On the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, Germans’ relationship with their own history remains as complicated as ever. Coming to terms with the Nazi era has been a multi-generational effort, and it is one that will never end.
Slightly more than two million of Germany’s 83 million people are over the age of 85, and can therefore be expected to have witnessed at least some of the horrors of National Socialism and World War II. On the 75th anniversary of the end of the war, the question thoughtful Germans ask is what will happen when these last witnesses to the Nazi era – the most barbaric 12 years in human history – are gone forever.
To be sure, this question is not new. Back in the 1970s, Herbert Wehner, the longstanding Social Democratic Party whip and himself a refugee, delivered passionate speeches in the German parliament warning that, with the passing of those who remembered the slide into Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship and the price paid for it, the defense of democracy would become more difficult.
Such concerns have grown more pronounced with each generation. In the absence of direct historical memory, Samuel Salzborn of the University of Giessen worries that the notion of collective responsibility might once again give way to willful ignorance and “collective innocence.”
Will the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of “Hitler’s willing executioners” (the title of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s controversial 1996 book) conveniently forget the inconvenient truths of Nazism and construct a more palatable or politically expedient version of the past? Right-wing parties such as the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD) doubtless would welcome such historical amnesia. But how likely is it to set in?
Germany has long been commended for how it came to terms with its past, and thus has become a foil for the many other countries that remain in denial when it comes to their own brutal histories. Germany is indeed different. Beyond the sheer scale of the suffering inflicted by its storm troopers and soldiers, it has gone to great lengths to meet its moral responsibilities, not least by embedding a sense of collective responsibility deeply into its national psyche and social fabric.
Yet, in the 75 years since the Stunde Null – the “zero hour” at midnight on May 8, 1945, marking the Third Reich’s unconditional surrender – Germany’s effort to cope with its Nazi past (Vergangenheitsbewältigung) has never been uncontroversial, nor always successful. Moreover, it is far from complete.
The Allied policy of extirpating Nazi ideology and influence from public life was a good start. But soon after the official denazification process was completed, a divided Germany had to find its own way forward. As the philosopher Theodor Adorno put it, Germans had to ensure through their own thoughts and actions that Auschwitz could never happen again.
On one hand, Germany’s approach to its Nazi past has resembled a pendulum swinging between obsessive preoccupation – mostly by the intellectual elite, and usually following some scandal – and willful forgetting. On the other hand, the country has developed an institutionalized, almost ritualistic, culture of remembrance. All German schoolchildren learn about Nazism and anti-Semitism. Plaques line city sidewalks. At public events commemorating the Shoah, politicians duly remind Germans of their moral responsibility to the millions of victims of Nazi crimes.
After decades of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the outcome of this personal and collective process remains as complex and multifaceted as the German term for it. Fortunately, with the notable exceptions of those close to the National Democratic Party of Germany in the 1960s and to the AfD today, German politicians and intellectuals have more or less honored their moral obligations. There was certainly more reluctance to do so back in the 1950s-1970s, when most elites preferred to forget rather than confront the past. But, since then, political and intellectual leaders have mostly said and done the right thing, and very few have resorted to using the past as a wedge issue for political gain.
The German media, likewise, has mostly acquitted itself well. After a kick-start by the Allies, post-war media outlets managed to create a public sphere for open debate, which was essential to the consolidation of democracy. They have generally dealt with the past responsibly, and have consistently fulfilled their watchdog function.
But, again, the process has not been without tension. There have always been nationalist dog whistles emanating from the margins, and limits on free speech (such as criminalization of Nazi symbols and Holocaust denial) have always drawn fire from critics of political correctness. In the era of social media, these trends have inevitably gained new momentum.
Finally, education, too, has played a central role in Vergangenheitsbewältigung. “National Socialism and the Holocaust” are firmly anchored in official curricula, and remain a compulsory topic for all students of history, social science, religion, and the German language. In principle, no student can leave school without having been exposed to the darkest chapters of German history, and few come of age without having visited a concentration camp or some other site of horror.
Time complicates all wounds
Still, it is important to remember that this comprehensive effort did not garner a nationwide consensus until the 1980s. The Germans who directly experienced Nazism and the war were largely silent in the ensuing decades, rarely opening up to their children and spouses about what they had seen or done. As the psychologists Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich showed, husbands and fathers, in particular, often suffered from a psychological syndrome that rendered them incapable of either mourning or atoning.
These tendencies created tensions that finally came to the surface in the 1960s, when activists and students started asking the hard questions that their parents had long avoided. Their own children would enjoy a much more open environment and the unparalleled prosperity that followed reunification and the deepening of the European project. But the generational conflict that divided German society until the 1980s was never resolved; it was simply outlived.
