In Defense of the Germans
Or How Learning from Them Could Make the World a Better Place
Never has there been a more horrible crime in human history than the Holocaust. But it could not have happened in isolation, brought upon unsuspecting people by a murderous elite. It needed the conscious and negligent support of a whole population. Germans, as a people, didn’t let the Holocaust happen, they made it happen.
Imagine this being the legacy of the country you’re born into, say, twenty, thirty, even fifty years later. This is what it means to be German and what it will mean forever.
Imagine that. Then, tell me that Nazi joke again and see if we’re still laughing.
Austria was the first sovereign country the Nazis annexed, in 1938. We share the same language and a long history — we were the catholic part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.
Maybe because there was a referendum soon after the invasion, with a (Crimean-like) 99% vote in favor of our re-incorporation into the German Reich, maybe because Hitler was Austrian in the first place but probably because nobody in the world really cared, this was not yet the beginning of the Second World War.
Having lost the First World War at Germany’s side and with it our vast industrial and agricultural hinterland of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Ukraine, we were a small and poor country. Also, the national-socialist political ideas were well established here, too. Still, we could claim to have been Hitler’s first victim.
This would turn out to come in handy after the war.
Having been an actual part of Germany since one and a half years before the invasion of Poland and not only fighting for but actually being part of the German army, Austria was (like Germany) occupied by the French, British, American, and Soviet armies with the capital Vienna divided into four sectors just like Germany and Berlin, respectively, in 1945.
It took ten years of negotiations with the Soviets to regain our sovereignty (in exchange for “everlasting neutrality”, so, no NATO for us) and it probably only happened because, fortunately, Stalin died. Our main argument over those ten years was: we were not participants, no really, we were the First Victim.
Germany, of course, didn’t get off that hook. What used to be the Soviet sector soon became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a vassal state just like all the other sovereign European countries the Soviets had occupied while storming on Berlin in 1945. All those countries had been Nazi victims and so were the Balkans. In the GDR, and that’s important, the narrative went something like we’re the better Germany, the communist Germans, the political adversaries of the Nazis and, yes, their victims, too.
The first time I visited Yad Vashem I had the only breakdown in my life. I had separated from the group after taking the regular tour, wandering along by myself. Growing up in a liberal family and fairly educated, I knew about the Holocaust, I knew about the facts. I knew about Eichmann — who operated, tellingly, out of Vienna — and I knew about the Death Camps. I had recently seen Shoah by Claude Lanzmann and I thought I knew what to expect.
But nothing, nothing I knew could have prepared me for the Children’s Memorial. To this day, words fail me.
This was about thirty years ago but whenever I remember it I still feel like I’m there right now. I have often tried to describe it, recount it, to my family, my parents, my friends. But I just can’t.
Of the more than 200,000 Jews living in Vienna in 1938, 140,000 emigrated (many of them to France or the Netherlands from where they would still be deported later) and 65,000 were directly deported to the camps. Only 2,000 returned alive. In 1951, Vienna had 9,000 Jews.
Today, there are almost no witnesses to or participants in the Holocaust still alive. When I returned to Vienna from that first visit to Yad Vashem, there still were. They had re-built our country from the rubble, built our democratic institutions, they had been our teachers, our managers, our neighbors. They were the people.
A whole generation, the one I grew up with, the one I came out of, they were still there and alive.
We had learned about this in school. We knew the numbers. We knew it was the Nazis who ordered and organized it. But they never emphasized who really did it in the end. The Holocaust could never have succeed only by being ordered from above. But they wouldn’t talk about, they wouldn’t really acknowledge it. I don’t know, maybe they couldn’t.
Maybe they couldn’t because they remembered the children.
The Germans cannot not talk about it. To be sure, it took quite a while for them, too. After the war, Germany was rebuilt by the same people, exactly like everywhere else in Europe. They were silent. Muted by the horror of what they had done.
But eventually, the next generation had grown up. And ever since and with every generation that follows, they keep acknowledging what happened and they stand to their collective responsibility as a people.
They had no-one else to blame and so they don’t. They not only talk about it, they recognize it as their common heritage from which to grow. And they do.
In this, they’re quite unique, as we shall see.
