One of the most frequent comments I get during my work here at the Illinois Holocaust Museum is, how remarkably well Germany has faced its history. Hearing this so often made me wonder: is that actually the case?
To be frank, I’d had my problems with this statement before. The course of history shows that in fact, Germany hasn’t exactly been too keen on reflecting on National Socialism at many times. For instance, when in 1995, a team of researchers presented an exhibit on the crucial role of the Wehrmacht, the German Army, for the crimes committed during WW2, a lot of Germans were outraged, stating that their soldiers had not been responsible for any crimes, because those responsible for the Holocaust were the Nazi Elites and the SS. But not the ordinary soldiers. We all know that in fact, these ordinary soldiers were heavily involved in mass shootings and other crimes; after all, my great grandfather was one of them. But this is not the only instance that suggests a wrong, glamorized image of history existing in Germany, in which those responsible were always Hitler and his Elite, but never the ordinary citizens.
In a recent poll conducted by the University of Bielefeld, 18% said that their relatives had helped Jews in some way. 18%! That would add up to roughly 13 million Germans being heroes. Adding to that totally unrealistic number, only 18% admitted that their relatives had been perpetrators. An equal amount of German heroes and perpetrators? I don’t think this reflects historic facts in any way. As if these numbers weren’t shocking enough themselves, 54% percent said that their relatives had been victims of National Socialism. This poll, which is one of many with the same results, shows how many Germans have a falsified, glamorized image of their own relatives. It is, as researchers suggest, the knowledge of the cruelty of National Socialism that causes the wish to construct an alternative history in which your own family is not connected to the Holocaust. This, clearly is problematic and I believe that there are several reasons for it. However, this year made me reflect on one that I find to be of immense importance.
When we learn about the history of National Socialism, it remains abstract, unconnected to our own family’s history. An identification, if even, is only made with the victims. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that this identification with the victims is of great importance, making the incomprehensible number of 6 million victims conceivable by opposing it with the experience of a tangible individual. But, while being important, it is also the problematic expression of the will to be on the “right side” of
history. For a critical understanding of history, it is necessary to also take into account the story of the perpetrators, for which many Germans have a background in their family. But there is no such thing as an institutionalized, critical dialogue between today’s German youth and the generation of perpetrators. How can we say that we are dealing with our own history, if we ignore the fact that the very people we now call great grandparents, were responsible for the most atrocious crime ever committed just 70 years ago? The lack of this is a reason why so many people, including friends of mine, are unaware that their families were responsible for the crimes they hear about in school and therefore promotes a false, glorified image of one’s own history. While students should be encouraged to research their own family’s involvement, they’re not.
If we ever want to accomplish a truly critical awareness of our own history, we first must admit that it is in fact our own; that those responsible for the Holocaust were not just Hitler and his Elite, but ordinary citizens. People like my family.
My name is Balthasar Geib, I am 21 years old and I’m originally from Stuttgart, Germany. For the last year I’ve been working at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center as part of German program called “Action Reconciliation Service for a Peace”. After I visited Israel for the first time in 2014, I decided that I wanted to do more research on my own family’s involvement in the Holocaust. Finding out that I’m the descendent of perpetrators was one of the most important reasons why I decided to spend my gap year between high school and university working on the remembrance of the Holocaust. I know I’m not responsible for the crimes my ancestors committed. However, I do believe that I have a responsibility to make sure they will never be forgotten. In times like today, I believe this to be especially important. After all, it is on us to make sure that Never Again will evolve from being a promise to becoming a reality.