Monday 16 September 2019

Barbara McCarthy: 'Will the world let Germany forget its past?'

Many Germans still bear the weight of the crimes of the Nazis, but it's time to drop the collective guilt, writes Barbara McCarthy

German troops demolish a Polish flagpole during Hitler’s invasion of Poland which began in September 1939. Photo: Corbis via Getty Images
German troops demolish a Polish flagpole during Hitler’s invasion of Poland which began in September 1939. Photo: Corbis via Getty Images
Barbara McCarthy

Barbara McCarthy

With Brexit dominating public discourse, it's easy to forget that World War II started 80 years ago after Germany invaded Poland on September 1. The rest, as they say, is history.

But is it for Germans?

The Holocaust, starvation, 85m fatalities, and some of humanity's darkest times followed. Besides Italian Fascism and Japanese militarism preceding an invasion of China in the 1930s, it was largely the Germans' (Nazis) fault.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

They perpetrated acts of violence so shameful and horrific, they should never be forgotten.

And they haven't. Vietnam, the Sierra Leone civil war; the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994, which saw up to one million people butchered to death, have been and gone, but the Nazis are still a benchmark for evil.

When the subject of war crimes come up, does anyone mention the 13th century Turco-Mongol invasions under Genghis Khan, where 40m people were murdered? No, they mention the Nazis.

In October, 92-year old Bruno D will go on trial for 'being part' of the murder of 5,230 prisoners at Strutthof concentration camp, but most Nazis are dead or out of action. So can Germans born long after the war still be blamed for their ill doings, even if they were related? I think not.

Bernhard Schlink, author of The Reader and a series of other works that address war guilt, told the Guardian in 2012 that children still have to bear the burden.

"I can't say I'm thankful about being German because I sometimes experience it as a huge burden," Schlink says. "But it is an integral part of me and I wouldn't want to escape it. I have accepted it."

We live in a world where victimhood is fetishised, but not when it comes to Germans - the joke's on us.

I'm a second generation German, and I don't feel guilty. Why should I?

My great grandfather fought in the trenches. My great uncle was a prisoner of war in Louisiana. My grandfather survived Stalingrad, and spent five years on the Eastern front only to be killed by the Allies in Alsace. He was never found.

My grandmother and women from her village walked 60km regularly, to find out if their husbands, brothers, sons or uncles were alive or dead. They were victims too.

I applaud the Wirtschaftswunder ("economic miracle") and World Cup victory, less than a decade after losing the war and all our achievements since.

Though I've noticed a drop in salutes and Nazi references in football matches, the word Nazi gets thrown around for far lesser crimes these days. Proud German = Nazi.

As guilt shifts to responsibility, many Germans still bear the weight of the unfathomable crimes of their forefathers, subtly and unsubtly.

The enormity of the Holocaust prompts much analyses and I don't have the paragraphs to discuss in detail to what extent ordinary citizens were collaborationist or turned a blind eye.

So I asked a 100-year-old friend called Lottie Franzen from Stuttgart, who lived through 140,000 bombs and 53 airstrikes.

She explained some misconceptions from her perspective. "People thought being German meant being a Nazi, but we weren't.

"People don't know that we lived in constant fear of our lives. If you did something the SS didn't want you to do, you were gone. It's not a myth. You'd get punished if you didn't do the Sieg Heil. We hated it.

"The men I knew said they had no idea what was really going on with the Jews, they didn't know about the gas chambers."

Germans turned a corner a long time ago to become the kindest people in Europe. Even their army is emasculated and struggling to equip its soldiers with boots, many of which won't arrive until 2022. Faulty tanks and grounded aircraft add to their woes.

Bar a handful of sympathisers and ageing old Nazis, Germans living today did nothing wrong.

So as we enter a new decade since the bloodiest war in history, we need to drop the collective guilt.

But as we 'never forget', will the world let us?

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss