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.