When I was eight years old, my mother took me to an exhibition about World War Two. For the first time in my life, I heard about Nazi Germany, persecution against Jews and concentration camps. She gave me a book about another young boy, Georgy Halpern, who wrote letters to his family while staying in the Maison d’Izieu, before being deported and murdered in Auschwitz at the age of nine. My child’s mind was shocked, but it did not identify Germany, or Germans, as the ones responsible. The « mean guys » had done it, the bad guys.
Only as I grew up and started learning about history in school, did I associate these crimes with Nazi Germany. But still, never with today’s Germany. At that time, I also started travelling and getting to meet German people. What struck me is that they felt very European, just like I started to. We were very close and had a lot to share ahead of us. At the age of twenty, I went to a European event where young people had the opportunity to commemorate the D-Day landings and share their feelings about our common historical heritage. The German in my group chose to talk about his shame. He said being on these beaches made him think of his ancestors. Maybe even his own great-grand parents and relatives. Or, as another German girl put it, people that walked the same streets, listened to the same children songs and ate the same dishes. Their people. Other Germans told me they felt sorry. Others told me it was not acceptable to show patriotism in their country. That they did not celebrate their national day, or take pride in raising their flag during football championships.
Germany is not to blame
Everyone knows the French are pretty big on la République, la Révolution and le 14 juillet. We indeed take pride in being French and we feel a certain commitment to human rights and democracy. We also like to think of ourselves as victims only, and sometimes forget the Vichy government also collaborated with the Third Reich. The truth is, I did not know what to tell these German friends. I felt powerless and sad as I just wanted to reassure them that I knew they had nothing to do with it. The Nazis committed these crimes, and the Nazis were Germans, but Germany as a country did not. Maybe it was valuable for them to hear that coming from a Frenchmen.
In 1969, a German politician, Franz-Josef Strauß, said that “a people, who achieved such economic success, has the right not to want to hear about Auschwitz any more”. Today, as the first generation who has no direct connection to World War Two and has to make an actual effort to remember and imagine it, we sometimes act on such discourses and pay less attention than we should to our past. Or rather, we pay less attention to what it can teach us and how we can ensure it never replicates. All over Europe, far-right movements are gaining ground and spreading racism and anti-islamism. Just before the 2014 European elections, Rainer Höss, the grandson of Auschwitz-commandant Rudolf Höss, shot a video in which he pointed out that “When we forget, history will repeat itself. I fear that this is happening right now”. We do hold a responsibility to remember about the dark past of Nazism. However, this is not for Germans only to shoulder this responsibility in the form of national guilt. It is one we all equally bear, as humans and more particularly as Europeans. I have just as many reasons as my German peers to feel ashamed or sorry.
Empires also killed
Yet, when going abroad, Germans are often asked about their perception of Nazism. When Germany pushes for a certain kind of agreement on Greece, posts comparing Angela Merkel to a new kind of Hitler immediately show up in my Facebook feed. In the streets of Athens, tags on the walls also make that connection. However, one never asks a French, British, Dutch or Belgian person what they feel about their colonial past. Empires did hate, ostracize and kill.
We need to understand that this is simply not about Germany, or Nazism for that matter. In fact, we deserve better than that. The kind of question we must consider is the one Jean-Jacques Goldman asked himself in his song Born in 1917 in Leidenstadt : “Would I have been better or worse than these people, if I had been German? / Raised in humiliation, hatred and ignorance / Full of dreams of revenge”. This is about us building a just future and a united continent by thinking critically about the human history. Not as Germans and French, but collectively, as Europeans. Let’s stand for that.
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