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Holocaust memorial in Berlin

Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a composite German word that describes processes of dealing with the past (Vergangenheit = past; Bewältigung = coming to terms with, mastering), which is perhaps best rendered in English as "struggle to come to terms with the past". The German term Geschichtsaufarbeitung (lit. "processing of history") depicts similar processes, but is less common.

Historical development

Vergangenheitsbewältigung describes the attempt to analyze, digest and learn to live with the past, in particular the Holocaust. The focus on learning is much in the spirit of philosopher George Santayana's oft-quoted observation that "those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it." As a technical term in English, it relates specifically to the atrocities committed during the Third Reich, when Adolf Hitler was in power in Germanymarker, and to both ongoing and historical concerns about the extensive compromise and co-optation of many German cultural, religious, and political institutions by National Socialism. The term therefore deals at once with the concrete responsibility of the German state (the Federal Republic of Germanymarker assumed the legal obligations of the Reich) and of individual Germans for what took place "under Hitler," and with questions about the roots of legitimacy in a society whose invention of the Enlightenment collapsed in the face of Nazi ideology.

More recently, the term Vergangenheitsbewältigung has also been used in the former German Democratic Republicmarker to refer to the process of working through the brutalities of Communist institutions.

After denazification

Historically, Vergangenheitsbewältigung often is seen as the logical "next step," after a denazification driven at first under Allied Occupation and then by the Christian Democratic Union government of Konrad Adenauer. It dates from the late 1950s and early 1960s, roughly the period in which the work of the Wiederaufbau (reconstruction) became less absorbing and urgent. Having replaced the institutions and power structures of National Socialism, the aim of liberal Germans was to deal with the guilt of recent history. Vergangenheitsbewältigung is characterised in part by learning from the past. This includes honestly admitting that such a past did indeed exist, attempting to remedy as far as possible the wrongs committed, and attempting to move on from that past.

Role of churches and schools

The German churches, of which only a minority played a significant role in the resistance to National Socialism, have led the way in this process, developing a specifically German post-war theology of repentance. At the regular mass church rallies, the Lutheran Kirchentag and the Catholic Katholikentag, for example, this theme is developed as a leitmotiv of Christian youth.

The main institutionally driven sphere of Vergangenheitsbewältigung is in the schools, where in most German states the centrally-written curriculum subjects every child to repeated lessons on different aspects of National Socialism in German, history, politics and religion classes from the fifth grade onwards. Typically there are school trips to concentration camps, and Jewish Holocaust survivors are often invited to schools as guest speakers, though the passage of time limits these opportunities.

In philosophy

In philosophy, Theodor Adorno's writings include the lecture Was bedeutet die Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit? ("What is meant by the working through the past?"), a subject related to his thinking of "after Auschwitz" in his later work. This work is often seen as consisting in part of a variably implicit and explicit critique of the work of Martin Heidegger, whose formal ties to the Nazi party are well known. Heidegger, distinct from his role in the Party during the Third Reich, attempted to provide a historical conception of Germania as a philosophical thought of German origin and destiny (later he would speak of "the West"). Alexander Garcia Düttman's Das Gedächtnis des Denkens: Versuch über Heidegger und Adorno (The Memory of Thought: an Essay on Heidegger and Adorno, translated by Nicholas Walker) attempts to treat the philosophical value of these seemingly opposed and certainly incompatible terms "Auschwitz" and "Germania" in the philosophy of both men in a manner that is not simply comparative.

The cultural sphere

In the cultural sphere, the term Vergangenheitsbewältigung most frequently arises as the name of a movement in German literature, characterised by such authors as Günter Grass and Siegfried Lenz. Lenz's novel Deutschstunde and Grass's Danziger Trilogie both deal with childhood under Nazism, and are a good starting point for this literature.

The erection of public monuments to Holocaust victims has been a particular theme in Germany's Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Concentration camps such as Dachaumarker, Buchenwaldmarker, Bergen-Belsen and Flossenbürgmarker are open to visitors as memorials and museums. Most towns have plaques on walls marking the spots where particular atrocities took place.

