Is there a point in still talking about Second World War Germany ?


I found it almost impossible to write over the summer or to organise my thoughts into some sort of coherent flow while the sun shone outside producing the intrepid army of courgettes that now lies liquidized in my freezer. Instead I hung out in Nazi Germany, trying to organise 9 years of research into a 40 minute talk for schools and as yet unknown audiences. It was a process of willing black and white photographs to come to life to reveal what has been lurking in the corners of Germany’s post-war national silence for 50 years. But I also found myself wondering (with regular twangs of self-doubt) what the point is of still talking about this subject? And is it still relevant and important for today’s younger generations of English and Germans to engage with Hitler and the Holocaust, or have Bin Laden & other contemporary despots taken his place as ‘Dr Evil’?

Many of todays under 50-year-old Germans express having “die Schnauze voll” (a full snout, or being sick to the back teeth) of the themes of Nazi Germany and national guilt. Does that impart the message: “What Grandpa did has nothing to do with me. I don’t have to bear his guilt”? Or are they expressing the desire for release from the incessant discourses and policies of atonement and apology that infuse German political, social and cultural life?

With the benefit of only being half-German I have enough distance to still find the subject infinitely fascinating without being fully identified with it. But it’s an on-going and at times difficult process trying to unravel how the inevitable impact on my mother of such a huge historic episode ended up having such a defined, albeit less tangible, impact on me.

Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, many Germans of the grandchild generation do bear the burdensome, yet often denied, guilt of their grandparents. According to Harald Welzer’s research “Grandpa wasn’t a Nazi”, two thirds either see their grandparents as heroes, resistors or victims of National Socialism. It’s natural to defend your family but as far as I am concerned, that is enough reason to keep talking about it. For me it has only been possible to understand my grandparent’s position in this period by looking at their potential, albeit unwitting, culpability in the face. In her memoirs my grandmother conveys the fear of living under a dictatorship and challenges her critics by asking what they would have done? I ask myself the same question. And in my talks I ask my audiences the same. Plus: What do they do in the face of discrimination, racism, injustice today? We wouldn’t all be the heroes or resistors of our daydreams or online personas, nor mere victims. So at what point do we, even in our inaction, become ‘guilty’?

After a couple of rehearsals of my talk, I learnt from the comments made that there were various points to it. But above all it was the personal stories of my grandfather, my mother and me that were relevant in bringing to life the challenges, decisions and actions of an ordinary German family in and after the Second World War. Maybe it is important to remember that as humans we all have choices. But we also have fears and weaknesses.

For more information on my talk The other side: The Second World War through the eyes of an ordinary German family please go to

4 thoughts on “Is there a point in still talking about Second World War Germany ?

  1. I suspect that it is a consequence of straddling two national identities that makes your perspective unique and this period of history so much more pertinent – Brits feel no need for analysis and Germans, so externally defined by it, perhaps avoid it?

  2. Yes, seeing both sides equally certainly shines light into dark corners. It’s a complex dynamic where the lack of need for analysis looks a bit more like a tactic to avoid challenging the usual victors narrative that forever makes the Germans the “baddies”. It’s the good versus evil justification the USA loves to use. All so interesting, I could talk about it for hours…!

    • The socalled Third Reich has not been understood till now. Thousands of books, articles and so on have been written in many languages. The real riddle has been drowned under the masses of publications. It is the question: how could one of the most cultivated people fall in such a barbarism?

      I think it has something to do with the growing individualism. The old bonds didn’t work anymore. About 1870 The German People could go two ways: The way of the German Spirit or the way of the German Reich. Would the German Spirit become the obedient slave of the German Reich? Or could the Reich become a willing participant in the development of the German Spirit.

      This question had to be answered by each and every individual alone. “The Germans” – are they more real than “the Jews”?
      And it has to be answered today by each and every individual alone. The question, which stood before the Germans a hundred years ago nowadays is a question for every human being: Is my spirit the obedient servant of my Body – or could the Body help and follow the spirit? It is the mind – body Problem, which has not only to be answered in a theoretical way, but which has to be answered in a practical way.
      To answer this question is the core Problem of our time. The answer will be a Michaelic one, so to say, or the gates of hell will open again.

  3. Take a proud nation destroyed by a long and costly war then place draconian restrictions on their ability to regenerate and restore their economy and pride to the point of dereliction and destitution, introduce a potential saviour and redeeemer (regardless of the cost) and what do you get…… WW2!! Not that difficult?

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