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Repressing history

October 29, 2010

The study of the Foreign Office's crimes under Hitler shows that memories of the Nazi period are still dominated by myths. DW's Ramon Garcia-Ziemsen writes about how Germany's history was deliberately repressed.


Yes, it is shocking how German diplomats were complicit in the Holocaust in the Second World War, and how they were involved in its implementation. It's unbelievable how much continuity there was in the diplomatic personnel after 1945 in Germany: men who had participated in the Nazi extermination policies later made careers and protected each other, even before their involvement was made public.

But it's just as incredible how long it has taken: that only now, 65 years on, this has come to the attention of the wider German public. In 1979, a book was published by a British historian about the participation of the Foreign Office in the so called "final solution," the Nazi description for the murder of European Jews. The book describes what the nature of the Foreign Office's participation in the Holocaust was, how deportation orders were signed there, how the Office was a systematic element of the Nazi killing machine. And even back in the 1950s, there was clear evidence showing that the Foreign Office was certainly not a "school of passive resistance" against Hitler, as it liked to present itself in the post-war period.

Ramon Garcia-Ziemsen
Ramon Garcia-Ziemsen head of DW's German culture department

A lot was known, a lot was forgotten

In short: much was known. And almost everything was forgotten. How the Germans dealt with the Third Reich is not as exemplary as it has often been perceived around the world, it is also a history of forgetting and repressing. The elites have often knowingly prevented a discussion about their past. And the public allowed this discourse to be prevented. How could this happen?

After 1945, German society was always looking for the "good," for the "other Germany" - the "other Germany" that had remained innocent, that had perhaps not been openly resistant, but did not allow itself to be sucked into Nazi ideology; which had remained resistant, which had rejected the Nazi madness, and of which one might even be proud. Because it wanted a fresh start, the young Germany did not think it could live with the weight of such a large feeling of guilt.

Myths and collective guilt

And in this way the yarn was spun: first came the myth that many Germans had only found out about the Holocaust in 1945 from the Allies. The myth was born that only a small group around Hitler had known what had happened in concentration camps like Auschwitz and Dachau. The Germans were a nation led astray. This position was also of course a reaction to the similarly blanket collective guilt theory purported by the Allies after the war.

Then came the myth of the armed forces: that the soldiers had played almost no part in Hitler's atrocities - and besides that everything had been carried out under orders.

Both theories were exposed by historians as false only decades later, from the 1970s, through studies, books and exhibitions. Large parts of the population knew not only why Jewish friends and neighbors had suddenly disappeared, but they had also assisted with this disappearance. Soldiers took part in shooting Jews - voluntarily and not under orders. But again it took years and decades, well into the 1990s, until this knowledge resulted in a public debate and led to a real demystification.

Where the myth certainly still existed was in the Foreign Office, one of the last places where the fairy tale of the "other Germany" could live on. The solidarity of the diplomats worked so well and perhaps the respect for the future German President Richard von Weizsaecker was too great. Weizsaecker's father Ernst was a top diplomat, who supported the Nazi ideology in the Foreign Office. But Germany's longing for this "other Germany", which existed much less than most Germans had thought, was also too great.

Author: Ramon Garcia-Ziemsen (nd)
Editor: Chuck Penfold