And yet the lack of intergenerational communication survives. The three generations that came of age in the post-war era had strikingly different experiences from one another. The second generation’s loud challenge to the silence of the first has given way to a more complicated view of the past among the third generation, which has known only affluence.
As social psychologist Harald Welzer observed in the early 2000s, learning that one’s own family might have played a role in Nazi atrocities is a unique and complicated psychological experience. Precisely because the earlier generations never talked about it, later generations have found it easier to whitewash their own family’s history, or at least to attribute responsibility more abstractly to a past society, rather than to specific individuals, events, and choices.
In a survey conducted in 2018 by researchers at Bielefeld University, half of the respondents said they never or rarely talk about the Nazi period at home, and 35% do so occasionally, which suggests that only one in seven German families do so frequently. Among the reasons given for ignoring the subject are a lack of interest, feelings of impropriety, and fear of discovering disturbing truths. Moreover, only 18% of respondents admitted to knowing or suspecting that their forebears were among the perpetrators of the Nazis’ atrocities, whereas 54% reported that family members were among the Nazis’ victims, and 18% said their family helped other victims.
Such responses do not necessarily reflect historical facts. Rather, they are often memories that have been reconstructed with incomplete information, wishful thinking, and self-protective ignorance. In fact, historians of the period suspect that fewer than 1% of Germans actually did extend assistance to the Nazis’ victims, be they Jews, Roma, Sinti, foreign slave workers, homosexuals, social democrats, or communists.
Clearly, 75 years has allowed for a significant twisting of facts. Germans collectively remember the past, assume responsibility for it, and have created institutions to ensure that future generations do the same. Yet they also tend to distance themselves and their own families from what happened. Through silence and the passage of generations, millions of German families have managed to make the memories bearable. Along the way, they have become freedom-loving democrats.
The new new Germany
But the Germany of 2020 is very different from the Germany of the reunification period that began 30 years ago, which itself was fundamentally different from the Germany of the 1960s generation. Welcoming one million refugees in 2015 confirmed Germany’s status as an immigrant society, though many are reluctant to admit it. One in four people living in Germany now has an immigrant background – an increase of one-third since 2005.
Whatever their background, these people have inherited the country’s collective burden and must learn to live with it, especially if they become citizens. They are a diverse group. But, according to the Bielefeld study, they are less interested in the history of Nazism than is the population at large, and they are more likely to identify with the victims of that period.
Against this changing demographic backdrop has come a reinvigoration of right-wing nationalism, a political force that the AfD’s electoral successes have legitimated. The party now controls the largest opposition bloc in the Bundestag, and is represented in the parliaments of all 16 Länder (states).
Owing to these gains, the AfD poses a grave threat to everything that Germany has achieved through Vergangenheitsbewältigung. The party deliberately violates political taboos, reprises language reminiscent of Nazi propaganda, aggressively pursues a revisionist version of German history, and shamelessly attacks minorities and immigrants in its statements. But if Germany can put the AfD in its place through the democratic processes and open dialogue, it will have reaffirmed the progress it has made toward becoming a normal European society.
It’s never over
When Thomas Mann, living in exile in California, learned of Hitler’s death 75 years ago, he cited Shakespeare’s Richard III: “The day is ours, the bloody dog is dead.” But he knew that the story didn’t end there. “I admit that what is called national socialism has long roots in German life,” he added. “It is the virulent degeneracy of ideas that bore the seed of murderous corruption.”
Mann was calling out the silent complicity of millions. He saw that Germans’ obedience, gullibility, and docility had made the Nazi regime possible, and that changing the culture and society would be a long and demanding process. Germans would have to come to terms with the past, to be sure; but that would be only the first step toward becoming a country where a deadly ideology could never take hold again.
Likewise, soon after the end of the war, Bertolt Brecht added a final line to his 1941 parable about Hitler, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui: “Let’s not rejoice too soon – the womb from which it crawled is fertile still.” With the AfD’s rise, Brecht’s warning is more relevant now than at any other point in the past 75 years. No one should delude themselves into thinking that Germany has rid itself of Nazis, anti-Semites, and unreconstructed nationalists.
By confronting its past, Germany has shown that even the most violent and brutal periods in human history can give way to new beginnings. A society once drenched in blood and still burdened by guilt has struggled for three generations toward a sense of normalcy, gradually becoming profoundly liberal and democratic. But as those alive before the Stunde Null pass from the scene, Germany faces another ominous challenge from within. The task of rebirth never ends.
This piece was originally published by Project Syndicate .
Helmut Anheier is the Academic co-Director of the Dahrendorf Forum and Professor of Sociology and Past President at the Hertie School.