Is "Vergangenheitsbewältigung" Germany's most successful export ?
Clearly, the memories of National Socialism have become an integral part of the way Germans regard themselves; right in the middle of the country's capital, Berlin, the monumental "Holocaust memorial" (to the murdered Jews of Europe) appears to bear testimony to Germany's continued willingness to remember (and remind themselves). Can this process of "Vergangenheitsbewältigung", which seems to have been brought to a successful conclusion, also prove a valuable orientation aid for other societies – not only in Eastern Europe – which likewise see themselves faced with the need to take a long hard look at their past?
On a superficial level, the German culture of remembering may appear suitable as a potentially successful "export", though on closer examination there are at least three objections which need to be raised.
What does successful mean?First: besides the fundamental difficulty of comparing highly diverse national histories with one another, we must identify the criteria which would need to be met to constitute a successful "Vergangenheitsbewältigung": is it a question of taking legal action to ensure that the guilty are punished? Is it a need to provide financial or symbolic "compensation" for the crimes? Is it a matter of society asking critical questions of itself and facing up to its responsibility? Should the success of "Vergangenheitsbewältigung" be measured by changes in political and societal conditions, i.e. by the creation of a stable and democratic community? Or is it primarily a question of reconciliation between perpetrators and victims, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions were supposed to promote following the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa?
One thing is certain: superficially speaking, it may appear that these different strands of the "Vergangenheitsbewältigung" process have, ultimately, been successfully intertwined in Germany. However, it is all too easy to forget – and this is the second objection – that this process lasted for decades, was extremely fraught with conflict and featured a whole series of political and moral scandals.
After 1945, the victorious Allied forces pursued a thorough policy of political cleansing which was flanked by re-education on a political and moral level. The Germans, however, the majority of whom initially regarded the Nuremberg Trials as "fair", soon took exception with the supposed "justice" being imposed by the victors. The more the political cleansing was no longer directed solely at those who had been in power in the collapsed regime but at all members of German society, most Germans saw "denazification" by questionnaire as an implicit reproach of their "collective guilt". Through their willingness to clear each other's names and give each other "denazification certificates" (equivalent to a clean bill of health), the Germans themselves contributed a great deal to ensuring that the denazification process, which had originally been intended as a means of conducting political checks on individuals, became a bureaucratic "factory of sympathizers" (Lutz Niethammer): nobody, foreign observers found to their disconcertment, now claimed to have been a Nazi.
Refusing to rememberAlthough thanks to the Allies political norms were defined, making a return to National Socialism impossible, society's desire to draw a line under its past was so marked that Adenauer's first government had little choice but to bring the denazification process to a rapid conclusion. As West Germany experienced its economic miracle, the mood was in favour of rehabilitating those who had been convicted, of effectively discontinuing the process of legal action, and of keeping silent about the past. In the midst of all this "playing down of the situation during the economic miracle" (Mitscherlich), those with a great deal of blood on their hands scandalously succeeded in pursuing second careers.
This subconscious denial of the past may have had a beneficial effect on the psychological integration of the "society of perpetrators" in which, after all, only very few of the victims lived. However, since the early 1960s it has come to be regarded as a moral scandal, indeed as a "second guilt" (Ralph Giordano). A wave of anti-Semitic daubing of graffiti in 1959/60 and sensational trials such as the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem and the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt showed that the past had not been "overcome" on either a legal or a moral level. The GDR, which with no justification whatsoever portrayed itself as an anti-fascist state, was successful in a number of campaigns in capitalizing for propaganda purposes on the fact that some people from the Nazi regime had managed to remain in positions of power in the Federal Republic.
In some ways it was the refusal to remember in the 1950s which prompted the processing and reanalysing of the past which continues to this day. This process, however, was anything but smooth and free of conflict. In the 1960s, the renewed criminal prosecution of the perpetrators, the scandal surrounding those who had remained in power and society's desire to draw a line under the events of the past were still quite separate, unconnected elements. Even those who had taken part with great revolutionary fervour in the demonstrations and student revolts of 1968 were fairly quick to ignore the question of the past not having been overcome. Between moral indignation and lofty, abstract debates on fascism, there proved to be little time to pursue any critical research into or remembering of the country's Nazi past. In the 1970s, some took up arms in the fight against a supposedly fascist Germany – themselves sliding into terrorism in the process.
Intensifying the process of (re-)reminding societyIt was an American TV production which in 1979 first placed the central crime of the Nazi regime in the forefront of society's memory, which previously had focused more on the war. The series, which was entitled Holocaust, grabbed the attention of the Germans in a way which was both unexpected and emotional – and, through its title, provided a description for that which could not be named. This media event, just like the widely debated 50th anniversary of the 30 January 1933, helped intensify the process of (re-)reminding society. Nonetheless, deficits remained: it still created quite a stir when in 1985 Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker referred to 1945 as the year of "liberation" rather than of "defeat". Nazi victim groups, such as those who had suffered under the Nazi's programme of "euthanasia", still had to fight to have their status as victims recognized, while the process of paying compensation to forced labourers continued well into the 1990s.
