How do young Germans feel about their history?

Dylan Moran, the Irish comic, does a very funny bit about Germany that includes listening to a young German person speak about modern Germany, meanwhile the listener has one thought running through their mind: “Hitler…Hitler…Hitler…”

As an American, I have very definite feelings of both pride and shame regarding my national heritage, I think most people do, it is very difficult not to. It is very natural for humans to identify with their group, from immediate family on up to species, and for each group to form part of one’s personal identity. I am a woman, an Angeleno, a California,an American, a First Worlder, a human being, an Earthling. All of those things contribute to how I see myself.

Germany was responsible for both World Wars and the single largest, most horrifying genocide in human history. I can’t begin to imagine what it is like to be German and have to deal with that kind of history. My assumption is that it must have a very difficult effect on large number of young Germans. Am I right? Any Germans care to weigh in?

Why on earth would anyone, of any nationality, feel either pride or shame about things that they had no part in?

Because they do, logical or not…

People feel pride and shame about boatloads of things they had no part in, starting with things about themselves that are a product of genes. It’s human nature.

Well, you do. I don’t, so where does that leave us? Pride and shame are, surely, feelings deeply rooted in the personal, the acts of you as an individual.

Actually, I don’t, not as much as average bear, anyway. I am very conscious of differentiating between things that I am genuinely responsible for vs. things I am not when it’s about pride and shame in myself directly, my being and my deeds.

However, I do have some identification with my “groups”, as I said. Because being part of those groups has had an impact on who I am, to varying degrees. I am not responsible for being female, but being female has definitely had an enormous impact on how I feel, how I think, how I behave - in ways that are not biologically determined. I am not responsible for the fact that I am an Angeleno (I am for the fact that I remain one, but not for the fact that I was raised here), but it has influenced my thoughts and feelings about life.

And the same for being an American. I am not responsible for being American, or for things that America does as a country. But I am an American, and I choose to remain an American living in America, so it has had an enormous impact on my worldview and I do feel some degree of pride and shame regarding American acts both currently and in the past.

And that is true of most people to varying degrees.

So you feel no pride or patriotism in being Scottish/British? You have no commonality to the history of your country, since you, personally, didn’t have an active role? You do not feel any sense of pride or belonging in any political/ethnic/philosophical/religious group?

Well, there’s a sense of belonging, for sure. It’s where I live, where my family has lived as far back as anyone can tell, but where does the pride (or shame) come into that? I mean, I’m glad I was born in a nice, safe, prosperous backwater of the world, but that’s not down to anything I’ve ever done.

It’s up to every person to set their self-esteem by however they see it, of course, but I’m not sure “Was born in a place” is all that great a baseline.

I suppose there’s some vicarious identification when it comes to sport, mind you, but that’s more heartbreak than anything for us Scots.

In the early 90’s I was a young person backpacking thru Europe staying with friends. In Munich I planned to see Dachau, and my young (at the time) German friends scoffed at my plan asking why I wanted to go there. They indicated they’d rather just forget about all that and just move on with their lives, and wished people would stop reminding them of that part of their history.

I kind of think it’s probably a lot like US history with respect to the treatment of Native Americans, slaves and other stuff that was long, long ago. By that, I mean that distance in time is as real as geographic distance. I mean, Jim Crow was something that was alive and well in my grandparents’ generation, and was dismantled during my parents’ generation.

But to me, it’s merely something that I read about in the history books, and something whose effects are still echoing today. I don’t feel any shame, regret or remorse over it; I didn’t have anything to do with it- it was gone by the time I was born. Same thing about slavery, or the more or less genocidal treatment of Native Americans by American settlers.

I suspect that say… 15 year old Germans feel much the same way- to them, the Berlin Wall is some musty old historical footnote in much the same way that JFK’s election, or the Gary Powers U2 incident is to me. Something that happened 44 years prior to that (i.e. WWII) is about as remote as World War I is to me, and World War 1 to them is about on par with Reconstruction to me as far as historical remoteness.

I doubt they really think about it very much to be honest.

Don’t forget that most Germans were victims, not perpetrators. So it’s a sadness, rather than a shame.

This is just ridiculous. The Nazi government had wide popularity and could only have been possible through the efforts of millions of small people. In Tony Judt book Postwar he cites a poll taken a few years after the war; Hitlers government still enjoyed about a 25% popularity rating.

The present is made of the past. The repercussions of slavery remain immense in American society today. It is not possible to be an American and not have anything to do with it, just as it is not possible to be Germsn and have nothing to do with Naziism. Denying the reality means perpetuating it, not getting over it. Americans and Germans both make the best progress when we openly confront our histories.

Anecdotal evidence ahead:

Most young Germans I have met and personally gotten to know did indeed feel both guilt and shame about the Holocaust.

Don’t know how prevalent this mindset is, but I’d guess it’s rather common.

I’m not denying anything, merely pointing out that slavery and Jim Crow were things that happened long before I was born, and that they’re merely historical events to me, much like say… the Holocaust, the signing of the Magna Carta or the assassination of Julius Caesar. Some are good, some are unfortunate, but all are done and gone.

I don’t feel bad about those things- I had no way to influence them or change them in any way. The best I can do is try to deal with those effects the best I can.

For things that are contemporary to me, I feel bad about some of them, as I was either active or at least complicit. An example would be the treatment of homosexuals; in my youth, it wasn’t really frowned upon to make gay jokes openly or say horrid things about gay people, or just to use gayness as an insult. I did all these things, and I’m not proud of it at all.

But I don’t feel bad at all about the fact that my country may have done something horrible 70 years ago. I’m not responsible for any of that, and I couldn’t have influenced it in any way.

My paternal grandparents and maternal great grandparents came to the US in the early 1900s, just a few decades after the Civil War. I am most definitely an American and I know full well my family had nothing to do with slavery in this country. Or am I painted with a broad brush simply by being white?

At what point do the sins of one’s ancestors not stain oneself?

Having come here, of course they do. They joined the country’s story.

Back in high school (this was post-Kent State), I asked the student teacher in our German class how German high school kids felt about their Nazi history. He answered, “You think you have generation gap problems with your parents here?”

There is a difference between identifying with a group and feeling pride or shame over what happened three generations before you were born.

I am happy to be Canadian and know my identity is shaped by the fact I was born and raised in Canada; I am not proud of Canada winning the Battle of Vimy Ridge, because that would be just… weird. Nor, to be honest, do I feel guilty about Canada interning Japanese-Canadians during World War II. It was a terrible thing to do and when the government paid reparations I was happy they did, but it was not my fault.

Of course, Canada is currently doing things that are good and things that are bad. The bad things distress me to varying degrees, but feeling guilty about it is a somewhat different thing.

At my undergrad university in West Texas, I was friends with a young German couple. (The husband is now a professor of German studies in Louisiana.) And I knew other Germans, both young and old, because I took a lot of German courses. It didn’t come up very often. No one was avoiding it, there was just no need to harangue on it. But when it did come up, they were, without exception, of an attitude along the lines of, “Well, it happened, and it shouldn’t have, and we lost, so that’s about it. shrug Now, did you see the new Star Wars movie?”