There are many things the polyglot can learn from the German people but one of them is best left untouched and that is their unnecessarily strident effort to produce unpronounceable multisyllabic words that torture us none German-speaking people.
If you were to attempt to pronounce vergangenheitsaufarbeitung correctly while vacationing in Berlin without being affluent in German you’d most likely end up in the back of a pub, pants missing, and unsure of what day of the week or weekend it is.
The term, laughable as it might be, means to work off the past. It’s a term post World War II Germans developed to confront the demons of the Third Reich. The endeavor, first in a communal and later in a philosophical effort to grapple with the reality that the Wehrmacht was a willing participant in war crimes, not just the SS or the SA or the Gestapo, was too much for some German citizens to grasp. Their fathers, brothers, and sons had participated in war crimes against minorities and other Germans who dared resist the Reich’s ascent to power.
What was more compelling was that many if not most Germans saw themselves as victims of Russian Bolshevism to the east and American hyper-Capitalism to the west. Having capitulated in both wars, endured the humiliation that came with the Treaty of Versaille, and now the global rage at their participation in electing the world’s most dejected autocrat, Adolf Hitler, caused German minds to resist guilt and blame.
As Nazi masterminds fled the country for safer havens in Argentina, Brazil, and Washington D.C., German citizens were abandoned by their leaders to face the shame of their national wrongs alone. The allied forces made sure of it by forcing citizens to visit concentration camps where Nazi leaders and soldiers exterminated millions. Those who could not make the trip were forced to sit through hours of footage of German POWs digging up mass graves under the rifle of Russian or American soldiers.
German citizens could not believe that they had elected a government into power that could commit such atrocities and when their one thousand year reign came to smoldering ruins in a short tumultuous twelve years of horror, they were too ashamed, if not entirely shocked, that their good intentions were now considered war crimes and crimes against humanity.
So you can imagine the sudden humiliation so many of them must have felt and how much outrage they must have expelled at the thought that they were equal perpetrators of these crimes alongside Goebbels, Himmler, Eichmann, Goering, and Hitler.
It was easier for some of them to take such an escapist approach because so many of the concentration camps and extermination camps were well outside of city limits. They voted for the removal of the Jews, did nothing to protect them once the pogroms and deportations began, and so, to their knowledge, the Jews simply left Germany to live in the outreaches of the lands belonging to the Untermenschen.
Few actually understood that the ash falling over their homes was that of men, women, and children having been shoved into ovens and burned to crisp.
Millions of German citizens refused to take any blame for these war crimes because they claimed that they had never pulled a lever, sealed a door shut, or pulled a trigger to kill a single Jew or resister.
The unwillingness to admit any fault, feel any guilt or remorse, or apologize was culturally, historically, and nationally endemic to the German mind.
That is why, for years and years after the war many philosophers, sociologists, professors, and other unmentioned entities ventured into Germany, into the schools, the churches, the academic halls, the sciences, the farms, hospitals, and homes to better understand and also educate the German people that they must work out their past.
They must work out of it the reality of their participation in order to progress as a nation. Progress without amnesia.
Certain focus groups were put together where Germans, both members of the former Reich, and their children were sat in rooms to discuss the goods, bads, and neutrals of Nazi Germany. Participants could not understand why they were seen as such vile people. How could the world hate them so much when they had never so much as launched a rock at a Jew. Though many felt Jews were inferior they did not exhibit the animosity that SS, SA, and Gestapo militants enacted on innocent people.
One old lady, as recounted by Susan Neiman in her book, Learning from the Germans, used religious language to understand the ramifications of vergangenheitsaufarbeitung:
“Only a single participant in the Group Experiment expressed the kind of moral reflection you might expect. She was an older Catholic woman, one of the few subjects to use religious language. ‘I take my being bombed out as atonement for the great guilt we incurred toward the innocent. The Americans are right that we murdered more Jews than they murder Negroes in a year. That is the truth. I was bombed out three times. I haven’t done enough wrong in my life to justify that, but I would not ask God ‘What have you done to me?’ There was so much guilt to atone for that a part of the nation must atone for it on earth. Even if our children must atone for it again.’”
How humbling an approach from the old and wise Catholic woman whose willingness to confront the evil of her contemporaries, herself included, condemning it and receiving in that condemnation punishment for it actually set her free to the truth of reality.
