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.

 

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Categories: Being expat

14 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.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 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 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  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.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 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?

      Liked by 2 people

  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.

    Liked by 1 person

  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.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 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…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. 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.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 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.

      Liked by 1 person

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