With the approach of Holocaust Memorial Day, I find myself engaging with some of my customary questions around how to remember the past and learn from it.
There is no question that 27th January is a day to collectively bear witness to those murdered under Nazi Germany’s heinous regime. To honour their memories and acknowledge the agonising voids they once filled. To hold in our minds and hearts those who survived and those born later scarred by the violence inflicted on their families. I personally can’t imagine a time when this is not the right thing to do.
Added to remembrance, is the necessity to grasp and implement the lessons of such dark episodes in history. The most obvious ones centre on the dangers and wrongness of discrimination; of othering fellow human beings for their perceived inferiorities or differences in religion, outlook, appearance, social standing, sexual orientation etc. This may feel relatively straightforward for decent people. It becomes less easy, however, when we are requested to act in the face of similar wrongdoings, rather than look away or rant on social media; to become ‘upstanders’ rather than bystanders. How do we do that in this world where injustices can be found everywhere?
One could deduce, that punishing the culprits is an important aspect of commemorating the Holocaust and avoiding future genocides, though the time for that may now have passed. Just over a month ago, the 97-year-old German care home resident, Irmgard Furchner, became possibly the last person to be convicted of Nazi war crimes. After a divisive trial in Itzehoe, she was given a 2-year suspended sentence for her role as the 18-year-old secretary to the Stutthof concentration camp commandant, Paul-Werner Hoppe. For many people, this is justice, no matter how late, and all the more deserved due to Furchner’s evident absence of remorse. For some, however, it is a vindictive attempt to assuage Germany’s collective guilt. For others, it is misplaced and sickening virtue-signalling, pointless scape-goating… the debate is lively.
A positive outcome of Germany’s learning from its dark past is its nigh on eighty years of pacifism. But this too appears to be being brought to an end, albeit with huge reluctance and resistance within the country. Putin’s illegal war and NATO’s unified military response in support of Ukraine have put understandable pressure on Germany to break its resolve not to get involved in military conflicts and supply Ukraine with its world class Leopard 2 tanks specifically designed to compete with the Russian T-90 tanks. Last night, after months of hesitation and debate, the Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and the German government finally agreed to send a company of battle tanks and allowed other countries to send their German-made tanks too.
The whole issue is extremely complex, I know, but the psychological irony seems unavoidable.
On the one hand, the widespread tendency to never let Germany forget the wrongs of its Nazi past is still alive and kicking. On the other, there is now equally widespread demand that it does just that. Or rather that it selectively remembers some bits of its past and forgets others, such as the traumatic memories of the last time German tanks rolled into Russia with the horrifically high death tolls and suffering of tens of millions that ensued. I wish I could ask my German grandfather what he thinks of the situation, having fought on the eastern front for so long… (See Chapters 14 & 15 in my book In My Grandfather’s Shadow)
From many points of view, including a growing number within Germany itself, there are compelling arguments for the government to embrace a Zeitenwende’ (turning of the times) in its foreign policy and to override its long-standing commitment to peacekeeping, up its defence budget and contribute more military solidarity to its NATO allies in a shared effort to support Ukraine against Russia. I am not saying this is right or wrong, just recognising that it is a HUGE step for Germans and Germany, a potential game-changer for either good or bad, and one we should try to understand rather than simply criticise and judge.
Within the over-simplified, clean-cut narrative of Putin = bad, Ukraine/NATO = good, (which is naturally true from the West’s perspective but not from Russia’s and its allies, hence the conflict), space should be allowed for Germany’s justified fears of an escalation. Its visceral memories of fighting Russia and closer proximity to the country, raise genuinely terrifying concerns that we need to take seriously. At the same time, the contradictions in the messages being delivered to Germany surely don’t go unnoticed: Remember and take the full blame for the atrocities you caused with the Holocaust and the Second World War… but actually, forget some of them now and immediately dispatch tanks against the former enemy with whom you have been trying to make some kind of peace or amends and play a decisive and deadly frontline role in what could easily become a Third World War.
Maybe it really is time for Germany to move beyond its WW2 identity. I hope that this Zeitenwende in German policy will also find a counter Zeitenwende in certain mindsets.
Forthcoming Events focusing on In My Grandfather’s Shadow and open to Public:
Thursday 2nd February, 6-8.30pm, Painswick, Glos: First Thursday In Conversation… More info
Thursday 23rd March, 6pm – Summer Town Library, Oxford: Talk and Q&A… More info soon
Wednesday 29th March, 2-3pm – Oxford Literary Festival: In Conversation with Miranda Gold… More info