1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

It's not about guilt, but about responsibility

Felix Schlagwein als
January 27, 2019

My generation grew up knowing about the Holocaust, says DW's Felix Schlagwein. But we need to talk more about it today — especially because it goes against the grain for many people.

A general view of a gas chamber at the former Nazi German concentration camp, Stutthof
Image: Getty Images/B. Adams

The 1961 novel Friedrich by Hans Peter Richter was on the curriculum of my 6th grade German class at the beginning of the 2000s. The narrator of the book is a young German boy recounting the fate of his neighbor and best friend, a Jew, under the Nazis. It was the first time I consciously came into contact with the history of the persecution of Jews in Germany.

"At that time it was the Jews... Today it's the blacks. Here the students... tomorrow it might be the whites, the Christians or the public officers..." stated the foreword of the book. "The public officers?" my 11-year-old self questioned reflexively at the time. Yet, I also suddenly realized the enormity of those lines.

From that point on, the history of the Nazi era and the Holocaust never let go of its hold on me. They remained my constant companion. Of course, in history lessons, but also in German, English and French classes. 

We watched the films Schindler's List and Life is Beautiful. We went to plays, visited museums and educational and memorial sites. In the evenings, it was a topic often discussed among my family at the dinner table. Later in the evening, documentaries and feature films were aired about it on television.

Oscar "Das Leben ist schön"
Giorgio Cantarini and Roberto Benigni in "Life Is Beautiful" (1998)Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Cecchi Gori Group

For me, it's unimaginable that it could ever have been any different.

But it was. For the post-war generation of my grandparents, the Holocaust was a taboo subject. Nazis still held posts everywhere: in the courts, in the ministries, in the classrooms and lecture halls, at home on the couch. For the first 20 years after the war there was only silence.

It wasn't until the 1968 generation rolled around that people began to ask the radical question: "What happened back then?"

The Holocaust as an integral component of German Identity

I, on the other hand, grew up with the knowledge of the Nazi dictatorship and the Holocaust. It is an integral part of my identity. It is an integral part of an German identity in general, even if many don't want to admit it anymore. For me, too, the reports and images often appear surreal, too inconceivable to be true. 

"How can such a thing ever repeat itself? Everyone knows that it was all very horrible" — that's the attitude one is tempted to take.

But this utopia is not only naïve, it is also extremely dangerous. Political systems can change. And when that happens, it's not necessarily with a big bang; it rather takes place incrementally, so that one hardly notices it — until it is too late. People of my generation need to be conscious of this, even though we've only known peace.

Because there has been war in Europe, even after 1945. The world has also witnessed many more genocides after 1945, in which millions of people have been murdered: whether in Rwanda, Cambodia, Myanmar or in our immediate neighborhood, the Balkans. Who can assure me that it won't happen again in Germany?

People fleeing persecution in Myanmar
People fleeing persecution in MyanmarImage: AFP/Getty Images/Z. R. Hpra

It's not about guilt, it's about responsibility

Historical-political education is certainly a key factor in avoiding a repetition of past tragedies. Germany has dutifully processed its fascist past — in contrast to other countries like Italy or Japan.

Nevertheless, a look at the present is worrying. Synagogues and other Jewish institutions are under police protection. The number of crimes motivated by anti-Semitism in Germany and other European countries has risen dramatically in recent years.

Alexander Gauland
Alexander Gauland is not the only AfD politician to stir controversy with his far-right commentsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Skolimowska

A party sits in the German parliament (and, meanwhile, in all the 16 state parliaments) whose leading members have called the 12-year Nazi dictatorship a dot of "bird shit" in German history (Alexander Gauland) and described the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin as a "monument of shame" (Björn Höcke). Höcke even claimed that Germany was "crippled" by its "stupid" politics of Holocaust remembrance and  the AfD allows him to remain in the party. 

Far-right politicians rant against the "cult of guilt." But it is not about guilt at all. The people of my generation are not "guilty" of the acts perpetrated by our great-grandparents.

We nevertheless bear the responsibility to ensure that the darkest chapter of our history is never repeated. Former German Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker, in his speech on the 40-year anniversary of the end of the war on May 8, 1985, hit the nail on the head: "Those who turn a blind eye to the past become blind to the present. Those who do not want to remember the inhumanity of that time become susceptible to new contagions."

Read more: Bundestag slams far-right AfD, reaffirms Holocaust remembrance

School classes should visit concentration camps

Soon, the voices of the last contemporary witnesses will become silent because they will have passed away. Then we will only the interviews with them, their books, their letters — but the fissure will be there. Because with time, emotions will fade.

In the last year before completing my Abitur (high school finishing exam), I visited the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial site with my class. Standing with my own feet on the floor of the gas chambers, seeing with my own eyes the mountains of shoes, hair, and suitcases of the men, women and children who were murdered, was undoubtedly one of the most moving events in my young life. These are impressions that have shaped me forever: "Never again Auschwitz."

Eingangstor und Schienen zum Vernichtungslager Auschwitz-Birkenau
Entrance of the former German Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-BirkenauImage: Alex Pantcykov/dpa/Sputnik/picture-alliance

Perhaps visiting a concentration camp memorial site is more effective than any history lesson, precisely because it touches us emotionally and brings the events that occurred so much closer than any of the schoolbooks and feature films can. 

Germany is a country of immigration. People from all over the world come to us whose identity has not been shaped by the Holocaust. It is not their history, and yet as people living in Germany, they should also confront it like everyone else should.

After all, the history of the Nazi dictatorship and the Holocaust is not only German history, it is human history. It teaches us to what acts people are capable of under certain circumstances. This knowledge concerns everyone.

Every day, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. Sign up for the newsletter here.