Why the memory of the Holocaust is a gift for German culture

January 27, 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration/extermination camp by the Soviet Red Army. It is a day of commemoration. A day on which Germany honors the pain of the victims. Some say: Yet another day of being reminded. Which is an attitude I take offense at.

This blog usually focuses on cross-cultural topics, not on German history. You’ll see the connection between the two by the end of this article. Bear with me as I am trying to make a rather unconventional point here, which you may have guessed after reading the headline.

As a German whose connection to the “Third Reich” and the Nazi regime is through his grandparents and their generation, I grew up with a guilt complex. Not personal guilt. Rather a feeling of a collective, national guilt. For most of my life I struggled with part of my national identity. I felt ashamed for our national history. I felt as if, as a nation, we are still carrying the guilt of mass murder. Of course I merely projected my personal experience on 80 million other Germans. But it is probably safe to assume that there are a few people who feel similarly.
It has been taking me many years to come to terms with this. For most of my life I felt burdened by an inherited guilt. It held me back. Like driving a car with the parking brake on. Today I accept the memory of the Holocaust as an obligation – even more: as a gift.


However, it saddens and worries me to see headlines about a majority of Germans who feel that 70 years later Germany has heard enough about the Holocaust. According to a recent survey, 81% of Germans would like to “put behind” the history of the persecution of Jews. 58% say it is time to “wipe the slate clean.” I think these numbers show why it is so important to keep the memory alive. This attitude of “enough already” is still based on guilt.

Yes, the Holocaust is an extremely painful legacy. But it has nothing to do with feeling guilty and everything with accepting our culture’s obligation to remind the world of what happened and of what humans are capable of. It is everyone’s choice to let commemoration bother them. I, for my part, gladly accept to be reminded. I am very much in favor of keeping the memory alive. Never forget.
It would bother me, though, if Germany developed an attitude which implies that there could be an end to remembrance, that at some point we will have finished a process.

One of my mentors and friends, who happens to be Jewish and who is deeply involved in the Jewish-German dialog, once said to me: Hitler and the Nazi regime wanted to forever separate Germany and the people of Jewish faith. It turns out that today the Holocaust forever tied the destiny of our people.

In accepting our obligation to commemorate and to honor the victims and their pain, Germans today and forever need to be a voice of reconciliation and torch bearers for intercultural understanding.
This is the gift that history has given us.
Once we move past the guilt and honor the responsibility, we will realize what enormous moral authority we have. Germans have been handed a task: We can be one of the most credible warning voices for humanity. We can legitimately tell the world: This is what happens if you go down that dark path.
Let’s just make sure we tone down our sometimes moralizing, smart-ass tone.

This is our history. Let’s own it. It makes us stronger. And it will release the parking brake.
Trust your process.

P.S.: For many years I have been enjoying my work and building my business. Only since the past few months has it become clear to me why I do what I do. I strongly believe that all conflicts between people can be resolved, if we understand each other’s cultures – our own, and the ones which are foreign to us. We can create peace, if we become agents of cultural understanding. This is now part of my company’s mission.

ch (April'14).2Christian is a cultural trainer, coach, and consultant with extensive experience in working with multinational companies and especially in developing global leaders. He is the President and CEO of The Culture Mastery, LLC, where he leads a team of dedicated training, destination services, and expat support specialists. Christian works with global organizations (or those who are going global) to help their employees overcome cultural differences. Typically he only uses the word “normal” in quotation marks and he is an advocate for helping people understand the why of behaviors – not just the dos & don’ts. Most just call him “The Culture Guy”. Find out more about Christian here and follow him on Twitter. You can also see him, listen to him, and experience his work – just invite him!

9 thoughts on “Why the memory of the Holocaust is a gift for German culture

  1. Pingback: Why the memory of the Holocaust is a gift for German culture « Butler Talks

  2. I was watching some interviews of survivors on CNN and it was extremely moving. (I spent about an hour teary eyed and not able to get off the couch) It got me thinking about my visit to Berlin when I was 19. It was 2002, I was a study abroad student just 12 months after 9/11. An ugly time for Americans to be abroad, and I felt a lot of shame to be… American.

    When I was in Berlin, I took a walking tour from an American expat who had been in Germany for 15+ years. He was a Germany-phile (is that a word?) He was fascinated with the place, and gave the most exceptional walking tour – might I note it was November and the tour began after dark, it was FREEZING miserable cold – even still it was the highlight of my 5 day visit to Berlin.

    What has stuck with me all these years is the amount of memorials, and ways Berlin has invested to preserve the history and tell the story of its past. To embed the realities of the hiSTORIES into the fabric of the city and show it for what it is – all of the story, not just the comfortable parts. I see Berlin as a living museum, a living story of total atrocity, and multiple rebuilds. But, an honest story. I remember one building had been repaired only 1/2 of it, while the other side still had statues with no heads, and bullet holes in the walls, pieces of shrapnel embedded into the marble structure. For me, this was a powerful way to show that we can rebuild, but we should also remember and honor the lessons. This way we don’t forget but we can keep learning from them, – because they are what has formed who we are now, today.

