Shortcomings of German remembrance culture fail in the face of Russia's war
The reaction of German society to Russia's unprovoked, illegal and brutal war of aggression against Ukraine reveals a culture of remembrance which it likes to boast internationally as a champion of remembrance, but which in its basic understanding is based on false assumptions and remains ineffective in the face of true aggression and fascist invaders, Jonas Heins writes.
On May 8, 1985 (some links in German), the then President of the Federal Republic of Germany Richard von Weizsäcker declared a "new perspective" on the events of the Second World War and the Holocaust. It institutionalized on the highest level that May 8, 1945, represents the liberation of Germany from the Nazi regime and terror, thus relegating the historical reality of a German defeat to the background. It is here that Germans consciously made themselves common with the victims of the Second World War and especially the Holocaust, first and foremost the Jewish victims.
German-Jewish Philosopher Max Czollek argues that the horrors and human abysses of Auschwitz, through this understanding of the events of the Second World War and the Holocaust, are romantically transfigured and presented in a distorted way as a jointly suffered chapter of German history. The Jewish victims of the Shoah become a figure of identification for the descendants of the perpetrators and thus enable a detachment from historical responsibility, which in German understanding is all too often equated with guilt. A guilt that, according to a study from 2018, 77 percent of German respondents don't feel.
As a result, the dignitaries of German institutions and large sections of society perform a theater of memory, as described by sociologist Y. Michal Bodemann in 1996, in a rehearsed interaction between German society and a Jewish minority. The only function intended for the Jewish participants is to nod off the redemption of the Germans from their guilt. This performative commemoration offers space for only a specific representation of Jewish life and can never represent the actual diversity and range of Jewish life in Germany.
This theater of remembrance has no place for anger and violent resistance to fascism and extermination by Nazis, but only for performative mourning and shared suffering. It is no wonder that in the German culture of remembrance, non-violent German heroes like the Scholl siblings are held up as the ideal of anti-fascist resistance, rather then, for example, the Jewish fighting organization "ZOB" that organized and fought the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising from April 19 to May 16, 1943.
In a Germany where people identify with the victims of the Shoah, German colonial history has hardly been dealt with in relation to Central and Eastern Europe and shows its traces even today in the discussion about arms deliveries for Ukrainian soldiers who lay down their lives in the fight against genocidal aggressors.
The dimensions of the destruction of Central and Eastern European life of the German war of extermination in its fight for "Lebensraum" is still insufficiently present in German society, the term "Holocaust by bullets" not relevantly known. "Instead of developing a deeper understanding of the complex history of Ukraine and its relationship to Germany or learning more about the Holocaust on the territory of Ukraine and that the Nazi authorities treated the country as a colony to be exploited and eradicated, the discussion is dominated by platitudes, stereotypes and the regurgitation of Russian propaganda," Marcel Krueger writes.
In a 2018 study, 69 percent of respondents in Germany claimed that their ancestors were not among the perpetrators of the Second World War, while 18 percent claimed their ancestors even helped potential victims of the Second World War and the Holocaust.
The real number of the latter lies somewhere around 0.3 percent. This reveals a distorted image, in which German soldiers of the Wehrmacht, after all the great-grandparents and grandparents of a large swathe of today's German society, are always admitted having been under duress and to only have followed orders in the understanding of many.
Simultaneously various partisan fighters are viewed all the more suspiciously. This has not only been the case since discussions about the inheritance of Stepan Bandera and the OUN (largely unknown in Germany until February 2022) flared up surrounding the debate around German arms deliveries but has long been an ugly aspect of German memory theater.
In its 2013 historical-revisionist TV drama "Generation War," the German Public broadcaster ZDF portrayed the Polish Home Army as a gang of anti-Semitic libertines and was subsequently successfully sued by a veteran of that very same Home Army. Even today, Poland, which suffered more than six million lives lost in the German war of extermination, regularly has to defend itself against accusations of aiding and abetting the Holocaust, since many of the German extermination camps were located on Polish soil.
In their uninformedness about German crimes in Central and Eastern Europe, people in Germany today are quick to find past accomplices in the extermination of Jewish life within the local populations, perhaps to escape sole blame to some extent.
Until the late 90s, wide parts of the population still believed in the long-held myth of a "clean" Wehrmacht that, in contrast to the consciously acting, ultimately evil SS, in its war of extermination against the Soviet Union and the people in Central and Eastern Europe consisted largely of conscripted, unwilling young men who all had no choice in committing crimes against humanity and were only following orders.
This misrepresentation was coupled with the collective trauma of those returning home from the battlefields of Central- and Eastern Europe and Soviet captivity. In Germany's collective post-war memory, the defeat at the hands of the Soviet Union and the heinous battle of Stalingrad are etched and synonymous with the senselessness and brutality of war.
But today the wrong lessons are being drawn from these experiences. The ghost of Stalingrad haunts German conscience to this day and means that many consider it impossible for Ukraine to win a war against Russia – after all, one´s own ancestors did not manage it.
The fight of the Ukrainians is in an absurd twist declared a ´senseless´ fight because according to the own experience, any fighting is wrong and senseless. A German society that hides behind the claim that they too had to be liberated from the Nazis, seemingly has a problem with the reality of a people in a democratic state fighting their just struggle for liberation from an oppressive, authoritarian occupant – and thus achieving what their own ancestors failed to do.
The explicit promise of "never again" has become "never again war," and in doing so one blatantly ignores the factuality of the brutality of Russia's genocidal war of aggression against its innocent neighbor. The fact that never again must a war go out from German soil, does not mean that the people of Ukraine should be left defenseless to their fate. If one took seriously the responsibility that follows from the horrors of Babi Yar; if one really cared about the lives of the Holocaust survivors still living in Ukraine today, one would support Ukraine in its armed struggle against the aggressor. A rethinking is needed in the German culture of remembrance and actual actions to protect lives in Ukraine must follow from this.
"Death is a master from Germany," as Paul Celan wrote, is not an attestation of expertise to guide us to disregard the demands of our partners in Central and Eastern Europe. It is a reminder that we have a collective responsibility that we in Germany must live up to.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski