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.
Christian 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!