This working out the past, as Susan states, is never final and never finished. Not in the sense that one lives with the guilt of their forefathers but that they live and are proud to carry the responsibility of making sure it never happens again.
Germany has since accomplished one of the most exemplary multicultural societies in the world. This was previously an unimaginable feat considering the legacy of the Third Reich.
How did it happen? How has Germany advanced so much after two of the most humiliating military losses of all time?
Yes, yes, the nuances are many and we know they had help, financial help from the outside.
That’s a given.
But what is so enamoring about post-war Germany is that with time, decades even, they came to admit their participation in the war and their guilt as perpetrators and co-conspirators of the Nazi regime. Without that initial introspective adventure, I don’t believe Germany would have been able to progress out from Hitler’s shadow. But now they pride themselves on being responsible for the truth so that they never have to sink back to that level of complicity and apathy that got them into the war in the first place.
The truth is that the Germany of old, the Third Reich, was made up of average day-to-day Germans who wanted nothing more than to make their nation better for Germans, no matter the cost.
The price they were willing to pay ended up burning their nation to the ground but we mustn’t forget that from those ashes rose a hope-filled nation. Not hope from dismissing the truth of what happened but of confronting and accepting it.
The reason why Susan Neiman’s book is called Learning from the Germans is that she is a Jewish woman born in Atlanta, Georgia. She was raised in the American Deep South in a time where white Americans would lynch black Americans for sport, out in the open, in front of authorities and judges, who at times would participate in the crime.
Susan makes the claim that the United States of America never experienced this vergangenheitsaufarbeitung because there was no one around to point out to them that hate and racism is wrong.
After the American Civil War, Confederate soldiers returned home as losers. Confederate prisoners of war were released in mass if they simply signed a piece of paper certifying that the Union army was right to wage war against them for owning slaves and that they would now work together to make the country one again.
Easy out, if you ask me.
The same disgruntled soldiers made it home, humiliated, and now broke because their main source of income, slavery, was now outlawed and their former slaves had gone free or runaway while their owners were out in war. These same men launched terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, and the White League, and continued to murder black Americans for the better part of the next one hundred years.
The Civil Rights movement took the scene in the late 1950s and 60s, and even then, Southern Americans refused to confront the narrative that their cause in the war was evil and that their loss was the best possible outcome for the betterment of the nation.
Americans in the South had not faced their past but had reconstructed their cause as a movement to be proud of. The petition to retain the right to own black people had become a war for states’ rights.
The American Deep South never faced international humiliation that forced them to reconsider the racism in society that spawned the need, or, rather, the want of race-based chattel slavery in the first place. Nor were they pressed from within, by the North, the Union Army to reconsider their literature, their ideas, their social and cultural understanding of prejudice and descrimination so there was no desire nor pressure to confront their wrongs.
In fact, the South never saw their cause as inglorious or pitiful. Theirs was a cause of American ideals and constitutional right to land and property (property being black slaves). No wonder there’s such a chasm of mercy and love in the American Deep South because right after the Civil War a vacuum of power was created as the Union Army dissolved back to the North which allowed for Klan terrorist activity to dominate the Southern plain for the next one hundred years.
A great part of the United States has yet to experience their vergangenheitsaufarbeitung and it shows. It shows by the continual appearance of Confederate flags flowing freely from government buildings. It shows by the various statues dedicated to Confederate leaders, soldiers, and generals still visible from predominantly black communities. It shows when the prevalent idea of the Lost Cause has revised the way Southerners view themselves as victims of an encroaching North instead of perpetrators of kidnapping, murder, and crimes against humanity. Throw terrorism in there as well.
It shows how on January 6, 2021, madmen stormed the United States Capitol building wielding the Confederate flag in the process, as if to say, the South will rise again but what these poor souls fail to understand is that the South never went away to begin with.
No one has ever worked off their past in the United States and much of it simmers to the top when discussions surround reparations or racial equality and reconciliation. The diatribe and visceral vitriol that spews from right-wing echo chambers and the darkweb are just another signifier that the racist sentiments of old are still very much alive.
Is it too late to ask the United States to vergangenheitsaufarbeitung? No. It’s never too late. The better question is who would force it to do this work?
Germany was forced to look at their own blunders, their national sins by the Americans, the Brits, the French and the Russians.
