For a while now, I’ve wondered whether there is a shift taking place in Germany’s attitude to the Nazi past. It seems to me, although it is of course diffcult to prove this in a scientific way, that, rightly or wrongly, Germany increasingly sees itself as a “normal” country for which Nazism and in particular the Holocaust is no longer of special relevance. So when I was in Berlin this week, I was interested to see the cover story in the magazine of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit about attitudes to the Nazi past among German teenagers. The headline was: “Was geht das mich noch an?” or “What’s it got to do with me?” The analysis was based on an attitude survey of 14-19 year-olds, most of whom affirmed the importance of ongoing remembrance. But, more worryingly, teachers interviewed for the article also said their students were often uninterested in the Holocaust or even, when shown photos of mass executions, expressed sympathy for the perpetrators rather than the victims.
The feature in Die Zeit drew on the findings of the psychologist Harald Welzer’s groundbreaking study Opa war kein Nazi (Grandpa wasn’t a Nazi), which was published in 2002. Using 40 case studies, Welzer argued that memories of the Nazi era were passed down from generation to generation within families in a process of “communicative memory” that operated in parallel to – and was often more powerful than – “cultural memory” about the Nazi past (see this good introduction to these terms). Many of the children of the Nazis – and above all the so-called 1968 generation about whom I wrote in my book, Utopia or Auschwitz – tended to see their parents as “perpetrators”. However, as Welzer shows, their own children – in other words the grandchildren of the Nazis – tended to see their grandparents in a much more favourable light (what he called “cumulative heroisation”). In particular, they had difficulty imagining that their grandparents in some way bore responsibility for Nazism – hence the book’s title.
The feature in Die Zeit focuses on the next (i.e. the fourth) generation – in other words the great-grandchildren of the Nazis. Few of those who are now between 14 and 19 years-old will have had personal contact with their great-grandparents and are therefore unlikely to feel the same emotional connection with “perpetrator generation” as the previous generation did (although 56% did say in the survey that their family had done nothing wrong during the Nazi era i.e. my great-grandfather wasn’t a Nazi). The danger, however, is that they are even less likely than the previous generation to see the relevance of the Nazi era for them. In the survey, 67% of them said that their generation had a duty to make sure the Holocaust wasn’t forgotten. But, paradoxically, many also felt a sense of resentment about the rituals of remembrance in Germany. For example, 43% complained that they were expected to show consternation about the Nazi past and 41% said they felt they couldn’t honestly express their views about the Nazi past.
This sense of resentment – which I’ve also noticed in conversations I’ve had with Germans in their twenties and thirties – fits in with the wider backlash against against Germany’s “Erinnerungskultur”, or memory culture, that is currently taking place. The backlash is generally thought to have begun with the speech given in Frankfurt by the writer Martin Walser when he received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in the autumn of 1998. At the time, the speech was hugely controversial. However, in the decade since then, there has been what some academics have called a “Walserisation” of Germany. It seems to me that there is now a widespread sense in Germany that the rituals of remembrance that have been established since the 1980s have become empty. “Why, despite the existence of institutionalised memorial and commemoration sites,” ask Ulrike Jureit and Christian Schneider in a recently published book, “do we have the uncomfortable feeling that we have reached a dead end in our approach to memory?”
It seems to me that this backlash has already had a profound effect – for example, as I argued in the essay I did for Prospect over the summer, the Holocaust no longer plays a significant role in German foreign policy except in the bilateral relationship with Israel. For the moment, Germany’s establishment still consists mainly of people who belong to generations for whom the Nazi past remains a central collective memory. But as they are gradually replaced by younger Germans, I think we may see some further interesting and potentially problematic shifts in German foreign policy. What, for example, will German foreign policy look like in ten or twenty years’ time, when Germany is run by a generation that sees it as a “a country just like any other” (as 67% of the 14-19 year-olds in the attitude survey said they did)? In particular, will Germans still feel any sense of a special responsibility towards Israel?