Memories of Resistance and Democracy in Postwar Germany

Germany does not shirk from its collective responsibility for World War II and the Holocaust. The German Historical Museum, for example, does not sugarcoat popular support for the Nazi Party during the interwar period. Instead, historians ask how the Nazis obtained power and why they were able to keep it. By answering these difficult questions, the Federal Republic of Germany acknowledges and wrestles with its dark past, which proves that democracy is never guaranteed in our turbulent world but it can rise out of our darkest experiences.

The Topography of Terror Museum documents the rise and ruthlessness of the Nazi Party through propaganda, intimidation, and violence. The steel building stands where the Gestapo Headquarters and Reich Main Security Office once stood. It was here at Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse that Gleichschaltung (i.e. the totalitarian process of subjugating every element of society to Adolf Hitler) became a reality. To solidify their grip on power, Nazi brownshirts arrested political opponents in the Reichstag, paraded elected officials through the streets, terrorized German-Jews, and persecuted the professional classes. Under Heinrich Himmler and Reinhart Heydrich, the Reich Main Security Office fused police forces into the ranks of the SS. The Museum includes pictures of Nazi officials alongside walls of text that explain the roles of individuals in Nazi terrorism. The Nazis targeted the upper echelons of German civil society and removed safeguards that should prevent the acceptance of evil regimes and boundless war.

The Bendlerblock Memorial to German Resistance remembers the few with the courage to oppose the Nazi regime in its atmosphere of terror, especially those who sacrificed their lives in the July 20, 1944 attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. One could easily miss the unassuming courtyard where firings squads executed Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators. The Memorial consists of a stone slab, two copper plaques, and a statue of a naked and bound man. It does not make excuses for the plot’s failure or conjecture about what might have been. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt noted that key leaders of Operation Valkyrie planned to ask for a separate peace as well as other terms to which the Allies would never have agreed. Instead, the Memorial humbly and factually reminds visitors that some paid the ultimate price in defiance of Hitler’s Germany. The Bendlerblock also contains a series of exhibits on resistance from individuals in many segments of German society, including the army, churches, schools, and governments. While resistance to Nazi Germany was anything but widespread, the Bendlerblock Memorial shows that the Nazis failed to eradicate civil society.

After World War II, Germany was realistic about its culpability for the Nazi regime. Unlike postwar France, there were no myths of a vast and powerful resistance. It was undeniable that many contributed to the collapse of the young Weimar Republic into the Third Reich. The Reich Chancellery and Reichstag lay in ruins, and rubble filled the streets of Berlin until 1950. The Führer Bunker where Hitler took his own life is now a parking lot. From ground zero, Germans participated in de-Nazification and formed a new government. After its reunification in 1990, the Federal Republic of Germany was – arguably – the most modern democracy in the world. The Bundestag, formerly the Reichstag, reflects postwar Germany’s dark history and impressive progress through its design. I interpreted its open glass top as indicative of the transparency necessary for parliamentary representation. There is preserved graffiti from Soviet soldiers on the walls. Germany is a product of its experiences, and it does not intend for the suffering of its people (esp. victims and resistors) to be in vain. With democracy in crisis across the West, perhaps the future lies in remembering the darkness of Germany’s past alongside the mirrors and light of the Bundestag spire.

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