Plans for German museum focus on Nazi perpetrators

FRANKFURT — As the controversy regarding a proposed Holocaust memorial in Germany rages on, a private group has called for the establishment of a museum here that would focus on the perpetrators.

A "central museum is needed to depict not just the sufferings of the victims but the profiles of the perpetrators," said Rolf Wernstedt, a German Social Democratic Party politician and the president of the Foundation for a German Holocaust Museum.

Wernstedt made his comments at a news conference in Bonn earlier this month where the establishment of the foundation was formally announced.

The proposed museum, Wernstedt said, could challenge visitors to continue reflecting on the background of the Holocaust and its lessons for contemporary life.

Unlike the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which focus on the sufferings of Holocaust victims, Wernstedt said the German museum could focus on the issues raised by German participation in the Holocaust.

"Who were these perpetrators? How can we evaluate their background? What was the history of anti-Semitism in different areas of daily German life?" Wernstedt proposed as some of the questions that could be researched at the museum.

Exhibitions at the proposed museum would include, in addition to the genocide of European Jewry, the murder of Gypsies and other peoples singled out by the Nazis.

The group, Wernstedt said, did not want to compete with efforts to build a Holocaust memorial in Berlin, which has been mired in controversy about the location and design for a decade.

Hans-Jurgen Haessler, a professor in Hanover, first proposed the idea for the museum in 1993. Since then, Haessler has mobilized support from hundreds of prominent Germans, including politicians, church leaders, historians, museum curators and writers such as Gunther Grass.

Foundation director Wernstedt said that since the group formed a foundation several weeks ago, private and corporate sponsors have already pledged tens of thousands of dollars. A draft concept for the museum should be ready by December, Wernstedt said.

But, he added, a museum will only be possible with financial support from federal, state and local authorities as well. The group has sponsored several public forums on Holocaust education issues, but has been unable to secure public financing for the museum.

Until the museum is built, the foundation plans to sponsor exhibitions, lectures, conferences and educational programs relating to the Holocaust.

The plan's future may be affected by next month's federal elections.

The Social Democratic Party's candidate for chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, recently said he favored the establishment of a documentation center in Germany on the Holocaust. Schroeder's center-left party is currently leading the conservative party of Chancellor Helmut Kohl at the polls.

A documentation center focusing solely on the crimes of the SS is now under construction in Berlin. That center is expected to open in the year 2000.