Nuance and Honesty: The German Treatment of WWII History

Throughout the group’s stay in Berlin, I was consistently impressed with the honesty of German WWII historiography. In contrast to the French Liberation Museum in Paris, which treated Nazi resistance as the norm, the German Resistance Memorial Center explicitly distinguishes the resistors as a few brave individuals. The students of the White Rose group that distributed anti-Nazi pamphlets, the few religious leaders who stood against genocide and euthanasia, and the Wehrmacht officers who participated in Stauffenberg’s plot to assassinate Hitler were the exceptions within a population that generally acquiesced to – or actively fostered – Nazi totalitarianism. Furthermore, the narrative did not treat these main actors as infallible saints. The tour guide that gave our group a fifteen-minute introduction to the museum’s contents made it clear that the motivations behind the July 20th assassination attempt came primarily from a lack of confidence in his military leadership to win the war. Many of these military and civilian figures did not care to end the Holocaust or fascist rule, they merely feared the inevitable Allied victory.

The nuance present in the exhibit is commendable on all fronts. Fortunately, this deep care for accurate history is not unique to the Resistance Museum. The Topography of Terror Museum, dedicated to describing the specific mechanisms of Nazi violence, makes it clear that Hitler’s Reich could not have survived without widespread popular support. This sentiment’s inclusion is particularly important to the historiography here: a museum that describes the pervasive oppression of Nazi policy could easily absolve the rest of the German population.

Our group had walked through the WWII branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow the week before. During our tour, the guide repeatedly emphasized that Poles had no choice other than collaboration with the Nazi oppressors and were therefore not to blame for any complicity or involvement in atrocities on Polish soul. The German museums make no similar concessions. By the end, Nazi rule was terrible for most citizens involved, but complicity and support in the face of mass genocide should still not be treated as victimless acts – and they are not in the museums of Berlin.