How Germany deals with its past

Introduction written by Asena Soydas, text by Laurenz Scheunemann

As it is often deemed a taboo, people visiting Germany hesitate to talk about a very sad part of the German history: the Nazi past and the Holocaust. Luckily this is not the case  anymore. Starting with history classes after primary school pupils are reminded and warned about the extreme cases of right-wing populism. Many monuments, for example “Stolpersteine” which are stumbling stones inscribed with the names of victims of the Nazis and placed in front of the houses from where the victims have been deported, inform people of the Nazi terror, euthanasia and the concentration camps. Considering the new wave of rising populism around the globe and the motto “Global Challenges to Democracy”, IstKon 2019 will dedicate one of the academic days to the topic of populism. The following article written by Laurenz Scheunemann of the academic team aims to introduce the handling of the German remembrance culture after the World War II, which remains among the most inhuman experiences the world has ever seen.

Stolpersteine can also be found in Konstanz.

The German “Erinnerungskultur“

The German language is both feared and treasured around the world for its unequalled ability to create words for things and feelings most non-Germans would otherwise not even know exist. Many of these words have been borrowed by other languages like English.  A few notable examples help to bring home this point: „Kindergarten“, a garden for children; the uniquely German feeling of „Weltschmerz“, the melancholic-yet-poetic personal discomfort in the face of pretty much all the sorrows of the world; or the notion of a popular „Zeitgeist“, a paradigmatic set of beliefs shared by most people in the present in any realm of life, for example culture or politics.

Along this line, it is not surprising that the Germans created a word – or rather a subsuming umbrella-term – for their collective remembrance of the horrors Nazi-Germany inflicted on the whole world, its neighboring European nations and first and foremost the Jewish people. „Erinnerungskultur“, which roughly translates to culture of remembrance, is a holistic concept first discussed among historians yet soon adopted by mainstream discourse. By now, this term probably best describes Germans‘ approach to wrestle with the daunting task of remembering the unprecedented suffering of the „Shoa“, the Hebrew word for catastrophe, the Germans (or at least their parents or grandparents) were responsible for.

Quantifying the horror

To understand the extraordinary challenge of creating a national narrative around the Holocaust, the sheer scope of this historic crime should probably be brought back to mind. The numbers defy imagination: 70-85 million men, women and children, the vast majority of which were civilians, lost their lives in the course of the Second World War (that is about three in a hundred people alive at that time) that was provoked by the axis powers, particularly Nazi-Germany. Among the dead were six million Jews, who were killed in the course of the arguably worst atrocity ever committed by a nation. The genocide of the European Jews defies imagination not only due to the simply inconceivable numbers, but even more so in face of the cold-hearted, perfectly-administered killing on an almost industrial scale. Any term, whether genocide or crime against humanity, necessarily falls short of capturing how millions of „misfits“ – elders, men, women and children alike (besides Jews other groups like gypsies, disabled people, communists or other delinquents were also killed) – were systematically dehumanized, mortified, ripped of their belongings, centrally registered and transported in wagons like cattle, crammed in concentration camps and finally starved, tortured, labored or gassed to death, before they were burned to ashes. In face of the sheer scale of the Shoa it is crystal clear that millions of Germans were either perpetrators, active collaborators, silent supporters, profiteers or at least inactive confidants.

In view of the horrors of the Shoa, it is unbelievable how swiftly Germany (West-Germany, that is) came from being seen as the worst state perpetrator in human history to be a valued, accepted and soon influential member of the community of states. Due to the ever intensifying cold-war and Germany’s paramount strategic relevance in it, both the USA and the USSR saw the need to prop up and strengthen their respective German partner, capitalist West- and socialist East-Germany. In both states the political, judicial, societal and administrative posts left vacant after WWII were soon filled again by the very people which held them before – the Nazi functional elites. With the notable exception of the highest-ranking Nazis sentenced in the course of the Nuremberg Trials, most perpetrators were soon re-integrated into society.

The history of Erinnerungskultur

The Erinnerungskultur in post-WWII Germany can sensibly structured in three different phases. During the first phase of the German post-WWII Erinnerungskultur the crimes committed by Nazi Germany were a non-topic, widely ignored by the wider society, politics, media and the educational system alike. The Nazi-time was seen as an inexplicable historical exception, and Hitler as a demon who bewitched an otherwise advanced and benign people. While almost all German families had losses to mourn themselves and family members fighting at the war, facing the total German defeat, the deterioration of national ethics and the daunting task of re-building the country from ruins (the Germans soon called this moment in time the „Stunde Null“, the “Hour Zero”), these topics were not discussed even within the closer family.

