Does a Nation Have a Long-term Memory?

22/01/2012 19:05

Photo: A scene from The Reader (2008) -

In the history of every nation there are some periods everybody is proud of, but there are also some darker chapters we would like to forget about. But do you think that the French feel guilty because Napoleon killed so many people? Do you think that Italians lose sleep over the reign of terror of Caesar Nero? Of course not. Why should they? Both of the rulers lived ages ago and although they were members of their nations, people do not feel any connection with them anymore. But how much time does a nation need to recover from a war?

As I am a student of German Studies and I spent one month in Germany in the summer, I was interested in how Germans today view the events of World War II, whether they are still caught up in the guilt over the Nazi era the generations before were plagued by.

I first came into contact with the Nazi question during one class at a language school. As we were an international group, we talked about taboos in different countries, but for our homework we were asked to think of some sensitive topics in German history. Of course, most students chose to talk about the Nazi times and concentration camps. Our teacher told us about how people in Germany coped with their past after World War II. It was really weird to look at her while she was talking about her grandpa, who was all his life ashamed of having fought on the side of Germany during the war. After the war he refrained from voting in elections because “he felt he was not worthy of it and had no right to make decisions about people whom he had disappointed.” I was wondering if it was a right way to cope with the past or if his attitude was expressive of passivity and a lack of energy to continue living or even symptomatic of the generation who knew about or was directly complicit in the Nazi crimes and never took an open stance against them.

Although it is understandable why this first generation is plagued by guilt about the Nazi era, it is less understandable that the generation that came after is also caught up in the guilt. An excellent movie which is concerned with this topic is The Reader. It is a film adaptation of a novel written by Bernhard Schlink, Der Vorleser. Both the film and the novel focus on two characters, Michael and much older Hanna, who had a love affair when the boy was quite young. One day Hanna disappears and Michael doesn’t hear from her until several years later when he, as a law student, attends a trial of concentration camp guards. While he is only an observer, Hanna is on trial for her crimes as an SS guard at Auschwitz. Although Michael was interested in the seminar visit at first because he was curious to see how the guards would be punished for what they did, in the end, when Hanna is sentenced to life imprisonment, he realises that not everything is only black or white.

Although Holocaust is a really difficult topic to deal with, Bernhard Schlink tried to look at it from a different perspective, to be more specific, from the perspective of a young man in the post-war Germany. It was definitely a serious issue for young people in the 1960s because they were the first generation who had nothing to do with the war and it was really hard for them to cope with the Nazi past of their parents. The novel is at the same time very touching because one starts to sympathize with Hanna, a former concentration camp guard. In the movie she is played by Kate Winslet, who was also awarded for her depiction of Hanna. In an interview with Andreas Kilb, Bernhard Schlink expressed his view on the fact that Hanna became a hero although she had been a murderer: “That is an important fact. The book is a story of Michael Berg. But the movie is seen as a story of Hanna thanks to the fascination which comes from Kate Winslet. Since the moment the movie appeared, I have had to live with the reproach that the character of Hanna Schmitz became a heroic figure. But if murderers were always monsters, the world would be much simpler. And it is, of course, not true. My generation has experienced that with teachers, professors, priests, doctors, uncles or even fathers, whose past was made public. And that certainly did not contribute to respect, admiration or even love, which are normally connected with these relationships.”

As I have already said, not everything is only black or white and this book is a good example of that. The author moves the reader to start doubting whether all the people who worked in concentration camps were bad. And this is exactly what young people in the 1960s dealt with. Their parents did what they did, but is it a reason they should stop loving them? And, on the other hand, can you forgive a person everything only because he is a member of your family? It is a hard question, and the second generation has to fight these contradictory feelings all their lives.

But let’s look at the situation in Germany nowadays. We can say that the memory of a nation is probably very similar to that of individual people. The longer time has passed, the less intense our feelings are. One says that time heals everything, but is it really true? I talked to Andrea Calzolaio, a student of the Catholic University in Eichstätt, to find out how young people in Bayern feel about this topic. “Some years ago, the period of National Socialism and holocaust were certainly taboo topics in Germany,” she said, “but nowadays people are usually open about them. At school we discuss and analyze in great detail everything from Hitler’s usurpation of power through the National Socialist Party’s social policy to World War II and holocaust. Apart from that, there is a tradition that 9th graders from every grammar school in Bayern make a field trip to the memorial of the concentration camp in Dachau.” The period of National Socialism and holocaust also appear in other spheres, mainly on TV. Documentaries about various aspects of these times (for example, about the concentration camp in Auschwitz, Hitler as a private person, and so on), but also feature films (e.g. Downfall) are broadcasted very often. The cities whose history is somehow connected to the National Socialist times are homes to specialized museums, such as the National Socialist Documentary Centre in Koln. Even popular museums like Madame Tussauds in Berlin don’t ignore this dark chapter of Germany’s modern history. Its section about German history features, besides other things, a wax figure of Adolf Hitler. Shortly after the section’s opening, one of the visitors knocked off the head of the figure, and since then it has been in a glass display case. A discussion followed if the wax figure should be removed from the museum. The representatives of the museum defended their decision to include Hitler’s wax statue in the exposition saying that even if Hitler belongs to the dark sides of German history, he is part of it.

“The dark sides of these times are not taboo anymore,” said Andrea. “Maybe it is because sixty years have passed since the end of the war and the processing has always been very important. I think that we can use the same argument as the museum: the National Socialist times are part of German history, which also means general responsibility. But when talking about personal responsibility or a feeling of guilt, we have to admit that a lot of time has passed and there are only few people left who have first-hand memories of the National Socialist era and who can deliver testimony about it. In two or three generations people will probably view this period just the way they view World War I – like an era to which they do not have any personal relation at all.”

If we really want to find an answer to the question if a nation has a long-term memory, we have to take in consideration the memory of individual people because they make up the nation. Since some people live up to the age of 110 and more, the memory of a nation is also much longer. The memory of an individual is not dissimilar to that of a nation. If a person experiences something in his or her life, he or she tends to forget about some things or maybe his or her feelings are not so intense after some time. It also happens with the history of nations. Both a person and a nation forget some parts of the past, but there is one thing we should remember: when we make a mistake, we should always learn a lesson from it not to repeat the mistake. And that it something that nations all over the world should do: research their history, but also the history of the mankind, and prevent other catastrophes from happening.  


Zuzana Servanská



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