Visitors' programme "How Germany deals with the history of the 20th century on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II" | May 2015, Berlin/Dresden

An example for everyone

Participants' feedback. By Sebastian Blottner

70 years after the end of World War II and of the National Socialist regime in Germany, journalists, specialists from museums, lecturers, and university professors got to know the commemorative culture in contemporary Germany. Whether it was the official hour of commemoration at the Deutsche Bundestag, the ceremony celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the opening of the Holocaust Memorial in the capital city, a guided city tour through the "living museum of Berlin" – the program offered a plethora of excellent opportunities to experience how Germans are dealing with their own history. This was reflected in the positive to euphoric feedback from the participants, from an academic or journalistic background.

"I was fascinated with the measures that have been taken in the education, in artistic programs but also at the political level, how the government delegated powers to civil society in order to dealing with the past," said Remzije Istrefi Peci, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Priština.

Many participants pointed out how much they liked the balance and the structure of the subjects the program covered. "The program is very well prepared because it focused on various topics and various angles", said historian Bojan Godesa from the Institute of Contemporary History in Slovenia. The historian Yih-fen Hua from the National Taiwan University expressed the same sentiment: "I think it was a very good tour for such a variety of people, I think it has been quite difficult to compose such a program". Many of the participants were able to adopt direct approaches for the work in their own home countries.

The significance of the exchange among the participants themselves can hardly be underestimated. "I was gladly surprised with the group. Because we all have problems similar to Germany in our own countries, but obviously in a different way. In the case of Colombia with a divided society and civil war. I think the element of the discussion in Germany seventy years after the war are the same that we need to have. To deal with our thoughts, our regrets, with our country. To build one same country with people that think exactly the opposite," commented Roberto Pombo Holguin, Director General of the publisher of El Tiempo newspaper in Colombia.

"In Hungary there is no minimal consensus about what is our history, our identity, our destiny"

The question which event was of the greatest interest to the group depended on individual participants’ prior knowledge and professional background. Nonetheless, the hour of commemoration at the Bundestag and the trip to Dresden apparently left many participants with particularly deep impressions. "I was really impressed by the commemoration ceremony in the Bundestag and I asked myself, would it be possible in Hungary? No. In Hungary there is no minimal consensus about what is our history, our identity, our destiny," said György Csepeli, social psychologist and Professor of Sociology at the Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest. Alexandr Kaminsky, journalist from Kazakhstan also showed his fascination: "I could see that the German society and government pay huge attention to the commemoration. Sometimes it’s heavy, sometimes it’s unpleasant, but nevertheless it’s well done". Elvis Muraranganda, journalist at the Namibian Sun was also impressed by the visit to the Dresden Panometer exhibiting a large-scale panoramic view of the bombed baroque city in 1945: "I stood there forever and I got absorbed."

Societal consensus and a commemorative culture cannot be taken for granted

One of the most important moments of revelation resulted from the fact presented extensively at almost every meeting and dialogue: that the societal consensus and the presentable commemorative culture in Germany today were by no means to be taken for granted but rather the result of lengthy, sometimes painful, and highly controversial processes and that in some cases public discussions are still on-going to the present day. This enabled some participants to draw unexpected direct parallels to developments in their home countries. "Before coming here, I had a very superficial view. I thought from the very beginning there has been this culture of commemoration, but after participating in this program I learned, that it was a very long learning process of the German society and every part of the German society tried really hard. A lot of people in Korea want to learn from the German model and want to copy it. I learned that if we really want to do this our whole society has to try harder", said Min Hee Park, editor of the Hankyoreh daily newspaper in South Korea.

"Germany has the courage to confront its past and to develop a dialogue"

The Greek journalist Anastasios Kostopoulos from the Efimerida ton Syntakton newspaper stressed the fact that debates were allowed, and that was the only way to enable a way forward from the status quo: "The most important thing for me was that I could be in touch with the debate - or more accurately: the debates - that are going on in Germany over its past. Most interesting is, that the German society has developed controvers opinions. Of course I can disagree on some of these opinions but what is more important is the debate itself, the fact that Germany has the courage to confront its past and to develop a dialogue."

The overall impression the program left with the participants can be described as vivid – which had to do with the commemoration ceremonies and the supporting cultural program in particular. No scholarly discussion round, for example, would have been a substitute for the visit to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, the memorial concert of the international Philharmonic of Nations, including the hand-shake between Russian and Ukrainian members of the Philharmonic initiated by their German conductor Justus Frantz, or the moving speech by historian Heinrich August Winkler in front of the Parliament. The same holds true for visits to exhibitions in Dresden and Berlin. "Never before in my life I have seen history come so alive. Everything was really engaging, everything we went to. The key issue for me was that the program brought history alive," said Elvis Muraranganda, journalist at the Namibian Sun.

Scrutinize, analyze, discuss

The talks with high-ranking players in politics and civil society provided room for reflection to scrutinize and analyze, and to place in a broader topical context everything the participants had seen and experienced. Discussion rounds such as the one with Werner Patzelt from the Technische Universität Dresden, who is currently researching the Pegida movement, attracted great interest against the backdrop of the overall theme. The same applied to the meetings with psychotherapist Helga Spranger who focused on the topic of traumatization during war and its consequences.

The way Germans are dealing with their history became gradually clearer, and their long path to where they are now became transparent. "We saw how difficult it was to deal with the past but we also saw that there is hope," commented Remzije Istrefi Peci from the University of Priština. Melsi Labi, museum director in Tirana, draws hope from what he experienced in Germany: "It seems that you have solved the problem – psychologically, morally, economically and you gave so much hope and knowledge to everyone. You give to everyone an example."