History is always present: how Germans confront the Shoah

History is always present: how Germans confront the Shoah

  • Posted by Jan Oltmanns
  • On December 2, 2015
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The public debate around history is more than just a way of dealing with the past, but is also a way of negotiating current attitudes around national identity. Addressing issues that arise from the Shoah is embedded in the changing national self-perception of Germans.

by Andreas Strippel and Thorsten Logge

Immediately after the war, confronting the murder of European Jews differed according to the East/West division of Germany. In the West, very little confrontation took place until the end of the 1950s. Germans considered themselves as victims, as historian Norbert Frei points out, and channelled imagined theories of collective guilt by claiming that they didn’t know about the criminal dimensions of the Nazi regime. And this, despite the fact that up to the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Nuremberg Trials had already revealed countless details about crimes that were committed and shown that it wasn’t possible to keep them hidden from the public. The murder of the European Jews, from deportation to systematic industrial-scale annihilation, was to a certain extent a process that took place in public.

The tendency to exonerate oneself was also present in the media – in movies or on TV. Stories of exoneration and victimhood among the ruins of post-war Germany and the legend of the “decent German soldier” persisted well into the 1980s. There were very few movies that took a critical stance in the late 40s or during the 50s.

Confronting the Nazi past in the GDR

The East German state was much more active in the way it dealt with the crimes committed by Nazi Germany. Parts of the East German leadership had themselves been victims of persecution and harassment, so the fight against fascism was a cornerstone of the SED’s identity. However, East Germany also integrated Nazis back into society and propagated the myth of German victimhood. Nevertheless, in the 1950s, East Germany’s justice system showed a great deal more determination in uncovering the crimes of the Nazi past than its counterpart in West Germany. But it needs to be pointed out that in East Germany the murder of the European Jews was considered a crime amongst other crimes. Germany’s brutal war of annihilation against Poland and, above all, against the Soviet Union, as well as critical appraisal of the persecution of communists was prioritised.

The resurfacing of memories

In the West, Nazi crimes did not return to the public’s consciousness until the trial of the Ulmer Special Operations Groups in 1958 and after a wave of Swastika graffiti in public places at the end of the 1950s.

However, events in the 1960s were even more decisive: the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961, the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials between 1963 and 1968, as well as the parliamentary debates around the statute of limitations for murder in 1960, 1965 and 1969.

The trial of Adolf Eichmann constituted an international media event that helped to anchor worldwide awareness of the Shoah firmly in place. The film and sound recordings of the trial have frequently been cited and used as important images of remembrance. “Eichmann in Jerusalem”, Hanna Arendt’s “Report on the Banality of Evil” which first appeared as a series of reports in The New Yorker, led to a great deal of controversy in Germany, Israel and the United States.

In 1963 the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial began. In this case as well, public interest was very high. As was the case during the Eichmann trial, it was above all statements by survivors about the barbaric conditions in Auschwitz that caused a sensation.

A new definition of murder

The trials led to a controversial political and judicial debate about the statute of limitations for murder in Germany. The law had prescribed a limitation of 20 years. This meant that in the 1960s most of those Nazi crimes that had not been brought to trial were due to lapse.

In 1965 the CDU/FDP coalition government under Ludwig Erhart came to the conclusion that changing the statute of limitations was constitutionally not possible and therefore did not draft a new law. This made it easier to reach a cross-party accord after a heated parliamentary debate. The compromise that was reached, however, did not abolish the statute but only postponed it by dating it from the founding year of West Germany. The problem was therefore not solved but postponed for a couple of years. In 1969 the statute of limitations for murder was extended by parliament to 30 years. The statute of limitations for being an accessory to murder, however, was not extended. It lapsed at the end of the 1960s and prevented a trial of the behind-the-scenes office perpetrators of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Security Head Office).

Freiburg historian, Ulrich Herbert, described the 1970s and 1980s as a second period of suppression of which the US TV series “Holocaust”, which was broadcast in 1979, heralded the beginning of the end. A fictive Jewish family, the Weiss family, served to illustrate the fate of millions of Jews in Nazi Germany and opened up a space that allowed for public debate of the Shoah to take place. This included a debate about the historical accuracy of a fictional series such as this one.

A new understanding of nationhood?

The so-called “Historikerstreit” (historians’ debate) of the 1980s was a further turning point in the culture of remembrance of the Holocaust. The controversial historian Ernst Nolte asserted in 1986 that the crimes of the Nazis were not without precedence and claimed that mass crimes committed by Stalinism were the cause of the Shoah. Due to the heated arguments that resulted from Nolte’s thesis, his critics formulated a new (west) German notion of nationhood that no longer made positive reference to aspects of the Nazi era such as building the autobahn or the anti-communist fight. As an alternative to racial nationalism, the philosopher Jürgen Habermas formulated the idea of constitutional patriotism as a political, democratic identification with a democratic Federal Republic of Germany.

