said Goethe (who lived in Weimar, in the valley below), "Man feels grand and free." Now, the name has a different symbolic power. SS men were threatened with dire punishment if they were cruel to the animals in Buchenwald's private zoo. The torture and killing of human beings, meanwhile, was considered routine.

The evils of the Nazi camp ("To each what he deserves,'' read the notorious inscription on the camp gate) were clear-cut. The legacy of Soviet cruelty is much more ambiguous - hence the long hesitation, even after the collapse of Communism, about how to commemorate the other Buchenwald.

Officially, those in the post-war camp were Nazi bigshots and war criminals. In reality, the overwhelming majority were small fry - rank-and-file party members, without special responsibilities, and even teenagers. Some Social Democrats who had been in the Nazi camp until April 1945 found themselves back there because of their refusal to kowtow to the new Communist rulers.

None the less, Mr Knigge notes: "The existence of a Stalinist camp on German soil was a consequence of Nazi Germany. This is the horizon that one mustn't forget."

The sweeping away of taboos about the post-war history of Buchenwald is particularly sensitive because of a notorious incident at the site last year, when neo-Nazi vandals went on the rampage. Since then, a 24- hour police presence has been in place. If you linger too long in quiet corners of the site, a patrol car soon begins to shadow you, none too discreetly. There has been no further violence, but the problem has not disappeared.

Equally disturbing is the "we suffered too" debate that erupted in Germany in advance of last month's anniversary of the end of the Second World War. There were attempts to portray Germans as victims of 1945 because of the millions expelled from eastern German territories. Mr Knigge is dismissive of what he calls the "Hitler was bad - but so was Stalin" arguments. But he argues, too, that post-war injustices cannot be ignored just because of the enormity of what Germans did before 1945.

Gerd Schuchardt, a regional government minister who attended this week's ceremony at Buchenwald, shares that view. "This site will not be afraid to call injustices committed in Buchenwald between 1945 and 1950 by their proper name,'' he said. ''But it will not relativise the injustice committed by Germans in Europe between 1939 and 1945. Only the pitiless criticism of those German crimes makes it legitimate to criticise injustice committed by others.''