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…
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.
Categories: Being expat