As far as I can tell, this term was coined shortly after the Second World War, when Germans had to wrestle with their immediate past: the country's defeat in the First World War; the rise of fascism in the Weimar period; the racist and nationalistic rhetoric of multiple minority parties; the economic and political chaos of the twenties and early thirties; the ineffective parliament; the appointment of Hitler (whom many mainstream politicians considered a "joke" and a "buffoon"); the "emergency measures" that led to the abolishing of all political parties, other than the NSDAP (the Nazi Party); the Nazis' scapegoating and violent actions against communists, democratic-socialists, Jews, and other "undesirables"; the aggression against neighboring countries; the War; the Shoah; the country's total defeat in 1945; the horror of it all--and then the rebirth in the fifties, which was accompanied by tensions and conflicts of a related kind, when so-called "guest workers," who were mostly from Turkey, put down roots and came to see themselves as more than "guests."
After the Second World War, die Vergangenheitsbewältigung included a debate in Germany about what to do with the concentration camps. While the process of that discussion was complicated, far more so than I can summarize here, it basically involved two opposing positions. On the one hand, some argued that the camps should be torn down, demolished, covered over, replaced with something more positive. "Best to forget what happened here, and move on." On the other hand, some argued that the camps should be kept pretty much as they were in 1945, to make them into Gedenkstätte, literally, "places of thought," "places to think about the past," that is, as "memorials." "We must not forget. We must re-member. Let the camps be turned into museums that can remind later generations of what transpired here. Let them be warnings: Never again!" This latter position prevailed, and so today one can visit any number of Gedenkstätte in Germany, Poland, Austria, and other places.
To this day, all German high-school students must visit a concentration camp as a part of their high-school curriculum. They must confront a past that they did not choose, one for which their great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents bear more or less responsibility, although many of the students have no familial connection to Germany in the 1930s and 40s, since their families came to Germany after the war. Still, all students must deal with what transpired in their country in the not-too-distant past.
In just a few months, I will be leading 108 Americans to Germany for the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. In the course of that pilgrimage, we will visit Buchenwald, whose camp clock is still set to the time when the Allies liberated that place of horror.
On my last visit to that memorial a few years ago, after viewing the many haunting and disturbing exhibits in the two-story museum (the former depot, which is down the slope from the famous entrance gate), I came upon the place where visitors can leave public comments and reflections. Most of the notes and poems I read that day expressed some form of regret or shock for what had happened or some form of hope that such an evil would never happen again. A few acknowledged, "That was my great-grandparents' generation, not mine. I don't want to be burdened with the guilt that they alone should have borne, but I will do what I can so that such suffering and death never occur again." That afternoon, I must have read seventy-five comments like that one. But there was one hand-written note on that final memorial wall that has stuck with me and haunted my memory. It was a note from one of those millions of German high-school students who must "come to grips" with Hitler and the Holocaust and the terrible past of German history. It was a simple note:
"Die Juden erhielten was sie verdienten." "The Jews got what they deserved."
I had to read the note twice to make sure I had understood it properly. Yes, that's what was written. This unsettling, nauseating note, included among several other high-school notes from just a few weeks earlier, was posted in 2015.
How did that anonymous student come to have such hatred? How could that person visit such a place as Buchenwald, with all of its disturbing artifacts and graphic pictures and the matter-of-fact explanations and descriptions, and still find the energy to write what he or she did? (Was it a Muslim-German student who wrote this? A Christian? A cynical, nihilistic kid from a disillusioned and distraught family? Who?)
I thought about that note this past weekend, as I watched the terrifying images from Charlottesville. The young man who plowed into the crowd of counter-protesters there, killing a young woman and severely injuring so many others, is probably the same age as that anonymous former German high-school student, a mere twenty years old.
Jim Wallis has rightly identified slavery as "America's original sin." How ought we as a country to come to grips with that horrific past, including the war that did and did not end it? A past that is, frankly, still very painfully present today? How should we remember that history? What should our Gedenkstätte be? What "places of thought" should we require our high-school students to visit? Where can we "come to grips" with our troubled past, even if we can't really, fully work our way through it? From where comes the healing?
(As a Christian, I believe there is an ultimate, Spirit-worked, Christ-centered healing for the evil and sins of racism and nationalism and fascism and militarism. That healing comes through repentance. It involves remorse for past sins, including those that we have inherited from our forebears, and the desire to make right what has been wrong. Most crucially, for Christians, that healing is grounded in the forgiveness of Jesus Christ and the work of the Spirit to free people to love unconditionally and to work toward reconciliation, peace, and the renewal of society. But how difficult it is to articulate and convey that "good message" and the promise of Christ and the Spirit, when white supremacists and nationalists appeal to Christian symbols and thereby distort that message and contradict it and undermine it.)
I recently re-read the three-volume "narrative history" of the civil war by Shelby Foote, a native Mississippian. While this work is dated, and although it contains portions that seem to glorify that war and perhaps even suggest a kind of "moral equivalency" between officers and soldiers on both sides of that conflict, it is a monumental work of national memory that should be read by every American. I can think of few better ways to come to grips, if only initially, with that key turning-point in the American past. In that sense, Foote's trilogy is a kind of national Denkmal (memorial) for one part of our troubled yesterday.
Instead of defending "war-hero" monuments and memorials that were erected by southern racists in the time of Jim Crow, read Foote. (Or watch the Ken Burns' documentary, in which Foote is a central commentator.) The still-standing pieces of southern metal and stone from the 1920s and '30s--ostensibly erected to remember Lee and Jackson and other leaders of a lost and wrong cause but whose real intent was motivated by fears and hatreds at the time those memorials were dedicated--do not move our civic memories forward in any positive way. They only serve to project post-WWI hatred and racial bigotry into the present. Read instead the words of Foote, including those near the end (p. 971!) of the "Bibliographical Note" in his second volume (completed in 1963):
... Further afield, but no less applicable, Richmond Lattimore's translation of the Illiad put a Greekless author in close touch with his model. Indeed, to be complete, the list of my debts would have to be practically endless. Proust I believe has taught me more about the organization of material than even Gibbon has done, and Gibbon taught me much; Mark Twain and Faulkner would also have to be included, for they left their sign on all they touched, and in the course of this exploration of the American scene I often found that they had been there before me. In a quite different sense, I am obligated also to the governors of my native state and the adjoining states of Arkansas and Alabama for helping to lessen my sectional bias by reproducing, in their actions during several of the years that went into the writing of this volume, much that was least admirable in the position my forebears occupied when they stood up to Lincoln. I suppose, or in any case fervently hope, it is true that history never repeats itself, but I know from watching these three gentlemen that it can be terrifying in its approximations, even when the reproduction--deriving, as it does, its scale from the performers--is in miniature.
While we might initially object to Foote's use of "least admirable" here, since those words suggest there was something "more admirable" in those who fought to defend slavery and the confederacy--and we do not like to think there was--still, Foote's criticism of the racism he saw in his own troubled day indicates that people can learn from their nation's past sins, repent of them, "lessen their sectional bias," and work so as not to allow history to terrify in its approximations. With Foote, we can hope that history will not repeat itself. Of late, however, my hope is being sorely tested.