Being expat

The sense of guilt of being German

Growing up abroad being German is generally speaking nothing unusual, but considering the historical guilt related to the WWII we Germans from post-war generations are not sure how to behave those days, when our host countries celebrate liberation day or remembrance day.

I have talked about this with my children who grow up as Germans abroad too. It is not an easy conversation to have with your own children because you don’t want to make them worry about something they might not experience. I wrote about this before, and I truly hoped that my children would never experience what I did, but unfortunately they had to deal with prejudice and accusations too, as their peers learned about WWII and the discussions that followed was accusing “all the Germans”: the German children in the class developed the same sense of guilt

This innate sense of guilt that Sabine van der Velpen describes in her interview with NOS, is what I feel every time the country I live in celebrates the end of the war, the liberation from the Germans and remembrance day.

Although it is important to remember and never ever forget in order to avoid making the same mistakes again, those who live with the sense of guilt also in later generations need some support of coping with this feeling.

The Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the “struggle to overcome the [negatives of the] past”, is the  attempt to analyze, digest and learn to live with the past, in particular the Holocaust. This 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”.

It is not about forgetting about the past: I am avid defender of the “everyone should learn history” (especially politicians!) because I consider it important to always learn from history – those who know me know that I have always a historical approach in what I do – but it is about how to deal with it in a healthy way for us and our children.

I don’t want to feel I have to leave the country when everyone is thinking about the “bad Germans”, or that I have to avoid speaking German that day in public. Nor do I want my children to feel indirectly accused of something they weren’t involved personally.

For many years I was stuck in this feeling of guilt, especially when people call these days “memorial day”.

The Holocaust-Mahnmal in Berlin is significant: the noun Mahnmal is not Denkmal – used to translate “memorial” – and carries the sense of “admonition”, “urging”, “appeal” and “warning”, not “remembrance”.

Although “remembrance” might help the “warning”, it also is a burden to those who, like me, feel the guilt even though we were not even born…

Mahnmal Berlin

Sabine mentions that it almost feels like a genetic guilt we have and I can totally relate to it. It is a deep feeling of guilt and shame for something others did. I’m not sure it is due to me being very responsible, there must be more…
The Mahnmal in Berlin is also known as Das Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (The Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe), and one can argue that it puts exclusive emphasis on Jewish victims, and it’s good that we remember those who died.
But the name itself of “Mahnmal” helps me, personally, to consider this day also in the countries I lived and live now, as “admonition” for this never to happen again.

How can younger generations cope with the sense of guilt of being German when living abroad?

I am still looking for an answer. We talk about WWII and we talk about what we know about our family, the way they experienced the war. We also talk about the silence that always comes with it when this topic comes or came up with our grandparents and grand-grandparents…
I can only think about supporting young generations who have to deal with accusations, helping them be self confident and compassionate, but also not taking on the burden of what happened on their young shoulders. I know it took me many years to deal with this and I think it’s time to turn the page and focus on the best way to avoid this, without pointing fingers and judging those who were not even born then.

I know that much needs to be done in schools and societies to be more understanding and empathic…
– I would love to know your thoughts about this topic as I really would love to change the narrative starting from… now.

Categories: Being expat

19 replies »

  1. I’m Brit. My wife is French. Her sister married a German. When I first went to the house in Germany, he had a quiet word with me about his father, who lived next door, worried that Something might be said. It could not have been easier, or better. I was welcomed into the father’s house with open arms, and a lovely bottle of the local beer, followed by some grappa from the cupboard.

    I worked in the same office as a German guy, and a French Jew. We have the most glorious time.

    Some of our best friends live in the former East Germany.

    No, we should never forget. But as the comment said above, that was about the Nazi’s and an ideology. Distinguish those Nazi’s and that ideology, from the Germans of today.

    I’m sorry if you still get verbal abuse – I’ve seen it done. Yes, there are idiots in the world. But I have rarely had such good food, beer and hospitality as I’ve received on my trips to Germany. I just wish my German was just *slightly* better.

    • Thank you very much for your kind words and for sharing your experience. I have worked with people from very diverse provenience and religions with no big problems, so I know that it is possible if we have the right mindset.
      I only get nervous in big crowds during those days as I never know if there isn’t someone who is angry/violent…
      I can deal with verbal abuse today – I couldn’t as a child and I think no child really can. This is where adults should speak up for the child or protect the child.
      What you say about your German: always feel welcome to share what you can, I won’t judge 😉

  2. Historical guilt is a very sensitive issue and not exclusive to Germans. I remember being a young American in Germany, full of superiority and judgment. I was (rightly) put in my place when someone reminded me of our own dark past of genocide of Native Americans and our forefathers’ ruthless treatment of slaves. Seeking to rise above our past atrocities is not the same as forgetting them.

