Informational tour "Germany’s dealings with the history of the 20th century" | 2015

Scars of War

70 years after, Germany adresses its responsibility in the barbabisch of Second World War
Von Roberto Pombo, director general of El Tiempo

The director of El Tiempo attended events in Germany commemorating the end of the War in May 1945, and took part in discussions on this subject with politicians and academics.

Germany: defeat and liberation

Defeat. Liberation. New beginnings. These three simple, but powerful concepts were chosen by the authorities of the Museum of German History as the title for the exhibition marking 70 years since the end of the Second World War. These three words encapsulate all the barbarism, injustice, death, defeat, the burden of historical sin and the difficulty felt by the people of Germany facing the future with the consciousness of having perpetrated, by the hand of Nazism, what could be the greatest atrocity of human history:  the holocaust.

The whole of Germany is a museum. In the streets and parks of every city there are exhibitions, sculptures evoking incidents of violence, pain and death; as well as symbols of unity and reconciliation, because along with the memory of the end of the Second World War goes that of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. War, defeat, the division of Germany at the hands of the United States and the Soviet Union, the 45-year Cold War and finally joint discussions about reunification and the past, present and future.

And here we are here in Berlin to commemorate the end of the war, at the invitation of the German government to EL TIEMPO. We are attending events recalling June 1945, and taking part in discussions among politicians, academics, sociologists, psychologists and historians about Germany, 70 years after the end of the war.

From the start it is clear that the Germans want to hide nothing. In all the exhibitions and meetings about the role of German Nazism during those years, no detail is spared of the atrocities committed. Here are figures (and photographs!) of the trains crammed with terrified prisoners en route to the extermination camps, explanations of the methods of humiliation and annihilation, and the possible reasons for choosing such procedures. Not one question goes unanswered or ignored, no matter how aggressively phrased, all are given a rational and calm response based - we are in Germany – on accurate and verifiable data. It's about confronting the past, looking the beast straight in the eyes.

Sixty million dead, of whom 10 million fell on German soil, were the focus of the commemoration. These are the victims. The Jewish citizens literally piled up, first enslaved then exterminated, simply for being Jews. But also to the fore in this historical inventory were the millions of Germans imprisoned and murdered for being homosexuals, gypsies, communists, political opponents of the regime and mentally ill; and prisoners of war from the Russian army, millions of whom suffered the same fate. The visit to the concentration and extermination camp of Sachsenhausen, a vast military complex on the outskirts of Berlin, built on the orders of Heinrich Himmler in 1936, is a shocking experience, illustrating in minute detail the torture and humiliation, execution by firing squad, beatings, deaths by poisoning or in the gas chambers, or by literally frying to death in the cremation ovens. "One of the saddest things of the military story of National Socialism in the war is that the only real efficiency demonstrated was applied to the mass murder of defenceless and innocent people", commented Hans-Georg Golz, the director of the German Federal Agency for Public Education. And he added: "Germany decided to remember its crimes as a way of accepting its own past". The record of this huge number of victims is present everywhere. There are entire museums full of photographs and information, commemorative plaques on the walls of iconic buildings or embedded in the pavement in front of houses, on which family members commemorate their dead; there are television programmes and films, published accounts, and so on. It’s impossible to overlook the victims of Nazism; they are seen on all sides. But in this society, it is not just those who suffered the horrors of Hitler's rule who should be considered as victims.

The social catharsis experienced by Germans as perpetrators – which many consider only began in 1968 as part of the widespread questioning around the world by the post-war generation – has been a very heavy burden borne by all members of society since it involved accepting blame proper to the nation, but foreign to them as individuals. "In a way," stated the Berlin historian Martin Bayer, "all Germans are victims". And Doctor Helga Spranger, neurologist and psychiatrist who herself was born in a concentration camp, said:  "All Germans are affected by this violent past, but the children of the victims feel better about it than do the children of the perpetrators."

And perhaps for that reason, in the commemorations for the end of the war, they did not overlook paying homage to the city of Dresden, which was bombed almost to oblivion by the allies and finally turned into the symbol of the Germans as victims. There are some powerful exhibitions and talks commemorating the bombing of June 1945, when the war was practically over, and four waves of warplanes dropped 4 thousand tonnes of bombs on the city, hitting military and civilian targets indiscriminately. Around 35,000 people died. Dresden was famous from the beginning of the last century for its beauty and the boldness of its architecture, so much so that it held an international exhibition in 1920 entitled 'Dresden, the city of the future'. But then came the economic crisis, Nazism, the burning of books and repression. And of course, the war. However, the full harshness of the conflict did not reach Dresden since its geographical location, far from the coast, meant that the British Air Force planes did not have enough fuel to reach the city, carry out air strikes and return to England. So next to feeling beautiful, the city felt safe. "From here, we wept over the terrible bombings on Guernica and London; we did not suspect then that our city would become the Guernica of 1945", said Colonel Doctor Matthias Rogg, director of the Museum of Military History in the city. Dresden was bombed as a simple act of retaliation against the Germans, when the outcome of the war was already determined militarily, and its end was imminent. An English historian among our group of guests, Professor James Taylor, director of the Imperial War Museum in London, commented on this: "The script of Great Britain's participation in the Second World War seems to be perfectly written, except for the bombing of this city". The rebuilding of Dresden also became an era of reflection and optimism, of tragedy and hope.

German historians are deeply concerned to observe that the barbarous campaign by Adolf Hitler and his friends received overwhelming support from the people:  the Nazi party managed to gain eight million card-carrying members. This popularity is explained by the Messianic message of Nazism to a people badly wounded and depressed after the First World War, living with the intolerable terms imposed by the Treaty of Versailles and in a very precarious economic situation. The worry of those addressing this subject now is the dangerous similarity to the present day: Europe is in economic crisis, there is a lack of leadership by the political parties and a rise in neo-Nazi type movements, characteristically xenophobic, racist, rabidly anti-Muslim and opposed to the waves of migration from the third world. One example by way of illustration:  in Dresden, at the beginning of this year, a very well-supported demonstration was held by the PEGIDA group, European Patriots against Islamization of the West, an organisation which already is showing worrying signs of becoming a political party.

All these points were expressed in the fine, brilliantly presented key speech given by Doctor Heinrich Winkler, the famous German historian invited to speak at the official event commemorating the end of the war in the beautiful Reichstag building in Berlin. In his speech, Dr Winkler made some profound comments on the holocaust, as the most important event in the history of Germany in the 20th century; he reflected seriously on the failure of Germany, even today, to complete the process of confronting its past; he analysed the reasons why Nazi actions should not be an argument for Germany to remain at the margins of the most important decisions to be made in today's world any more, and he referred to what future generations of Germans must do with regard to the past. "No-one expects future generations to feel responsible for deeds committed in the name of Germany before they were born," said Winkler.  "But there is a need to confront the past as a nation, since the children of the victims will not allow it to be forgotten".

For me, when summarising this experience in Germany marking 70 years since the end of the war, the following quotations offered by Doctor Winkler from two great German writers drew my attention. Both phrases describe perfectly the air that we breathe today. One is from Heinrich Böll: "When I knew the war had ended, I also knew that this war would never really end while a single bleeding wound remained." And another from Thomas Mann, written in June 1945: "It will take a long time for Germany to find its humanity again". It is possible that this moment has already arrived."

El Tiembo

Newspaper article in the original

Roberto Pombo: Alemania. Derrota y liberación. – In: El Tiempo, 12 de agosto de 2015