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Lessons From Germany’s Confrontations With the Past

Should statues, monuments, and symbols that offend people be removed from public spaces? And what should happen to them if they are?

The United States is not alone in dealing with public reminders of its conflicts. From South Africa to Spain to the nations of the former Soviet Bloc, dealing with the burdens of the past is rarely an easy process. Frequently, it reveals the existing tensions within a society, whether they are political, social, religious, ethnic, or racial.

Let’s consider Germany. During the course of the 20th century, German society had to confront its troublesome past no less than four times: with the fall of the Imperial Reich in 1918, in 1933 with the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship, in 1945 with the destruction of the Third Reich by the victorious Allies, and after 1989 with reunification of the two German states.

Some of Germany’s reactions to history were deeply flawed. In fact, its failure to come to grips with the past after 1918 helped to doom the nation’s first democracy and pave the way for the Nazi regime.

The German Imperial government disappeared as the last reigning emperor, Wilhelm II, fled into exile in the Netherlands, following World War I. His statues and other symbols of his reign were taken down, but the old regime still had many admirers, including in the new regime’s military and political bureaucracy.

Many Germans refused to pledge allegiance to the new flag of the Weimar Republic. Some continued to wave the old imperial flag, while others shifted their loyalties to the Nazi Party’s swastika banner or the Communist Party’s hammer and sickle. It is not surprising that Hitler, when he designed the Nazi banner in 1920, chose the red, black, and white colors of the German monarchy, emblazoned with a swastika.

These were the “unique colors, which all of us so passionately love and which once won so much honor for the German people, “Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf. They attested to the Nazis’ “veneration for the past” and were “the best embodiment of the movement’s will.” The swastika flag also conveyed the Party’s racist and antisemitic ideology, symbolizing “the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man.”

If the red, black, and white of the Nazi flag resonated with millions of Germans who fondly remembered the good old days, when the Imperial Reich was the most dominant military power on the European continent, it was not the only such reference to the nation’s past in public circulation.

When Germany’s first president, Friedrich Ebert, a Social Democrat and dedicated defender of democracy, died unexpectedly in 1925, the aged World War I hero, Paul von Hindenburg, was brought out of mothballs to run for election. He easily won.

Though Hindenburg presided over a democracy, he remained an unrepentant monarchist. Indeed, after he appointed Adolf Hitler as German chancellor in 1933, Hindenburg hoped that the Nazis would restore the Hohenzollerns to the German imperial throne. Hitler had a different vision for his Third Reich.

Years prior to doddering onto the political stage, Hindenburg had helped to give credence to the infamous legend that Germany had been stabbed in the back by disloyal politicians and civilians just as the nation’s military was on the verge of winning World War I. This myth became a key component of the anti-democratic far-right attack on the Weimar Republic. In the minds of Hitler and his followers, Social Democrats, Communists, Jews, liberals, and pacifists were the “November criminals” responsible for Germany’s defeat and its current miseries.

Sadly, Germany’s first democracy never succeeded in fully shedding the symbols of the past, nor in creating powerful counterparts able to unite a divided nation. Ultimately, it was the Nazis, with their keen insights into propaganda, who created an appealing image of the future, in part by playing upon memories and emblems of prior German greatness.

Ernst Roehm, Hermann Goering, and Heinrich Himmler on route to the opening of the Prussian State House. The wreath is intended for the Frederick the Great monument. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Heinrich Hoffmann/Studio of H. Hoffmann)

A more successful, but painful, confrontation with the past occurred when Nazi Germany went down in the flames of defeat in 1945. The Allies made a concerted effort not to repeat the mistakes of the previous world war or the Weimar Republic. Throughout the former Reich, swastikas were torn from the facades of buildings, Nazi monuments removed or destroyed, and streets renamed.

This was an enormous, yet necessary, undertaking to re-educate the German population for democracy. The groundwork for this policy was laid at the Yalta Conference, but it was supplemented at the Potsdam Conference of July — August 1945. There the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union agreed that Germany henceforth was to be completely disarmed and demilitarized, the Wehrmacht, Gestapo, the SS, the SA, and all other organizations that ”keep alive the military tradition in Germany” abolished, and that the occupying powers would work together to destroy the Nazi Party and “its affiliated and supervised organizations, to dissolve all Nazi institutions, to ensure that they are not revived in any form, and to prevent all Nazi and militaristic activity or propaganda.” (See the protocol of the conference.)

Even the International Military Tribunal that tried the major German war criminals, the Nuremberg trials, served an educational function. It exposed the insidious machinations of the Nazi elite and their murderous policies to the public. The Allies also aimed to prevent the former Nazi leaders from becoming future idols. Those convicted and executed at Nuremberg were cremated and the ashes disposed of, preventing their graves from being sites of pilgrimage for extremists.

What the Allies learned is that removing monuments and propaganda is much easier and quicker task than changing people’s minds. In a series of public opinion surveys conducted in the US occupation zone in the postwar period, American military authorities discovered that while large sections of the population, fluctuating between 50% and 70%, believed that Germany’s war time leaders tried at Nuremberg were guilty, not all aspects of Nazism met with such condemnation. Antisemitism, racism, and nationalism still had a strong presence in German society.

Eleven surveys conducted between November 1945 and December 1946 revealed that, on average, 47% of those polled felt that National Socialism was a “good idea,” but “badly carried out,” while 41% considered it a “bad idea.”

Changes of attitude don’t often happen rapidly, smoothly, or painlessly. Fifty years after the Nazi collapse, in the mid-1990s, a controversy erupted over whether the Wehrmacht willingly committed Nazi atrocities. It was easier to blame Hitler, the Nazis, and the SS for war crimes than examine the roles and responsibilities of ordinary soldiers, physicians, police officers, and judges.

What the Allies initiated in 1945, and subsequent German governments have continued, facilitated a national discussion about the country’s Nazi past. Taking down statues and monuments is a relatively easy task. The more difficult challenge is to grapple, openly and honestly, with the past.

Steven Luckert, Ph.D., Senior Program Curator, Levine Institute for Holocaust Research

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