Contemplating the past
Each country has a different way of dealing with its history. The Portuguese are nostalgic about it, the Hungarians proud, while the Poles are trying to eradicate the negative consequences that their history still casts on them. Almost every country glorifies its past by honouring those who helped create, protect or even enlarge the nation. The situation in Germany is a bit more complicated than that. How does the current generation of young people deal with the legacy of Germany`s troubled past?
Germans do not need to make a lot of effort to be confronted with the horrors of World War II. Instead, they are reminded of their country`s past over and over again, and repeatedly made feel ashamed of the nation`s history. Joking about the atrocities of the war is ill-advisable as it is likely to directly hurt people`s feelings. Every issue that is even distantly related to WWII will cause fierce debates, involving interest groups from all layers of society.
`We are somehow forced to reprocess the past over and over again`
Moritz (27) thinks that the current generation of tweenagers is the first one who can distance itself from the war and look at it in a more objective way: `I still think that joking about the war is not appropriate`, he says. `But imitating Hitler for the sake of humour is slowly becoming acceptable. If you take the plastic foil from a pack of cigarettes, fold it around your index and middle finger, then spread it and hold it under your nose: it will give you the moustache and voice of Hitler. However, the advisability of making such jokes depends on the context. With friends, it may be acceptable. In all other cases, it`s not.`
Moritz continues: `I think humour serves as a bridge between reality and taboo. In that way, it may help people deal with traumas from the past. The problem in Germany is that the subject is already debated over and over again, people are aware of what happened, and they do feel ashamed of it. We don`t need jokes to keep discussing the subject. It is being discussed anyway ? and at length: at schools, between generations, through the media, in films..`
75 Years after the beginning of Nazi-reign in Germany, the question about who or what to blame for the outbreak of World War II remains unclear. Some Germans are willing to consider it the responsibility of an entire country, others blame a generations, some blame the Austrians pointing to the fact that the majority of the party and SS leaders were Austrians, others say it`s the fault of a small group of crazy people while others prefer to blame the who they see as the embodiment of evil: Adolf Hitler. The existence of strong anti-Semitic feelings before the 1930s is also seen as a condition that helped develop such a massive movement of national socialism. The same goes for the desire of revenge for the severe punishments Germany faced after World War I.
Isa (21) explains that even blaming the war on previous generations is not entirely fair. `I think that the most important thing we should learn is how easy people can be manipulated. It`s not the German character that caused the war, neither was it the initiative of one single person. It was a devastating process that involved an entire generation, including the grandparents of today`s young people.`
`My grandfather was a member of the Hitlerjugend. He doesn`t like to talk about it, but he remembers that specific period as a wonderful time. He had fun roaming in the forest, making new friends and enjoying the strong sense of community. In the years that followed, the situation got a lot more serious. And especially: too complicated to assess when looked at back in time. The system was very compelling. What to do if you have a choice between either being sent to war or getting your family killed? It`s a completely different logic from the one our generation has got used to.`
Isa says that the German education system dedicates ample attention to World War II, its conception and its consequences: `There`s no need for outsiders to rub it in even more. It`a a bit sour to travel to other countries and keep being confronted with it over an over again. I think we are sufficiently aware of our past, and of the crimes committed by a previous generation. Still, in many countries, people instantly become less friendly if I tell that I am German. Or they will recognise the accent and relate it to German history. I had some bad experiences in Italy and Spain. Some Italians called my boyfriend a Nazi when we were there. Quite annoying, especially when you look at how the Italians themselves seem to enjoy spraying swastikas onto their walls, and how they proudly serve beer branded Il Duche. Their history is no much happier than ours, yet they will still look down on us for being German.`
`Some people may think that something similar could happen again in Germany. I believe that it could happen anywhere in the world, and it is happening all over, but it would be less likely in Germany than in most other countries. The whole world is still looking at Germany and we Germans ourselves are paranoid about anything that even distantly relates to national-socialism. For years, it was unacceptable to wave German flags, to sing the German anthem or to show any sort of pride about being German. The Football World Championships of 2006 marked one of the first times when I saw compatriots who were openly proud of their German origins.`
