Accepting responsibility - building bridges

details place/state: Brandenburg INSTITUTION: Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ARSP) AUTHOR: Annegret Ehmann age group: 16 years and older learning activities Excavation and exposure Intercultural Learning International youth encounter Reflecting forms of remembrance Social service topics Combatting violence and racism today International youth encounter Peace and reconciliation work Survivors Victims

"Action Reconciliation Service for Peace" was founded in Berlin in 1958 on a Germany-wide basis. After unification, the varying approaches of local groups were unified. Young people committed to dealing with the crimes of National Socialism can now volunteer for many kinds of service and for international work camps in Germany or abroad. Volunteers also work at memorials or take care of survivors, the handicapped and refugees.

The Name of the Organization

The two words forming the name of Aktion Sühnezeichen [Action Reconciliation] reflect the organization's background, philosophy, activities, and goals.

"Action" emphasizes the effort and energy invested in reconciliation between Germany and her victims and focuses on working for peaceful relations and cooperation. The activities involve the individual and the nation alike, rather than simply remaining the administrative task of the government. They should overtly demonstrate the historical guilt and responsibility of the German people for the Nazi years and the desire for reconciliation with those whom Germany wronged.

"Sühne" means atonement; it points to the moral basis of restitution. We must confront our history and learn from it. The term "Sühne" recalls the terrible sins of the past as well as more recent failures. Such remembrance compels us to rethink our responsibility in light of what it means to be a German after 1945.

"Zeichen," or "sign/symbol," represents the sense of modesty that should accompany our work. The work of our volunteers can only count as "Zeichen," that is, as symbols of atonement and of the desire for reconciliation. Furthermore, a sign is also a signal - it is a challenge that more has to be done.

The Symbol of "Action Reconciliation Service for Peace"

The olive branch symbolizes peace; its color is green for hope. The emblem of Action Reconciliation Service for Peace is meant to say, "Remember and understand the suffering of others and be committed to life and hope. Learn from history and contribute to a new future."

About the Organization

Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ARSP) is a volunteer organization founded by Christians seeking to confront the era of National Socialism in German history. The recognition of German guilt for World War II was the starting point for Action Reconciliation and was explicitly stated at the 1958 synod of the Protestant church in Germany:

"We Germans began World War II and for this reason alone, more than others, we are guilty for bringing immeasurable suffering to humankind. Germans have murdered millions of Jews in an outrageous rebellion against God. Those of us who did not want this annihilation did not do enough to prevent it. For this reason, we are still not at peace. There has not been true reconciliation…. We are requesting all peoples who suffered violence at our hands to allow us to perform good deeds in their countries…to carry out this symbol of reconciliation. Let us begin in Poland, Russia, and Israel, whose people we have hurt the most."

Action Reconciliation started its volunteer program in countries other than the ones named in the "Call for Peace." It was perhaps too soon in 1958 for some countries to respond positively; the wounds of the recent past were too deep. In the early years, starting in 1959, young volunteers helped to build, among other projects: a social academy in Rotterdam (the Netherlands), a church and a home for the handicapped in Norway, a synagogue in Villeurbanne (France), a kindergarten in Skopje (Yugoslavia), an irrigation plant on the island of Crete, and an international meeting center in the ruined cathedral of Coventry (England).

Action Reconciliation was founded entirely as a German organization, but the division of Germany made joint work impossible. In East Germany, in 1962, the work of rebuilding what had been destroyed during the war began in three churches in Magdeburg. Out of this, an extensive summer camp program developed, bringing together people from Poland, the former Soviet Union, Hungary, and Romania.

Since the political changes in the former German Democratic Republic and the resulting unification of the two Action Reconciliations - East and West - in 1991, more than 25 summer camps are now being organized in ten European countries with 400 participants every year. The summer camp volunteers work at Jewish cemeteries, at memorial sites of former concentration camps, and in charitable and welfare institutions [see Documents].

Action Reconciliation in West Germany continued the long-term volunteer program. In the middle of the 1960s, social peace services supplanted construction work. The core of the volunteer program was formed by supporting and working with people in social facilities and with survivors of the Holocaust and minorities.

The work has grown and changed. Action Reconciliation, since 1968 called Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, is now active in long- and short-term volunteer service in Israel, the United States, and Western and Eastern Europe. Educational work is done together with survivors of the Holocaust, as well as at memorial centers of former concentration camps, in research institutes and in museums. Confronting German history is also defined as challenging right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism, lobbying for recognition of "forgotten" victims of Nazi oppression, and participating in peace groups and initiatives.

Long-term Volunteer Service of ARSP

Today, approximately 140 long-term volunteers of ARSP, most of them between the ages of 18 and 25, are active in 11 countries: Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Great Britain, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, the Community of Independent States (CIS) - Russia, Bosnia, and Germany. Volunteers commit themselves to 18 months of service. Conscientious objectors can volunteer with ARSP to fulfill their obligation for national civil service.

During a three-week period of preparation, the new ARSP enlistees visit former concentration and extermination camps in different countries. Through these trips, they learn to look at German history from a new perspective. Volunteers begin to confront the fact that the democratization of Germany's authoritarian political structures and civic attitudes was too weak to prevent the catastrophe of 1933. They come to understand the inescapable connection between the past and the present.

Great Britain

The work of Action Reconciliation Service for Peace began in Great Britain in 1961. The Coventry cathedral, along with most of the city center, was destroyed during the war by German bombing raids. ARSP volunteers were invited to assist in rebuilding the vestry. Today, the cathedral houses the national office of ARSP and the International Center for Christian Reconciliation, a symbol of Anglo-German friendship.

Social service gradually replaced these initial building projects. Since 1961, some 600 volunteers have worked for ARSP, serving all over Britain in social and political projects. Today 12 volunteers work in Great Britain. They work in the London Museum of Jewish Life, in a home for elderly Jewish people, and with the homeless and unemployed. They take part in multicultural groups and youth training projects and are active in organizations against racism.


ARSP's work in Israel began in October 1961. The first groups worked for six months on a kibbutz. At present, 25 volunteers serve in Israel working with the elderly, the physically and mentally handicapped, and socially disadvantaged children. They also work at memorial centers and research institutes, such as Yad Vashem and the Leo Baeck Institute.

Working with disadvantaged minorities is a cornerstone of ARSP's reconciliation work. Therefore, ARSP cooperates with various projects to promote Jewish-Arab understanding and is engaged in initiatives to support interreligious dialogue in Israel.

The basis of ARSP's work in the state of Israel is an unconditional affirmation of the country's existence in its internationally recognized borders. Because of internal tensions in Israel and international strains in the Middle East, Action Reconciliation Service for Peace is confronted with the conflicts in this region. The organization feels especially close to those groups that try to find cooperative and peaceful ways to deal with the Middle East conflict.

Today, there is no such thing as "normality" between Germans and Israelis or between Christians and Jews. Recognizing and accepting this fact is the basic prerequisite for genuine encounter, communication and mutual understanding.

ARSP runs an international center in Jerusalem, the Ben Yehuda House, and organizes seminars and meetings on Jewish-Christian and Israeli-German relations.

United States

The work of ARSP in the U.S.A. is an important extension of its programs in Europe and Israel. In the early 1960s, American and German Christians began cooperating in peace initiatives in Europe. In 1968, some American traditional peace churches - Brethren, Mennonites, and the Church of Christ - invited ARSP to send volunteers for their programs devoted primarily to the poor and underprivileged in the United States.

ARSP volunteers are involved in community organizing and community centers. Volunteers work in shelters for the homeless and for battered women, day care centers, in a variety of civil rights and peace groups, as well as in Holocaust educational centers. Special emphasis is placed on cooperation with the Jewish community and Jewish organizations.


Volunteers help in the daily care and therapy of children and adults with social needs. They also work with elderly people.


Volunteers work with anti-racism initiatives, in the Anne Frank Foundation, in the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam, and in the National Remembrance Center Camp Westerbork. Others share their daily lives with youngsters who have been dependent on drugs and work with refugees, AIDS victims, former prostitutes, and in educational centers for disadvantaged persons.


Volunteers work in social, educational and cultural projects, such as the anti-psychiatry movement, initiatives for political refugees or the homeless, and in the AIDS Information Center in Paris. They also care for former refugees from Nazi Germany and help in the Jewish Documentation Center in Paris.


Different social work projects, such as the Seaman's Mission or San Damiano, a refugees' initiative, are asking for help from our volunteers. Volunteers are involved in the work of the Auschwitz Foundation to keep alive the memory of the experience.of the concentration camps.

Czech Republic

Volunteers aid the elderly of the Jewish community in Prague. They also work with the Helsinki Citizens Assembly on human rights issues.

Russia CIS (Community of Independent States)

Since the early 1970s, ARSP has had contact with groups in the former Soviet Union, especially in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad). In 1990, the first long-term volunteers began to work in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. Our partners are the project "Memorial," where volunteers are helping the elderly and handicapped, and the foundation "To the Children of Chernobyl," an organization that cares for children suffering from the effects of radiation. Some of our 12 volunteers are also working in Orthodox or Protestant parishes.


Volunteers work in the memorial centers of the former concentration camps of Auschwitz, Majdanek, Stutthof, and Gross-Rosen. They act as guides for school groups, youth clubs and churches - mostly from Germany. They also work with blind and handicapped children as well as with the elderly.

