Forward Thinking

Germany's Not Just Faking Holocaust Contrition

By Liam Hoare

  • Print
  • Share Share

News that drunken revelers had, on New Year’s Eve, used Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe as a urinal came shortly after The New York Times published an op-ed by Yascha Mounk on the conflicts of being a German Jew.

Together, these items create an image of a Germany not at ease with itself, of a nation that still hasn’t come to terms with its past and found a place in its social fabric for Jews or the memory of Jews. Mounk suggests Germany has swung between “a bout of philo-Semitism” and “a new mood of ‘enough is enough’” when it comes to processing the Second World War, adding:

Clearly, there was something artificial about the ritualistic displays of historical contrition that had long been central to public life in Germany. But to assert that the time had come to move beyond the past, once and for all, was no less artificial. Normality cannot be decreed by fiat.

Mounk is right, on the one hand, to suggest that after the Shoah, things can never be normal again, neither for Germany as a whole or German Jews in particular. “Increasingly, I realized that the mere mention of my heritage erected an invisible wall between my classmates and me,” Mounk writes. “I realized that even my most well-intentioned compatriots saw me as a Jew first, and a German second.”

But to suggest that Germany’s public struggle to come to terms with the past is in some form artificial does a disservice to what Germany has achieved since the end of the Second World War in this regard.

For one, through the education system, young Germans are probably more aware of the Holocaust than young people in any other European country. After growing evidence that young Germans were ignorant of the Third Reich, including troubling opinion polling and acts of anti-Semitic vandalism in the late 1950s, beginning in 1962 the years 1933-1945 were made required learning in all schools, with special attention paid to genocide and crimes against humanity committed by the Nazi regime.

Prompted by a series of very public events from the Eichmann trial through the Six Day War, Willy Brandt’s Kniefall at the Warsaw Ghetto monument, and the Munich Olympics, Germany also succeeded in instigating a national conversation about the Shoah. In particular, the television miniseries Holocaust, when first broadcast in January 1979, was watched by around 20 million viewers — half of Germany’s adult population at that time was being confronted with the past in their living rooms.

The historian Tony Judt asserts that, from the around the late 1960s onwards, “Germans would be at the forefront of all effort to maintain public awareness of their country’s singular crime.”

The past continues to inform the present. On the seventy-fifth anniversary of Kristallnacht, Chancellor Angela Merkel called on “all the people in this country to show their civil courage and ensure that no form of anti-Semitism is tolerated.” Merkel is always keen to stress the special relationship between Germany and Israel, particularly as regards the latter’s security, and the recent FRA survey on anti-Semitism revealed that in Germany, both experience of verbal and physical manifestations of Jew-hatred and fear of them are (at the very least) below the European average.

The aforementioned desecration of the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe is one example of how the process of coming to terms with the past can be set back. Another is to observe the career arc of Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist whose work once forced Germans to confront the horrors of the Second World War. After releasing Im Krebsgang in 2002, which focused on “the crimes of the Allies,” Grass revealed in 2006 that he had been drafted into the Waffen-SS in 1944. In 2012, he published “Was gesagt werden muss,” a poem that suggested Israel was the aggressive nuclear power in the Middle East.

The case of Grass might grant credence to Mounk’s charge of artificiality, that even the most ardent proponents of coming to terms with the past were always keeping something back or wearing a mask. But what it in fact demonstrates is the difficulty and enormity of this process of historical change, that to look at the Holocaust and one’s own role in it with a steady eye requires a great deal of will and fortitude. As such, that Holocaust remembrance and education as well as contrition for Germany’s historic crimes have become central to and inseparable from German national identity deserves respect.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: anti-Semitism, Nazis, Holocaust, Germany, Berlin

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks? http://jd.fo/d4kkV
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.