At my second time at Yad Vashem I visited the exhibition about the Jewish progroms in Poland and all over Eastern Europe in the years after the war. Yes, that’s right. Even after the horrors of the Holocaust, there were progroms and killings of the few remaining or returning jews. The Germans were gone and with them most of their death camps.
The Holocaust had ended. The killings had not.
Over the years I have met many people from those countries. This was something they hadn’t learned in school. What they had learned was that it was the Germans who did it and no way, that can’t be real. What they had learned was that the Soviets had come to liberate them and purge their countries from the German collaborators and that all who were left were the good people.
Don’t you see, they said, it’s us who were the victims, too, not only the Jews. We didn’t run the death camps, did we? Millions of our population killed. On top of that, the communists for fifty years deprived us from everything you in the West were able to achieve after the war. Nobody but the Germans and the Russians to blame and fuck off, you’re just falling for a Jewish/American/CIA conspiracy anyway.
We are not to blame. We were the victims.
Now take a look at the world we live in. Every country, nation, people out there seems to live the same story: we are the victims.
We are not to blame
It’s always somebody other, it’s never us. Go ahead, check every single conflict, political, societal, or cultural and listen to the protagonists. They will always find somebody or something else that is to blame. It’s never us.
It’s relatively easy when it’s about external conflicts, that is why we have wars. But it’s the same with internal conflicts. The Chinese still can’t talk about the many, many millions who perished at the hands of Mao and his … wait, his what? Oh. They’re still around. So, well, yeah … the great famine, the cultural revolution, well that was, you know, you have to see this against the background of China standing all alone against the imperialist West and the corrupt Soviets, right? It wasn’t really us, right?
Or the Balkans. For 45 years they lived their phantasy of everything having been the fault of the Nazis. Until ’91 when the Soviet Union crumbled and they started a murderous war as if WWII hadn’t been enough already. And even today the common narrative seems to be that it’s all the fault of the US and the EU. But certainly not us.
Eastern Europe? Well yes, first the Nazis, then the Soviets, obviously. Now, Europe, Merkel and CIA. Us? Not so much. Well, of course, a bit. But that is because we never … whatever.
Why is that? Why is it so hard to take responsibility, to stop looking elsewhere for a scapegoat?
I found my personal answer in the Children’s Memorial. At that moment I felt like, I don’t know, like all those children had died on my own hand. It wasn’t just nameless Austrian SS or nameless, probably already dead, neighbors who couldn’t be bothered to speak up or to help who I could blame.
Just by heritage, I share, I acknowledge that responsibility. It’s never only them, it’s always also us. It always will be. And that fucking hurts.
That’s why it is so hard.
The Germans are burdened with the Holocaust and it is a burden they cannot share with anybody. They also cannot relativize it and they don’t. As a nation they have deeply and genuinely acknowledged that. They take responsibility, still, even though almost all directly involved are or will be dead soon.
This is what no other people in the world has been able to accomplish ever in history. And this, my friends, this is what we can learn from the Germans. And we should.
This is a personal story that has been brewing in my head for years. To be sure, German-bashing is sort of a cultural staple, the world over and also in Austria, my own country.
But at some point (during the financial crisis) I felt it had become out of bounds. I didn’t and still don’t agree with many of the economical decisions made by Germany. But depicting Angela Merkel with a Hitler mustache on newspaper covers? Seriously?
Also, obviously, to make my point I had to grossly generalize. This is not a history paper.
Of course there are many millions of people in all those countries — especially the educated younger — who have come to similar conclusions as I have.
But the national narratives mostly have not and that’s my point.
Finally, a word about the rise of right wing extremism in Germany:
This is a serious concern to be sure, but it actually confirms my take: Until the fall of the Berlin Wall in ’89, right wing activity in Germany was practically non-existent. There was a far right party, the NPD, hovering around 2 percent for years which they didn’t even bother to forbid as it obviously got no traction at all with the people. But then, unification. East Germany, the Soviet vassal state, had adopted the victim narrative after the war just like everybody else outside West Germany. And this is where the far right established themselves, in the provinces of the former GDR. And those provinces are the only where they are strong. In the rest of the country they’re something between 10% and 15% which is the lowest of all European countries.
Telling, isn’t it?