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How Germans remember their nation's Nazi past

February 13, 2018

Fewer than half of Germans worry that the crimes of the Holocaust could be repeated. A recent study reveals the importance of historical sites of tragedy and atrocity to Germans' collective memory of the Nazi era.

Far-right demonstrators in Germany
Image: picture alliance/dpa/ZB/P. Pleul

The persecuted, the perpetrators and their accomplices alike, the number of people who survived Germany's 1933-45 Nazi era is dwindling; soon that entire generation will be gone. Historians, politicians and educators have long sought a way to ensure that Germany's past will not be forgotten once the people who witnessed it are no longer alive. The matter has become more urgent as racism and anti-Semitism have noticeably increased in recent years in Germany and neighboring countries. With this in mind, the Bielefeld Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence (IKG) presented its "MEMO Germany: Multidimensional Memory Monitor" study on Tuesday in Berlin.

"We were mainly interested in what, why and how people in Germany remember history," said Andreas Zick, the IKG's director. Previously, the focus had been on commemorations of the Holocaust. However, the culture of remembrance is being questioned as anti-Semitism has grown and far-right figures have asserted that Germans' feelings of guilt for thecrimes committed during the Nazi era have been exploited for propaganda purposes. "But, when one speaks of a 'guilt cult' being practiced in Germany, it does not reflect the opinion of the general population," Zick said. Respondents to the study had much more nuanced memories. And families' particular pasts also play an important role.

In telephone interviews, Zick's team asked more than 1,000 people aged 16 to 92 about their own pasts or those of their relatives. According to the study, 17.6 percent of subjects had active Nazis in their families during World War II. The researchers found that almost the same amount, 18 percent, claimed that their relatives had helped potential victims. The largest number of respondents by far, 54.4 percent, said there were victims among their relatives. According to the study, the proportion of respondents who feel personal guilt for the extermination of Jews is low. Only one in 10 respondents agreed with the statement "even though I have not done anything wrong myself, I feel guilty for the Holocaust."

Suitcases of people killed at Auschwitz
Respondents said extermination sites such as Auschwitz made a lasting impressionImage: Reuters/P. Ulatowski

Lasting impacts

It wasn't surprising that 98.4 percent of people interviewed said they learned about National Socialism at school. The internet also plays an important role as a source of information for younger people; however, researchers found that it didn't have that much of an impact on their understanding of the Holocaust. Visits to memorial sites left the most lasting impression. Respondents said extermination camps made the strongest emotional impacts.

A third of respondents (32.5 percent) expressed a strong interest in German history, and 27.7 percent professed a very strong interest. Just over a quarter (25.6 percent) of respondents said they feared that something like the Holocaust could happen again, and 21.6 percent said they were very concerned.

The foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future (EVZ), which co-developed the representative study, intends to use the results to find ways to further help Germany confront its collective memory. EVZ CEO Andreas Eberhardt hopes for a "living culture of remembrance with innovative forms and fresh approaches."

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Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.