Kathrin (29) thinks that being German is no longer the burden it used to be in the past: `My mother is from Poland and I used to travel there quite often when I was a kid. I couldn`t understand why Polish children were not friendly with me, but it probably had to do something with me being German. It`s the kind of things you don`t understand as a child.`
Kathrin is happy to see that young Europeans are dropping their prejudices against Germans. `I recently spent three months in Spain and noticed that being German also has advantages. Germans are no longer seen as nothing but evil people. We have also been able to prove ourselves as good workers and reliable friends.`
Fear and guilt
Michi (29, photo) suggests that German history classes focus too much on making people feel shocked and scared about World War II. `We also keep creating new monuments for the victims of the war, especially for Jews, homosexuals, the handicapped.. I certainly agree with the fact that the monuments are put up, but I sometimes get a bit tired of the endless debates about where, what and how. Every monument insists that we feel guilty about out past, which is fair in a way? But at times I think we should pay more attention to `how` and `why` it happened instead of reproducing the past. Instead of dragging up the endless list of inhumane events, why not teach pupils and students to be more critical towards media. Teach them to be aware of patterns similar to what happened in the 1930s, to be weary of situations where one leader is in charge of everything. Train them to be sensitive when some assigned scapegoat is blamed for every fault in society..`
`Back in 1933, the German population was made believe that their entire future would be improved if they joined the movement. The danger is that it initially did. Unemployment went down, people had more money to spend and they had a leader who they believed stood up for their interests. It`s natural for people to first care about their own personal situation before thinking of the consequences for others ? especially if they are not directly related to these `others`, who are easily turned into enemies to personal safety: by media as well as by the people themselves. Looking back at the past, it`s much easier to decide what is right and what is not. Imagining yourself in the same situation, with the same amount of information that was available back then, would already make it lots more difficult.`
While all respondents from West Berlin or West Germany immediately link `German history` to World War II, the East Berliners have other associations. Their history seems to be tightly connected to the years of the DDR, while the Third Reich, to them, is part of a distant past.
Tina (30) from former West Germany doubts whether Eastern Germans were taught the same version of World War II as she was. `The idea from the West was that the regime in East Germany was `ugly`. It was totalitarian, just like all of Germany was in the years preceding World War II. I remember visiting family members in the East when I was younger. We always brought them chocolate and clothes, because they had so little. They did not grow up with the same freedom as what we got used to in the West. We saw East Germany as a country suffering under a totalitarian regime. We never felt ashamed about the separation of our country or the presence of the wall. It was imposed on us from the outside.`
Anni (29) from former East Germany suspects that she may have learnt a version of history that was different from the Western one, but she is unable to link the nature of the East German pioneer movement to the Hitlerjugend. `There was no association between the DDR youth movement and politics`, she says. When I submit the same question to other people from former East Germany, I notice that they are quick to reject any similarities between the youth movements of the national-socialists and those of the DDR, despite the fact that the FDJ had clearly defined political goals, despite the uniforms, symbols and rituals associated with indoctrination, and despite the fact that failure to join the FDJ disqualified young East Germans for studying in university or taking up certain jobs.`
Gregor (28) links the `history of Germany` to his former home country East Germany. `We had a wonderful country until West German companies took over in 1989. They fired the people and ran off with the money. I spent a beautiful childhood here. We had no criminality, no drugs, no stress. We did have lots of sports facilities, schools and youth activities. The pioneer movement kept children off the street and gave them something useful to do. Look at today`s children. They are bored and their parents are unemployed. Maybe I was to young, but I never felt as if our country was under occupation of Russia. We are Russian in our way of thinking anyway. We are not like people in the West. We think with our hearts, while people from the West think with their wallets.`
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