The Debate about Commemorating Nazi Germany: Memory, Responsibility, and Atonement
The issues of the commemoration of the Third Reich and the Holocaust have been widely debated in Germany since reunification. These debates point at different mentalities that the modern German culture has regarding the Nazi past. While some argue that Germany should come to terms with its history and fully face what happened during the Holocaust, others claim that too much focus on the past is damaging for the country’s image and argue that collective forgetting is necessary for national unity.
2. Public debates about the commemoration of the Third Reich
The public debates about how to deal with the memory of Nazi crimes started in Germany immediately after World War II. The Allies had different plans for postwar Germany. The Soviet Union wanted to completely de- Nazify the country, while the Western powers saw de-Nazification as unnecessary and thought it would be better to integrate German into the Western world. In practice, de-Nazification was only carried out to a limited extent, and many former Nazis were able to hold important positions in postwar Germany.
In the early 1950s, there were several high-profile trials of war criminals, such as the Doctors’ Trial and the Eichmann trial, which led to a public discussion about German responsibility for Nazi crimes. These debates were continued in the 1960s by a new generation of historians, such as Fritz Fischer, who argued that Germany was primarily responsible for causing World War II. This view was countered by conservative historians who claimed that Germany was not solely responsible for the war and that other countries were also to blame.
The debate about German responsibility for Nazi crimes intensified in the 1980s with the publication of Daniel Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Goldhagen argued that ordinary Germans were willing participants in Nazi crimes, and his book caused a public outcry in Germany. His thesis was strongly contested by other historians, and the debate about German responsibility for Nazi crimes continues to this day.
3. The Goldhaggen debate
The debate about German responsibility for Nazi crimes was reignited by Daniel Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, which was published in English in 1996 and in German in 1997. Goldhagen argued that ordinary Germans were willing participants in Nazi crimes and that anti-Semitism was deeply ingrained in German culture. His thesis caused a public outcry in Germany, and his book was sharply criticized by many historians.
Goldhagen’s thesis was strongly contested by historians such as Hans Mommsen and Ian Kershaw, who argued that Goldhagen overdramatized German responsibility for Nazi crimes and underestimated the role of coercion and peer pressure in causing ordinary Germans to participate in atrocities. The debate about German responsibility for Nazi crimes continues to this day, and Goldhagen’s book remains a controversial work.
4. The Wehrmacht Exhibition saga
The debate about how to deal with the memory of Nazi Germany was also fuelled by the controversy surrounding the Wehrmacht Exhibition, which opened in 1995 and ran until 1999. The exhibition was a critical examination of the role of the German military during World War II, and it included numerous photos and documents detailing war crimes committed by German soldiers. The exhibition caused a public outcry, and critics claimed that it was one-sided and downplayed the role of German soldiers in resisting Nazi tyranny.
The exhibition was shut down after a court ruling, but it was later revived and ran until 2003. The controversy surrounding the exhibition showed that there is still a lack of consensus about how to deal with the memory of Nazi Germany.
5. Government decision making
The debate about how to deal with the memory of Nazi Germany has also been shaped by government decision making. In 2000, the German government decided to build a national memorial to the victims of Nazi crimes, which was opened in 2005. The memorial has been criticized for its abstract design and for its location in a busy part of Berlin. Some have also claimed that the memorial downplays German responsibility for Nazi crimes.
In 2006, the German government also decided to build a Holocaust museum in Berlin. The museum is currently under construction, and it is scheduled to open in 2015. The museum will be located near the site of the former concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, and it will include exhibitions on the persecution and murder of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and other groups during the Holocaust.
6. Moral reflections in Germany
The debate about how to deal with the memory of Nazi Germany has also led to moral reflections in Germany. In recent years, there have been a number of high-profile cases of Germans who have been accused of participating in Nazi crimes. These cases have led to a public discussion about whether or not it is possible for Germans to atone for their ancestors’ crimes.
Some argue that it is not possible for Germans to atone for Nazi crimes because they were not personally responsible for them. Others argue that Germans can and should atone for their ancestors’ crimes by educating themselves about the Holocaust and by working to combat racism and prejudice in society.
The debate about how to deal with the memory of Nazi Germany is ongoing, and there is still no consensus about how to appropriately commemorate the victims of Nazi crimes. The different positions in the debate reflect different mentalities towards the Nazi past, and these mentalities are shaped by factors such as government decision making, historical interpretations, and personal experiences. As long as there is no consensus about how to deal with the memory of Nazi Germany, these debates are likely to continue.