From Unwillingness to mourn to Quiet Acceptance:  How Germany has Come to Grips with its History, People and Global Image WWII-Present

Lorelei Bachman



Seventy years after the end of WWII, the mention of Germany still easily brings about conversations of a nation fraught with unending war, tension with foreigners, elitism and the holocaust. Yet, younger generations of Germans have been born into a country that is democratic, united and responsible with military forces that can be used in peacekeeping missions as long as they function under the UN or NATO.  What was the impact on post-war German identity in both a personal and collective sense?  In what ways have Germans learned to cope with a history of atrocity and how is this history viewed today by Germans themselves and around the world?  Is it fair for current leaders to construct memorials for all who suffered during the war, Germans included, or does such a venture negate the past and abscond responsibility for the perpetrators of genocide?  How long should Germany have to pay for its’ past and what efforts at restitution have succeeded in moving the nation forward?


The concept of nationalism in Europe dates back several hundred years.  In an attempt to form a collective identity, citizens gained the right to become educated, involved in politics, economically self-supporting and able to participate in civil and military service (Jurgen, 1989).  Nationalism meant that the state, apart from church and religion brought its citizens together through the shared identity of language, history, literature and the arts.  Ideally, it would also ensure the autonomy and independence that guaranteed rights for minorities, providing representation of minority culture and language.  However, failure to ensure equality and protection for these groups included overlooking a double standard within the goal of German nationalism. 


By the early 1930’s when Hitler was appointed chancellor, the Nazi party had become a totalitarian regime.  Anti Semitism was rampant and rapidly progressed into a belief in racial supremacy (Jurgen, 1989).  While it is possible for nationalism to unify, in this sense it became lethally divisive, fostering prejudice.  By virtue of collectivity, personal reflection and ethics in the German consciousness were often ignored, with national traditions stratifying society to the exclusion of others.  From the outside, that is to say in the rest of Europe and the world, the question is often asked how so many people managed to turn a blind eye to the mistreatment and attempted eradication of the Jews.  The answer lies in collective belief of superiority to the extent that exclusion of others was internalized as a rightful privilege.


The writings of Soren Kierkegaard during this period in history, spoke to the individual person, pleading for moral introspection and an “ethical view of life” (Kierkgaard, 1944 & Jurgen, 1989).  Walter Benjamin in ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History” stated: “There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (Benjamin, 1969 & Jurgen, 1989). 

It would seem logical that the fall of Germany, with the dissolution and ban of the Nazi party and the death of Hitler would be the catalyst in a pandemic of shame.  Instead, decades of silence followed. In fact, it would seem that the default was one of two responses:  silence for various reasons or careful downplaying and justification of past events.  Perhaps this should not be surprising given that there was evidence of mistreatment and genocide during the war that Germans knew about and for the most part, did nothing to stop.  The ability to internalize pain for “others” or in this case the millions of Jews and minorities that were killed relies on the capacity to empathize with that group.  By mourning for others and their suffering, an avenue for empathy becomes available.  Unwillingness to mourn for another’s loss and the continual pining for a leader who was the standard bearer for so many Germans and their beliefs, shut out any possibility for sympathy both during and after the war (Santner, 1990). 


It is debatable whether or not one can sever ties with a past that remains unacknowledged due to an unchanged psychological paradigm.  A schema that was propagated for decades prior to the war did not magically disappear when the war ended and the regime fell.  But for subsequent generations, the silence had very real consequences.  In Stranded Objects, Eric Santner describes the children and grandchildren of post war families searching for their identities within a familial framework, which sometimes included heinous crimes (Santner, 1990).  In fact, second generation children of victims and perpetrators alike both bore the emotional burdens of feeling responsibility for the family members of the past.  The melancholy that their parents locked away with great emotional energy, which was diverted away from their children, manifested itself in those children in the form of mourning. Santner’s interviews expressed feelings of children who felt they were raised as part of fascist households.  One girl recounted how she had nobody to look up to and one boy, in researching the holocaust for school, discovered that his family home belonged to a Jewish family who was arrested and taken to a camp.  His mother had never bothered to ask her father about this experience and why they felt it was acceptable to take over a home that innocent people were arrested and taken from (Santner, 1990). 

The alternative to silence was reframing history through a selective lens.  Initially, justification for German behaviour came in comparison to Bolshevist threats.  The idea of annihilation was not a German creation but rather similar to Asiatic threats, posited writers such as Nolte and Sturmer (Jurgen, 1989).  Framed in a historical context, perhaps the German story could be historicized to lessen its impact.  Sturmer’s writings clearly state that it was Hitler’s war, not the Germans.  But the fact remains that Hitler himself did not carry out the genocide, those that worked for and beneath him did.  Regardless of his edict of destruction, he was, for example supported by the majority in euthanizing 100,000 mentally ill persons (Jurgen 1989). 


