Remembrance Politics The ambivalence of coming to terms with history

Racism – Marked by a new patriotism: the 2006 World Cup in Germany
Marked by a new patriotism: the 2006 World Cup in Germany | Photo (detail): Kay Nietfeld © picture alliance / dpa

By Anna Delius

The remembrance boom of the 1990s

Reunified Germany was a contradictory country. While schoolchildren learned about the “Third Reich” in all grades, neo-Nazi gangs in eastern and western Germany committed racist acts of violence and killed and injured numerous people. With the end of the Cold War, a historical view of “real-life” socialism in Germany developed, which was tagged by some as the “second dictatorship” and thus relativised National Socialism.

At the same time, there was a kind of remembrance boom, which was also manifested in Germany in the form of numerous memorial sites and commemorative initiatives. The Hollywood film Schindler’s List sent audience ratings in the cinema soaring. The privately initiated mobile exhibition Verbrechen der Wehrmacht (Crimes of the Nazi Army) was heavily frequented on the one hand, and vehemently rejected by sections of the German population on the other, because it did away with the myth of the “clean Wehrmacht” – an army which had apparently waged a “normal war” quite apart from the SS. With the new red-green coalition federal government, a new debate began about the compensation of forced labourers. Although the war had been over for 50 years, Germany had compensated almost no individuals. Therefore, in 2000 the Foundation “Erinnerung Verantwortung Zukunft” (Remembrance Responsibility Future) was set up, which today, after completing payments to those survivors who could still be traced, is dedicated to remembering the NS period.

A new patriotism

The great interest in the history of the Second World War continued into the 2000s. The displacement of the Germans and the bombing of German cities were addressed more and more in books, documentaries and talk shows. However, the 2006 World Cup in Germany with the popular slogan “Die Welt zu Gast bei Freunden” (A Time to Make Friends) was marked by a new patriotism. In view of the masses of flags in a sea of black, red and gold, it was welcomed by some with concern and by others with enthusiasm. During these years, the Germans, like other nations, wanted to wave their flag and be proud of their country.

The ambivalence of this period can perhaps best be seen in the fact that in the same social and political climate it was possible to start building the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin – a memorial that became an important symbol of the new capital.
 
  • Racism – The swearing in of conscripts from the National People’s Army of the GDR in the former fascist concentration camp of Buchenwald in 1978. © picture alliance /Dieter Demme/ZB
    The swearing in of conscripts from the National People’s Army of the GDR in the former fascist concentration camp of Buchenwald in 1978.
  • Racism – The former “SS Obersturmbannführer” Adolf Eichmann, who during the Nazi period was head of the department responsible for the systematic persecution and murder of Jews, on trial in Jerusalem in 1961. Eichmann was sentenced to death and executed in May 1962. © dpa archive/dpa
    The former “SS Obersturmbannführer” Adolf Eichmann, who during the Nazi period was head of the department responsible for the systematic persecution and murder of Jews, on trial in Jerusalem in 1961. Eichmann was sentenced to death and executed in May 1962.
  • Racism – The first Auschwitz trial in 1963 at Frankfurt’s City Council Hall: press photographers and cameramen take pictures of the accused. © picture alliance/Roland Witschel
    The first Auschwitz trial in 1963 at Frankfurt’s City Council Hall: press photographers and cameramen take pictures of the accused.
  • Racism – Participants in a demonstration against the opponents of the exhibition “Vernichtungskrieg, Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941 bis 1944” (War of Extermination, Crimes of the Nazi Army from 1941 to 1944) in Munich in 1997. © picture-alliance/Andreas Heddergott/Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo
    Participants in a demonstration against the opponents of the exhibition “Vernichtungskrieg, Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941 bis 1944” (War of Extermination, Crimes of the Nazi Army from 1941 to 1944) in Munich in 1997.
  • Racism – Football fans celebrating at a giant public screening during the 2006 World Cup in Germany. © picture-alliance/Kay Nietfeld/dpa
    Football fans celebrating at a giant public screening during the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
  • Racism – The monument to the murdered Jews of Europe by the architect Peter Eisenmann in Berlin. © picture alliance / Jochen Tack
    The monument to the murdered Jews of Europe by the architect Peter Eisenmann in Berlin.
More monuments to other groups of victims of National Socialism were gradually added, such as Sinti and Roma, homosexuals or the victims of the murderous “T4” campaign, in which the Nazis killed disabled and mentally ill children and adults. A monument to the Polish victims of the war and the German occupation has also been under discussion since 2018.

The story of a successful reappraisal has faltered

The way Germany dealt with its own past is and has always been ambivalent. Questions of who the perpetrators were and how people suffered were and are linked to the question of historical responsibility. An awareness that Germany and the Germans were guilty in a very special way during the National Socialist period did not come about until a few decades had passed and now takes more the form of an official state remembrance rather than a convinced belief on the part of German citizens. These days it is being discussed again and again and, especially in recent years, has been aggressively called into question by some sections of society – above all by the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) (Alternative for Germany) party. In the meantime, the story of a “successful reappraisal” in Germany has started to falter and must be more critically scrutinised in 2020.