It was not until the end of the century that the public debate increasingly came to accept the fact that the Nazi regime had not been based purely on suppression and terror but also on a broad consensus among German society. Just how long some legends of innocence were able to endure can be seen from the heated debate surrounding the so-called "Wehrmacht exhibition", which shook the widely held view of the Wehrmacht – the German armed forces – as having allegedly remained "decent" in the war of annihilation against the Soviet Union.
To this day, the past has not been "overcome" – and this is the third objection. On the contrary: the German culture of remembering keeps popping up at unexpected places. Ever since the writer Martin Walser claimed the right to be relieved from his "duty to remember" in 1998, Germans appear to be increasingly concerned about their own status as victims. Bombenkrieg (referring to the war of bombs), Flucht (as peoples fled from the advancing armies) and Vertreibung (when people were driven from their homelands) are the buzzwords, with one supposed (mass media) taboo being broken after another. People appear to have forgotten that the suffering of those forced to leave their homelands had been clearly evident in society in the first decades after the war (there was, after all, even a Federal Minister responsible for this issue).
New, more relaxed attitudes – new uncertaintiesThis makes it clear how important it is to repeatedly seek to reinforce society's knowledge of the past. When new generations ask new questions, it is not only a matter of a long overdue rejection of old rules about what can and cannot be said, or of being overcome by "political correctness"; alongside the new, more relaxed attitudes, new uncertainties are also evident. Are Germans entitled to wave their national flags during a football World Cup tournament? Can Hitler be shown eating pasta and depicted as a "normal person" in the film Downfall – Der Untergang (Germany, 2004, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel); is it permissible perhaps even to laugh at the way he is portrayed by Helge Schneider (in the film Mein Führer – The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler, Germany 2007, directed by Dani Levy - Mein Führer – Die wirklich wahrste Wahrheit über Adolf Hitler) – and what does this add to our historical understanding?
It is not only the very young who are alienated at first by the past: memory is constantly being readjusted in all generations. A wave of literature revolving around families and collective memory is testimony to a desire for intergenerational reconciliation which is being articulated precisely by those who formerly rebelled against their parents for keeping silent about the past. And while historians fight to understand how "ordinary men" were able to become so evil, families jointly seek to downplay the involvement of their older members. In many cases, as social psychologist Harald Welzer was able to demonstrate, what counts is that "Grandpa wasn't a Nazi". Levelling out such lines of conflict also makes later confessions easier. The fact that Günter Grass – an icon of the West German "Vergangenheitsbewältigung" – was a member of the SS is hardly a matter of any great excitement any more, though the question (which seems rather to forget history) as to why Grass didn't admit it earlier is.
As those who lived through the Nazi period die off, the gap between the knowledge gathered in libraries and the actual experiences of those still alive appears to grow. This gives rise to a new openness in how society chooses to remember, but also runs the risk of creating an institutionalized routine of remembering which is detached from this, and leads to a new uncertainty as the crimes themselves become more and more distant in time. One thing is certain: National Socialism will continue to remain an issue for debate in society, and its media presence is tending to increase rather than decrease. It is also certain, however, that the past does not represent simply a pile of memories to be worked through and then filed away – and that is no doubt true all over the world, not just in Germany.
Danyel, Jürgen (Editor): Die geteilte Vergangenheit. Zum Umgang mit Nationalsozialismus und Widerstand in beiden deutschen Staaten, Berlin 1995.
Frei, Norbert: 1945 und wir. Das Dritte Reich im Bewusstsein der Deutschen. München 2005. ISBN 3406529542
Reichel, Peter: Vergangenheitsbewältigung in Deutschland. Die Auseinandersetzung mit der NS-Diktatur von 1945 bis heute, München 2001. ISBN 3406459560
On individual aspects:
Browning, Christopher R.: Ordinary Men. Reserve Police Batallion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, Penguin Books Ltd. 2001. ISBN-10: 0141000422; ISBN-13: 978-0141000428
Frei, Norbert: Vergangenheitspolitik. Die Anfänge der Bundesrepublik und die NS-Vergangenheit, 2nd paperback edition, Munich 2003. ISBN 342330720X
Frei, Norbert (Editor): Hitlers Eliten nach 1945, 3. Taschenbuchauflage, München 2007. ISBN 3593367904
Goschler, Constantin: Schuld und Schulden. Die Politik der Wiedergutmachung für NS-Verfolgte seit 1945, Göttingen 2005. ISBN 3-89244-868-x
Longerich, Peter: "Davon haben wir nichts gewusst!" Die Deutschen und die Judenverfolgung 1933–1945, Berlin 2006. ISBN-10: 3886808432, ISBN-13: 978-3886808434
Niethammer, Lutz: Die Mitläuferfabrik. Die Entnazifizierung am Beispiel Bayerns, unamended new edition, Berlin et al. 1982. ISBN 3-8012-0082-5
Weinke, Annette: Die Nürnberger Prozesse, Munich 2006. ISBN 3406536042
Welzer, Harald/Moller, Sabine/Tschuggnall, Karoline: "Opa war kein Nazi". Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im Familiengedächtnis, 4th edition, Frankfurt am Main 2003. ISBN : 3-596-15515-0
is a research associate working on behalf of the Professor of Modern History (Professor Norbert Frei) at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena
Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion
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