Speech by Prof. Petra Terhoeven at the 1st National Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Terrorist Violence in Gemany

In February 2022, the German Cabinet voted to introduce a National Day of Remembrance for victims of terrorist violence. Starting this year, it will be held alongside the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Terrorism on March 11.
Upon invitation by the Ministry of the Interior, Prof. Terhoeven spoke at the first commemoration ceremony on March 11, 2022, at Berlin’s Kronprinzenpalais. Based on initial findings from our research project, she drew conclusions for the political treatment of survivors and victims‘ relatives of past and present terrorist attacks.

Due to the ongoing Covid19 pandemic, the event was livestreamed without a live audience.

Find the video of the event and a transcript of Petra Terhoevens speech below.


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Speech by Prof. Petra Terhoeven Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

Dear Mr. President, dear Madam Federal Minister, dear Mr. Federal Representative, dear listeners,
in these weeks we are thinking intensively about the people who are being overrun by war in Ukraine. Today is dedicated to people upon whom violence came in the midst of peace. It is a day of remembrance of and for the victims of terrorist violence. Of course, I cannot and will not replace their voices. I certainly do not want to claim to speak for them. That would be impossible, because the stories we are commemorating today are just as diverse as the ways in which those affected have dealt with their loss and their individual suffering – some in silence, others loudly and fiercely.
As a historian who has researched the causes and consequences of terrorism and has recently focused particularly on the history of the victims, it is far from my intention to flatten this diversity. But today I would like to explore what connects the experiences of these victims – beyond all the differences that are just as important.
Terrorism, research agrees, is also, and above all, an inhuman communication strategy. The message of violence strikes fear into the hearts of many, while it is intended to arouse admiration and support (for the perpetrators) among others. Terrorists do not attack their victims as individuals, but because they fit a certain image of the enemy – because they have a certain nationality or religion, embody the hated „system,“ are tourists in the wrong place at the wrong time, or because their skin and hair color does not fit into the perpetrators‘ world view.
This fundamental arbitrariness of terrorist violence makes it particularly difficult to cope with the loss or injury. It also explains the strong desire of the bereaved to emphasize the individuality, the unique humanity of their murdered father or son, their killed sister or friend. In this way, their loved ones shall regain the human dignity that was supposed to be taken away from them by the crime.
Photos of their unmistakable faces, which are placed alongside flowers and candles at the crime scenes symbolize this whish as they aim to overwrite the bleak images of death and destruction.
And this is also what the expression „Say their names!“ stands for, a formula first heard in the United States.
The families of the young men and women murdered in Hanau have adopted it and urged us all to „Say their names!“
Hanau also shows that terrorism is by no means always directed directly against the state. Especially in Germany, where the history of the RAF has shaped the perception of political violence, this has not been recognized clearly enough for a long time. Just think of the endless suffering of the victims‘ families of the NSU, who for years were not allowed to even be recognized as victims. From the very beginning, however, structural racism also played a role in the blindness toward right-wing terrorism – in the ranks of the investigators as well as in the all too uncritical media.
Terrorism is not always aimed directly at the state, but at a certain political order: at a democratic, peaceful, diverse and tolerant society. That is why terrorism concerns us all, even when – as in the case of racist violence – we are not all equally threatened by it.
Terrorism is planned and executed for its impact on the mass media. Therefore, many victims not only have to cope with the sudden intrusion of extreme violence into their life, but also with the feeling of being publicly exposed and utterly unprotected from the gaze of others. In fact, some journalists and even politicians have used the fate of the victims to pursue their own interests. The justice longed for is also harder to achieve when it comes to the legal management of acts in which the political order itself has been targeted along with the people. This is because state secrecy interests almost always play a role in court, which the victims not seldomly perceive as a further slap in the face.
In fact, survivors of terrorism are often uncomfortable. Not only for the state, which they remind that in its failed protective function. They are also inconvenient for all of us, as they show us the vulnerability of modern societies and thus the impossibility of total safety. Slogans like „Je suis Charlie“ evoke a sense of solidarity that is nonetheless always threatened by the majority’s longing for normalcy and denial. „The Games must go on!“ was the slogan in Munich, not only after the attack on the Israeli Olympic team in 1972, but also on the morning after the attack on the Oktoberfest eight years later. And even after Hanau, only a few in the carnival hotspots had lost their desire to celebrate. Even in the building of the mourning flagged German Bundestag there was a party of colorfully costumed administrative officials at the same time as the vigil at the Brandenburg Gate.
Given this context we ask ourselves, what moves bereaved families and survivors the most? What do they want from politics, what do they want from all of us? Unfortunately, they are not here today, no tell us themselves.
In the past, however, survivors and victims’ families have criticized the huge attention gap that exists between perpetrators and victims. They urgently ask us not to talk about the perpetrators over and over again, so that the terrorists‘ communication strategy does not work, so that it is not their name that is remembered. In the meantime, this request has led to the fact that at least most of the traditional media hardly show any photos of the criminals and have become much more reserved with publishing their names. In addition to respect and empathy, which are anything but self-evident, especially on the Internet, victims primarily claim access to all relevant information. It should be possible to access files and documents – also those that document state failure and possibly involvement. Overall, survivors and bereaved families have been far less then successful with this demand. This is also unfortunate from a scientific point of view.
From the perspective of the victims, the half-century that the Federal Republic has now had to come to terms with terrorist violence cannot be told as a straightforward success story or even as a heroic epic of a strong defending democracy. It is a story with many detours and errors, with gaps and dark sides; the story of a community that is only slowly learning and has certainly not yet finished learning.

So let us listen to the victims! Let us recognize that they have suffered in a special way, for which we as a society must take responsibility.

Let us understand that there can be no hierarchy of victims! Inside and outside the state institutions, we need more people who are willing to ask questions about the failures of the Verfassungsschutz (Office for the Protection of the Constitution) and the police. We need people who are willing to help quickly and unbureaucratically, also financially. Above all, we need people who do not want to forget what has been irretrievably lost through terrorism and can never be repaired. Because the victims themselves cannot forget.
Petra Terhoeven

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