How Germans View the Holocaust Research Paper

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Holocaust Memory in East and West Germany


In Bernhard Schlink’s Guilt about the Past, the author writes about it what it is like to live under the “long shadow of the past” (26). Schlink states that the Germans felt oppressed by this guilt that their soldiers committed. They are happy to forget it, for example, when the German soccer team scores a goal at the World Cup and shouts, “We are somebody again!” as though the goal erased everything, as though the German soccer team somehow brought respectability to the German nation once more. It was an instance of a man wanting to get back into the light. Yet, after WWII, there was not much light to get into. Just like after WWI, the Germans were saddled with guilt. Only this time, after WWII, they were really made to feel it. They learned that their people had committed a Holocaust—something that was done in secret—there was no written command or record of this secret Holocaust—only the words of the Allies and the confessions (suspect because forced in many cases) of the German soldiers. Regardless, the Germans were sent to the death camps to see in person the lampshade made of human Jew skin and the ashtray made from a Jew’s hip bone. Atrocity was the word—and the Holocaust was hung like a sign over the heads of the German people for long after the war, just like a sign that read “King of the Jews” was hung over the head of Christ crucified. The Germans in their own way had to figure out how to atone, how to memorialize the Holocaust and pay for the crimes that their soldiers had committed in secret. This paper will show how the Germans tried to engage or disengage from this history of the war, of the Holocaust, and how now they have come to accept it and desire to move on from it.

The Past is Prologue

Schlink states that the Holocaust has become so familiar to the German people today that they have become bored with it: it is the effect of over-saturation. There is too much of it everywhere they turn—and they are not even allowed to question it or to probe into this moment in history. When some do, they are arrested and thrown into prison (Kelly). If the Holocaust is a black cloud over the Germans, there is a black cloud over the Holocaust. The Germans must be always sorry for it and promise never to let something like it happen again, but no one is permitted to discuss it beyond that, to wonder at it in a doubtful way. They are told their people did this, and after so many decades it has become something of a problem: “The legacy for the next generation is dangerous. The ennui sometimes exhibited by schoolchildren concerning the Third Reich and the Holocaust has its roots in the deadening frequency with which they are confronted with the past by their teachers and the mdia” (Schlink 27). In other words, they are told too much of their guilt. They do not want to hear about it anymore. Indeed, Schlink warns: “The careless to cynical tone they sometimes adopt in speaking about the past is partly a result of being steeped in comparisons whose heavy tone of moral pathos does not always carry a corresponding moral weightiness” (27). The problem for them and for everyone is how to approach this Holocaust. The Germans themselves struggled with this idea in the post war period. In effect, there were two Germanys after the war, not just one.

Two Germanys

Before the Berlin Wall finally fell, Germany was separate in two parts: East and West. This division was because after WWII, the Allies divided Germany. The Soviet Union took the East half. The Western Allies oversaw the West half. East Germany was Communist. West Germany was Capitalist. During the Cold War, East and West were cut off from one another by the Wall that the Soviets placed to keep the West from interference.

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The West Germany was supposed to be open and free and President Kennedy went there to talk about the symbol of the wall in Berlin. He said that it was a symbol of the closed-off nature of Communism. After WWII, Germans had to confront the role of Germany for its crimes in the war as according to the Nuremberg Trials. This was difficult for Germans on both East and West side. They had to struggle with this idea of Holocaust because it made no sense to them. It was said to be in secret and a Final Solution of the German military and Hitler. Most Germans do not feel they are a part of this Holocaust. But they are told in the West they must pay for this crime. In East Germany, they do not want to hear this.

In West Germany, they are more open because as Kennedy said, they were not closed off like the Soviet Union. West Germany could look at the Holocaust idea but even still this was hard for…

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…memorialization. It is only because Germany is now under major influence from the West to memorialize the Holocaust like what has been done in the U.S. that these memorials exist at all.

January 27th is now Holocaust Memorial Day in Germany. It was declared such in 1995, half a decade after the Berlin Wall fell down. January 27th was selected because that is the day Auschwitz was liberated. Today, the UN recognizes January 27th as Holocaust Memorial Day. Germany took the first step in marking that date on the calendar and showed the world it was ready to begin to acknowledge the long shadow and stay within it. The Local notes: “Through this process, the newly united Germany had shown itself to be taking a new and progressive approach towards remembering its National Socialist past. In the German capital, this day is commemorated through the laying of wreaths at memorials throughout the city.” Since then the reunified Germany has done more. In 2005, it opened The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. However, while it is a memorial, it still indicates the German Angst that Zimmermann speaks of: “It comprises 2,711 concrete slabs of the same width and length, but of varying heights, in a grid formation, allowing visitors to walk through the installation. The memorial has however been criticized for failing to address the suffering of the individual victims, as the monument is anonymous” (The Local). In other words, the Germans have made another memorial—but it is still not quite what the world wants to see. The Germans keep trying to take the albatross off the neck.


After WWII, Germany was divided into two parts and the drama of this situation was enough to distract them from the guilt they were supposed to show sorrow for. East Germany was under Communist control. They did not acknowledge any guilt for the Holocaust. West Germany was friendly with the Americans. They were free. They did not like that the Americans were memorializing the Holocaust in the U.S. and they made objections, but they did not make a big fuss about it. They wanted to be seen as good friends even though they also wanted to protect their image. After the Berlin Wall came down, Germany began to give in to pressure to memorialize the Holocaust more. So it cleaned up the Auschwitz site and it made January 27th a day to remember. It established the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe—and yet still Germany fears to be in the shadow. They feel it is unfair.….....

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Benz, Wolfgang. "Auschwitz and the Germans: The Remembrance of the Genocide."  Holocaust and Genocide Studies 8.1 (1994): 94-106.

Hanslmaier, Michael, et al. "Forecasting crime in Germany in times of demographic change." European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research 21.4 (2015): 591-610.

Kelly, Tim. “Our interesting times—Tim Kelly with Germar Rudolf.” YouTube, 2016.

The Local. “How Germany remembers the Holocaust.”

Schlink, Bernhard.  Guilt about the Past. University of Queensland Press (Australia), 2013.

Trojanow, Ilija, et al. "Attack on Freedom: The Surveillance State, Security Obsession, and the Dismantling of Civil Rights." German Studies Review 38.2 (2015): 271-284.

Zimmermann, Moshe. "Holocaust Angst: The Federal Republic of Germany and American Holocaust Memory since the 1970s." Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs  12.1 (2018): 1-4.

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