Navigation, also: historical

In 2003, the year Alfons Kenkmann was appointed professor of history didactics at the University of Leipzig, he was also elected chairman of the Working Group of National Socialist Memorials in North Rhine-Westphalia (AK NS). In the following, a certainly incomplete picture of the work of Alfons Kenkmann as chairman of the AK NS is outlined.

The title of this contribution paraphrases a term used by the person honored here in an article he wrote for the publication "Mehr als man kennt – naher als man denkt. Object histories from memorial sites in NRW" 1. With the formulation of the "historical navigation" he referred to the didactic offers of the future in the decentralized remembrance landscape of North Rhine-Westphalia with its currently 29 memorials and places of remembrance, which are networked in the AK NS. At the same time, this formula can also be used in a similar form to characterize the 17 years that Alfons Kenkmann was chairman of the working group. When he retired from office in June 2020, colleague Norbert Reichling (Jewish Museum Westphalia Dorsten) rightly pointed out that his term of office represented an important phase of consolidation in the still young history of the NS Working Group, in which the strengths of the network had been worked out and focal points in the joint work had been found, and professional educational work had become established – navigation work, in other words, in a comprehensive sense.

History of the Working Group

The history of the working group begins with the fact that the new association was founded at its inaugural meeting on 17 February 1995. February 1995 adopted its statutes. The constituent meeting of the "Arbeitskreis NS-Gedenkstatten NRW e.V." took place on 31. March 1995 took place. Thus, the NS memorials, which formed the founding core of the working group, joined together to form a network for the whole of North Rhine-Westphalia. Its task, then as now, can be summarized briefly as follows: "The memorial sites … find traces, ask about the fate of those persecuted and critically investigate the actions of the perpetrators on the spot. The local as well as the regional level plays a role. Against this historical background, the memorial sites today not only contribute to research, but also to the education and encounter of people of different origins, generations and nations." 2 Over the years, the working group established itself as the central remembrance policy actor in the federal state and as a specialist historical contact for the Landeszentrale fur politische Bildung NRW (NRW State Agency for Civic Education). The first chairperson was Angela Genger (Mahn- und Gedenkstatte Dusseldorf), from whom Alfons Kenkmann (Villa ten Hompel Munster) took over in 2003.

As chairman of an association in which in many respects a heterogeneous group of memorial sites has come together and which regularly accepts new members, it was important to work out what was common and unifying without leveling out the independent profiles. This required a moderator who knew how to navigate between elasticity and insistence in order to balance interests. The successes that were gradually achieved proved the chairman and those working with him on the board right. Only three examples are mentioned: In order to do justice to the diversity of the sites, the working group expanded its name in 2010 to "Working Group of the NS Memorials and Remembrance Sites NRW e.V."Cooperation projects were also important, for example the traveling exhibition "Deported to the Ghetto", which followed the traces of 3.014 Jews deported from all over the Rhineland to Litzmannstadt (Łodź) in the fall of 1941 – research that could only be accomplished within the network of memorial sites, in this case under the leadership of Karola Fings (NS-Dokumentationszentrum Koln) and Hildegard Jakobs (Mahn- und Gedenkstatte Dusseldorf). Also under Kenkmann's aegis, it was possible to stabilize the state funding for memorial work and to adapt it step by step to the needs.

International exchange

The exchange with memorial and remembrance places beyond the German remembrance landscape got special importance for the working group. When the state of North Rhine-Westphalia signed a state treaty with Yad Vashem, which included a strengthening of the cooperation between the government of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and Yad Vashem and provided for the structural expansion of the cooperation between educational institutions in North Rhine-Westphalia and Yad Vashem, the Working Group of Nazi Memorials and Remembrance Sites NRW became the executive sponsor of this treaty. He subsequently held reciprocal meetings in Germany and Israel, including a delegation trip to Israel in 2015 and a subsequent exchange at Yad Vashem that focused on memorial educational exchanges.

The Landeszentrale fur politische Bildung NRW also supported and still supports the international remembrance-cultural exchange of the working group. This included a multiplier:inside trip on World War I to Belgium and northern France in 2013, a delegation trip to Poland in 2017, and a visit to some of the many Holocaust sites in Greece in 2019. It is to be owed to the forced commitment of Alfons Kenkmann that it could succeed to realize in close succession such high-quality and insightful excursions together with meetings with Expert*innen. After Corona, this exchange is to be resumed under the chairman of the working group Stefan Muhlhofer (Steinwache Dortmund), who will succeed Alfons Kenkmann in 2020, together with the board of directors.

