How Germany Built Collective Responsibility after the Holocaust

What the Rwandan nation has managed to build in less than 30 years after the genocide against the Tutsi is truly unbelievable. I have come to this opinion through my everyday life and the insights I gained from numerous conversations with Rwandans as well as from a German-Rwandan youth exchange programme that I coordinated some years ago. This youth exchange was focused on building sustainable futures and societies in the context of the history of both countries’ genocide experiences. During this project, it also became apparent that the Rwandan participants were more reserved when it came to discussing the sensitive subject of their country’s past, while the German cohort seemed more comfortable discussing their country’s genocide history. I automatically assumed it had something to do with the fact that the Genocide against the Tutsi was more recent than the Holocaust. However, a Rwandan friend disagreed with this assumption, arguing thus: “You [Germans] have a term that separates the people today from the perpetrator group, which we [Rwandans] don’t have. So, in remembrance discourse, we instinctively assign ourselves to the victim or perpetrator groups.” At the time, I didn’t understand what he meant, but today the truism of his point has begun to resonate with me.

Having conversations with each other and learning from each other is extremely valuable. It allows us to identify differences and similarities, understand the other perspective and glean certain elements from one another’s remembrance culture that one believes to be relevant to their own context. The Rwandan and German cohorts who discussed history, remembrance and their own respective roles in creating sustainably peaceful societies had so much to bring to the table. And while Rwanda’s and Germany’s respective historical contexts are of course very different, as is the timeframe which we are looking at, the reasons for practising remembrance are very similar.

Arguably, two of the main reasons for remembering are: (1) to honour and pay tribute to the victims and their relatives, and (2) to ensure that we build countries and societies with a sense of responsibility and a given set of values which ensure that the atrocities our people faced and committed are never repeated. With regard to the second objective, there is a specific aspect of our remembrance in Germany that I would like to share: it is our enhanced sense of ‘collective’ responsibility as a nation in ensuring that what happened during the Holocaust does not happen again.

This collective responsibility is visible through open discussions and our acknowledgment of the crimes committed by Germans during the Third Reich. As my friend rightly pointed out, this collective responsibility is partially made possible through the use of the term Nazi, which designates perpetrators as well as those who still subscribe to Nazi ideology. The result of this naming is the isolation of Nazi ideology from our national identity. To be clear, under the Third Reich, the majority of Germans were either actively involved in or at least silently complicit during the Holocaust, leading to most Germans nowadays having ancestors who were directly involved in the Holocaust or compliant with the Nazi regime. However, even though many of our relatives were involved, as young Germans we refer to the Nazis as a separate group of Germans which we do not see ourselves as part of, hence isolating the ideology from the nationality. This allows us to have open conversations about our history without feeling shame or guilt for who we are. On the contrary, we feel an increased sense of responsibility for the past as well as an obligation to ensure that nothing like that repeats itself while simultaneously having an increased sense of solidarity. This solidarity is expressed at all times towards Holocaust victims; it is also expressed towards the entire Jewish community whenever anti-Semitic sentiments are on the rise. It is indeed important to us as Germans that this sense of increased responsibility, as well as solidarity, remain.

I also believe that this increased notion of collective responsibility arises from the fact that we are continuously confronted with the atrocities committed during the Third Reich. This confrontation occurs through memorials, museums, and public events, but, perhaps most importantly, it plays a significant role in our school curricula. I remember history classes, political science classes and also German literature that would focus on and teach about the Holocaust. As noted by those who visit the country, “learning about Germany’s past — and especially World War II — is not exclusive to academics or museum-goers. In fact, history museums are often packed with pupils as young as 12, learning about the Nazi regime and the horrors it brought upon humanity.” There are indeed school trips to museums, memorials and ex-concentration camps.

Also, the enormous role that the Nazi era plays in our education system has allowed the government to take the lead on the content young Germans are exposed to as well as setting the paradigms of what people are expected to know and allowed to say. It is, for example, illegal to deny the Holocaust or use certain phrases that the Nazi regime used. This open handling of the crimes the Germans of the Third Reich era committed is a thorn in the side of those who deny and those whose goal is to perpetuate genocide and segregationist ideologies. It allows us as a society to clearly identify those people as there is no room for them ‘to quietly hide behind the many’ and go unseen.

The cost attached to adhering to Nazi ideology, in terms of social stigma and legal proceedings in cases of Holocaust denial, keeps them on the fringes of society. This cost is the manifestation of our society’s determination to ensure that they can never constitute a threat to our national cohesion. Hence, the combined effect of repeated confrontation with our past and the use of specific terminology (i.e., Nazi), which allows us to easily dissociate ourselves from the group of perpetrators and to call out those who indeed continue to subscribe to Nazi ideology, is one successful aspect of our remembrance in Germany. It has led to an enhanced sense of collective responsibility in the fight against genocide/Nazi ideology.

While I don’t believe that all our remembrance practices are successful, I feel that this very practice is worth sharing as we commemorate the genocide against the Tutsi. This aspect is indeed why I say that nowadays I understand what my friend meant when he told me that, as Germans, we seem to be able to distance ourselves from the perpetrator group, which is why we so openly discuss our country’s and people’s past.

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