    • This is a very important point “seeking to rise above our past atrocities is not the same as forgetting them”, thank you. I know that historical guilt is not exclusive to Germans.
      It is always easy to judge and it’s natural to do so – when we were still hunters we needed to trust our judgments in order to survive – but this is not the case in every context anymore, so we can try to be a bit kinder. I don’t like to reply to judgment with judgment, it doesn’t lead anywhere – referring to the example you just made about someone reminding you of your own dark past. In fact, it is not “your own” dark past, but the one of your culture/society/community, so it shouldn’t be put on your shoulders. I can understand that the situation was maybe a bit heated 😉 but still.
      If we dig in our historical past, we all find something, but feeling this shame or guilt is something I don’t want to feel anymore. The feeling of responsibility is still there, but I can only be guilty for something I did, right?

  3. I’d love to talk to you about this. In the U.S., we are facing this around the repercussions of slavery and the conversations are fascinating. Psychiatrist Aaron Lazare says that for a serious offense, “such as a betrayal of trust or public humiliation, an immediate apology misses the mark. It demeans the event. Hours, days, weeks, or even months may go by before both parties can integrate the meaning of the event and its impact on the relationship. The care and thought that goes into such apologies dignifies the exchange. For offenses whose impact is calamitous to individuals, groups, or nations, the apology may be delayed by decades and offered by another generation.” So when I think about slavery, what does that mean for me? I wish I could talk to you in person about this. I think it’s huge, and I personally don’t think guilt helps anyone. So what should it look like? I’m as lost as you.

    • Marilyn, I just (!) noticed that my comment to your comment got lost and was never published. What a shame.
      If you want, if this is still something you’d like to talk with me, I’m always open to meeting with you. What you mention about delayed apologies is a problem many countries are facing, but I think apologies will always be welcome, when done officially and with due respect (not as a political move…).

  4. When I lived in Germany in the early seventies, I had conversations with my (then) girlfriend’s mother, who had been a member of the Hitler Youth. In more recent visits, my Jewish wife questioned my German friends about what their parents had done during the war. My friends were open, honest, introspective, and frank in their answers. I find the Germans have more honestly examined and atoned for their ancestors’ sins than any other nationality. Certainly, we Americans have not atoned for our genocide against Native Americans and the three hundred years of enslavement of African Americans.

    • This is very interesting, Dallas. The atonement is an important step of the “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” 😉 It’s good that you found people sharing their experience. When I asked my grandparents and extended family, they would not want to talk about all the details – I had so many questions ! – and they would only want to share some of their memories and experiences. I would have loved them to tell me more, but I guess they were still processing it all and its’ very painful…

  5. Growing up in Australia, in our history classes, we were taught about Nazi occupation of Germany before a declaration of War. German was never substituted for Nazi. Yes, Germany was at War but not by the choice of the German people.

    • Thank you, Springbrookorbillabong, you are very right and I’m glad that Germans and Nazis are separated. It’s something that some teachers don’t focus on when holding those lessons.

  6. Dear Ute,
    This is a very sensitive issue indeed. Unfortunately, we in Hungary possibly never dealt with it completely properly. I studied some German from my grandma, partly of Austrian origin, but then I began to hate everything German and never wanted to learn the language. I’ve just overcome this feeling, above 60, even though some of my colleagues used to be very-very nice and professional Germans where I used to teach. I think this abhorrence, sorry I call it that, is a feeling against Germans, not simply against Nazi Germany – we in Hungary, having suffered under the Russians – may be something that takes generations to pass, a completely stupid aversion, but embedded so deep that I’m even ashamed to admit – and I have nobody having suffered by the Nazis in my family! You can imagine feelings of those who had! I think this was so deep, so wide-spread, infecting so many beside those directly involved (ever read Jerzy Kosinsky’s “The Painted Bird”?) that it’ll take generations to pass. I’m grateful for daring to get involved in Germany even for short periods, to feel a culture that gave us Bach, Buxtehude, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Goethe, Hegel, Thomas Mann … but also destroyed a large part of what gave us Pushkin, Tsaikovsky, Chopin, Rubinstein, Maupassant, …

    Of course I hope that everybody in and originating from Germany manage to let their children understand this is not their fault at all – not even your fault! These are human feelings I’m afraid. I should also ask how Tutsies feel agains the Hutu and vice versa, how Cambodians feel, how Vietnamese feel against Americans and the Chinese (!), and the list could go on. We humans are a hopeless race, but I hope we can at least make it bearable to our children.

