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Understanding Germany's remembrance culture

Dana Regev
July 15, 2020

Memorial days, monuments: Every nation recalls its history. For most Germans, the past is a source of shame, as DW's Dana Regev from Israel has learned.

Stolpersteine with flowers
"Stolpersteine" (Stumbling Stones) are small memorials set into stone that recall the victimsm of fascismImage: picture-alliance

No matter where you come from in the world, your country must have some form of remembrance culture. It can be manifested in anything from national celebrations to monuments commemorating events or people of historical importance.

But if you've ever spent time in Germany, you may have noticed that Germans treat their country's past differently than many other nations do — for obvious reasons. It's the various ways in which Germans handle this past that isn't always easy to comprehend.

Here's what you need to know.

1. The German flag is embarrassing for many people

It's safe to say that if your country won the soccer World Cup, the first thing you'd see is the national flag hanging from every window and waved from every car. Until relatively recently, that wasn't the case in Germany. 

German fans in a stadium with several of the country's flags in the background, from the World Cup 20ß06
A relatively new phenomenon in Germany: Cheering with the flagImage: picture-alliance/dpa

That's because unlike in many other places, the country's symbols are not seen as a source of pride, but more like a reminder of shame.

Being responsible for the Holocaust, as well as for the first genocide of the 20th century — the Herero and Nama genocide — plays a big role in that collective feeling. 

In fact, it was a completely new phenomenon at the World Cup 2006, hosted by Germany. "That much Black-Red-Gold [colors of the German flag] hasn't been seen since reunification," as weekly Der Spiegel wrote, referring to the numerous German flags popping up on fans' cars, balconies, hats and scarves. At the time, various cultural experts had commented on the Germans' uneasy relation with patriotism in reaction to the new trend.

But even though the German flag has become increasingly popular at sports events, you probably wouldn't spot it on many other everyday occasions in Germany. In fact, you're more likely to see an EU or pride flag hanging from a balcony window than the national one.

"We just don't do that, it's not something we grew up with," says Jessica, a 38-year-old café owner from Cologne. "Because of Germany's past, many people obviously don't take pride in anything that represents Germany," she explains. "I think it's better than being blindly patriotic."

2. Education starts early

Learning about Germany's past — and especially World War II — is not exclusive to academics or museum goers. In fact, history museums are often packed with pupils as young as 12, learning about the Nazi regime and the horrors it brought upon humanity.

"The culture of memory is one of those tools that help bind the nation together, to give people a 'shared' past," says Mike Stuchbery, an Australian history and civics teacher based in Stuttgart. 

Young visitors at Berlin's Jewish Museum
Young visitors at Berlin's Jewish MuseumImage: Anna Ilin

"I remember learning in depth about WWII at least three times during high school," says Paul Koch, a 33-year-old DevOps engineer from Berlin. "And visiting a concentration camp, too," he recalls. For him, it's clear why remembrance culture is much stronger in Germany than in many other countries.

"Germany was responsible for some unimaginable crimes. Not 'Nazi Germany' — Germany," he stresses. "So it's no wonder we are being taught about them again and again," he argues.

Stuchbery agrees: "This generation of Germans has risen to the challenge of working out how to acknowledge the horrors of the past and keep their memory alive."

"Documentation centers, memorials — such as that to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin and the Dachau concentration camp memorial site near Munich — find a balance between acknowledging horrific acts and placing them into the context of the period."

Koch remembers how some of his former classmates complained that they were "tired of hearing about how Germany has done all these terrible things," he rolls his eyes as he recalls, "but they don't understand that we don't only repeat this because we are Germans, but because our past is a horrific example of what could happen in other places — also in the present."

3. Praising pens, not guns

Germany knows what glorifying one leader could lead to, which is why Germans prefer their heroes in the shape of writers, poets or composers, rather than army generals — at least most of the time.

That's why Weimar is known today internationally as the city of Goethe. The house in which the poet and all-round scholar lived was refashioned into a museum. 

Bonn, the former capital of West Germany and the birthplace of Beethoven, is decorated with various statues of the renowned composer. Monuments to Johann Sebastian Bach and Martin Luther welcome visitors to Eisenach, where Bach was born and Luther is believed to have lived for several years.

"I feel more at ease about it," Cologne-based Jessica admits. "There are no winners in wars anyway, and if we already have to hang symbols publicly, they might as well be such that everyone — or almost everyone — can agree on," she explains.

"It will be interesting to see, in the age of Black Lives Matter and a fresh gaze turned to the past, how other events in German history are presented and memorialized," Stuchbery wonders.

Dana Regev
DW's Dana RegevImage: DW/M. Müller

4. Jokes aren't always appropriate

Full disclaimer: I myself am an Israeli Jew whose grandparents escaped Germany before WWII officially started.

But even after six years of living in Germany, it still surprises me that I can handle dark humor (and I mean VERY dark) better than the average German.

In the best-case scenario, they might blush to a tomato level in reaction to one of my jokes, but in the worst case they will be extremely offended, confused and won't get it — especially if it involves the Holocaust in one way or another.

So if you're visiting Germany as a tourist, recently moved to a German city or simply have a German colleague — don't be too lighthearted about Germany's past atrocities. At least not until you're sure the crowd knows you're not a far-right extremist (and there are unfortunately many in Germany). And by the way, the outstretched-arm Nazi salute and other symbols are actually banned in public, so you better avoid those altogether.

But jokes aside, I must respect the Germans for at least owning up to their nation's wrongdoings. Many other countries have caused more than enough damage to humanity and aren't exactly quick to express remorse, let alone teach their next generations: Never Again. 

You'll find more about Germans and everyday life in Germany on dw.com/MeettheGermans and on YouTube and check out our new Instagram Channel @dw_meetthegermans.