Rememberance and Coming to Terms

June 23, 2010

Like an individual who reflects upon the events in their life, every society must make decisions about how they will remember and come to term with events in its history. All societies experience trauma, be it national socialism in Germany, or the extermination of natives who occupied the North American continent prior to the arrival of Eurpoean colonists as a result of the westward expansion of American settlers. These types histories are traumatic for any society, and like trauma in an individuals life understanding is a never ending process, it is not easy, and a final outcome can never be decided.

This continual process to understand collective history is a process that is complicated by the realities of the human existence. Questions that any society must look to include, but are certainly not limited to the fact that people experience and remember events differently, people have differing emotions about experiences related to those events, and as a result of those realities, defining what individuals shall be viewed victims and perpetrator is a process, that despite the common rhetoric of easily definable good and evil, is never cut and dry.
The difficulty of defining perpetrator and victim can be illustrated by looking at Germany and the holocaust the took place under National Socialism. An important question that must be asked is where the German people themselves victims of Hitler; did they live in so much fear that they where unable to speak out even if they would have wanted to. About the holocaust there can be little doubt that Hitler and his Nazi government directly formulated and executed the genocidal policies of the holocaust. However, are these levels of guilt really sufficient to explain the holocaust? It could surely not have happened if only Hitler and the Government wanted wished it. The sheer magnitude of the holocaust required more than just the state apparatus and the individuals within it–at a minimum it required the racism already present within German culture before Hitler came to power, and finally the passive acquiescence of the German people. Admittedly, not everyone in Germany was anti-Semitic, but as a German citizen after WWII, such does not release them from their countries collective history. Accepting this means that responsibility for the holocaust cannot lay with just single individuals or the state, in the case of the holocaust, responsibility must lie with the collective whole of society, to look at it any other way only divests responsibility from the people who are responsible for placing such individuals in a position where they would form such a horrendous government.

Beyond this difficulty in defining who will be viewed as the victims and who will be viewed as the perpetrator, coming to terms with societal trauma is difficult because different individuals experienced events differently. For instance, a Jew who experienced increasing levels of persecution in the years following Hitler’s election to chancellor, and a political prisoner who was victimized in the same concentration or extermination camp, though experiencing some of the same atrocities, may view them and their proper remembrance very differently. A question that arises here is does the political prisoner who initially supported Hitler but alter fell into disfavor deserve the same memorialization in Germany as the Jew who in no way supported Hitler and was a member of his largest victim group? Another controversy along these lines was explained and discussed with our class at The Memorial for The Murdered Jews of Europe. Though it was decided in the end that this memorial would commemorate only the Jews murdered throughout Europe, initially questions centered around if doing such a thing put certain victims on a level above other victims. In fact, though I cannot know remember who, one individual in our class inquired of our tour guide if only memorializing Jews at one of Germany’s main holocaust memorial was no different than separating and identifying the victims with individual labels just like Hitler did with the multi colored triangles prisoners whore on their clothing in the camps.
As was apparent from each of the memorial sites we visited in Germany, memory and coming to terms with societal trauma is not easy. However, though society can never reach an end point to this process, keeping the discussion alive is a benefit. Though much controversy accompanied many of the sites we visited in Germany, each controversy kept alive the discussion that the atrocities committed under national socialism must be kept alive.


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