People gathered around ruins

In recent years Germany has been presented as the exemplar western liberal democracy. Their recent election saw increased turnout, almost 10% higher than the 2019 UK General Election. Chancellor Merkel’s Conservative CDU/CSU party has led ‘GroKo’ – Grand Coalition governments with the Social Democrats for twelve of the last sixteen years. This coalition between the largest parties is difficult to imagine elsewhere, especially in the UK. Finally, in response to the 2015 Refugee Crisis, Germans accepted over a million refugees, whilst the UK pledged to take 20,000. Thus, it’s easy to assume Germany’s engaged, consensus politics and democratic culture as permanent and inevitable.

However, this is an assumption. One date dispels this: the 9th of November. This date is the anniversary of two seminal events in German history; ‘Kristallnacht’ – Crystal Night, named after the broken glass which littered the streets after the brutal Nazi pogrom against Jewish communities in 1938; and ‘Schicksalstag’ – the day of fate, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, leading to reunification and birth of today’s Germany. In the memory of the 9th of November, we find that today’s Germany is built upon these twin pillars. How did the antifascist Germany of today emerge from the horrors of its past?

After World War Two, the Allies occupied Germany and it went through Denazification. The most notable form of Denazification was the Nuremberg Trials which put the Nazi leadership to trail, resulting in 161 convictions for war crimes or crimes against humanity in western zones, 37 of whom were sentenced to death. Although this punished Nazism’s worst perpetrators, this didn’t deal with the rest of the eight million members of the Party by the war’s end.

Whilst Nazi leadership and institutions had been physically removed, their ideas were still pervasive. US authorities found consistent majorities between 1945-1949 who thought ‘Nazism was a good idea badly applied’; in 1952, 25% of West Germans had a ‘good opinion’ of Hitler as well as 37% who believed Germany would be better off without Jews. Denazification was ended by West Germany’s first Chancellor Adenauer who was worried it would provoke backlash. Some post-war Germans believed they were “passive victims of Nazism”, accepting no guilt themselves. Far from today’s democratic culture, many post-war Germans avoided politics and didn’t engage with its uncomfortable past, contributing to a culture of avoidance.

How did Germany confront this? While much of Nazism’s physical presence was removed, its invisible cultural spectre was still present. Efforts to rehabilitate culture and minds really took off from the sixties and seventies. An effort encapsulated in the German word ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ – the cultural movement and struggle to confront its history, particularly its Nazi past.

One avenue of cultural rehabilitation was education. A primary example was the 1962 Guidelines on the treatment of totalitarianism in teaching. Nazism and the Holocaust were to be taught in schools comprehensively. Specific policies included the encouragement of visits to memorial sites, especially to local ones, provided insights into Nazism’s effects on their neighbourhoods, not only confronting students with the past’s tragedy but allowing for the recognition of that past’s closeness and presence.

These students prompted national movements and conversations, questioning previous generations’ responsibility, such as that of Chancellor Kiesinger in the late sixties, a former member of the Nazi Party. This student engagement with their past began the process of eroding the culture of avoidance.

Next was the shift in German popular culture. Even before civic education, there were signs that the taboos of the past were breaking. An early sign was the success of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ selling over 700,000 copies by 1960, becoming Germany’s best-selling paperback.

Additionally, the news forced reflection and engagement with these changes, such as Chancellor ‘Willy’ Brandt’s Warsaw visit and genuflection at the memorial for Stolpersteinevictims, the murders of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and the 1979 ‘Holocaust’ documentary series which was watched by well over half of adult Germans. Altogether propelling collective responsibility to the top of the public agenda and developing a society engaged with the crimes of the past and listening to the voices of victims of Nazism.

Finally, this process is evident in the commemoration of Nazism’s victims. Germany has conserved over two thousand memorial sites, like those of former concentration camps, but also built new sites of memorialisation. These include state-created memorials, like the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, and memorials created by the public.

Public-made memorials are a critical component of this process. An example is the community-made ‘Stolpersteine’ – stumbling stones, initiated by the German artist Gunter Demnig in 1992, that memorialise Nazism’s victims through laying brass plates on the ground of their last residence or place of work. As of 2019, over 75,000 have been laid, making it the largest decentralised memorial in the world.

In summary, Germany’s example demonstrates that active civic engagement with historical tragedy can rehabilitate a culture once gripped by far-right propaganda and ideology. When tackling global challenges like systemic racism, the climate crisis, etc., the German example offers clear lessons that the voice of victims should be amplified and local communities should not only be actively engaged, but should drive movements. For without its confrontation of the difficult past in education, national culture or community-built memorials, today’s Germany wouldn’t be the model democracy it is today.