    Some years later, I was in grad school and took a course from a woman with an MSW and Phd in Pscyhcology – and the course was on PTSSD (Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome). Her research was around looking at the effect that 250+ years of enslavement has on a society and community, and how that it mirrors PTSD (post-traumatic stress). What can we do to help heal the descendents of African brought during the slave trade, who make up the African American community of today. If we look at how PTSD is treated, does this give clues of how to properly heal the painful past? Her focus was to inspire healing, and empathy. Dr. Joy DeGruy, if it interests you. http://www.joydegruy.com

    In this course I learned something important that burns open that feeling of shame. In the United States, there is not one, not a single monument, memorial or park to observe, recognize, imprint or tell the story of the slaves that by their plight helped to build the US to be an economic powerhouse. Riding on the backs of 250 years of free labor was certainly a profitable way to start a nation. In some of the most prominent real estate in NYC Central Park there are statues to honor men who were slave owners, and a doctor who did experiments on slaves. These men are refered to as innovators and great members of early-American society. The doctor J. Marion Sims who is sometimes referred to as the “father of modern gynocology” did experiments of African female slaves – without consent or aniseptic, leaving them with horrific infections and abuse to endure on top of all the other hardships of their lives. He was inhumane in the most horific nature. But now, he stands in Central park with a false, incomplete story of what he did and who he was and what he did. Now that, is something truly shameful.

    But, the slaves whom helped build NYC? Their story does not get told, remembered or shared. Is it not strange that often when the “reparations dialogue opens up, people often say “Cant we just move on? We cant fix all the problems of the past, so lets just make the future better.” Funny… how we also can’t have a monument for slaves, honoring their contributions to build the United States to place of power and wealth. We have monuments for the holocaust, people whom died 1000’s of miles away (to of which, I do not object). Though… on our own soil estimates says that between 1.2 – 5.4 million died in the slave trade. Where is their memorial? There is not one, not a single place to go and learn about them. It is uncomfortable to remember.

    Or… is it?

    While living in Europe, and having several colleagues, contacts and friends who are German I have often encountered, a strong sense of shame when speaking with Germans about the holocaust or the Nazis. I notice that it feels quite different from the way of how Spanish speak of Franco, Italians of Mussolini, and other fascist histories that exist here in Europe. Germans seem to have a much stronger sensitivity of shame or guilt around the topic (generalizing here, but just my experiences/observations of course from my point of view). I’ve tried to understand why it is so much more profound for Germans, while others don’t even seem to care. Though, Germany has also done a lot more to honor what happened and not let it be forgotten, which for that – I am grateful. Because, being in Berlin was not a sad experience. It was a meaningful, worthwhile opportunity to – remember. It was a comforting moment to be uncomfortable and have a space where it was not just ok to remember but it was ENCOURAGED. There is no shame in remembering our mistakes, in fact – I do believe it is a shame to try and bury them.

  3. I had a chance to work in Austria, Switzerland and Germany and meet people there. I have to admit that Germans are much nicer and kinder and friendlier then Swiss-Germans or Austrians. Someone said its because of the war hangover. If that’s the case than the tragedy has changed the Germans for better.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, Dan.
      Not sure though, if I would subscribe to the general idea that people of one nationality are “nicer” or “kinder” or “[fill in attribute of your choice]” than those of any other nationality.

  4. Reblogged this on EMILY RAMDAS and commented:
    Should the Holocaust be forgotten? Should any atrocity be forgotten? Tragedies and atrocities need to be remembered by all peoples of the world (in a non-guilt and non-blaming fashion) so we can continue to be aware to honor the survivors, the fallen brave, their legacy and experiences. This article opens up an interesting dialogue for all cultures and peoples that have faced genocide and other atrocities, as well as all peoples who have not faced these hardships. Can we forget the past? Should we? Some people think that if an atrocity was not institutionalized, it would make healing easier for a nation. Agree? Disagree?

    I agree with the original author of this post: we need to remember.

    It would be a disservice to the survivors and victims of atrocities to sweep human tragedies under a rug. Atrocities need recognition so that all peoples can understand what makes up our historical memory.

    May we all continue to learn, grow and heal together.

  5. I am so thankful you posted this. I have become very good friends with a girl from Germany. She is the first German friend I have ever had. It’s incredible to me how even in my conversations with her, I am careful not to mention “the past”. It’s like a wound that won’t heal over. I had watched WWII movies since I was young so I have been impacted by all that went on. It had more of an impact on me than any other event in history. I heard from a mutual friend that my German friend still feels “bad”. It seems like such a weight to live with. This article helped me to understand some of what she may experience. Maybe sometime in the future I could refer her to this post. In fact, so much of what you wrote resonated with me. I too believe the Germans of today have been given an incredible platform. I was also amazed to read in Vanessa’s post how the nation has looked with painful yet courageous boldness at memories of the past and they have committed to not forget. So moving. Looking back means they are moving forward!!! I believe it’s no accident that we are friends and there something for me to learn and heal from too. Thanks for writing

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