Armed Hostilities

Third Reich and Holocaust Commemoration


There have been numerous public debates in Germany about the commemoration of the Third Reich. These debates point at the mentalities that the modern German culture has regarding the holocaust, German involvement in the Second World War and the whole dark period that came after the fall of the Weimar Republic. The most popular debates that point to the contemporary German detachment to the Third Reich are the Goldhaggen debate and the Wehrmacht Exhibition saga debate. These debates highlight conflicts, challenges and the complications involved in the way the modern Germans relate to their dark history. In order to understand the attitudes of the Germans to what they consider as their dark past, it is important to understand the factors that led to these debates that illustrate the modern German thinking.

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Goldhaggen Debate in Germany

To start with, this debate was triggered by a book published by David Goldhaggen, which focused on the willing executioners of the Hitler’s Regime. It is about the ordinary Germans and the holocaust. The author of this book argued against the notion that the annihilation of Jews in Europe was as a result of coercion of the Germans by a few wayward leaders (Evans, 2008). The leaders, according to the contemporary German thinking, managed to lure decent people who became instruments in their malicious schemes. Before the book was launched, the debate revolved around two schools of thought. These schools of thought had the functionalists pitted against the Intetionalists. The two wings focused their arguments on the involvement of the government decision making organs and their level of involvement in the decimation of Jews by the Hitler’s Nazi regime. However, Goldhaggen focuses on the actions of the people on the ground, who were used by the Nazi hierarchy to undertake the mass extermination of Jews. Goldhaggen tries to put across the factors that motivated the real murderers who were involved in the Nazi apparatus.

Goldhaggen attacks the attitudes held by the Germans and makes a conclusion that the ordinary Germans were not subconsciously involved in the Hitler’s genocidal policy. According to Goldhaggen, the big question is not the people that were involved in the mass extermination and torture of the minority Jews, the question is the reason behind these macabre killings. He maintains that there is no evidence of coercion and peer pressure to exonerate the ordinary Germans from the involvement in the execution of the Jews and maintains that they favored the government policy. Most Germans killed the Jews in support of Hitler’s government according to Goldhagge. The holocaust raises the ideological question of the kind of thinking that the Germans had.

German Reaction to Goldhaggen

Germans were not pleased by the stand taken by Goldhaggen and his allegation and this precipitated a very large public debate that took three phases. The reaction of the Germans displayed the contemporary culture’s position on the holocaust and the mass exterminations carried out by the Nazi regime during the Third Reich. The contemporary Germans were not happy with collective guilt that Goldhaggen imposed on them by saying that the holocaust was a consequence of the nuanced view of Germans on Semitism. The book evoked past memories that the contemporary German culture would have liked to remain buried deep in history, and their reaction betrayed their estrangement, or the wish to remain estranged from their recent, dark past. The responses from outside Germany to Goldhaggen were more favorable. However, inside Germany debaters described Goldhaggen’s work as polemical because of the way it attributed the holocaust to just one cause. 1The contemporary German dispensation, according to the observers of the debate, did not in any way think that the holocaust was a consequence of a single factor; the Germans and their anti-Semitism. However, this attitude thawed as the debate got into the second phase. The second phases involved public face-offs that were held in events that attracted more that 6000. This time round, the German public sided with the author and this set the ball rolling for the third and the most important phase of the debate. The phenomenon created by Goldhaggen ceased to be about the dark past of the German republic. A process of moral reflections on the period after the fall of the Weimar republic began. The Goldhaggen debate helped the Germans to reconnect with the past they had been escaping from and helped them to see their role in the mass exterminations during the holocaust. The Goldhagen debate represented a shift in the attitude of the Germans regarding the commemoration of the Third Reich and the remembrance of the holocaust. The Germans at first did not want to be associated with that past and its atrocities. Whenever an issue arose about the third Reich and the holocaust, their first reaction was denial. This is because the recent past is not something any German is proud of. The attitude displayed by the Germans indicates their inevitable escapism from the past that still haunts them. However, as the issue faded away, the Germans were able to reconnect with that past, helping them to morally reflect on the truth instead of running away from it. This is what exactly transpired during the whole course of the Goldhaggen debate, which opened a can of worms but later sobered up the German public. Goldhagen had touched the German nerve and the emotional response from the people; especially inside the country was expected. This is because the character of the ordinary German had been put into question and the German started comparing the way they viewed themselves with the way others viewed them relative to the atrocities committed during the Third Reich. The attitudes were especially intense because Goldhaggen came at the time when Germany was making transition from the Bonn era to the Berlin era after the reunification and this was something that had already elicited mixed feelings outside the country. Germany was reorienting after a very tough past and Goldhaggen had triggered a bomb whose explosion really showed who the Germans really are.