Chronology I – Professionalization

If the activities of the chairman, always framed in the plenum and the board of the AK NS, are to be adequately recorded, a look at the chronology is indispensable. On the one hand, this shows the strengthening character of this network system for all members, since its socio-political impact exceeds the possibilities of individuals. The AK NS has always used its supra-regional significance when it seemed necessary to emphatically represent its own interests or to strengthen the interests of a memorial site on site, for example, when it was a matter of questions of continued existence.

In 2006 the working group founded with the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgraberfursorge e.V., North Rhine-Westphalia state association, a collaboration. The Volksbund is one of several cooperation partners, it belongs u.a. to this circle also the project "Ways against forgetting" of the adult education center Aachen. With the cooperation partners, it is primarily a matter of conceptual exchange and professional supplementation, especially since content-related interfaces are sometimes obvious, sometimes also controversial.

Due to necessity, the AK NS felt compelled long years before the Corona pandemic to publicly claim that extracurricular learning should not be restricted with arguments against school absenteeism. This is the wrong way to go, since visiting extracurricular places of learning in one's own circle of life concretizes the history of National Socialism and makes it clear that terror, persecution, disenfranchisement and exclusion began locally, without which there would have been no path to the National Socialist extermination and concentration camps. It is therefore not surprising that AK NS has supported the educational partnership between museums and schools in North Rhine-Westphalia from the very beginning.

The fact that anniversaries can also promote collaborative work on a topic was demonstrated at the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Steinwache. Anniversary of the November pogrom of 9. November 1938 in 2008, when the working group published the publication "Violence in the region. The November Pogrom 1938 in Rhineland and Westphalia" 3 published. The essays from 15 cities make visible, on a local and regional historical level, who participated in the pogrom, who were the victims of the pogrom and what were the specific events on the ground. This provides a basis for the educational work of the memorial sites, which makes the events transparent and which has since been supplemented by further publications.

Chronology II – Profiling

At the beginning of the 21. By the end of the twentieth century, the exhibitions at some Nazi memorials were aging, both conceptually and in terms of design. This has created momentum for the conceptual revision of several memorials, such as Essen, Oberhausen and Wewelsburg (all reopened in 2010), Wuppertal (reopened in 2011), Dusseldorf and Gelsenkirchen (both reopened in 2015) Duisburg (2014 and 2016) and Dorsten (reopened in 2018). In order to realize this museum relaunch, new museum didactic concepts were required, as Alfons Kenkmann explained. It was important that the profiles diversified and that each memorial and each place of remembrance developed its own profile, distinguishable from the other memorials. The productive exchange in the working group as well as in bilateral discussions avoided fruitless competition as well as uniform duplication of topics and promoted the attractiveness of each individual place by setting individual priorities. Alfons Kenkmann outlined this in 2015 as follows: "…if only in the sense of striving for an experience of difference [it is] indispensable for the future to profile the content of every single memorial and commemorative site in North Rhine-Westphalia…" As a member of many advisory councils, Alfons Kenkmann has always productively contributed his expertise to the redesigns.


When looking at the present and the future, there is a statement of the working group that has gained in importance due to the social changes since the beginning of the two-thousand decade. Because the "emphatic no to discrimination and violence in the present has an impact on daily work. The promotion of democracy, fair conflict resolution, the acceptance of human rights and a more tolerant social climate in the present are goals of the pedagogical approaches in particular."4 The visualization of unacceptable history on the one hand and ideologies of inequality on the other hand necessarily leads back to the present, even if not necessarily in a direct way.

Finally, we would like to remind you of a meeting of the working group in 2019. At that time, Alfons Kenkmann sought the continuation of the international exchange in cooperation with the state government. Originally, he reported to the AK NS, Belarus and/or Ukraine had been targeted as the next destination for a delegation trip of the AK NS. An exchange with Belarus resp. The delegation trip to Ukraine after the end of the war is of great importance in view of the mass crimes committed there by Nazi Germany. However, with the proclamation of martial law in Ukraine, they had to distance themselves from this idea. So much for the session. It is inherent in the unpredictability of history and individual biography that not everything planned will be implemented and then succeed. With regard to the working group, the author of these lines, who was able to understand one or the other of Alfons Kenkmann's conceptual considerations and concrete implementation of plans, dares to claim that many things could be realized. Alfons Kenkmann's expertise and commitment as well as his navigation – not only historical – have created a reliably sustainable basis for the future of the NS memorials and places of remembrance in North Rhine-Westphalia. In this future the projected delegation trip to Ukraine after the end of the war should not be missing at all.

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