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Germany Turns to a Nazi Memorial Site to House Refugees

7 minute read

The scale model of the Nazi academy was about the size of a compact car, though not particularly detailed. Standing around it, the group of German tourists could just make out its reproduction of the House of Knowledge, where the Nazi elites of the late-1930s had been schooled in the supremacy of the Aryan race. North of that stood the parade grounds, where Adolf Hitler had once paced among the graduates in his trademark leather trench coat. “And back here, where you all drove in today, these are the barracks,” said the tour guide, Dorothea Gehlen, with a gesture to the south. “This is where the refugees will live.”

Starting in March, the memorial complex of Vogelsang, one of the so-called Order Castles that Hitler built to preach his brand of fanatical racism, will become the first Nazi site to shelter refugees, most of them from North Africa and the Middle East. As the tour guide remarked with a tone of satisfaction, “Hitler would certainly hate this.”

But the official reasoning is more banal: Germany is running out of room. More than a million migrants arrived in the country last year, and a U.N. report released on Jan. 27 predicted that a million more would reach Europe in 2016, most of them headed to Germany from the Middle East. The task of housing so many newcomers has put enormous strain on German society. The backlash has grown increasingly ugly, fueling what Justice Minister Heiko Maas has called “an appalling level of violence” against refugees.

Across the country, more than a thousand attacks against migrant shelters were reported last year, a fivefold increase from 2014, with many incidents of arson in densely populated neighborhoods. The latest attack to shock the nation came on Jan. 29, when an unidentified assailant tossed a live grenade into a hostel for asylum seekers in southwestern Germany. The weapon, thankfully, did not explode. But the attack under­scored the need to find safe housing for refugees. Secluded sites like the Nazi academy, which lies in the middle of a national forest, have begun to seem like an attractive option.

In major cities, the crowding at migrant shelters has also pushed the state to look for alternatives. “We really have no more sleeping places,” says Silvia Kostner, a spokeswoman for Berlin’s Office of Health and Social Affairs, which coordinates housing for refugees in the city. At the end of 2014, she says, there were about 40 shelters of various sizes in the German capital. By the end of last year that number had nearly tripled, largely thanks to the takeover of school gymnasiums. “We took all these sports halls,” Kostner says sadly. “And all these schoolchildren have no more sport, because there are refugees sleeping there.”

This soon began to irritate the locals, and the search for refugee housing began to get more creative. In the fall, the authorities turned to historical landmarks, with the decommissioned airport at Tempelhof becoming one of the first. The hangars of this monument to the Berlin Airlift, which saw Allied planes use its runways to break the Soviet blockade of West Berlin in 1948–49, now shelter some 7,000 refugees. Beds have also been crammed into the iconic offices of the East German secret police, known as the Stasi, and migrant families in Berlin have been invited to sleep in the rooms where agents once eavesdropped on East German phone calls. “It’s extremely good, this place, because you have hundreds of these little rooms,” says Kostner.

But all the little rooms in Germany could not resolve the tensions that arose from placing migrants in German communities. Apart from the spike in xenophobic violence, police statistics have suggested that migrants may ­commit crimes at higher rates, particularly theft. Some of the worst offenses took place on New Year’s Eve, when gangs of men from North Africa robbed and sexually assaulted hundreds of women in Cologne and other cities. Antipathy toward foreigners has spiked, and governments across Europe have begun to take a harsher line against migration.

In Denmark, the parliament passed legislation on Jan. 26 that would allow authorities to confiscate cash and other valuables from arriving migrants, ostensibly to help the government pay for their accommodation. In several regions of Germany, such laws have been on the books for years. “If you apply for asylum here, you must use up your income and wealth before receiving aid,” Aydan Özoguz, the German Commissioner for Integration, told the Bild newspaper in justifying the practice.

Among human-rights groups, the seizure of property has caused an outcry, with some even comparing it to the Nazi confiscation of valuables from Jews during World War II. But recent polls suggest that Germans increasingly support state action to discourage more migrants from coming. One survey released on Jan. 15 showed 60% of respondents believe Germany cannot cope with the influx, up from 46% in December. Another survey taken at the start of this year found that 40% of Germans want Chancellor Angela Merkel to resign over the refugee crisis.

It’s a sign of how worried Germany is about migrants that initial objections to housing them in a former Nazi training ground have been quashed. In October, when local authorities first proposed this idea, newspapers and politicians from the area warned that it could be construed as a moral dereliction, a stain on Germany’s atonement for the crimes of the Nazi past.

“I can hardly imagine that there are no other possibilities for housing,” Josef Hovenjürgen, a regional lawmaker for Merkel’s political party, the Christian Democrats, told Cologne’s Express newspaper at the time. “There are lots of empty tax offices and army barracks that are neither so isolated nor so tainted by history.”

But the isolation of Vogelsang, if not the burden of its history, has since become an argument in favor of the project. Tucked in among the hills of the Eifel National Park, near Germany’s border with Belgium, the Nazi academy was built to create a feeling of seclusion. When they arrive this spring, the migrants will be housed in the barracks that Belgian troops used after World War II, and not in the dormitories of the Nazis. But in order to reach the nearest city, they will usually need to rely on specially provided buses, which will give the government a bit more control over their interaction with the locals.

Stefan Wunsch, the research director at Vogelsang, expects a lot of these interactions to take place inside the memorial complex itself. Roughly 150,000 tourists, most of them German, visit Vogelsang each year, and they will soon get to see the migrants and talk to them while touring the Nazi ruins. “This will give our visitors something extra to reflect on,” says Wunsch.

Security around the shelter could still pose a problem. Since 2006, when the Belgian military finally transferred ownership of Vogelsang back to the German authorities, neo-Nazi groups have used it as a pilgrimage site. They often come in small groups, says Wunsch, to pose for photos in front of the remaining monuments to German knights and folk heroes. Beside one such statue, known as the Torchbearer, a stone wall once bore a haunting inscription to the students who studied on these grounds: “You carry forth the light of the spirit in the fight for Adolf Hitler.”

It’s hard to say what the refugees will make of such relics at Vogelsang, where they will be expected to live for up to six weeks before being transferred to more permanent housing. But Albert Moritz, the site’s manager, sees their arrival as a learning opportunity. “It will pose the question to us, to our society: How can we cope with this?” Wandering the grounds, visitors will see the symbols of Nazi chauvinism and xenophobia, and guides will be on hand to explain the dangers of that history ever repeating. In the end, says Moritz, “it will help us to cultivate empathy.” Enough of it, hopefully, to make the refugees feel welcome in a nation increasingly eager to turn them away.

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