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Germany’s Complicated Connection With Its Past

Writing by Annabel Wilde. Illustration from Unsplash.

Vergangenheitsbewältigung - the concept of struggling to overcome the past - is an often used phrase for obvious reasons in the German language. 75 years passing since the end of World War Two means that every German born before the Nazis were defeated is now at least 10 years over the retirement age; almost every business owner, manager, government official, everybody ‘running’ the country now had nothing to do with the war whatsoever. However the collective guilt (Kollektivschuld) of the nation is still a key element to the study of contemporary German culture. The question remains: how long will this connection with the country’s history last?

The immediate post-war publicity of the Allies in Germany centred itself mainly around blame. The feeling was that no German national was innocent. Either they had actively taken part in the horrors of the Holocaust and were therefore morally guilty, or they had witnessed it and done nothing, making them politically guilty. Posters with pictures of concentration camps were plastered all over cities, captioned "These Atrocities: Your Fault!" (Diese Schandtaten: Eure Schuld!). The blame was impossible to avoid and became ingrained in the way the rest of the world viewed Germans for years to come.

In the following decades, a domestic generational war ensued. Young people born in the post-war years were forced to come to terms with their own parents’ compliance with the horrific events of WW2. Their feeling of guilt by association drove the revolutionist mindset of the younger generation in their campaign for change throughout the 60s and 70s. Typical teenage rebellions flared up into a complete generational conflict, culminating in the West-German student movement (Studentenbewegung) of mass protests in 1968.

The 68ers, as they became known, rejected traditionalism and the “New Left” - they wanted complete freedom for all from capitalist exploitation. Protests were sparked when Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a former member of the Nazi Party, was elected as German Chancellor in 1966. Continual revolt was the policy the 68ers used to revolutionise German society.

"A generation of criminals was ruling society after the war and no one talked about what they had done. Discussing their crimes was not even a part of our school lessons.” - Günter Wallraff

In the aftermath of the protests, the political landscape in Germany certainly changed. Double standards for men and women had been exposed. Sexual liberation, democratic representation of students and greater freedom for women and children had been prompted. A protest culture was solidified and left-wing causes gained in popularity, including total denazification and anti-fascism in German society. The adults were being forced to come to terms with their past by the younger generation, and German nationalism took a hit. Being a German patriot was no longer celebrated as the nation slowly realised its guilt.

The response of Germany was to throw itself into the European project in order to direct attention away from the nation’s connection with its past and retreat from its reputation. The motivation of losing its historical reputation has resulted in Germany being at the forefront of European economies, welcoming record numbers of refugees in the 2015 ‘migrant crisis’ and becoming one of the most - if not the most - influential states of the EU.

Now patriotism is again rising in Germany, as seen in the crowds at football matches and Olympic stadiums. There is no longer an issue for Germans to proudly sing their national anthem or wave the German flag. Although the rise of far-right nationalism within the country is real and worrying, Germany should find strength through working alongside other European countries to tackle rising nationalism across the continent. After 75 years I think we can agree that it is no longer the job of nations to take part in historical finger-pointing in such a globalised and interconnected world. It is much more important to look at shared, international factors which created the environment in which such barbarity could take place, and to ensure history may never be repeated.

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