These past twenty days have been quite the whirlwind adventure. I’ve seen London, Normandy, Paris, and I’m finishing this amazing journey in Berlin. I’ve made wonderful friends, been to the most amazing places in these cities (sometimes going underneath them) and I have gained a much better understanding of the age I’ve been devoting my History Major to since I enrolled at Ohio State.
But the greatest revelation has probably been how each country treats the war and their role in it. America has seen it as “The Good War,” where American soldiers valiantly fought for freedom and democracy. The Russians saw it as a patriotic war where they defeated the fascist forces in a clash of ideologies. The British saw it as a war of survival where they beat back an enemy poised to invade their land and destroy them. The French have dealt with the subject by trying to downplay their role as collaborators and instead focus on their role as resistors. And the Japanese have somehow gotten it into their heads that they were forced into the war and came out the greatest victims of it.
But what of the Germans? What is the attitude of the nation that thrust the world into the Second World War and manufactured one of the worst tragedies in modern history? That was probably my biggest question as we went to the German Historical Museum and the Topography of Terror Museum this past Saturday. What I found has been quite interesting: the Germans have tried to both admit their role in the war and at the same time detach themselves from it.
Let me explain this more in depth: the German Historical Museum, the Topography of Terror museum, and Sachsenhausen Prison Camp all carry the reminders, in photos and exhibits and the very buildings themselves, that Germany was the perpetrator of horrific crimes during the Nazi era. However, the focus has seemed to be on the individuals who were part of the Nazi machine, not on the German people themselves. This seems to me that perhaps the German historians, or whoever hired those historians, are trying to excuse the German people and their contemporary descendants of the guilt that has probably plagued the descendants of those who had a direct hand in the war and in the Holocaust.
Although I can understand the idea behind such a detachment—who would want to basically tell children that their ancestors perpetrated horrific deeds in the name of a racist ideology?—I’m not sure ethically it’s the right thing to do. On the one hand, the ancestors of many of today’s Germans were probably just soldiers or civilians. They may not have had that big a role in the horrible tragedies of the past. On the other hand, it can’t be denied that at the very least many citizens of Germany went along with the Nazi agenda and at the very worst outright supported it. Acknowledging that has been an important part of Germany ensuring that such tragedies as the Holocaust never again come to pass.
Then again, German children usually visit Holocaust-related places at least twice before they finish school, so maybe that does more than any statement condemning the German people in full for World War II and the Final Solution to prevent another war or genocide or even just a fascist state from rising.
In the end, though, the thing we must take away is that Germany can’t escape its past, and that it’ll live with it until probably the end of the Earth itself. At the very least, it may ensure that the Germans and all other peoples who’ve been held accountable for the horrors of genocide will remember what has happened and not let it happen again.
Now here’s one more question: what do the Chinese think about the Second World War? Half the time they were fighting the Japanese, and half the time they were fighting each other, depending on their political allegiances. What do they think of The Good War?