At the end of the 1980s public debate around anti-Semitism before 1945 continued. It began with a speech made by Philipp Jenninger, the Bundestag President at the time, for the 50-year commemoration of the November pogroms of 1938. In his speech Jenninger made an effort to present the fundamentally anti-Semitic attitude of most Germans at that time. Due to abbreviated and out-of-context reporting of this speech, it was thought to relativise the subject matter and Jenninger was forced to resign.

The controversy surrounding the Jenninger speech highlighted two things: that it was no longer possible to make positive references to the years 1933-1945 (which Jenninger, in fact, did not do) and that no great knowledge of history was necessary to take this stance. It was not only the bad presentation of his speech that ended Jenninger’s career, but also the wrong assumption that the many people who shared Nazi attitudes at the time, were also “fascinated” by them.

Remembrance of the Shoah after reunification

The 1990s witnessed many intense disputes about the anti-Semitic and racist nature of Nazism and the Holocaust. The Nazi era became the political and educational negative of the reunified Germany. The mistrust displayed by some European partners and the fear that the brutal attacks on refugee shelters and migrants would lead to a negative image of Germany led to a speedier negation of the Nazi era in the public debate. However, this was accompanied by many intense disputes.

As the archives of Eastern Europe opened up when the Eastern Bloc came to an end, knowledge about the Holocaust grew. The film “Schindler’s List” by Steven Spielberg influenced public debate at the time. This also had political consequences. On January 3, 1996, the German President at the time, Roman Herzog, proclaimed a day of commemoration for the victims of Nazism. Since then, this has become an annual event commemorated in the German Bundestag on January 27, the day that the concentration and death camp of Auschwitz was freed.

A focus on perpetrators and their motives

Academic research and the public began to focus to a greater extent on the dynamics of the crime and the actions of the perpetrators. However, the reactions to the travelling exhibition (end 1990s to early 2000s) of the crimes committed by the Wehrmacht (the Armed Forces) and the partially angry reactions to the book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” by Daniel Goldhagen showed how strong defence mechanisms were that were still in place in parts of the German population. One example of this is the author Martin Walser, who in 1998 felt threatened in his national perception by an imagined “Auschwitz hammer”, and felt that as a German he had the right to not have to think about the Shoah any more.

In general, the focus of the debate during the 1990s moved away from the Holocaust and its victims to the emotional state of the perpetrators and their descendants. At the same time, historical debates and days of commemoration led to the Shoah being perceived as something morally reprehensible and negative in the collective memory of Germans. This does not mean, however, that the Shoah is also a focal point of critical self-reflection within the collective identity.

Today the Shoah plays a central role in the public culture of remembrance in Germany, even though on an individual level, the connection to family history and the actions of family ancestors is rarely made. As such, commemoration is moving further and further away from the concrete suffering of victims and their deaths or their narrow escape from death. It has not given way to a remembrance of perpetrators and their actions, but to a kind of abstract remembrance as a form of warning and a mission. In this form it does not concern itself with the unprecedented nature of the crime.

No conclusion: history is always present

Public remembrance of the Shoah in Germany (and elsewhere) is subject to societal and political changes and is dependent on the social context of a certain era. Deflecting guilt during post-war reconstruction, anti-communist defence during the Cold War years of confrontation with Eastern Bloc countries, anti-fascism as state policy in the GDR, the integration of West and East Germany into one country after reunification, or the historical and moral legitimacy of German military intervention in foreign countries since the late 1990s – history has always been at the service of the present.

In telling their own story, individuals and groups create their own narrative and thus their place in the world. By choosing, sorting and evaluating events from the past, by creating order through a certain narrative, story tellers establish their presence in the here and now: this is who I am, this is how I have become that person. Thus, history always has the function of providing a foundation for us in the present, irrespective of whether the narration takes place on a conscious or unconscious level.

By narrating the past in such a way that the present acquires meaning and significance, history also becomes a way of facing the future: that which caused us to become who we are is also the reason why we act in a certain way in the present and the future. We believe that we have learnt from history and that this provides a present and future foundation and reasons for our actions. Our present identity is the result of historical developments and thus seems natural. The danger in this is that certain perspectives on the past may become cemented as second nature: Is the past not a fact that cannot be circumvented? Does history not always show what really happened?

In fact, history tells us one thing: how someone at a certain point in time and in a certain situation arranges information and narrates it with a present purpose in mind. Very frequently the purpose is not clear to the narrator, so their viewpoint becomes the truth.

If you wish to change the future you have to change the past. But this is only possible in the present. By telling stories we learn to be more conscious of the stories we tell and to better understand the stories told by others. When truth reverts back to being a viewpoint, new stories are possible.

Andreas Strippel, historian, is a member of the REMEMBERING team. A focal point of his work has been research on the history of racism and anti-Semitism. In addition to this he writes for the blog publikative.org which focuses on politics and contemporary history.

Thorsten Logge is a historian working at the University of Hamburg. The focal point of his work is the public representation of history.




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