This changed during the second phase of the German Erinnerungskultur, when three different judicial events confronted the Germans with their hitherto suppressed past. While the Bundestag, the German parliament, debated whether a German law of that time which prohibited acts of men-slaughter to be persecuted after 20 years should stand even for perpetrators of the Holocaust, two different cases were brought to court in Israel and Frankfurt, respectively. While the Eichmann process – against one of the architects of the Holocaust – demonstrated to the eager world community in painful detail once again what the Germans had hoped to keep under the carpet, the intra-German Ausschwitz process against former SS concentration camp personnel might have had an even greater effect. Those events coincided with a broader social change during the 60s and 70s: Families started to have the painful conversations long avoided as children asked their fathers what they were doing during WWII; politics got far more vocal in condemning the past and working towards ensuring that something like this could never again happen in Germany; the public and press started to cover both the Nazi time in general and the Holocaust in particular; monuments and museums were built and school curricula adapted to ensure that each and every German student would learn about the horrors of WWII, Nazi Germany and the Shoa several times, at length and from the perspective of different school subjects.

From partial amnesia to open discussion

Conducted with German fervor and rigor, the results of these concentrated efforts were indeed impressive. Within less than a generation, Germany as a nation went from partial historic amnesia to face and openly discuss and condemn the crimes of its past in breadth and depths as few – if any – countries ever have. Literally all Germans are aware and vocal about the dangers of fascism and national-socialism.

While this broadly dismissive historic antithesis to the widely ignorant first phase was overdue, necessary and healthy, in some respect it created a situation were most Germans started to feel awkward not only about the German past, but also about Germany in general and any kind of nationalism or even patriotism. Understandably, they grew increasingly hesitant to perceive national values, ideals and particularly power as benign or worthwhile.

The Fall fo the Berlin Wall
The fall of the wall dividing West- and East-Germany.

The effects of German reunification

This again changed with the fall of the Berlin wall and the German reunification. Finally, it seemed, Germany had a unique historic success story to show for its past. And Germans started to feel increasingly comfortable with having a positive perspective towards their nation and even parts of its past. This decades-long change cumulated in the black-red-golden euphoria of the Football World Cup in 2006 that Germany happily and successfully hosted, when Germans for the first time post-WWII proudly waved the German flag and pinned it to pretty much every car around (which is quite a few, in Germany). The world „visited as friends“, as the World Cup motto trenchantly summarized the general mood, and Germans finally experienced their own country as welcoming, charming and respected around the globe.

Political discourse today

Today, it is fair to describe the German relationship with its past as more pronounced, open and critical than ever before. While a „normalization“ of the horrors of WWII and the Shoa will and should never come about, most Germans today have a healthy perspective towards the German past and are more open for the positive parts of their history such as the reunification. Lately, however the rise of the anti-establishment right-wing populist AfD party has challenged this maybe-to-optimistic perspective.

While a full denial let alone positive perspective on Nazi Germany is still inconceivable, AfD politicians have indulged in outright historic revisionism, with a party leader calling the Nazi period „but a fly shit compared to the long and glorious German history“ and another state leader calling the Holocaust monument in Berlin „a monument of shame, that no other nation would have put in the middle of ist capital“. The latter, surprisingly enough, might indeed be a surprisingly helpful observation: Germany’s Erinnerungskultur is unique and in quite a few respects exemplary.

The Holocaust monument in Berlin.

Yet these quotes also demonstrate that while the vast majority of Germans is strongly dismissive of this kind of historical revisionism and squarely against anything nationalist, they are neither immune to ist lures nor have Germans once and for all laid to rest the ghosts of their past. The Erinnerungskultur is crucial in the never-ending endeavor of reconciliation. The former German president Richard von Weizsäcker formulated it most vividly and trenchantly in a historic speech given about 20 years after WWII:


„Remembrance is experience of the work of God in history. It is the source of faith in redemption. This experience creates hope, creates faith in redemption, in reunification of the divided, in reconciliation. Whoever forgets this experience loses his faith. If we for our part sought to forget what has occurred, instead of remembering it, this would not only be inhuman. We would also impinge upon the faith of the Jews who survived and destroy the basis of reconciliation. We must erect a memorial to thoughts and feelings in our own hearts.“

Movie tips by Laurenz about the topic:

“To get a much better understanding for the situation in Germany during this time, I highly and whole-heartedly recommend watching the excellent German movie „Labyrinth of lies“ (Original „Labyrinth der Lüge“). By following a young German lawyer in his fight to persecute some of the last living perpetrators of the Holocaust, it also draws a lively picture of the German society and people during that time. For the more action-savy, the movie „Operation Finale“ covers the inprobable undercover mission of an Israeli secret agent squad that finally tracked down Eichmann in Argentina and brought him to Israel.”

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