But what nation is powerful enough to turn America’s gaze away from the Orient and toward itself?
Perhaps that strength will not come from without but from within. Maybe this generation has only begun the planting of ideas and the next will water them. Perhaps we’re a generation too soon in considering a revisitation of our past.
I know for a fact we’re far behind Germany in working off our past.
Had America ventured into vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, had they worked off their past shortly after the Civil War, perhaps we would never have heard of Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, James H. Cone, or Martin Luther King Jr.
In fact, perhaps these precious souls would not have been assassinated during the Civil Rights era:
Martin Luther King Jr.
Nor thousands of innocent black Americans have perished under the rage of white lynch mobs.
Germany has accepted its past. It has accepted the fact that regular day-to-day citizens enabled the Nazi regime to take control of the country and enact the horrors it did. It accepted that its once proud and strong army, the Wehrmacht, was just another murderous instrument of the Reich. It accepted that the German culture and intellectual academies of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s had created the racist Autobahn necessary to catapult the Third Reich into power.
Hitler could have lived and died a miserable life and we would have never heard of the man had it not been for the overwhelming support he had received from the German people. But their desire for land, prestige, racial superiority, wealth, and dominance had clouded their moral compass…. Or had it?
But Germany has come out of that era. The new Germany, or perhaps the same, just sober now, is better. It is brighter and more aware of the venom of racism and ethnocentrism that still brews and festers within its subculture and in certain political circles. This new Germany denounces and condemns the resurgence of every nationalist entity that dares show its face. It has even criminalized Nazi rhetoric and memorabilia.
But in the US, however, whenever white supremacist resurge with rage the president asks them to stand back and stand-by thus dog whistling to the undertones of an unresolved past that, hey, at least here in America, this is still okay.
The resounding issue with the American mind is that triumph has clouded its moral memory. This great nation has won too many skirmishes, battles, wars, and revolutions thus allowing it to believe that these various wins thus makes them morally right. This line of reasoning is dangerous. It makes the 1776 American Revolutionary War as morally defensible as the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. Just remember that very few, if any Americans were ever held accountable for the My Lai massacre the same way numerous German SS, SA, Gestapo, and Wehrmacht soldiers were tried, sentenced, and executed after World War II.
This refusal to revisit the past or perhaps confront our national complicity in these various atrocities committed by American citizens keeps us comfortably isolated in willful ignorance. We’re too proud to admit fault and too embarrassingly proud about questionable victories.
Hermann Goering, a German World War 1 veteran pilot, then Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (high commander of Nazi Germany’s Air Force) and the sixteenth president of the Reichstag demonstrated just how ridiculous it can be to evade the reality of our national crimes when confronted with them. While under trial in Nuremberg for crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes against the peace, and conspiracy to commit various other crimes, Goering viewed himself and the Reich’s cause as triumphant in the face of victors’ justice and revenge in Nuremberg.
“In fifty years you’ll be building monuments to us.” Goering states, superciliously so, at one point during his trial.
Goering would later be sentenced to death by hanging but managed to escape the merciful fate by ingesting cyanide in his cell. The highest level living commander of the Reich had succumbed to chemical compounds of potassium cyanide in a cold cell.
Suicide was his last self-righteous act.
Goering’s prophecy never came true, thankfully. Not in Germany anyway.
But it did come true, in other ways, and in more prevalent ways, in the United States of America as statues and monuments erected in honor of Confederate dissidents peaked over the Southern horizon by the hundreds not many years after the Civil War came to a close and there they stand to this day.
Because the United States has yet to work off its sinful national past.
And Other Things
I’m old. I’m much more of a cantankerous old man today than I was yesterday. My health is depreciating quickly and my mind even quicker. My ability to retain information has lessened by half if not more these last few years and it troubles me greatly.
But, in hindsight, there’s much I rather not remember, perhaps much more I prefer to forget. At times, I find myself eerily content with the content that has discontentedly dislodged itself from my mind.
I’m happy with my wife and happy, sorry, I am overjoyed with the beautiful family that I’ve been blessed with.
Should all my memories fade away, and they will eventually, I will be content in knowing that my last thought is that I love them and I am loved by them.
And then all things will gray away and return to black… and then the Light.
Until then I’ll be here picking fights with no one other than my ignorant self and whoever else dares to join the fight.