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May 11, 2015

Germany Confronts its History


The past week witnessed commemorations of the defeat of Nazi Germany 70 years ago. The German legislature, the Bundestag, featured an address by eminent historian, professor doctor Heinrich August Winkler, Chairman of the Department of History at Humboldt University in Berlin. Winkler pulled no punches in his sweeping assessment of German responsibility for the cataclysmic war. But equally important his measured words are a warning to all generations.

Quoting philosopher Ernst Cassirer, Winkler describes Hitler's political ascendance as the "triumph of myth over reason." Viewing the xenophobia and outbreak of anti-Semitism in the world today, Winkler concludes, "Cassirer's words still have relevance today." He warns,

In politics we are always living on volcanic soil. You must be prepared for abrupt convulsions and eruptions. In those critical moments of man's social life, the directions of forces that resist the rise of old mythical conceptions are no longer sure of themselves. In these moments the time for myths has come again. The myth never really disappeared... lurking in the dark, waiting for its hour... this hour comes as soon as the other binding forces of man's social life... lose their sense and are no longer able to combat the demonic, mythical power.

In just five and a half years, more than 50 million people perished in World War Two, including 8 million Germans. But Winkler makes it absolutely clear

the Holocaust is the central fact of twentieth century German history." (Winkler's emphasis)

Yet it took many decades for Germans to come to terms with the Holocaust. Immediately after the war, a statement by German churches did not even acknowledge the Holocaust. Winkler credits Jewish scholars for the gradual recognition of the importance of the Holocaust.

Winkler notes the importance of the fact that "markers, plaques and memorials dedicated to the Jews and other victims of the Nazis were placed there not by the state, but by civic institutions."

While emphasizing that Germans today should not feel guilt over what was done by prior generations, Winkler affirms that succeeding generations have a responsibility to be "conscious" of their country's history and not allow memory of the atrocities to fade. He adds that these responsibilities are also "incumbent upon those who become Germans."

"Foremost" among their obligations is the "special relationship with Israel."

Despite Germany's great cultural contributions throughout the centuries, Winkler observes that its most influential social groups rejected enlightenment concepts of inalienable human rights, sovereignty of the people and representative democracy. Hostility to these principles, that were enshrined in the American and French revolutions, only eroded after the catastrophe of 1933-1945.

The Allied victory in 1945 "liberated the Germans from themselves." Successful German unification was "only possible because it had broken from its past political traditions..." This included "recognition of the post-war Polish-German border" that accepted the removal of German sovereignty from historically German territories in the east. Winkler, himself, was forced to flee his native Konigsberg in East Prussia, which was destroyed by Soviet forces and renamed Kaliningrad.

According to Winkler,

[It] took time to overcome the apologists for German history who regarded the German people as Hitler's third victims. It took decades for millions of German refugees from Eastern provinces to recognize that their suffering was a consequence of Germany's use of military force and come to terms with this.

Upon the conclusion of his lengthy address, Winkler received a standing ovation from the German legislature. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bundestag President Professor Doctor Norbert Lammert attended the commemoration and address by Winkler.

Much of what Winkler described has significance beyond the exceptional case of Germany. Was anyone in Iran or the Arab world paying attention? Unfortunately, the answer is probably not.

For that matter, few in the United States are aware of Winkler's address to the Bundestag. That is because The New York Times, NPR, PBS and the major news networks did not cover it. Only C-span aired it.

Posted by SS at May 11, 2015 04:31 PM


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