By shifting much of the focus to the Eastern Front during the war years, one might emphasize the loss of German lives in combat against the Red Army.  While it is true that Germans were called up to defend their country and may innocents were killed whether they agreed with the Nazi party or not, it was Germany’s breaking of their peace treaty with Russia, which resulted in the combat.  As such, lack of differentiation between victims and perpetrators has been a hard pill for the world to swallow.

While no prominent leader publicly defended or denied Germany’s past directly after the war, in the late 1950’s, conservative Christian Democrat Adenauer and his party in West Germany spearheaded reparations pay to Israel and acknowledged wartime atrocities (Lind, 2009).  He spoke of unspeakable crimes, which required restitution.  From the Christian perspective from which he spoke, Adenauer was attempting some type of atonement.  But it seemed the rest of Germany was not ready to take the same step.  Textbooks and classrooms evaded history and pinned Hitler with sole responsibility.  Rumors spread that despite the German army being heavily involved in the Holocaust, it was actually only SS soldiers who had been involved.  Again, Germany emphasized its own suffering: the mistreatment of German POW’s, ethnic cleansing in other countries and the brutality of the Soviets (Lind, 2009). 


By the 1960’s, Germans were ready to try and come to terms with at least some of the truth of their past.  Holocaust perpetrators began to be prosecuted and survivors began to receive compensation.  Museums and memorials at the sites of concentration camps invited communities to view the aggression and atrocities in Germany’s past.  But the truth continued to be met with resistance.  In 1975, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt protested that enough time had elapsed that most Germans were innocent by virtue of being born after Hitler’s rise to power.  The president of Bavaria, Josef Strauss told Germans to walk tall again and step out of Hitler’s shadow.  By 1983, with the conservatives back in power, Adenauer’s influence resurfaced and meetings with the French and United States Presidents emphasized the tragedy of war, rather than specific German faults (Lind, 2009). 

It is worth noting that the silence from West Germany may have had a political agenda as well as an emotional one.  During the Cold War years, it was important to remain silent about the past in an effort to achieve two foreign policy goals: reunification of Germany and continuing protection of West Germany from the Soviet Union (Lind, 2009).  In hopes of quelling their allies fears about reunification and armament, it would need to be clear that Germany’s connection to its past was completely severed.


The public continued to push for statements of remorse, rejecting revisionist history and vowing to remember its dark past.  Those who tried to whitewash the past during debates on how to interpret the holocaust were condemned publicly.  For the rest of the world, Germany’s atonement was met with rave reviews.  When German reunification became possible in 1990, it was not met without a certain level of historical anxiety from surrounding countries, however its example of confronting past violence was seen as exemplary by the rest of Europe (Smyser, 1993).   A measure of justice was delivered to Germans and the rest of the world through apologies, trials and reparations that permitted the country, its people and its image to acknowledge and move forward.

On Sunday, June 6, 2004, a reconciliation service was held at the Caen Memorial in France.  Sixty years after the first Allied Landing in Normandy, Gerhard Schroeder, Chancellor of the German Federal Republic was invited to the service by French President Jacques Chirac.  Shroeder’s father died on the Eastern Front near the end of the war with millions of other German soldiers.  He was too young to know him.  Chirac also had personal memories of the war.  After words of reconciliation and friendship, the leaders declared that,  “…everyone present should profit from this historic day and continue to work together for peace.”  The D-Day and Battle of Normandy exhibition included memories, diaries, letters and journals donated to the museums archives by relatives.  The St Manvieu cemetery located 10 kilometers west of Caen holds French, German and Commonwealth soldiers.  The majority of German burials took place in 1957-8 when mass graves of Germans were opened up and individually given proper burials in their own graves.  A burial ceremony was held and relatives were invited as an act of reconciliation.  In this vein, the young men who were called as soldiers during WWII were victims of circumstance.  Death did not discern their ethnicity or beliefs (Valjos, 2005). 


As the WWII generation dwindles, a shift has taken place among younger Germans.  The war years seem very distant, as does the fear that surrounded them.  In today’s cabinet under the leadership of Angela Merkel, only one minister’s birth occurred before the end of the war.  Three of the ministers were born in the 1970’s and the head of the youth organization for the party, Phillip Missfelder, is a leader in a new wave of German politicians (Kulish, 2010).  Missfelder has described a resurgence in feelings of national pride in the country, recently visiting a kindergarten where the national anthem was sung-something absent from his own youth. Perhaps German pride did not disappear after the war but rather, lay dormant.  With rich traditions in literature, music, social welfare and concern for the environment, there is much to be proud of.  The return of the capital from Bonn to Berlin signified Germany’s willingness to think more like a central European power (Kulish, 2010).  Today, one fifth of the country’s residents are either immigrants or from immigrant background.  From an external perspective, it appears that things are moving in a positive direction.  But touching again on Santner’s study demands a follow up on the internal personal and collective identities of Germans decades later.


