Is there such a thing as collective guilt? Or if not that, then at least some kind of national responsibility for past state crimes? Was the Nazi period a freak of history, or an inevitable culmination of the revanchist, reactionary forces of German nationalism? And what did grandad do during the War?Those are just some of the issues that are the burden of every German born after 1945 – a peculiar variant on the concept of original sin.
Over six decades now separate us from the end of World War Two, but the conflict will not – will not be allowed to – fade away from German national consciousness. Post-war Germany’s actions on the European and world stage for the most part have been motivated by the responsibility of atonement for the war (1), and the apprehensive avoidance of any international grandstanding. Whether or not it was Helmut Kohl who said that “Europe should not become German, but Germany should become European,” the quote correctly identifies Germany’s exemplary pro-Europeanness as an essential part of its post-1945 identity.
The flipside of Germany’s new, post-war identity is a complete rejection and reversal of its pre-war and wartime Nazi ideology. This might seem like the obvious and only possible course, given the extent of the Nazi regime’s reprehensible belligerence, heinous perfidy and horrid crimes against humanity. However, the quasi-absoluteness of denazification in Germany contrasts markedly with Japan’s reluctant retro- and introspection vis-a-vis its wartime guilt (2).
And yet, despite the official attitude that fascism is not an opinion, but a crime (Faschismus ist keine Meinung, sondern ein Verbrechen), expressly criminalising the outward signs of Nazism (e.g. the swastika, the Nazi salute, denial of the Holocaust, publication of Mein Kampf), mementos of the other, older, evil Germany keep resurfacing. In recent years, several German cities have publicly retracted the honorary citizenship bestowed on Adolf Hitler in tempore suspecto (3): Düsseldorf (2000), Aschersleben (2006), Bad Doberan and Biedenkopf (2007), Kleve (2008), and Forst/Lausitz (2009), among others.
This map shows another clattering of skeletons in Germany’s closet (4). Under the ironic title ‘Germany’s most beautiful school names’, it catalogues German schools bearing the names of Germans with a less than salubrious track record during the Nazi years. The offending names are:
- Ferdinand Sauerbruch: surgeon and personal physician to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi’s chief propagandist. As a high-ranking medical official, he approved funding for medical experiments on concentration camp inmates.
- Klaus Riedel: Rocket scientist, co-developer of the Vergeltungswaffe (‘Retaliation Weapon’) V2, which caused the deaths of 100,000 civilians in Allied countries and of 12,000 forced labourers in Nazi-occupied Europe.
- Wernher von Braun: In charge of the Heeresversuchsanstalt (‘army test organisation’), member of the Nazi party and Sturmbannfuehrer in the SS, developer of the V2 rocket, personally selected forced labourers in the Buchenwald concentration camp (5).
- Rainer Fetscher: Physician, “racial hygienist”, member of the SA. Compiled a database to identify “biologically inferior individuals”, was responsible for at least 65 forced sterilisations. In this light, it is particularly unfortunate, to say the least, that his name is attached to a school for physcially handicapped children.
- Peter Petersen: A teacher, he wrote about “racial superiority” and about “the Jew, [...] who, in everything he touches, has a destructive, flattening, and even poisoning [effect].” As late as 1949, he complained that the German people was “racially polluted”. The large number of schools named after him can be explained by his development in 1927 of the ‘Jena Plan’, an educational concept still followed by quite a few schools in Germany (among which, one imagines, those named after Petersen himself).
- Rudolf Dietz: nostalgic poet, member of the racist Deutschbund (‘German Association’) and of the Nazi party. Wrote about 30 anti-semitic poems, in his poem Reichslied (‘song of the Empire’), he wrote approvingly of the “unity under the swastika”.
- Hermann, Herbert and Werner Andert: Hermann was a member of the Nazi party, his sons of the SA and the Nazi teachers’ union. Werner was a contributor to Nazi newspapers.
- Agnes Wiegel: Nazi poet, member of the Nazi party, ardent Hitler-worshipper. Wrote the Ode an den Fuehrer (‘Ode to the Leader’), signatory to the Gelobnis treuester Gefolgschaft (‘Promise of most loyal obedience’) to Hitler.
Many thanks to John D. Boy for sending in this map, found here on Extra 3, a blog associated with the northern German tv station NDR Fernsehen. Germans have, it seems, a bit of a tradition of humourous maps of their country. See also the Deutschlandkarte showing clusters of hair salon names, discussed earlier on this blog (#385).
(1) whether the First One needs to be included in this exercise in atonement is a whole different can of worms.
(2) for a revealing comparison of the post-war attitudes on responsibility and rememberance, read Ian Buruma’s excellent book on the subject: ‘Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan’).
(3) The retractions were largely symbolic, as honorary citizenship (Ehrenbuergerschaft) is considered voided by the death of the person thus honoured.
(4) If you’ll pardon the expression. Also: what is the correct collective noun for a group of skeletons?
(5) Wernher von Braun of course became a respected member of the American scientific community, contributing to the American space programme. A multipurpose indoor arena in Huntsville, AL was named after him (the Von Braun Civic Center – VBCC).