Crimes of the Wehrmacht Controversy Debate

The Goldhaggen debate may have been controversial but the one that preceded it was even more controversial. It had been organized by a publicist called Hannnes Herr. For many years, the exhibition attracted Germans from different provinces who wanted to see the evidence against the Hitler’s army.

The exhibition did not please the German right wing and it was attacked in public debates and in the media until it was closed. Another exhibition was opened to take over from the previous one and it used a different perspective. The exhibition, just like the Goldhaggen book, had touched a German raw nerve by revisiting the role played by the Hitler’s army, the Wehrmacht in the Second World War and in the war of extermination that targeted the European Jewry. This is because the exhibition destroyed one of the biggest German ideologies. The ideology was that the Wehrmacht was clean and blameless. The German cultural dispensation believed that the army was not in any way involved in the decision making that led to holocaust genocide and its involvement in the killings was a sense of duty. The German believed that the army was abused by the Nazi. However, the exhibition defeated this notion by displaying evidence that the Wehrmacht was an integral part of the holocaust machinery and it was not just a tool, but also supported the Nazi war of extermination. The exhibition exposed the crimes of the so called clean army, and the reaction widened when more that 1400 photos were availed to the public. The response was sensational and caused much indignation. This is because the attitudes that the Germans had been holding were being negated and the exhibition was opening Germany to global scrutiny again after the country had already healed from the Second World War and the post war split.

Reaction of the Germans to Crimes of the Wehrmacht Exhibition

The reactions of the Germans, especially the right wing were especially fueled by the fact that the country was holding military training to prepare for action against the Balkans. That is why the public debates sought to defend the legendary Wehrmacht because the contemporary German culture had attached much importance to the army. Anything that reminded Germans of their atrocious past would evoke a lot of public outcry and this demonstrated their desire to remain estranged with that past. There are few things from the era of the third Reich and the holocaust that the Germans are proud of and one of these is the Wehrmacht. Therefore, the exhibition that put the Wehrmacht in bad light was put under pressure even by the CDU government led by Helmut Kohl (Eberhard 1997). The international stature of Germany had grown phenomenally immediately after reunification in 1990 and the reaction of the Germans to such an event that dented the image of a German legend was expected. The general feeling was that the exhibition was not serious and it was out to defame the army. The debate took a defensive perspective. This time round there were no shifts from denial to acceptance. The Germans vehemently refused to let their army be besmirched by the revelations that the people considered to be half truths. The problem with the perspective taken by the debate is that the debaters were running a way from the issue instead of approaching it head on. This is because the organizers of the exhibition had enough proof that the Wehrmacht participated in this war of extermination and was part of the decision making hierarchy that fueled the genocidal holocaust. The German media refused to give the organizers a platform to justify their evidence and instead gave that platform to the right wingers that went on propagating lies in defense of the Wehrmacht. This illustrates the position of the Germans on the crimes of extermination conducted by Nazi. According to the Germans, the domestic structures like the army and even the general public had nothing to do with all the atrocities conducted during the Third Reich (Davies 2006). They attributed the holocaust to the activities of the elite leadership of the Hitler’s era and therefore. Germans could not carry the collective guilt because of some crimes committed by what they call “A few mad leaders”. The modern German culture refused to take the blame for the crimes committed during the third Reich. Though the image of Germany outside the country remains tainted by the Third Reich, the Germans are quite detached and estranged from this past because there is virtually nothing positive they can identify with. It is easy to understand where the attitudes of the Germans towards past commemorations are come from. Germany has never faded from international limelight during the better part of the 20th century. The country was the main aggressor in the First World War and it suffered most during the war that preceded its worst economic crisis. The fall of the Weimar Republic and the Rise of the third Reich marked the lowest times in German history (Wippermann1997). The post war Germany was evidenced by the split that created West Germany and East Germany and this was a trying period for the two countries.This means that the only positive side of Germany can only be seen after its reunification. This is why these commemorative events created painful wounds in the hearts of the contemporary Germans and that is why they had a bitter attitude towards these commemorative activities. The contemporary Germans would like the world to forget about the past and judge the country using the present; however the commemoration of the Third Reich and the holocaust through negative publicity like in Goldhaggen and crimes of the Wehrmacht gives the world a chance to ridicule the country.

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  1. Davies, N. (2006). Europe at War 1939-1945: No Simple Victory. London: Pan Books.
  2. Eberhard, Y. (1997). Simply Put, A Bad Book. Hamburg: Littell
  3. Evans, R. J. (2008). The Third Reich at War. London: Allen Lane

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