By Isabella Schwaderer

An approximately two-hour walk from Weimar’s railway station takes you to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Thousands of victims of the Nazi regime had to walk this way. On 16 April 1945, shortly after the liberation of the concentration camp, around 1,000 Weimar citizens also walked this way – at the order of the American Supreme Command. They were to see the horror of Buchenwald with their own eyes. 

To commemorate these events, media artist Christoph Korn composed an audio walk for the project “Gang nach Buchenwald” (“Walk to Buchenwald”) of the Kunstfest Weimar. His eponymous audio piece is a tentative approach: walking on asphalt, tar, leaves, and gravel towards that unspeakable place. The starting point is a conversation with the witness Naftali Fürst (Haifa), who took this walk in 1944, aged 12, and miraculously survived. After remaining silent for 60 years, he started sharing his memories. Since then, for the sake of future generations, he has been pursuing his pedagogical mission to bear testimony to the atrocities of the Nazi era.

In April 2020, no official commemorations of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp could occur, so this walk on 13 September 2020 also had political significance as an institutional practice of remembrance. Moreover, it was meant to be a strong demonstration of the democratic forces in politically volatile times. Thuringia had been shaken only in February by a political scandal, during which the parties of the liberal-conservative spectrum were accused of cooperation with the national-conservative, populist party of the AFD in an attempt to prevent the re-election of a left-wing government. For this reason, not only the organizers of the Kunstfest art festival but also the prime minister of Thuringia, Bodo Ramelow, walked in the first line.

Especially in Weimar, where the spectres of National Socialism are particularly palpable in their constant presence-absence, it seems essential to take a physical approach to the act of commemoration. But Germans have learned, and for excellent reasons, to mistrust political demonstrations of Durkheimian collective effervescence after 1945, even to the extent that a commemoration ceremony for the 9,300 victims of the Corona pandemic, which Federal President Walter Steinmeier brought up for discussion on 5.9.2020, did not meet with much approval. In this highly charged political climate, the form of a walk chosen here seems to be an acceptable form of public commemoration.

The “Walk to Buchenwald” combines different religious and historical aspects. It evokes the connotation of a penitential pilgrimage, such as that of the Roman-German King Henry IV, who had been excommunicated during the investiture controversy. He visited Pope Gregory VII in the castle Canossa from December 1076 to January 1077 to pray and repent. In today’s language, a plea that is perceived as humiliating, but necessary, is metaphorically called a “walk to Canossa.” 

On the other hand, pilgrimage as a physical-religious practice has developed exponentially over the past three decades; for the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela, the number has increased from a few hundred at the end of the 1980s to over 25,000 in 2019.[1] An equally impressive number of publications in the field of religious studies now places the phenomenon, formerly reserved for a Catholic minority, in an individualistic context of late modern spirituality appealing especially to Protestants and even to people who describe themselves as non-religious.[2] Pilgrimage as a performative, physical practice integrates the particular situation of human being-in-the-world with its manifold self and world references. If religion is interpreted as a transhuman experience in the horizon of the unconditional, the late modern subject moves to the centre of the investigation. 

During the commemorative walk on Sunday, 13 September 2020, the approximately 200 participants walked about nine kilometres from the square in front of the Weimar railway station to the former concentration camp. The event’s mimetic character, the bodily practice of self-inscription/ self-effacement, and the over-writing of a historical event by the participants distinguished it from the usual political commemoration events. They left a large part of this process of collective and personal coping with mourning work to the public instead of to a high state representative. On the other side, the participants were, as in a pilgrimage, separate but not alone, and could, if they wished, fuse with the group – following the rules of social distance – at any time. “Perhaps we should establish a culture of crying together,” said professor, activist, and social scientist Naika Foroutan about a year earlier in Weimar. The occasion of her comment was a laboratory for the development of contemporary strategies of remembrance and historical enlightenment given the impact of history. Weeping and mourning together as a physical practice, would open up the possibility of healing through a ritual in a political and social context as well. It could develop the culture of memory on the National Socialist past pointing at options of taking responsibility for the future without forgetting the victims in the past.

Crying together as an approach to public mourning might be considered very emotional in a country which, especially in its political context, is committed to a tradition of enlightenment and disenchantment. Yet, this kind of penitentiary pilgrimage might have offered a way out of the dilemma. The embarrassment is that of modernity, which, in the words of Charles Taylor, had effaced older bodily practices to produce “an excarnation, a transfer out of embodied, enfleshed forms of religious life, to those which are more in the head.” [3] The dilemma arises if modernity is perceived as a history of loss and a God-forsaken (or meaning-forsaken) world. The “Walk” is open enough to allow each attendant the decision whether he or she prefers to commemorate the 56,000 victims of the Buchenwald concentration camp or, e.g., the personal loss of a close family member. Moreover, it serves it helps to shape a future in which the commemoration of genocide is as relevant as to issues of migration and human rights.

Today, it seems that the omnipresent hygiene regulations by themselves continuously remind the public that physical persons can only carry out any form of political or religious activity. The physical-performative aspect of political demonstrations, as well as religious services, permanently produces new forms of presence and authenticity. East Germany, the territory of the former GDR, is generally regarded as secular since the largest religious group here is that of those who claim not to belong to any religion (approx. 78%). Nevertheless, religion is everywhere in public life. An event like the walk to Buchenwald shows that religious aspects have not vanished along with the declining numbers of church members but, on the contrary, have been incorporated into artistic and political practices. To better comprehend this phenomenon, the concept of religion needs to be re-examined and placed on a broader basis that goes beyond traditional institutions.

Picture : Walk to Buchenwald, 13.09.2020. © Isabella Schwaderer.

[1] Isabella Schwaderer, „Pilgern – eine religionswissenschaftliche Einordnung eines zeitgenössischen Phänomens“, in: Theologie der Gegenwart 62 (2/2019), 95–106.

[2] Lienau, Detlef: Religion auf Reisen. Eine empirische Studie zur religiösen Erfahrung von Pilgern. Freiburg i.Br., Herder, 2015.

[3] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Cambridge/London, 2007, 553-554.