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Atsuko Kawakita

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Facing History—Germany’s “culture of remembrance”

Atsuko Kawakita
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: German Contemporary History

How Germany remembers history

This year marks 100 years since the start of World War I (WWI). In Japan, there are plans for numerous research conferences and symposiums related to WWI. Although the same is true in Germany, this year’s Germany is a little busier than Japan. The reason is that this year also marks 75 years since the start of World War II (September 1, 1939), 70 years since the Normandy landings by the Allied Forces (June 6, 1944), 65 years since the founding of East Germany and West Germany (1949), and 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall (November 9, 1989). At this very moment, Chancellor Angela Merkel appears in a PR video “the week of the Chancellor (Die Woche der Kanzlerin)” being shown on the internet. The video introduces the topic of how Chancellor Merkel participated together with current heads of state of the former Allies in a ceremony to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings.

Germany places great importance on memorial days in history. In particular, its emphasis is placed on dates related to Nazism and WWII. Last year marked 80 years since the Nazi party seized political power (January 30, 1933) and 75 years since the November Pogrom (November 9, 1938; persecution of Jews formerly known as the “Crystal Night”). After this year’s memorial days for the start of WWII and the Normandy landings are finished, next year marks 70 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp (January 27, 1945) and the end of WWII (May 8, 1945). It seems that every year brings a memorial day. Stated differently, Germany has a “culture of remembrance” which places importance on commemorating various events in its modern history.

“Overcoming the past” and inheriting memories

Even in Japan, there is wide recognition for how Germany (including the West Germany period when the country was separated into East Germany and West Germany) has sincerely confronted its Nazi past. The term “overcoming the past” is also widely known. “Overcoming the past” is a general name for Germany’s attempts to address the consequences of violent rule and aggressive war by the Nazi Germany. International society has given high recognition to how Germany has continued to work actively and tirelessly to compensate and restore the reputation of individuals affected by Nazi crimes, has abolished the statute of limitations for the crime of murder (premeditated murder) and continues to prosecute the perpetrators of Nazi crimes even today, has implemented measures to prevent the recurrence of Nazism (regulating Neo-Nazi groups as unconstitutionality, enacting criminal law to prohibit Holocaust denial theory and glorification of the Nazis), has enhanced education of contemporary history to share lessons learned from Nazi rule with younger generations, and has erected monuments and historical museums.

Within the policy of “overcoming the past,” memorial days and memorial events fall within the final category listed above; that is, the inheritance of memories by younger generations. This is my main field of interest. Normally, the idea of “sincerely confronting the past” refers to honestly admitting the negative aspects of a country’s past. Indeed, such an idea is at the core of how Germany deals with the past. It goes without saying that such an idea is the bases for rebuilding relations with groups of people and nearby countries which were victimized. However, “sincerity” has an even greater meaning within Germany’s projects. I would like to examine that meaning by focusing on two speeches recently given by famous German politicians.

Change in recognition of responsibility

On November 9, 2013, a concert was held in memory of 75 years passing since the November Pogrom. The site of the concert was Frankfurt an der Oder, a town located near Germany’s border with Poland. A speech was given by President Joachim Gauck. This speech emphasized the fact that “ordinary people” were responsible for the tragedy which occurred 75 years ago—the violence against Jewish citizens, as well as the destruction, looting and burning of stores and synagogues.

After the fall of the Nazi regime, Nazis were viewed as absolute evil in Germany. However, the term “Nazi” referred to Hitler, a small number of his Nazi officials, and fanatical believers of the Nazi ideology. For a long time, the various crimes committed under Nazi rule were the work of a few “Nazis,” without the involvement of normal citizens.

In contrast, the idea that normal German citizens assisted the crimes of the Nazi regime began to take root in the 1980s and 1990s. The reason for the change in thinking was, academically speaking, heightened interest in history of everyday life and local communities, which created a trend in which history is considered based on the experience of the individual. Socially speaking, the involvement of Germany’s national defense force (Wehrmacht) in the murder of Jews was described in a traveling historical exhibition which started in 1995 and was named the exhibition about “War Crimes of the Wehrmacht”. This fact attracted great attention. As a result, Germans were forced to remember that the Nazi regime was not the work of fanatical Nazis alone; instead, ordinary German citizens also took part in crimes during that period. President Gauck’s speech reflected this change in attitude.

