Overwhelming Presence of Collective Memory

June 5, 2010

Over the course of this trip, an ever present theme is coming to terms with the past alongside the concept of collective memory.  As we’ve gone through the stages of deconstructing the history of Germany, I have developed an ever deeper sense of empathy for the people here.  As we have focused on two of the darker periods of the more recent German past, which include Hitler’s rise to power and World War II as well as the aftermath of World War II during the Cold War, a wide range of mixed emotions overwhelms me; at times anger – anger that the German people stood by as some of these great horrors transpired and that other nations of the world almost heartlessly tore this country in two; sadness – that such a great and and intelligent nation was brought to its knees by such a troubled and tumultuous past; compassion – for the scars of the past weigh so heavily on the hearts and minds of these people; respect  – to witness the great sense of responsibility and resolve that Germans now pursue in their quest to honor victims, prevent any semblance of recurrence of the crimes of the past.  More than once I have found myself brought to tears – as we have toured museums, camps, prisons, monuments, and piecemeal remnants of the past – to collect these memories within my own emotional, logical, and analytical consciousness, it becomes increasingly more difficult to put all the pieces together and come to a conclusive frame of reference.

Coming from a German-Polish background myself, I have gained a much deeper understanding of why it was that my grandmother would never discuss or reflect upon her German heritage – where would one begin?  How does one even begin to explain or justify the multitude of horrors which transpired?  After the loss of two World Wars, one of the greatest historical atrocities of modern history, and a nation divided for almost 50 years by the Cold War, to reflect on the role that she and other family members may have played as history unfolded is possibly more than one could bear with such little resolution available in her lifetime (she passed away in 1988, a little over a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall).  As questions and confusion swirl around within me, I find myself reaching for more understanding through conversation with German people (thankfully, most Germans speak English, though almost all insist their English isn’t very good – if they only knew that they practically all speak better english than most Americans!) and have found that most people are happy to sit and openly and honestly banter about these things with me.

A few nights ago, I had a long discussion with a young German man who was also staying at our hostel, in which we discussed some of the psychological difficulties that come with being a German.  Bits and pieces of the conversation gave great insight into the mixed emotions that people here, even young people generations removed from World War II and with basically no direct memory of a divided Germany.  He recalled being harassed and made fun when he was younger for his Jewish looking nose (though he has no Jewish heritage and even the Third Reich was not able to definitively identify strictly Jewish physical features); he spoke with pride of his grandfather who was per his recollection a warm and good man but who served Hitler’s Germany in WWII as a member of the military (though through his words of pride and reverence he openly began to cry tears of an assumed an un-erasable shame);  and he had an almost formidable anger when he reflected upon a lifetime of schooling in which he was taught incessantly of the horrors of German history an his responsibility to deal with them as a German citizen.  There was a deep sadness which emanated from him as he disclosed his lack of place in the Germany of now – the disassociation which exists for him within his own historical identity is palpable and I can’t help but wonder if this is, for all intents and purposes, a society dealing with post traumatic stress disorder on a day-to-day basis.

It is clear that the German people have made every effort, as time has passed, to emotionally and logically deal with and understand what has transpired.  They are committed to creating a presence of recognition, knowledge, memory, and healing in an attempt to transcend a past which tarnishes their history, heart, and soul.  Within this opening, I have borne witness to a people which grapple with the set-in-stone confines of their past, in a way that we as Americans never have.  Through the course of this experience, I have wondered if part of the reason the Germans deal with their history in such a different way, with much more humility and responsibility, has to do with losing World War II.  A few key historical factors which come into play concerning areas of American history which we do not seem to deal with appropriately include the annihilation of the Native Americans, the crime of slavery imposed upon African Americans, as well as the use of atomic weapons on Japan.  Even if one could somehow write off the decimation of the American Indian population as just one example in a long line of imperialist tendencies present on a global scale throughout history and slavery as the carry-over of a societal and cultural norm of the time, the American use of atomic weapons on Japan is too historically recent and seemingly much too unnecessary to dismiss  with such little ownership.  Please be clear that I do believe all three of these instances to be horrible crimes against humanity that need to be dealt with but it seems more relevant to me to compare crimes within the confines of war with other crimes having a similar point of reference which is why I believe that it makes more sense to compare american actions in WWII with those of Germany.

I recently watched the movie The Fog of War, which is a historical documentary of the wars of his times as remembered by Robert MacNamara.

Movie - Fog of War

Often disturbing and emotive, a piece of the film which really stuck with me was a more honest moment in which he concludes that had the America not won WWII, he would have (and in his own opinion – should have) been found guilty of war crimes concerning his involvement in the atrocities doled out to Japan during those times.  Yet, as a nation, we remember WWII as a great victory and a culminating point in our rise to power as a world leader.  It is almost as if by winning and having the advantage of choosing our own recollective perspective of history, we have been able to wash away sins that we would have otherwise been held accountable.  In a way, it is almost as if we lack a reflective soul in our pursuit of progress, power, and economic dominance at seemingly any cost.

When posed with the question “Do you feel a sense of accountability for what happened?”, the response which is heard most often from the lips of Germans is “I do not feel a sense of accountability, for it was not me, but I do feel a sense of responsibility in making sure the crimes of the past, the lessons we have learned from our history, will never be repeated”.

Omanu at the Jewish Memorial

But even in the realization of responsibility, as Omanu so succinctly pointed out, genocide still happens right now in parts of this world; prison camps still utilize torture and murder as a means to an end; and weapons, bombs, and war still tear apart lives, families, and peoples all over the globe.  While Germans spend an impressive amount of time and money honoring and remembering the past through memorials, museums, and the like, the atrocities that humans beget upon other humans still persists – and these are things that we must all deal with, all take responsibility for, and all do what we can to stop.  How will history continue to unfold, how will we be remembered – in both our actions and inactions, and how will we respond if ever called upon to account for our own crimes against humanity of  both past and present?


One comment

  1. I just came back from a memorial service, honoring the victims of the Srebrenica massacre. As far as I remember (I was in my mid 20’s when it happened), few Germans (including me) stood up and demanded that Western countries should stop Serbian aggression against the Muslim population in its track. So, what have we learned from our past? Surprisingly little, I would say.

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