While self- perception involves our thoughts, motivations and desires, this same self- perception is also influenced by how perceive we are seen by others, how they interact with us and the social limits placed on our behavior.  While one may have a generally positive self-esteem, outside validation solidifies psychological well-being (Swann, 1987).  When these two factors do not align, it can result in stress and anxiety.


Although German history contains more than the sum of WWII, its past continues to frame its position in regards to other countries affecting both internal and external aspects of identity in German youth.  In an attempt to understand how Germany’s history continues to influence identity, two studies out of the UK in 2011 attempted to measure the German experience of self in an “ingroup” (German) audience as well as an “outgroup” (English) audience.  In the first study, participants were asked to describe what it means to be German through an online study delivered in their native language.  A total of 162 participants were recruited through bulletin boards, personal contact and mailing lists.  While the majority were students, male and female participants ranged in age from 18-71 with the average age being around 30.  The study was described as an effort to compare national identity today with that of the past and in future, the current responses would be compared with yet another group. 


In the “ingroup” audience, the researcher piloting the study was said to be German born but currently living in the UK.  IN the “outgroup” audience, the group was told that although the questionnaire was conducted in German, the researcher was English and resided in the UK.  All answers were acceptable in German.  Participants answered questions on historical continuity, collective self-esteem and self-concept clarity which determined to what extent and individual felt confident and clear about who themselves. 


In collective self-esteem, the German participants expressed a greater insecurity in national image to the British researcher than they did to the German, supporting the assumption that the presence of an “outgroup” gave rise to concerns about external perception.  In historical continuity, when German’s past became pronounced in the questions, German indentity was downplayed despite not knowing which researcher was responsible for that portion of the exam, supporting the suggestion that in the German context, history has a negative connotation. 


And in self-concept, when German identity was expressed to the English researcher and historical relevance was made, self-concept weakened dramatically in response to answering such questions to an “outgroup”.  Most respondents wished to break with their negatively perceived past.  In order to more accurately gauge what accounted for the results, another study was completed with the identical method however questions on self esteem were more specific and excluded any mention of physical appearance adding one additional question on a rating scale:  Sometimes it is not possible for me to be the person I would like to be.

The combination of an “out group” (The English Researcher) and historical relevance to Germany’s past resulted in a limited ability to connect with German identity positively and fully without resulting in a compromised sense of self (Morton & Sonnenberg, 2010).  Another variable, which might have positively contributed to this study, would have been a questionnaire with no reference to the past but rather only the current German experience for those born several generations post WWII.


While history can be a positive source of identity, negative history continues to pose a threat to which defense is impossible, specifically if the past actions of a group were highly public.  This limits the ability to reframe a negative history or define oneself otherwise as there is a marginalized opportunity for liberation from the group that hinders positive identity.  However, many of the feelings that fostered national identity in the past still have validity on the world scale.


Though the rest of Europe struggles with economic crisis, Germany continues maintain financial security as the richest state in Europe.  Modest family enterprises continue to thrive and in some cases dominate the world market.  The majority of Germans value hard work and resist personal debt, perpetuating family businesses across as many generations as possible (Campbell, 2012).  Some industries date back several hundred years while remaining in the same city.  A concept known as Mittelstand refers to deep-seated German traditions that manufacture niche products for the world market.  This dates back to the time when Germany was a loose network of kingdoms and free cities.  By specializing in its own products, each area tried to stand out from the others for their excellent quality and craftsmanship.  Today these specialty firms make up more than half of Germany’s exports and have managed to remain economically resistant due to the differences in products in comparison to the rest of the world.  In this vein, jobs are still needed and quality of life is still a high priority.  Ironically, While Germany has supplied financial aid for other European nations, the perception still exists that if others behaved more like them, they would never have met with crisis.  Perhaps this mindset is not altogether wrong.  Germany’s current economic growth is at its strongest ever since reunification.  This is due to the fact that German workers and companies made necessary short-term sacrifices necessary for long term success that other European nations did not.  For example, qualifications for lending and mortgages never eased up in Germany as they did in the US.  Loans were simply not given to those who had no way to pay them back.  Germany directly chose to hang on to workers during tough times rather than firing them and working them to find aid afterwards.  While Germany remains less tolerant of foreign pressure, the strength of its economic model had overshadowed its past and improved its culture and standing from a worldwide perspective (Kulish, 2010).  This has made many Germans incredibly proud.


Since the late 1990’s, Germany has adopted  a more participatory approach in international affairs, relinquished its antimilitarism and returned to the use of military force under the guidance of the UN and NATO.  Its commitment to the rest of Europe is firm without being domineering.  Internationally and domestically, Germany has emerged from the shadow of WWII.  Decades later, Germany has many reasons to feel pride and positive identification with itself as a nation.



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