'Our Mothers, Our Fathers' Next-Generation WWII Atonement
Part 2: Wounds that Refuse to Heal
The fears of the Germans, derived from the experiences of history, continue to have an effect seven decades later. To this day, they create a sense of abnormality in Germany's political life, which may seem strange abroad, but has provided reliable protection against radicalization within Germany.
Without the trauma of the past, it would be difficult to understand the fervor with which the democratic political class discusses a ban of the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD). Militant democracy is defended at the polls, though enlightened consciousness and a reliable constitutional state would be sufficient. No one in France would dream of banning the far-right National Front party of politician Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter Marine. The party captures 18 percent of the vote in presidential elections. Belgians, Scandinavians, Italians and the Dutch must also combat extremism and right-wing populism, but not with party bans.
Without the wounds that both refuse to and cannot be allowed to heal, it would be impossible to understand the intensity with which Germans grapple with every foreign deployment of their armed forces, and even the semantic use of the word "war." French President François Hollande, single-handedly and literally overnight, recently sent combat units to Mali by air and land. Germany, on the other hand, agonizes over a decision involving a few cargo or tanker planes. Hesitation is appropriate, but creating taboos is not, because the horrors of history also lead to the international responsibility to protect from a war of aggression.
Without the guilt complex from the Nazi era, it would also be difficult to explain why the chancellor and the people she represents don't allow themselves to be provoked when they are disparaged abroad with Hitler moustaches and swastikas. They persevere with a mixture of serenity and shamefacedness that would be inconceivable in Washington, Paris or Moscow. But let's admit that it does make us cringe. And yet the demand by a small minority to pull the plug out of the euro system receives almost no attention. In this calm, we still feel the effect of the experience that the defeated, destroyed and morally devastated country had after 1945. Martin Schulz, the German president of the European Parliament, reduced this experience to a concise statement that highlights the entire difference of history: a Schuman plan instead of a Treaty of Versailles.
The rehabilitation after defeat in 1945, which occurred through European unification and the NATO military alliance, succeeded even more quickly abroad than at home. The re-establishment of German self-confidence was always a step behind external appearances.
Pointing to the Perpetrators' Inconsistencies
"The entire founding of the Federal Republic," says film producer Hofmann, "occurred in the face of an incomprehensible and complete suppression." The rapidly developing Cold War helped in that it established an alternative for gradual exculpation. "Anti-fascism" faded into a propaganda cliché of the other, totalitarian ideology. Historian Götz Aly called this political and psychological self-therapy "glaciation." The reports on the big Nazi trials of the early 1960s read like news from a world of murder and manslaughter in which no one had taken part. Our relatives? But we weren't involved with those kind of people! "It isn't easy to talk about it," said the wise old admonisher Hans-Jochen Vogel, born in 1926, a staff sergeant in the Hitler Youth and a corporal in the Wehrmacht, after he saw the ZDF series.
Books, plays, films and TV movies, exhibitions and photos have formed the stages and sometimes the painful breaks of a marathon of enlightenment. Political scientist Eugen Kogon, a prisoner at the Buchenwald concentration camp from September 1939 to April 1945, published his standard work, "SS State: The System of German Concentration Camps" in 1946. More than 500,000 copies of the book were sold in Germany.
The 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, from which philosopher Hannah Arendt reported, de-demonized the type of behind-the-scenes mastermind and architect of the deportations of Jews, exposing his "sheer thoughtlessness" in spectacular fashion. The horrible "banality of evil" was evident, Arendt wrote, in the fact that Eichmann, aside from an unusual eagerness to further his career, had no motives at all. He was a despicable figure with no demonic fascination at all -- but he was also far from ordinary.
In the fall of 1965, author Peter Weiss' play "The Investigation" was performed on 15 stages in West Germany and East Germany in one day. The play was a dramatization of the Auschwitz trials that had begun in Frankfurt two years earlier. Such a simultaneous premier in both parts of divided Germany was unprecedented.
Shortly before the eruption of the 1968 student revolts, psychoanalysts Margarete and Alexander Mitscherlich wrote their study on "The Inability to Mourn," a title that became a catchphrase. The couple described the Germans after 1945 as a society that was only able to endure the devaluation of its self-image by blocking its embarrassing memories, and had thus deteriorated into a conspicuous emotional rigidity.
In a radical, inquisitorial manner, the student movement of 1968 demanded accountability from its parents. At the same time, it unwittingly resembled the older generation in its willingness to unquestioningly devote itself to a greater cause and its ideals. "A young person," the Mitscherlichs concluded, "who hasn't learned to judge his parents in a way that is somewhat in keeping with reality will also be blind to other parts of the outside world, or will at least see them in a distorted way." In that vein, the series "Our Mothers, Our Fathers" attempts nothing less than directing our undisguised attention to the inconsistency of our parents.
