Berlin Commemorates Holocaust Remembrance Day
Some of the 2,711 polished marble blocks at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin, are seen on Jan. 27, 2015 Carsten Koall—Getty Images

How Germany Got a Holocaust Remembrance Day

Jan 27, 2016

On the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1995, many in Germany used the occasion to remember the horrors of the Holocaust. But the day itself had no official name or sanction.

That changed the following year—exactly 20 years ago Wednesday—when Germany became the first European country to declare the date as an official day of remembrance for the victims of Naziism.

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In her book History, Memory, and Trans-European Identity, Aline Sierp suggests that the timing of Germany's decision to make the day official was linked to its recent reunification. With the Cold War still fresh, the newly joined East and West aimed to show the world that it was a modern nation willing to reckon with its dark history under both Naziism and Communism. Sierp notes that it's unusual for a nation to establish an official day of remembrance for a negative part of its history, but then-President Roman Herzog said, in proclaiming the observance, that the day "must continue to remind future generations to be vigilante" and to "find a form of memory that reaches towards the future."

At the Gates of Hell: The Liberation of Bergen-Belsen, April 1945

A small boy strolls down a road lined with dead bodies near the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, 1945.
A small boy strolls down a road lined with dead bodies near the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, 1945.George Rodger—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
A small boy strolls down a road lined with dead bodies near the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, 1945.
Hundreds of corpses on the ground beneath trees at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, April 1945.
Dying men stretch out on a dirt bank behind one of the Bergen-Belsen barracks, 1945.
Male and female German SS soldiers forced to load corpses onto trucks under British guard at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, 1945.
Female SS soldiers fill a mass grave with corpses while under guard by British soldiers at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, 1945.
Female German camp guards unload a truck full of bodies of dead prisoners at Bergen-Belsen, April 1945.
Annaliese Kohlmann, former Nazi female guard noted for her cruelty, Bergen-Belsen, 1944.
Dying women huddle on the ground behind the barbed-wire enclosure at Bergen-Belsen, 1945.
A British doctor uses DDT while delousing newly freed female prisoners at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, 1945.
British doctors using DDT to delouse newly liberated prisoners at the Bergen-Belsen concentration cam, 1945.
A British doctor administers delousing treatment of DDT up the skirt of an embarrassed-looking female prisoner at Bergen-Belsen, 1945.
Prisoners at the newly liberated Bergen-Belsen, 1945.
A group of women at the liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Lower Saxony during World War II, 1945.
New internees of the freshly liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp included this pair of French brothers, Charles and Louis Perret, wearing white boots they took from the Germans, 1945.
Newly liberated prisoners wait on line for food at Bergen-Belsen, 1945.
Female prisoners in the newly liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, 1945.
Corpses cover the ground at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, 1945.
Scene at Bergen-Belsen, 1945.
Mass grave at Bergen-Belsen, April 1945.
The body of a dead inmate at Bergen-Belsen, photographed shortly after the liberation of the camp by Allied troop, April 1945.
A small boy strolls down a road lined with dead bodies near the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, 1945.
George Rodger—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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Not everyone was satisfied that the day of remembrance did enough to honor the victims—as Reuters reported at the time, some German Jews were upset that Parliament observed the day during a session on Jan. 19 rather than convening specially on Jan. 27. But Germany's move to commemorate the day did help inspire others to do the same.

About a decade after Germany's first Tag des Gedekens an die Opfer des Nationalsozialismus, the United Nations designated that same day as an International Day of Commemoration to remember the victims of the Holocaust. The event was first marked at U.N. headquarters in 2006.

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