When the seat of government was moved from Bonnmarker to Berlinmarker in 1999, an extensive "Holocaust memorial"marker, designed by architect Peter Eisenman, was planned as part of the vast development of new official buildings in the district of Berlin-Mittemarker; it was opened on 10 May 2005. The informal name of this memorial, the "Holocaust-Mahnmal" is significant. It does not translate easily: "Holocaust Cenotaph" would be one sense, but the noun Mahnmal, which is distinct from the term Denkmal (typically used to translate "memorial") carries the sense of "admonition," "urging," "appeal," or "warning" rather than "remembrance" as such. The work is formally known as das Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (English translation, "The Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe"). Some controversy attaches to it precisely because of this formal name and its exclusive emphasis on Jewish victims. As Eisenman acknowledged at the opening ceremony, "It is clear that we won't have solved all the problems — architecture is not a panacea for evil — nor will we have satisfied all those present today, but this cannot have been our intention."

Other European countries

In Austriamarker, ongoing arguments about the nature and significance of the Anschluss, and unresolved disputes about legal expressions of obligation and liability, as well as more recent concerns about the ascent of "Haiderism", have led to very different concerns, and to a far less institutionalized response.

Polandmarker has maintained a museum, archive, and research centre at Oświęcimmarker, better known by its German name of Auschwitzmarker, since a July 2, 1947 act of the Polish Parliament, while Czechoslovakiamarker established in the same year what was known first as the National Suffering Memorial and later simply as the Terezín memorial in Terezínmarker, Czech Republicmarker, better known for its part in the Holocaust as Theresienstadtmarker. In the context of varying degrees of Communist orthodoxy in both countries during the period of Sovietmarker domination of Eastern Europe, historical research into the Holocaust was politicised to varying degrees, and Marxist doctrines of class struggle were often overlaid onto generally received histories, which tended to exclude both acts of collaboration and indications of abiding antisemitism.

There remains the difficulty that the advance of the Einsatzgruppenmarker, Aktion Reinhardt, and other significant events in the Holocaust did not happen in the Third Reich proper (or what is now the territory of the Federal Republic), and that the history of the memorials and archives which have been erected at these sites is not easily disentangled from that of the Communist regimes which possessed them for more than four decades after World War II. Given that the seizure of so much of Central and Eastern Europe, and the accompanying violence directed against various Slav groups, Jews, Communists, prisoners of war, and so-called partisans, was part and parcel of the Nazi idea of the German nation, and that the forced departure of German settlers and ethnic Germans (the Volksdeutsche) living in the extended Reich before the advance of the Red Army was amongst its consequences, the memory of the violence accompanying German occupation and then evacuation of that land is another abiding element of this struggle.

Analogous processes elsewhere in the world

In some of its aspects, Vergangenheitsbewältigung can be compared to the attempts of other democratic countries to raise consciousness of earlier undemocratic historical eras, such as the South African process of truth and reconciliation, or the Czechoslovakianmarker or Polishmarker lustration. Comparisons have also been made with the Sovietmarker process of glasnost, though this was not mainly focused on the past but rather on achieving a level of open criticism necessary for progressive reform to take place (which generally assumed the maintenance of a continued monopoly of the Communist Party). The on-going efforts in eastern Europe and the independent states of the former Soviet Union to reconfigure how the communist past is remembered is sometimes spoken of as a postsocialist Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

In popular culture

Political satirist Roy Zimmerman has a song called "Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung," on his album Security.


See also


  • Frei, Norbert; Vergangenheitspolitik. Die Anfänge der Bundesrepublik und die NS-Vergangenheit. Munich: C.H. Beck, 1996. [In English as Adenauer's Germany and the Nazi Past: The Politics of Amnesty and Integration. New York: Columbia University Press]
  • Geller, Jay Howard; Jews in Post-Holocaust Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Herf, Jeffrey; Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.
  • Maier, Charles S.; The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.
  • Maislinger, Andreas; Coming to Terms with the Past: An International Comparison. In Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Identity. Cross National and Comparative Perspectives, ed. Russel F. Farnen. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2004.
  • Moeller, Robert G.; War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
  • Moeller, Robert G. (ed.); West Germany Under Construction: Politics, Society and Culture in the Adenauer Era. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.
  • Pross, Christian; Paying for the Past: The Struggle over Reparations for Surviving Victims of the Nazi Terror. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

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