Coming to terms with the dark chapter of one’s country history is not always easy, but it is necessary. The memory must be kept alive in order to prevent history from repeating itself.
From education to an open public discourse – both, and everything inbetween, is part of it.
In German it is called „Vergangenheitsbewältigung“, and while there are differences from country to country – some may have darker periods than others -, the importance remains the same. It is not about guilt, it is about responsibility. We cannot undo what happened, but we can ensure that such things do not occur again.
This entry reflects my personal thoughts and experiences while dealing with the darkest chapter of Germany’s history: the third Reich (1933-1945).
I don’t know how long it is going to be, but maybe you’ll find the thoughts written down by some random German interesting enough to stick around until the end.
The earliest memories, at least those who jump into my mind and are quite vivid, are from my early teenager years (14 years old). In Germany you learn about the Second World War in schools; you read about the Weimar Republic, how the First World War influenced it, and how the first democracy on German soil was defeated by its enemies.
There, my hatred for Nazism formed intensively and it increased the more I learned about the war crimes, the ideology and else – it would continue to this day (and it is only going to increase), and I couldn’t possibly put in words how much I despise National Socialism.
As I climbed up the letter of education, I also started to watch documentaries about the Weimar Republic, the rise of Nazism, the third Reich and Second World War. I was eager to learn more about this dark chapter of my nation, wanted to know how something like that could happen, and what kind of people were the main drivers behind it. The material given in school was good, though a year only allows a limited amount of hours spent on history lessons. Consequently, I looked for documentations and, if I recall correctly, the first I saw was either on N24 or n-tv. Over time, I moved on to ZDF and Arte (the latter also has a Youtube channel and I’m highly interested in their other content).
In the documentaries, you learn not just about the perpetrators. The perspective of those who were prosecuted, imprisoned and murdered were also in the spotlight. Through old recordings and the evidence the Nazis themselves piled up, I got more and more a whole picture of the atrocities committed by the third Reich. The nightmarish conditions in the concentration camps, the extermination camps, the firing squads at the very beginning of the war, the human experiments and all the other horrifying aspects were revealed to me.
Overall, the documentaries I have watched over the years – along with school education – have educated me quite well. Each horrific act that I learned also left its marks in my memory, and sometimes it feels like an endlessly heavy weight that rests on my soul.
I get sad, frustrated and extremely angry about what happened during these phases – though I keep my thoughts to myself when it happens. I’m still in deep shock when thinking about what was allowed to happen and the unbelievable amount of passiveness.
Not to mention the centralized effort the Holocaust was – so many people actively participating in the worst war crime in human history. Not just NSDAP and SS members, but also accountants, conductors, scientists, the military, and so many more.
Every level of society has failed. The resistance within the German population was only very small (e.g. Weiße Rose, Kreisauer Kreis, Georg Elser), even as it was clear that the war was lost. It perplexed me, and I doubt that will ever be gone.
It was, and still is, a vivid experience. I feel a strong inner pain when I see the recording of the mountains of corpses of extermination camps, the starved prisoners in the concentration cmaps, and all the destroyed cities across Europe.
The inability to do anything about suffering when I see it is extremely saddening and frustrating – even if it happened several decades ago. Considering the large amount of suffering that was caused tenfolds the inner pain I already feel. It is an overwhelming condition when it occurs, especially when it is something new that devastates me internally.
As mentioned before, I only write down how I feel and experienced it. I’m not here to arouse pity. Just a very personal perspective.
As difficult as it was sometimes, I’m still glad that I learned about it. While not everyone has to have an exact detailed picture of the past, acknowledging the cruelties and wrongdoings is important. Reconciliation is a long process, and it starts with accepting responsibility. The responsibility to prevent such things from happening again.
Prevention happens, as I mentioned in the beginning, with education in the schools. The public discourse, from the media to society and politicians, is another important factor.
It is a painful process regardless, but a necessary one. Accepting that the dark chapters exist, and confronting them, is a sign of strength. It means that you are willing to have a nuanced picture of your home country.
The Vergangeheitsbewältigung in Germany didn’t go smoothly, that needs to be said. In the post-war period there was a taboo in the beginning, only over time – around the 1960s – through questioning the roles of the parents and grandparents the icy crust was broken.
It took long, and there was also opposition, but it continued nevertheless.
How other nations do it is up to the people living there, of course. Some may be more willing to face their dark chapters, while others are slower to process it. And you may already have started with confronting your people with the dark side of their nation’s history. If so, or you intend to start learning about it, then I wish you the best of luck!
Hopefully, my personal story wasn’t entirely useless to you.