I always find it difficult to comment on past societal sins, more specifically how they should be dealt with moving forward. This is the case for many reasons. In the readings this week we explored several articles and a podcast concerning the effects and legacy of Nazism and its reconciliation. In the Podcast “Coming to terms with the Holocaust”, Prof. Mary Fulbrook discusses the legacy of Nazism and how it was dealt with after the war. At one point she delves into how lenient West Germany was with its treatment of former Nazis. She says that of the 200,000 to 1 million people who were involved in the death camps only 140,000 were investigated. Of those only around 6700 were taken to court, and then of those only 160 found guilty! This is obviously an insanely small number, and at first glance seems like a very unfair result, and you would not be wrong. It seems most of the country wanted to denounce this part of their past without the action to back that up. However, as we explored the other articles, we see the stories of Jews (Like Hugo Spiegel) returning to the towns that once kicked them out and taking back their lives. They do this over time by forcing people to come to terms with this and not hiding or backing down from what was done to them. They are the ones who show people that they are just like them and didn’t deserve what happened or how they were treated. So, on one side we have advocates of a top down judicial, punishment and retribution method. Then on the other we have community, historians, teachers, and other society groups who have worked together to rid themselves of these prejudices and attempt to bridge these gaps and fix these wrongs.
So, which is better? It seems nowadays that this is a very important question. As many of our western societies grapple with these questions and our own dark and embarrassing periods this is an important topic. On the one hand people should be punished for what they have done. However, when it is something as pervasive as Nazi Germany how is it possible to categorize levels of complicity within a society like that? It is impossible. There are some cases that will be black and white, however most will end up in a gray area. The problem with this method is it does not truly unify people and just ends up consuming and destroying more and more lives. This distanced and apathetic view of retribution does nothing for anyone. It does not replace family members, it does not heal, it does not give closure. Community and relationships do. It’s hard but it works, and even though Germany still struggles, no one can deny it has come a long way from where it was.
This shouldn’t be confused with simply forgetting. I find it’s easier to forget when you can cut something or someone out of your life. However when you’re forced to deal with someone and come to terms with how you have wronged them or they have wronged you, there is a chance for true reconciliation.