Reckoning with the Past in Postwar Germany

M. Guthrie

The question as to how to reckon with one’s past has recently come to the forefront of discussion here in Canada. With last week marking the recognition of the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, Canadians were asked to consider the nation’s past and its treatment of Indigenous peoples. For this reason, I feel that it is not beyond the realm of imagination to consider how Germans have dealt with their own complex historical past. As noted in this week’s articles, responses to such a history can be and were quite varied. I felt this was exemplified well in Fulbrook’s chapters “Voices of Victims” and “Discomfort Zones,” in which she explored the responses of both victims and perpetrators in postwar Germany (and throughout Europe in general).

I was intrigued by this creation and implementation of narratives in which participation or levels of culpability were downplayed. Long have we heard speculation into what people knew about the Holocaust while it was happening, however Fulbrook begs the question: what exactly did these individuals do about it? The assumption of ignorance has continued far too long, and we now know that people did in fact have some semblance as to what was happening to the Jewish population during the period. Some even having significant involvement, such as the example of Dr. Münch (Fulbrook, 419). Rather these arguments of ignorance as innocence (or simply choosing not to speak at all) seems to have been explicitly designed as a kind of post-war protectionary measure for those involved – removing potential legal culpability or social repercussions. Additionally, I found this particularly reprehensible when contrasted with the accounts of those for whom the label of survivor meant “a sense of being forever different,” not to mention staggering trauma and survivor’s guilt experienced. (Fulbrook, 365).

However, there is little argument that the creation and upholding of these historical narratives has had direct implications on the attitudes held by the present state. While post-war responses in Germany have attempted to quell Nazism, there has likewise been the adoption of what Sollors terms “American occupation policies,” leading what some may perceive as the alienation of the unified German character (153). With the (re)emergence of fascism and alt-right movements becoming increasingly popular, it is important that we consider how historical narratives have served in furthering the “growing skepticism about democracy and the future of European integration,” at times providing fuel to the fascist flame (Häberlen, 123).

Works Cited

Mary Fulbrook, “Discomfort Zones” in Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice (Oxford University Press, 2018), pp: 404-423.

Mary Fulbrook “Voices of the Victims” in Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice (Oxford University Press, 2018), pp: 361-377.

W. Sollors, “Everybody Gets Fragebogened Sooner or Later’: The Denazification Questionnaire as Cultural Text.” German Life & Letters. Vol 71, Issue 2 (2018): 139-153.

Joachim Häberlen, “(Not) Narrating the History of the Federal Republic: Reflections on the Place of the New Left in West German History and Historiography” Central European History Vol. 52, Issue 1 (March 2019): 107-124.

One Reply to “Reckoning with the Past in Postwar Germany”

  1. The comparison of postwar Germany and present day Canada is extremely apt, and I think that narratives about what those involved in the residential school system (and the treatment of First Nations Peoples in general) knew or didn’t know is just as pressing a question is what Fullbrook brings up in her writing.

    What does this do for us as a population trying to come to terms with what occurred to know whether an individual did or didn’t know? Does individual inaction drive a society that commits these atrocities, or does the society allow for people to say “well it isn’t an atrocity” until they face a huge shift in the beliefs of the society they are in and suddenly their inaction is morally reprehensible.

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