Visitors' programme "How Germany deals with the history of the 20th century | 2015

Germany 70 years after World War II

With the downfall of the Nazi regime in 1945, Germany took the opportunity to move towards democracy. The country has sought reconciliation with the victims, and aims to ensure that history is never repeated.

By Karina García

While there are countries that refuse to talk about their past, Germany is not one of them. It is important for the inhabitants of this European country that the world knows its history, not only as a step on the way to reconciliation with the victims of Nazism, but also as part of the effort to ensure that a dictatorship of this kind could never re-emerge.

Although the road has not been easy, there is clear progress. The magazine MAS! had the opportunity to visit the cities of  Berlin and Dresden, as part of the Federal Government’s Visitors Programme, "How Germany deals with the history of the 20th century, within the commemorations for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II", organised by the ifa and funded by the Federal Foreign Office.

Awareness of the past

According to Martina Fischer, of the Berghof Foundation, the nation has had to confront a number of challenges: both world wars, acceptance of the atrocities of the Nazi regime, reconciliation with the other countries and reunification. Despite the first steps being taken under outside pressure, such as the Nuremberg trials of 1945 and 1946, where officials and collaborators of Adolf Hitler were sentenced, Germans have endeavoured to be aware of their past and to fight against anti-semitism.

From being taboo subjects, National Socialism and the Holocaust were being studied critically in schools as part of German history by the end of the 1960s. The country has also been open to the construction of monuments honouring the victims of Nazism, as well as museums and documentations centres that objectively examine the crimes of the Third Reich in Europe, such as the Documentation Centre Nazi Party Rally Grounds, in Nuremberg; the Topography of Terror and the Deutsches Historisches Museum, both in Berlin.

For Helga Spranger, it is necessary to talk about the past in order to face the traumas of war. "It doesn’t matter if it takes days, months or years…it took some Germans 30 years to be aware of the past, and another 30 to talk about it. It is important to discuss it, in order to begin to heal", explains the psychotherapist.

An expert in this subject, she reports that at the end of World War II, there were many cases of depression, mental illness and psychosomatic disorders. The founder of Act-War-Children, she explains that "when these pathologies go untreated, they are passed on to the next generation; you end up with a sick society, repeating itself again and again".

A historical step: Merkel's speech to the Israeli Knesset

According to Spranger, becoming aware implies accepting responsibility for one’s actions, something Germany has done, through its political leaders as well. In a historic step in March 2008, Chancellor Angela Merkel went to the Israeli Parliament, where she asked forgiveness for Nazi barbarity. She went on to say: "The Holocaust fills us with shame…I bow my head in homage to the survivors".

For Fischer, although there is a reconciliation campaign which has been underway for some years and which has found political support, there is still some way to go. "We are in a process", she says, and recalls that Oskar Groening, now aged 93, is facing trial at the moment for his involvement in the administration of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Hanz-Georg Golz, of the Federal Agency for Public Education, believes that, despite the passage of time, Nazism "must always be a topic for discussion on the table". He maintains that "phrases such as 'never forget' or 'never again' are not enough. Policies are needed to prevent evil and promote good, next to policies that promote pluralism, not only in Germany but in every country".

Preserving the memory

Analysts and experts consider it vital for later generations to know what happened. “History tends to be forgotten….it is important to know where we came from, why we are here, and why our society is how it is now,” states the journalist Martin Bayer. "Today’s generations are not to blame for what happened in the past, but they do have the responsibility for building a better future”, says Robert Erb, director of the German-Polish Youth Office.

The road followed by Germany, now an economic and democratic power, celebrating 70 years since the end of World War II on 8 May, should be studied by other countries, whose history is marked by civil or military conflict at present, so they can try to heal the wounds of their people and move forward to a brighter horizon.