Democracy and self-awareness of citizens

However, President Gauck’s speech did more than simply question on historical responsibility. When memories regarding the Nazi past are passed down to younger generations in Germany, there is strong encouragement for each citizen to develop self-awareness and self-reflection in both a historical and modern context. This attitude was reflected in a speech given by Chancellor Merkel on January 30, 2013, on the 80th anniversary of the Nazi party’s rise to power.

Chancellor Merkel spoke at the opening ceremony for the special exhibition “Berlin in 1933—The Road to a Dictatorship” held at the Topography of Terror, a historical museum which is related to Germany’s Nazi past and was completed in 2010 on the site of former Gestapo headquarters in Berlin. Chancellor Merkel stated that human rights, freedom and democracy are not realized naturally. Instead, she declared that such values can only be realized by committed human beings who respect others, fulfill their responsibilities, and courageously voice their opinions, even when criticized or placed in a difficult situation. Chancellor Merkel proclaimed that Germans always have such responsibility when remembering the atrocities committed by Germany.

This recognition is supported by Germany’s philosophy of “fortified democracy.” This idea is stated in clause 4 of Article 20 of the German constitution (Basic Law), which states that “All Germans shall have the right to resist any person seeking to abolish” Germany’s democratic republic order. This article recognizes the right of German citizens to fight to protect fundamental human rights, democracy, the welfare state (Sozialstaat), the federal system, the republic, and other values defined by the constitution. It is also the source for expecting self-awareness by citizens for such responsibilities. Chancellor Merkel’s speech strongly encourages self-awareness as sovereign members of society and for responsibilities as citizens.

History, the present and the future

During the Weimar Republic, Germany had an advanced constitution even from an international perspective. Although Germany realized a parliamentary democracy, the system collapsed in a short period of time. Following the founding of West Germany, the phrase “Bonn is not Weimar” was often heard in the 1950s. This phrase expressed uneasiness that West Germany would repeat the same mistakes as the Weimar Republic, while also showing determination not to allow the same failure. Ever since then, Germans seem to have held the idea that maintaining a democracy is more difficult than establishing one. Consequently, German society holds the conviction of being willing to fight to maintain its democracy. This conviction can often be seen in association with remembering the country’s Nazi past. In this way, projects to address the negative past actively lead to strengthening of the present democracy. This is a major feature of how Germany confronts the past.

Of course, there is no guarantee that it is always correct to elicit lessons from history by comparing it to present context. During the NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999, arguments for and against participation by the German federal army in the bombing were justified in comparison to the Germany’s Nazi past. This will inevitably be criticized as using history for political means. Great care must be taken in unquestioningly projecting modern criteria onto past historical fact. On the other hand, we cannot sincerely consider history by constantly explaining past actions as being lawful and customary when compared to the context at that time in history, and by not giving sufficient consideration to subsequent developments in world history and the concept of human rights. When discussing history, it is always important to project the future as much as possible in a “dialogue between past and present”.

Today, Japan also shares a “culture of remembrance” which consists of considering the ideal form of the present and future while reflecting on history, as well as the conviction for realizing such ideals. It can be said that Japan’s “culture of remembrance” differs from Germany’s in that the value of “peace” is placed at the core. However, when examining Germany’s “culture of remembrance,” I always ask myself many questions about Japan’s culture. To what extent is there conviction for maintaining the core value? To what degree does Japan’s “culture of remembrance” promote universal values such as democracy and human rights? If our “culture of remembrance” doesn’t promote such values, what do we have to strengthen these values?

Atsuko Kawakita
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: German Contemporary History
Atsuko Kawakita was born in Tokyo. In 1997, she graduated from the faculty of Education at the University of Tokyo, College of Arts and Sciences. In 1999, she completed the Master’s Program at the University of Tokyo, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. In 2002, she completed the Doctoral Program at the University of Tokyo, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She holds a PhD from the University of Tokyo. She served as Project Associate Professor at the Center for German and European Studies (University of Tokyo) and as Associate Professor at the Osaka University, Graduate School of Language and Culture. She has been in her current position since 2013.
Her current research focuses on Germany’s “overcoming the past” (war reparations and compensation for war victims, history education, international dialogue on history textbooks, etc.), construction of the post-WWII regional order in Europe, and international comparison of repatriation. Her major written works include History Education in Germany (Hakusui Publishing Co.,Ltd., 2005) and Illustrated German History (Kawade Shobo Shinsha Publishers inc., 2007; co-written with Yuji Ishida, et al.).