    • Thank you so much for your very honest comment. I understand your feeling and yes, I think it will take generations to get less intense. It might not pass, but I hope it will change. I hope that my children and their children one day will not feel the same way I feel. I know that every society carries some historical guilt, I just wish it wasn’t that the wounds of the past weren’t opened regularly. One needs for them to heal. There will always be the scar to remind us, but we have to be able to carry on.

  7. I am a German expat living abroad. I have always felt that guilt but also always wishes I would not have to. A mixed feeling cocktail of guilt, shame, defense and sometimes anger is following me with this. I have had many accusations and negative reactions abroad just because I am German. When I visited the concentration camp Dachau I was so ashamed I pretended to be an American and went with the English speaking tour. I always have been empathetic and therefore maybe feel things a little too much. My husband is English and finds it hard to understand this. Next week we have a holocaust survivor visiting the company I work for to tell their story. I will attend because I want to show my support and I am interested to hear his story, but I am afraid to address the man with any questions in case I could offend him with my accent and I am also worried about accusing side looks from colleagues. Like why is she even here…

    I am sure I am reading too much into this but prejudices are making me feel very insecure. I have become a British citizen and if we ever be blessed with a child I would make sure that my husband speaks English to it and I German. This way I hope the kid picks up an English accent and nobody never knows it has a German heritage so it never gets these feelings of guilt just by association.

    All of this said I am a strong believer of history repeating itself and that we should never be silent or forget what has happened as it is a valuable lesson. Hatred and intolerance will lead to destruction and horror.
    Be kind and value other cultures and the individual human who is human first and citizen of a country second.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your own experience! It feels good to not be the only one struggling with this, as I have encountered mainly people who couldn’t understand. I am an empath too and I also visited Dachau (many years ago) and simply turned silent… I fully felt that guilt whilst walking through that concentration camp.
      I can relate with the feelings you have about that visit of the survivor. I learned that it is better to overcome this feeling of guilt in social settings as others don’t seem to understand. If you speak with the survivor, maybe do it one on one, to fully concentrate on him and see his reaction. With regards to your future children: I thought the same when I wasn’t a mother yet. I never wanted to speak German with my children for exactly that reason. I didn’t want them to ever (!) experience that guilt and shame.
      Being German doesn’t though only mean that we are children/grand-children/grand-grand-children of people who experienced the war, it also means that we carry a culture that has also done good, that has its beautiful sides and facets.
      I chose to focus on those also because I am not the person to take the decision for my children to “not” know about their German heritage. They are growing up abroad and seem to process this in a different way, maybe because they are a younger generation, I don’t know.
      I hope you can reach the point of accepting the good side of being German, a little sense of pride also. Funnily it were non-German friends of mine who pointed out the positive sides of being German and were surprised that I had an issue with the whole aspect.
      I fully agree with you that being kind and valuing other cultures, and individual human beings is what we should focus on and make this the new narrative.
      I’d love to talk to you about this, if you wish.

  8. Dear both

    I have just finished a video call with our very dear German friends. We’ve known them for 30+ years.

    When we talk (my wife is French, I’m British), they are are not ‘German’ in our heads, they are just our friends.

    Please, Nathalie, if you do have any children, bring them up to be understand all the wonderful things there are in their German heritage. As Brits and French, we have as much ‘baggage’ to carry. We just choose to forget it more easily.

    We’ve brought our children up to be “bilingual, bicultural and binational”. Every scrap of British culture I could bring here to France, I did. And it’s been so enriching, both for the children but also for us as parents.

    We took our girls to Weimar, and went with the girls (who were about 14 and 17 at the time) to Buchenwald. Yes, we prepared them – as much as you can. But we felt it was something we had to do.

    But we also celebrated the best of German culture: Goethe’s house in Weimar, the Anna Amalia library, the Wartburg, Berlin.

    There is so much to be enjoyed in Germany, and about Germany, that it would be a great shame (in my opinion) if you didn’t enrich your child’s life with that.

    My two (having been raised only in France) don’t speak English with a French accent. They speak English like any child of the same age would. And the ‘bicultural’ part of their upbringing was to thank for that.

    We cannot change the past. But it doesn’t mean we cannot change the future.

    I love Germany. I love my German friends. I love the culture. I’ve read Goethe, I’ve read Böll, I’ve read Zweig. And loved them all.

    Yes, there may be times when someone will say something – we’ve been called stuff driving around the UK in a French car. It’s going to happen.

    But there are far more people out there who will be intrigued, who will want to talk. Don’t let their lives be driven by those who want to constrain.

    I wouldn’t change a thing about how we’ve raised our girls – the bicultural was by far the hardest aspect. But it’s been the one to bring us the most joy as parents.

    The world needs more open people, not fewer.

    Best of luck!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *