Remembering and Experience: Culture of Memory Through AR

By Denis Heuring

Die Befreiung (“The Liberation”) by Bavarian broadcasting company Bayerischer Rundfunk gives visitors the chance to experience the liberation of Dachau Concentration Camp’s 75th anniversary via Augmented Reality (AR) and innovative storytelling. This digital project demonstrates how new technologies can profoundly change our culture of memory.

Copyright: Concentration Camp Memorial Dachau/Montage BR, Christopher Roos von Rosen

Once you pass the iron gate displaying the infamous phrase “Arbeit macht frei” (“work makes you free”), you enter an empty square. For visitors of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, the place becomes a vivid scene where historical knowledge merges with their own imagination. However, some things are still unimaginable, such as the suffering of the prisoners, the cruelty of the perpetrators, and the bewilderment of the American soldiers upon entering the camp on April 29th, 1945. Thanks to broadcasting company Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR), visitors can now experience the past.

Virtual Tour – Bringing the Past to Life

75 years ago, Dachau Concentration Camp was liberated by US troops. To commemorate this anniversary, BR teamed up with Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site to create the multimedia storytelling project Die Befreiung.

“Thanks to technological progress, we now have new ways to remember,” Bayerischer Rundfunk producer Eva Deinert stated. “We are using technology to serve as a culture of memory.” Die Befreiung allows visitors of the memorial site to experience the decisive hours that unfolded on April 29th, 1945. With the help of an AR app, the memorial sites are enhanced with historical images and audio recordings. Memory and experience are thus brought closer together. Eyewitness accounts as well as photographs of prisoners, SS soldiers, and liberators illustrate the past and seem if for a brief moment to conquer the time gap between then and now.

Eva Deinert. Photo: BR/Lisa Hinder

Immersive Storytelling Through New Technologies

Experimenting with new ways to explain things and immersive storytelling is not something new to Deinert. As one of the editors of the award-winning BR innovation project Ich, Eisner (Me, Eisner), she has demonstrated how new distribution channels can be used to make history come alive. Political figure and revolutionary Kurt Eisner spent four months from fall 2018 to spring 2019 teaching interested parties about the accomplishments he had attained nearly 100 years ago through inspiring and engaging WhatsApp messages.

Interview with Eva Deinert about „Ich, Eisner“ and Storytelling (YouTube)

Die Befreiung focuses on a different technology with AR. The app was anticipated to already be in use, though the Corona lockdown has currently made visiting the memorial site not possible. Broadcasting company Bayerischer Rundfunk has therefore created a virtual visit of the Concentration Camp Memorial Site through an audiovisual experience on the website. With narrative voices, original recordings, and photos, the project bridges experience and reflection. The visit, though succinct, is still very vivid.

Using the Smartphone – Confrontation Instead of Distraction

“The focus lies on stories of young prisoners,” Deinert explained. “It was important for us to shed light on the stories of specific people.” This aim proved to be remarkably successful through the reunion story between Arthur Haulot and Paul Lévy. Online visitors are invited to discover the incredible story of Haulot, an imprisoned resistance fighter, and his Belgian compatriot Lévy, who worked as a journalist and interpreter for American soldiers. By chance, the two met again on April 29th, 1945. This astonishing record is a chance for visitors to simultaneously learn about the past and experience the emotions it brought about.

“If we want to reach younger target groups and raise their awareness of history, we must learn more about their media use and consumer behavior,” Deinert has explained. Smartphones do not have to be a distraction, but a tool to confront our history. “Teachers and students that tested a prototype of the AR app before the lockdown gave us very positive feedback,” the project manager stated. This is incredibly promising and therefore leaves a lot to be expected from innovative storytelling.