Cowan’s Comment: ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ and Nazi Guilt

Cowan’s Comment: ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ and Nazi Guilt

Our bi-weekly columnist Joe Cowan argues that as Germany tries to distance itself from its genocidal past, it assumes a mentality worryingly reminiscent of it

‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ is a word as difficult to pronounce as it is to explain. Despite being a relatively unheard of concept its tentacles have crept into modern international relations, shaping Europe’s opinion towards Brexit and the ongoing refugee crisis. As defined by The German Duden lexicon, ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ means “public debate within a country on a problematic period of its recent history”. Regarding Germany, the ‘problematic period’ refers to the Nazi regime and the systematic murder of around 6,000,000 Jews.

The shadow of Germany’s Nazi past still hangs over the country and its effect, from an outside perspective, is glaringly obvious. Having traded in Hitler for Merkel, the supposed ‘leader of the free world’, Germany’s foreign policy and general approach to issues in Europe has taken a U-turn. Whilst the country has seen its share of political faces in between the fall of the regime and the present, it appears that without Adolf there would be no Angela. The guilt, subconscious or otherwise, that plagues the country has acted as a catalyst in the rise of liberal attitudes in Germany – sometimes verging on blind devotion to Merkel and her policies. The new generation of Germans, those whose grandfathers may have supported the Nazi regime, occupy a post-nationalist space of thought – identifying not as ‘German’ but often as ‘European’ or (as I have once heard) a ‘citizen of the world’. The new generation of Germans are firm in their beliefs, pro-European, pro-immigration and above all ‘tolerant’ – but one can’t help but question; is this just a flimsy façade?

Whilst I can only speak from my own experience, it seems that Germans – especially those of my generation – are understandably desperate to distance themselves from the country’s past. This so called ‘Nazi guilt’ is far less explicit now than it was twenty or thirty years ago, but with the country’s prevailing identity as a progressive, pro-European nation, Vergangenheitsbewältigung plays a significant, albeit implicit, role in popular opinion and politics. Interest in this cultural phenomenon stemmed from a conversation I had with a German teach of mine. Having asked her whether Nazism’s legacy still had a strong hold on Germany’s political ideologies, the teacher – a twenty-something Munich native – responded:

‘I’m sick of hearing of this so-called Nazi guilt, can’t we just be liberal because we want to be? The past [regime] is no longer relevant today’

It appeared to strike a nerve and this caused me to probe deeper. Whilst a politically liberal stance is by no means uncommon today, it seems awfully coincidental that the attitude of many Germans seems to be the antithesis of that held in the 1940’s. A fascist, nationalist identity has been swapped for a pro-EU, pro-immigration, ‘forward-thinking’ identity. However, one thing has remained constant – the blind support of what is popularly considered as ‘correct’. In the face of an uncomfortable past, free thinking and political consciousness seems to have suffered. Whilst the German youth appear to be politically minded, these views are carbon copies of one another and based upon what Germany has decided is the ‘right’ way to think. Through many conversations I have had, it has become clear that the views commonly held are not to be questioned, and few young adults seem willing to budge from their idealistic stance – a fear, perhaps, of edging towards the right of the political spectrum. Despite the dramatic reformation in German politics, the sheep and shepherd culture has remained, and is just as insidious.

German opinion shrouded in a ‘politically correct’ cloak, it’s hard to understand what the true public consensus is. It seems that this opaqueness and self-censorship is a response to the country’s past and an inherent fear of revisiting it.

A progressive society is by no means something negative, but when these views aren’t implemented problems begin to arise. In 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, Germany saw a five fold increase in the amount of asylum seekers it had taken in. They were greeted with banners reading ‘EVERYONE IS WELCOME’ and showered with gifts of chocolate, clothing and children’s toys. The sentiment, of course, is touching, but this was far from a true reflection of how they were to be treated. Yes, Germany let the refugees in, but it seems little has been done to integrate them, neither at a bureaucratic level nor on a person-to-person basis. Having spoken to both Germans and migrants, their stories are worlds apart.

I was told by a teenage migrant from Afghanistan that he feels merely ‘tolerated’ – the theme of tolerance once again rearing its head – and that little effort has been put into making him feel welcome. According to him, his experience is far from unusual and this seems to be the shared opinion of many recent migrants to the country. This is uncomfortably indicative of Germany’s attitude towards migrants and a strange turn of events considering they were once welcomed with open arms. However, when speaking to native Müncheners, the situation seemed far more positive.

‘Basically, everyone is welcome here’ I was told by a twenty-two-year-old artist, ‘we are a country for whoever wants to live here’. He was paraphrasing an opinion I had heard countless times before. I probed him further and he seemed somewhat perplexed at the suggestion he might have had contact with migrants or that he perhaps had migrant friends. He then professed his whole-hearted support for Merkel’s immigration policy – despite confessing to not having seen any evidence of its positives or negatives. Throughout my many conversations, it became evident that people weren’t prepared to speak ill of Merkel’s immigration policy (nor of immigration in general) and either unconvincingly supported it or chose to remain awkwardly silent. With German opinion shrouded in a ‘politically correct’ cloak, it’s hard to understand what the true public consensus is. It seems that this opaqueness and self-censorship is a response to the country’s past and an inherent fear of revisiting it.

Similarly, Vergangenheitsbewältigung appears to have affected the popular opinion towards the EU. The EU, for many Germans, seems to represent a post-nationalist refuge from Germany’s own past. In opinion polls, the majority of young Germans view the EU favourably – this view is similarly held in the UK. Judging by the general impression I was given, there seems to be no real reason as to why the EU is so blindly supported – I was offered up ‘economical’ and ‘social’ reasons, but nothing of real substance. Whilst support of the EU, of course, can be valid, it must rest on evidence and reason. Yet, despite this, support appears to be blind rather than reasoned.

It seems that the EU has been branded ‘good’ and has become symbolic of Germany’s changing political identity, and this, it appears, is enough to garner it substantial support. Euroscepticism, from my experience, is not commonplace in the shared opinion of the German youth. Naturally, this point of view has gained Brexit an unpopular status here, and many of the people I questioned seemed somewhat smug in the face of Britain’s alleged ‘stupidity’. I was even told that ‘the UK should be punished for leaving the EU’. Whilst the opinions on the EU, both positive and negative, can be validated, one can’t help but wonder to what extent Germany’s past has cultivated these ideas.

It seems that when the EU is threatened, so is the modern German identity. Having rejected nationalism and, to a degree, patriotism, the modern German identity has its roots in that of a Pan-European utopia – regardless of how unrealistic it may be. Speaking on this social phenomenon, German author Bernhard Schlink said ‘an unravelling European Ideal would deprive Germans of an escape from themselves’ and a fear of this seems to be a driving force in modern German politics.

It is unclear to what extent ‘Nazi guilt’ dictates the political views of today’s youth (or whether it even exits). It is hard to explore this subject without invaliding the views of millions of young – and increasingly political – Germans. However, it cannot be a coincidence that the same baseless opinions are held by the majority and are circulated and regurgitated with little real conviction.

Whilst views held today seem relatively unproblematic when compared to those of the regime, the blind support of them is unsettling nevertheless. We are told to ‘never forget’ the atrocities committed by man, for fear of history repeating itself. However, as Germany tries to distance itself from its political past, it becomes increasingly closer to it. The unanimous belief in a ‘correct’ way of thinking is as alive today as it was eighty years ago. Germany has changed for the better – this goes without saying – but the self-censorship, herd mentality and refusal to speak out against the government remains just as frightening as it once was.

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