Eric Braeden, who plays Victor Newman on the American soap opera The Young & the Restless, was interviewed on CBC Radio a few weeks ago about his autobiography, I’ll Be Damned (a catchphrase of the Newman character). Born in Germany as Hans Gudegast, Braeden first learned about the genocide we know as the Holocaust while watching the Swedish documentary Mein Kampf 1 in 1961 after immigrating to the United States. “I was so deeply affected by that film,” he remembered, “so deeply angered, so deeply ashamed, so deeply furious, and now being identified with that, and all of Germany that I had known as a normal boy growing up, I just—it just didn’t make any sense to me.” The more he learned about Nazi Germany, the more shocked he was. But like most Germans at that time, he felt terribly torn. It was his homeland, which he loved. Germany had made positive contributions to the world over centuries, “and yet all everyone talks about,” said Braeden, “is that damned twelve year period in German history led by that crazy Austrian private who pulled our name through the mud forever.” He was partly right: Germany will always be associated with the atrocities committed during World War II. But Germany also dealt with that shameful period so admirably that it has become a shining example of how truth and reconciliation can heal a nation—and its international reputation.
Truth And Reconciliation Didn’t Happen Overnight
After the war ended in 1945, facts about the systematic extermination of more than six million people began to emerge. The vast majority were Jews (approximately two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe), but the murders included an estimated million from other groups the Nazis found fault with: homosexuals, blacks, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholic priests and nuns, the Roma, the mentally and physically disabled, political opponents, and even German citizens who had helped anyone from these groups.
Military trials of high level Nazis, known later as the Nuremberg trials, were conducted by the Allies in 1945-46, thus making public the evidence of the atrocities. It’s safe to say that German citizens were traumatized by the horror and shame committed by their government and an estimated 200,000 perpetrators in their name. The majority accepted a level of guilt—though designated as Nazi guilt—and still believed the Nazi propaganda of the inferiority of Jews. The way to cope, in the immediate aftermath, was to get on with daily life in a country nearly destroyed by war, and now divided into East (Soviet-controlled) and West (Allied occupied). Lily Gardner Feldman, author of Germany’s Foreign Policy of Reconciliation: From Enmity to Amity, called the years following the war the “big silence.”
It took many years for public attitudes to change. Political action played a strong role, and was initially influenced by faith-based organizations. Some pivotal events include:
- 1951: The deeply religious chancellor of West Germany, Konrad Adenauer, recognized that Germany would never be a respected part of the international community until it mended relations with its former enemies. He began negotiations with Israel for reparations, declaring that “unspeakable crimes have been committed in the name of the German people, calling for moral and material indemnity.”
- 1963: Adenauer signed the Élysée Treaty with French President Charles de Gaulle, a “friendship treaty” to establish positive relations between the two countries.
- 1963: The Frankfurt Auschwitz trials prosecuted 22 mid- to lower-level between 1963-65. The trials were controversial because there were 6,500 surviving SS personnel, and the accused were not tried for crimes against humanity but for murder and other crimes committed on their own initiative. However, this was a significant event because it was conducted by Germans, according to German law, and began a national dialogue.
- 1970: West German Chancellor Willy Brandt laid a wreath at the Warsaw ghetto memorial, and knelt in contrition before it. Though he himself had opposed Hitler, he declared that “no German is free of history.”
- 1979: A four-part American miniseries, Holocaust, was broadcast on German television, raising awareness and providing an impetus for public discourse, especially among the grandchildren of WWII era citizens.
- 1985: Parliament passed legislation making it a criminal offence to deny the Holocaust.
The Roots of Change: Education
Helmut Kohl, Chancellor from 1982 to 1998, was leader of the Christian Democratic Union, and a strong supporter of German reunification, European integration, and liberal education. During his tenure (1991) it became mandatory for schools to teach about the Holocaust and the Nazi era. German history2 textbooks now have a chapter that examines how the Nazis came to power, how they changed laws to suit their agenda, and how they segregated and killed people. It is designed to promote critical thinking about who knew what, who participated, who did not, and how society was affected. It is history, presented as German history within a European context. Consequently, Germans today do not feel a sense of personal guilt. As one teacher put it, “I don’t have a bad conscience. I don’t see myself as responsible. But I would be responsible if it happened again.”
That’s the point of paying attention to history, isn’t it? Eric Braeden warned “about how seriously we have to take politics in order to prevent that [kind of] disaster from ever happening again.” We must educate ourselves on the facts of history if we are to avoid repeating the worst parts of it.
Reconciliation is not something that is done by one party alone. As Angela Merkel once said, “We Germans will never forget the hand of reconciliation that was extended to us after all the suffering that our country had brought to Europe and the world.” There must be will on all sides to make reconciliation possible.
Neither is reconciliation a solitary act. In some ways, it’s a ongoing process. But to date, by acknowledging the country’s guilt, formally apologizing to its wartime enemies for the atrocities committed, making it a crime to deny them, educating its youth about them, and making more than $90 billion in reparations (since 1952 and mainly to Israel for Holocaust survivors), Germany stands as an impressive example of how to face the truth, extend the hand of friendship, and move forward with dignity.
- The movie title was taken from Mein Kampf (My Struggle), the name of Adolf Hitler’s two-volume autobiography and Nazi manifesto, published in 1925-26.
- Unfortunately German history is only taught in Grade 10, so unless it is discussed in the home, younger children may not be aware of the subject—even though the country has a large number of monuments and plaques pertaining to it.