How Germany deals with her past - and what other countries can learn
Illustration: Gabriella Nero

Every story has two sides to it – but all too often only one of them is told. As the recent Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted, this is often the side of the oppressors. It has become crystal clear that many countries have not dealt well with their problematic history but have hidden and obscured it. There is one country from which they can learn: Germany. 

Germany’s past is incredibly difficult and problematic – the consequences of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power are undoubtedly grievous. There is no way in which the events of the Third Reich can ever be justified, but importantly the country does not try to do so. Instead, the focus is on awareness, processing and urging vigilance. The Third Reich is not seen as a positive, prideful part of German history, nor is it ignored and diminished. 

‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ is a German word for the effort to overcome history – coming to terms with what happened whilst not forgetting. The core idea behind this approach can be summed up using the words of George Santayana: ‘Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.’ In the immediate aftermath of the war, the allied powers helped this immensely by ‘de-nazifying’ Germany, which included removing those with Nazi links from power and prosecuting those who had been involved in the war crimes and atrocities. But this was only the beginning of a long-term strive for justice.

Children learn about the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany before entering secondary school and from the start, the topic is not taken lightly. Events and numbers aren’t obscured, graphic images are shown, documentaries are presented that include emotional interviews with survivors of the Holocaust. Education becomes more intense as students get older, including tours of concentration camps, sometimes even overnight stays. The goal is to make students understand what happened, how it happened and that they should do everything in their power to make sure nothing like it ever happens again. 

Hitler and the Third Reich are also publicly reprimanded through awareness projects and memorials. The famous Holocaust memorial in Berlin, consisting of 2711 concrete slabs, is referred to as a ‘Mahnmal’ rather than a ‘Denkmal’. Whilst the difference between the two does not translate into English, in German there is a stark contrast. A ‘Mahnmal’ serves as a warning, it has the purpose to reprimand the past, not celebrate it. A ‘Denkmal’ can be seen more as a classical monument or memorial – a way to remember someone or something in a positive way. This distinction can also be felt on site – the holocaust memorial has a very eerie, heavy and depressing feel to it. Walking in between the concrete slabs will make you quiet and thoughtful, reflecting on just how immense the scale of the Holocaust was. 

Many other countries have long lost the memories of their problematic history. Or at least, they do not approach it as critically and openly. In the UK for example, Churchill is commonly seen as a hero figure, the man who defeated Hitler and crafted lasting peace and democracy across Europe. That he was also an outspoken racist is often conveniently overlooked. Similarly, the UK’s brutal colonial past is not seen as an issue by many Britons – instead, feelings of national pride dominate. Britain is still seen as deserving of an empire by many. However, few are aware of the long-term consequences it caused – tensions and aggression between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan today can partially be attributed to a history of British involvement in the region. 

In the US, the problem is even bigger – as the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted. Racism is deeply ingrained in society and has been ever since the early stages of the US as a country. There has been little to no work to process the civil war, confederacy or slavery. Instead, those who did wrong are praised and remembered through public holidays, memorials and President Trump himself. 

Only now, because of the Black Lives Matter movement and the awareness it is raising, do people begin to realise the full extent of the issue. Only now are people becoming educated about the past and present of racism. Only now are they recognising and criticising systemic issues. This is simply too late – to tackle problems like social inequality and racism in society and to move away from these issues, everyone needs to be more educated and aware. Before policemen kill innocent black citizens. 

Of course, even with increased education and awareness racism will always exist in some form. But, as the example of Germany shows – if you want to avoid a repetition of past atrocities, you cannot deny them. Making an entire country rethink its history and making cultural changes is a long and difficult process. Many will need to unlearn what they have believed in for decades and there will always be resistance – no one really wants to accept the horrible things the country they love and call home has done. But is there really a choice anymore? Considering recent events and the extent of racism and discrimination it does not seem like it. 

Education, media and political rhetoric will play a major role in this – after all, people believe what they hear from sources they trust. Individuals, organisations and whole countries will need to take a long hard look at themselves to tackle systemic issues. Children need to be taught better in schools, racist and colonial pasts need to be commemorated in a more critical way. It is not about erasing history; it is about framing it. An excellent example of this is the toppled statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol – which will now be displayed in a museum, alongside the placards of the Black Lives Matter protest. This reflects the German idea of a ‘Mahnmal’ in place of a ‘Denkmal’ and there are certainly ways in which the problematic histories of other countries can become public warnings rather than public celebrations. 

All of this will of course take time – but as a new generation of leaders emerges, there is an opportunity for change. Society is slowly but surely shifting, now it must take tangible action. Whether that is through reformed lesson plans and education systems, electing new politicians, the production of new entertainment media, news organisations focusing on showing all perspectives, the contextualisation of memorials or the demand for a ‘Mahnmal’ to commemorate past events does not matter hugely.

If current leaders have not created change, raised awareness and been self-critical so far, it is unlikely this will change without pressure from the voter base. If inspiration is needed for demands to be made, then Germany will be a good example and hopefully inspire a new approach to acknowledging and processing history.