Let’s Talk About the Holocaust

OK, let’s bite the bullet. Let’s talk about the Holocaust. Let me preface this by saying that the genocide of Jews perpetrated by the Nazis in the name of Germany is a crime and a tragedy of gigantic proportions and nothing of what follows is intended to take away from that. The pain and loss of that mass murder is borne primarily by the victims and their families and this is first and paramount in the memory and understanding of those events.

The killing of millions of innocent people by the Nazi death machine casts a long shadow and has had a huge impact on much beyond the story of Jewish people. I am tempted to say it has affected everything, but perhaps it is more accurate to say it has had far reaching effects in Western politics and culture. I believe that everyone should be aware of that history, but every German absolutely must. It is really impossible to understand post-war Europe without understanding something of the Holocaust. If you are German you are inevitably confronted with this history. If you live abroad then this is one of the primary facts that people associate with your country. If you live in Germany then there is plenty in education and the media to tell you about and remind you of the Holocaust. The days of ignoring the Nazi past came to an end in 1979, the year I happened to be back in Germany for my gap year. The Broadcast of an American TV series about the genocide, called Holocaust, opened the floodgates and that year the media were full of reports, pictures and discussions of it. It was the post-war generation waking up to what had really happened and being appalled and shocked. 

The thing is that the Shoa, as Jews often call it, is really difficult to comprehend, even if you are prepared to face up to it. It is harder if you are German, because it inevitably makes you feel guilt by association. The mere facts of it defy one’s imagination. How does one murder six million men women and children? That’s a huge city of people. How can that happen? How could people take part in this? How could people want this? How could people accept this? The more you think about it, the more impossible it seems. And yet it happened. There are Holocaust denyers who would prefer to believe that it is simply not true. I can see why they would prefer to believe that, but they are wrong. One of the dreadful things to come to terms with (beyond the tragedy itself) is that it was done by people like us. Firstly, I want to say that by that I mean everybody. For anyone to think that this was done by people who were fundamentally different to themselves, is a cop-out. Prejudice and hatred can exist everywhere, as well as elements of the suffocating weave of conformism, bureaucracy, authoritarianism and violence that made it possible. But it all came together in a perfect storm in Germany in WWII. There have been other genocides and mass murders. Some probably bigger. But the Nazi Holocaust is the best documented and the most inescapeable, and the most chilling. It is of course least escapeable if you are German. I am sure that for people from other countries there is a sense of distancing themselves from the crimes when they watch a film about them because, well this is something the Germans did, other people, not us. We don’t have that luxury. Of course, there are Germans who tell you that this is nothing to do with them… a long time ago, they had nothing to do with it. They are wrong. It was done in our name, it happened in our culture, we bear the legacy. 

And just as with African slavery in the New World, the present day effects and connections with the Holocaust can be found in a myriad of situations. Whether you work for a company that profited, or you look at artwork that was stolen, or live in a street where the Jewish presence was erased, or you are linked to people who lived through that time, or died in it, you are connected to the Holocaust. Once you have accepted that you have to face this calamity as a German it has profound repercussions in your sense of self. It makes it impossible to simply be ‘proud to be German’, in the way that other people casually pat themselves on the back for their accident of birth. If I am going to bask in the glow of great Germans like Beethoven and Kant, do I not also have to acknowledge a connection to Himmler and Mengele? If I am going to claim some credit for the achievements of the Reformation or of the Economic Miracle after the War, do I not also have take some of the blame for the inhumanity of the death camps?

One response to this is to dissociate yourself from your identity, and many postwar Germans tried to do this. I have met many abroad who after only a few months in another country claim to be forgetting their fluency in German. They try to blend in as much as possible, they don’t associate with their compatriots. Even in Germany these Germans try to be as un-German as possible, by identifying primarily with other cultures. I have great sympathy with this stance, and so some extent I share it. But, unfortunately, I also believe that it is problematic and fundamentally dishonest. It is not just that when you try to make other people believe that you are not really German, you are lying to them, but you are also lying to yourself. There is a German saying that ‘you cannot jump over your own shadow’. And you cannot simply renounce your heritage, no matter how uncomfortable it is, because it is part of you.