On May 5, 1945, the allies liberated the Gusen-Mauthausen camp, a node of a dense concentration network woven by National Socialist barbarism throughout Europe to exploit and exterminate all those who were considered racial, political and moral enemies. Nazi authorities classified it as a category III camp, with extremely harsh conditions for a type of prisoner assessed as highly dangerous. In its five years of life, the matrix initially tested in Gusen expanded this device to other fields, to subject the imprisoned population to extreme conditions of slave labor and various forms of systematic execution. It is estimated that there may have been between 120,000 and 320,000 victims of firing squads, illnesses, exhaustion, exhaustion or electrocution on the fences of fields darkened by the incessant smoke from their crematoriums.
The Gusen-Mauthausen camp was where the Nazis imprisoned most of the Spanish fleeing exiles from Franco’s repression, already locked up in French refugee camps, or later arrested as part of the clandestine resistance to which they had enlisted. at the outbreak of World War II. It is estimated that of the 7,000 Spaniards who passed through these death facilities, only 2,000 compatriots survived.
Among the thousands of moving stories of collective resistance to a strategy of dehumanizing domination, it is worth remembering the one starring the Spanish photographer Francisco Boix and the brave neighbor of Mauthausen Anna Pointner for its unique political and legal significance. They managed to steal, from the relentless surveillance of the camp, enough photographic negatives from the identification service in which the young photographer worked with other Spanish republicans. These negatives were later used as evidence in the Nuremberg Trials, both of the atrocities of Nazism and of the presence of the SS leaders in the camps themselves, which they claimed to be unaware of. This story has been reconstructed with study, care and detail by Professor Benito Bermejo, who inspired the well-known film ‘The Mauthausen Photographer’.
From the first years of the liberation, former prisoners and relatives of the victims began to pay tribute every May 5 to the people who lost their lives in the camp. At the end of the 1950s, the Austrian government set up a memorial space in the countryside where different countries have erected monuments to compatriots who suffered imprisonment, horror and death. From this date on, the resistance to horror and the allied victory over the Nazi-fascist supremacist project has been a constitutive element of contemporary European identity, today based on democracy and human rights.
The commemorative celebration, resumed on May 5 after the pandemic years, highlights the deep-rooted values of solidarity, dignity and fraternity among institutional and civil actors from the different participating countries. Thousands of people of different nationalities come every year to celebrate the triumph over fascism and repudiate the horror of any final solution. An intense day of rational and emotional reflection is shared, visiting the educational facilities of the memorial and participating in the reciprocal tributes of the twinned national committees in various episodes of solidarity against the genocidal will unleashed in Europe.
It is necessary to review the role of education of citizenship of this day of immersion in experiences and social, historical, ethical and political knowledge, transmitted between generations and between nations. It is hopeful to see hundreds of faces of adolescent schoolchildren intimately processing these data and tragic feelings, in delegations where grandparents and grandchildren, mothers, daughters, students and teachers, mayors and authorities from all over Europe live together. In Germany, the Mauthausen events are broadcast live on public television every May 5, and high school students have compulsory study tours of the camps.
We rescued three elements for reflection on the experience lived in the most recent celebration, a few days ago.
The first is the prominence of the students from European countries, who take the floor in the tributes and visit the memorial facilities with their teachers during the celebration of the liberation of the camp. Histoire partagée, memoires partagées was the message of the banner carried by students of a French high school in honor of their commemorative pantheon. Shared history, shared memories, a dialogue that overcomes language barriers and extends communities of recognition and solidarity. The European collective memory recalls the struggle of its murdered citizens singing in different languages the Oh beautiful bye or sharing the Marseillaise and the Mauthausen oath is reaffirmed with our young people: never more.
In a situation of crisis, where division, confrontation and identity hatred are once again the strategy of reactionary forces, knowing the history and working on the memory of fascist dehumanization and the allied triumph is an unavoidable tool to reinforce the culture of human rights and democratic citizenship in the face of denialist noise.
In Spain, steps are taken to overcome years of oblivion and silence, and support for these visits marks a path towards European normalization in this extermination camp that so many compatriots suffered. In front of the hundreds of young Italians, French, Polish and Austrians, there were a few dozen Spanish students, who arrived with enormous effort with teachers who were particularly committed to the democratic memory of the youngest citizens. Visits to concentration camps and memorial spaces are a normalized educational tool in countries like Italy or France, a fact that is rooted and institutionalized in their educational systems, which must also be adopted in our annual plans with greater subsidies and resources. It is in the dialogue between memory and history where the past and the present are interrogated to project themselves as a response towards the future. Citizen education in democratic memory and human rights is part of a process of transmission of fundamental historical knowledge to the younger generations, essential to establish intellectual and ethical cordons against an ultra-right that is always totalitarian.
A second issue for citizen reflection is our institutional presence. The international organizing committee is a meeting and work space for civil society entities with institutional managers in the matter, who coordinate the participation of each national delegation in the commemorative parade for the liberation of the camp. The representations of countries are arranged alphabetically together with the social civic groups, interspersed according to their denomination. We can find not only union representatives or supporters, but also human rights groups, motorcycle clubs, and cyclist groups parading with commemorative flags and banners. Within the Spanish entourage we only recognized the Secretary of State for Democratic Memory, Fernando Martínez, and Senator Josep María Reniú. The representation of the democratic memory at the ministerial level opens an interesting field of collaboration and exchange to strengthen the Spanish representation in this European commemorative act, together with social, civic and educational entities.
An additional aspect to consider is the presence of armed institutions, within the framework of promoting education and culture in human rights, a central element in the development of measures and guarantees of non-repetition provided for in international law. This institutional presence accompanies the tributes of delegations from countries such as France, Italy, Poland, Belgium, many of them representing the three weapons; without a doubt, a symbolic presence of the commitment of the armed institutions with human rights and democratic citizenship.
One last issue that deserves reflection is the memorial itself as a device, both to demarcate a place of memory, and to promote adequate education in memory and human rights. In recent years, the managers of the complex themselves have warned and denounced inappropriate behavior within the framework of the new culture of selfies and a memory tourism circuit, with excesses that can end up trivializing Nazi atrocities. Undoubtedly, a worrying topic and one for reflection on the reproduction of sociohistorical knowledge in the new digital context. Undoubtedly, the educational system must gain prominence in promoting critical knowledge about the past, and the media systems must also be regulated to fully fulfill an educational function against polarization and political denialism (above all, those of public ownership and in multimedia educational platforms).
However, from the coordinates of the debate in Spain, it is very necessary to continue advancing and consolidating an innovative memorialist strategy, which under no circumstances can be considered a stage to be skipped in our country as the reactionary right wing claims. It is worth noting the special significance of this European commemoration for the delegations of countries that maintain illiberal and denialist governments, which confirm the difficulty of escaping from this framework of moral and democratic legitimacy locked in Europe for the whole world after Nazi barbarism.
Sharing stories and memories among free citizens is a necessary first step so that the promoters of inequality do not manage to deepen their objectives of social and ideological division.