More than a decade later, in 1979, the American TV miniseries "Holocaust" opened the eyes of German viewers to the horror of the extermination of the Jews, based on the fate of the Weiss family. The much-maligned emotional drama from the United States traced the path of suffering taken by millions of Jews into the gas chambers more drastically than any documentary had done before.
Then, with his monumental nine-hour documentary "Shoah" in 1985, French director Claude Lanzmann reconstructed the Holocaust entirely without piles of bodies and shocking images. It was a new form of remembrance that relied on the depiction of landscapes and faces, with voice-overs recounting the events -- a liberating film, like a quiet, persistent objection.
In his 1993 film "Schindler's List," director Steven Spielberg portrayed the good German Oskar Schindler, who hired Jewish prisoners to work in his factory, saving hundreds of lives in the process. The example set by a man who did the right thing only underscored the true scope of evil. But in the end, good and evil remain inexplicable. Why did Schindler do what he did? And if he could do it, why didn't more Germans take similar action?
Ironically, it was the two US films, "Holocaust" and "Schindler's List," that most closely resembled the memories the Mitscherlichs had presented in their study. The feats of memory were flanked by historic controversies and debates charged with political ideology, which regularly shook up a placid and affluent society.
In 1986, Berlin historian Ernst Nolte, originally a philosopher and an unhappy student of Martin Heidegger, went further than any other academic with his revisionist provocation. With his theory that the Soviet "Gulag Archipelago" was more primal than the Nazis' system of concentration camps, while the class murders of the Bolsheviks were the model for the Nazis' racial murder of the Jews, Nolte qualified the German crimes almost to the point of moral indifference.
A decade later, the sheer force of the images at the Hamburg Institute of Social Research's Wehrmacht exhibition -- which showed laughing and smirking soldiers in front of the executed -- made it the most controversial show of the 1990s. Despite a number of technical errors, false attributions and subtitles, it destroyed the myth of the clean Wehrmacht once and for all. "The war is no machinery," institute head Jan Philipp Reemtsma declared, "but a space in which individuals make decisions." True to this maxim, "Our Mothers, Our Fathers" does not release its broken heroes from the responsibility for their own actions.
The supposed assault on the "honor" of the German soldier set off a controversy that ultimately led to the early closing of the exhibition. Starting in 1941, more than 150 divisions containing a total of 8 million soldiers fought on the Eastern Front. How many of them committed crimes is far from clear. The often arbitrary estimates range from under 5 to more than 80 percent.
An End to Guilt, Not Remembrance
Why did men who seemed to be average citizens and ordinary Germans commit murder? In 1996, American author Daniel Goldhagen dealt another serious blow to the general willingness to repent. In his study "Hitler's Willing Executioners," he revived the theory of German collective culpability, depicting a nation of perpetrators, caught in inescapable guilt. Goldhagen claimed that the extermination of the Jews was one of the Germans' national political objectives -- a sort of social norm.
His diagnosis of what was essentially a fundamental pathological condition of the Germans, rooted in history and genetics, sparked an outcry. Nothing is more mortifying than the refusal to forgive within the guilt complex. "History or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising," Günter Grass concluded in his 2002 novel "Crabwalk."
The need to atone for our sins, the repeated application of the scalpel to ourselves, has become a trait of the modern European condition. Germany has no lack of "demonstrators of contrition" (in the provocative words of French philosopher Pascal Bruckner). It is dotted with monuments and memorials, and its history is lined with the major and minor anniversaries of horror.
Other countries regard this "never-ending atonement" with a mixture of suspicion and respect, a secular political flagellantism that is increasingly being recommended to the rest of Europe as something worth emulating. Hardly any European nation is free of the poison of damnation, and the administrators of disgrace all have plenty to do. But doesn't the irrefutability of remembrance also contradict "the imperative of forgetting," as Munich ancient historian Christian Meier has suggested? In earlier times, it was not remembrance and keeping wounds open, but rather forgetting, that was the amnesty and remedy for coping with a horrible past.
It appears that this is not possible for Germans. We must put an end to guilt, not remembrance. This is why the ongoing public apologies are so important. They turn words into actions and create harmony and community. But the permanent attitude of atonement cannot lead to political and moral self-paralysis, or become an alibi behind which the responsibility to take action hides.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Next-Generation WWII Atonement
- Part 2: Wounds that Refuse to Heal