ORANIENBURG, Germany — As 18-year-old Brazilian law student Beatriz Braga Orsolon walked along the paths of the former Sachsenhausen Nazi concentration camp in Germany, she said she could still feel the trauma this site had once witnessed.
“Their souls were crushed here,” she said, referring to the hundreds of thousands of prisoners held by the Nazis, including tens of thousands who were deliberately killed or died as a result of the inhumane conditions the Nazis subjected them to.
But as she was leaving the commemoration site, the far-right political figure on her mind was not Adolf Hitler. It was Jair Bolsonaro, the current right-wing Brazilian president. Her home country, Orsolon said, had not learned the lessons Germany had.
For decades, visitors went to former German Nazi concentration camps seeking an explanation for the rise of an ideology that provoked the killing of about 6 million Jews. In recent years, the number of annual visitors across Germany has continued to increase. But at some sites, the questions many are asking — and their motivations for coming — appear to have changed.
Whereas visitors here used to focus only on the past, present-day worries about democratic freedoms now eerily loom over the commemoration grounds.
“There is a deep feeling of political and societal insecurity that is increasingly reflected,” said Gabriele Hammermann, the director of the Dachau concentration-camp memorial site, where visitor numbers have increased by about a third since 2007 to more than 900,000 annually.
Visitors to the memorial have increasingly been voicing their anxiety over what they have described as eroding democracy worldwide and the singling out of minority communities, Hammermann said.
Officials at the Dachau and Buchenwald memorial sites — which account for more than half of all visitors to major former concentration camps in Germany — said they have noticed the shift in public consciousness away from history and more toward current events, prompting them to adapt their own thinking.
“We’re witnessing a new intensity of discussions with our visitors,” said Rikola-Gunnar Lüttgenau of the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation. He said that intensity has been partly fueled by the resurgence of parties such as the far-right Alternative for Deutschland in Germany, seen by opponents as a threat to democracy.
Incidents of anti-Semitism have been on the rise in Europe while sharp anti-immigration rhetoric has increasingly become part of national debates, prompting urgent questions from visitors to the former Nazi camps across Germany, according to historians there. People are seeking to learn from the past to prevent it from being repeated today, the historians said.
For staffers at German memorial sites, answering that question is a sensitive balancing act.
Deidre Berger, the director of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, urged extreme caution when it comes to using the Holocaust as a reference point for current collective suffering.
“If the Holocaust simply becomes a springboard for universal human rights and values, the memory of the Holocaust will become more and more blurred,” she said. “We can compare other events, but let’s not create false equivalencies.”
Berger noted a recent controversy sparked by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who had appeared to evoke Nazi Germany’s practices June 18 when she called American migrant detention centers along the border with Mexico “concentration camps.”
“The United States is running concentration camps on our southern border, and that is exactly what they are — they are concentration camps,” she said in a video. In a June 24 tweet, Ocasio-Cortez added: “The horrors of the Holocaust went beyond the use of concentration camps, yet camps were part of the process. They have also been used before and after.”
Her initial comments were swiftly condemned by political opponents and by some Jewish groups.
But some scholars defended the comparison. Anna Lind-Guzik, a Jewish historian and daughter of a Soviet Jewish refugee, wrote in an op-ed for Vox that “while the Holocaust is unique in its scale and implementation, the perpetrators and motivations are not.”
“ ‘Never again’ means we must work to deescalate before atrocities rise to the horrors of Auschwitz,” she wrote, while listing alleged inhumane conditions at the U.S. border camps.
For Astrid Ley, deputy head of the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, using the phrase “concentration camp” to describe other camps not designated for mass killing or forced labor blunts the impact of the term.
“I know that these migrant camps are terrible,” she said. “But the aim and the function of concentration camps in the Nazi state was different.”
The public debate that Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks triggered underlined a question historians have long grappled with — how to consider current-day human rights violations in the context of the painful history they evoke.
At memorial sites in Germany, the answer has come from an increasingly apparent shift in perspective, some managers say.
“For a long time, the memorial sites strongly focused on the perspective of the victims,” said Hammermann, the Dachau memorial director.
But as visitors are drawing links to their home countries, she said, they are also seeking to learn more about the perpetrators. They commonly ask, “Why did bystanders allow injustices to happen, and how did Germans become perpetrators?” she said.
“This aspect used to be completely ignored — partially because survivors emphasized that the focus at those sites must be on victims,” Hammermann added. “But we now realize, amid the many questions we receive, that we have to put a much bigger focus on the perpetrators and their supporters.”
A number of memorial sites across Germany have begun to include discussions of current right-wing populism in some of their educational materials, exhibitions and events.
Berger acknowledged that exploring the role of perpetrators is necessary, as long as it does not “deflect attention away from the story of the victims.”
Visitors to the Sachsenhausen site said they have increasingly found themselves thinking about the present while learning about the past.
“We live in a time when we can see history repeating itself,” said 26-year-old Jeffery Gyamerah, who visited the memorial site from London. “I feel like I have to educate myself, because if you forget your history then obviously you’re bound to repeat it.”
Gyamerah said he was particularly struck by an exhibit displaying Nazi propaganda against Polish people and how it resonated with Britain’s current politics.
“A lot of the reasons behind people voting Brexit was to stop Polish laborers or unskilled laborers, as they said, coming into the country,” he said, referring to Britain’s contentious vote to leave the European Union. “So me seeing this is like: ‘Hold on a minute. How are these people still being sort of persecuted in one way or another in 2019?’ ”