Education about National Socialism and the Holocaust

In 1986, Action Reconciliation Service for Peace built a center for international youth meetings near Auschwitz, about two kilometers from the former concentration camp. Young people from more than 20 nations have since been welcomed, although most have been young Germans and Poles. With the assistance of specialists, the youngsters discuss Auschwitz and its historical context as well as prospects for mutual German-Polish understanding and future cooperation. The center offers study trips for church, union, and school groups. These trips include a week of volunteer work, which might entail cleaning, building, painting, or whatever is needed at the time.

The young volunteers do not act from a feeling of personal guilt, but rather from the convictions that they cannot disassociate themselves from their country's history, that they have a responsibility for the results of that history, and that they have learned from history and intend to build a better future. The way in which we treat religious, political and cultural minorities in the future will prove whether we have learned from the past.

ARSP's program offers an opportunity for young Germans to learn about German history, other cultures and societies, and about themselves. It provides a chance to experience and accept different patterns of thought and behavior. The program helps the volunteers to fight racism and anti-Semitism and to commit themselves to the creation of a more tolerant, just and peaceful world.

A welcome result of the volunteers' visits to former concentration camps and of their meetings with survivors is their decision to conduct research about the history of Jews in their hometowns. Some tend the graves of Soviet prisoners of war or draw public attention to forgotten sites of concentration camps in Germany, where they may serve as guides.


Volunteers work in the memorial centers of the former concentration camps at Neuengamme, Dachau, and Wewelsburg, as well as in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Memorial in Berlin.

Work with Jewish Communities and at Jewish Cemeteries
Berlin: Schönhauser Allee

One focus of ARSP's summer camps is cooperative work with Jewish communities. Where earlier there was multifaceted Jewish life, today there is often only a small Jewish community. The residents frequently suffer from the prejudices and anti-Semitism of their milieus. Youth projects in Jewish communities give the participants insight into the richness of Jewish life and Jewish culture. The ARSP thus cares for Jewish cemeteries, which symbolize those Jews murdered and persecuted by the Germans. Cemeteries have a special importance for Jews as "houses of life" or "good places." Many Jewish communities consist primarily of elderly people, who alone cannot tend to their large cemeteries. ARSP wishes to assist them with this and preserve the memory of the deceased.

The second oldest Jewish cemetery in Berlin is located in Schönhauser Allee. The gravestones from the years 1828-1878 have the feature that inscriptions are in two languages (Hebrew and German) and show the process of assimilation of Jews in Germany. Many of the gravestones are made from chalky sandstone that is disintegrating, and many of the inscriptions are no longer legible. Together with the Jewish Community of Berlin and the Prenzlauer Berg Museum, ARSP is registering and documenting the gravestones in photographs. In order to do this, wild plant growth must be removed from the gravestones and some stones need to be dug out and cleaned. A documentation form registers the material, condition, inscription, and.decorations. The Prenzlauer Berg Museum photographer requires assistance in this task. The old working-class district, Prenzlauer Berg, not only has an interesting history, but is also one of the liveliest districts in the city today. Apart from practical work, this section of Berlin can also be explored.

Confronting German History: Political Activities in Germany

Facing history helps to fight the tendencies to forget or suppress the past. Awareness of history makes one see much more clearly. For example, the fact that Jewish religious services in Germany are only held under police protection shows that anti-Semitism is still alive in Germany. As a latent tendency, anti-Semitism has not disappeared, regardless of public rhetoric to the contrary. German fascism as a closed system was abolished in 1945, but its roots are still alive in deep-seated attitudes.

In the 1990s, with the curtailment of the right to political asylum and an increase in xenophobic assaults and attacks on refugees' homes in Germany, ARSP increased ist activities in this area. Besides taking part in vigils to protect refugees' homes, ARSP is involved in initiatives fighting for a humane right to asylum. Furthermore, ARSP continues to be engaged in peace work and participates in various peace groups and initiatives.

A full-time staff in the Berlin headquarters runs the program in Germany. The long-term volunteer program is run with a staff, working on location in Amsterdam, Coventry, Jerusalem, Krakow, Mostar, Oslo, Paris, and in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Staff members and friends in various parts of the country endeavor to make the idea of Action Reconciliation Service for Peace a reality in Germany. The organization speaks out publicly on all matters concerning Nazism and neo-Nazism.

ARSP publishes its own periodical, "Zeichen," which reports on the organization's activities and collections of documents and books. "Zeichen" also provides material for lectures and exhibitions dealing with Nazi crimes and discusses contemporary right-wing extremism in Germany. Staff members and friends have also produced documentary films: one deals with an organization of former SS men, Nazi groups and neo-Nazis, while another deals with the impressions of Germans who have visited Auschwitz. In addition, members of Action Reconciliation Service for Peace participate in many groups conducting Jewish-Christian and German-Israeli dialogue.


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