Argument

Germany Has Confronted Its Past. Now It Must Confront the Present.

Accepting—or rejecting—historical guilt for past evils doesn’t absolve nations of present-day responsibility.

A visitor at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin on Sept. 25, 2019.
A visitor at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin on Sept. 25, 2019.
A visitor at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin on Sept. 25, 2019. Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images
By , an associate professor of history at Yale.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent the Russian army to reenact World War II in a grotesque, postmodern key. His “special operation” to “de-Nazify” Ukraine is an unprovoked attack on a sovereign democratic state and a campaign of mass slaughter. The Ukrainian military has been defending Ukraine much more skillfully than the Russian military has been attacking it. (Ukrainians know why they are fighting.) Nevertheless, the Kremlin has an enormous advantage in terms of its arsenal, the size of its economy, and comfortable indifference to lives lost. That Putin recognizes no moral constraints gives him a free hand. The fate of Ukraine—and arguably the rest of the world—hinges on the arms other countries provide. Germany has been hesitating, delaying the shipment of heavy weaponry.

This hesitation, potentially fatal, has a background worth grasping. Ukrainians have criticized former German Chancellor Angela Merkel for allowing Germans to become dependent on Russian oil and for believing that Putin could be subdued through economic ties. This policy, called Wandel durch Handel (or “change through trade”), has its roots in 1969, when then-West German Chancellor Willy Brandt initiated Ostpolitik. In August 1970, Brandt signed the Treaty of Moscow with the Soviet Union, pledging to respect postwar borders and disavowing the use of force. Later that year, Brandt visited Warsaw, where he dropped to his knees before the monument honoring the heroes of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. This startling gesture of a repentance beyond words, so unorthodox for a head of state, became iconic.

In 1989, the fall of the Iron Curtain appeared to vindicate Ostpolitik, at least to its practitioners. The utopian capitalist package celebrated through the 1990s came with the conviction that liberalism, democracy, and neoliberal trade belonged to an indivisible whole. The West declared “the end of history.” Now, everyone would all live happily ever after, proceeding inexorably toward liberal democracy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent the Russian army to reenact World War II in a grotesque, postmodern key. His “special operation” to “de-Nazify” Ukraine is an unprovoked attack on a sovereign democratic state and a campaign of mass slaughter. The Ukrainian military has been defending Ukraine much more skillfully than the Russian military has been attacking it. (Ukrainians know why they are fighting.) Nevertheless, the Kremlin has an enormous advantage in terms of its arsenal, the size of its economy, and comfortable indifference to lives lost. That Putin recognizes no moral constraints gives him a free hand. The fate of Ukraine—and arguably the rest of the world—hinges on the arms other countries provide. Germany has been hesitating, delaying the shipment of heavy weaponry.

This hesitation, potentially fatal, has a background worth grasping. Ukrainians have criticized former German Chancellor Angela Merkel for allowing Germans to become dependent on Russian oil and for believing that Putin could be subdued through economic ties. This policy, called Wandel durch Handel (or “change through trade”), has its roots in 1969, when then-West German Chancellor Willy Brandt initiated Ostpolitik. In August 1970, Brandt signed the Treaty of Moscow with the Soviet Union, pledging to respect postwar borders and disavowing the use of force. Later that year, Brandt visited Warsaw, where he dropped to his knees before the monument honoring the heroes of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. This startling gesture of a repentance beyond words, so unorthodox for a head of state, became iconic.

In 1989, the fall of the Iron Curtain appeared to vindicate Ostpolitik, at least to its practitioners. The utopian capitalist package celebrated through the 1990s came with the conviction that liberalism, democracy, and neoliberal trade belonged to an indivisible whole. The West declared “the end of history.” Now, everyone would all live happily ever after, proceeding inexorably toward liberal democracy.

Today, just over three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the “end of history,” it seems, has come to an end. The Kremlin is threatening Europe with nuclear catastrophe and Africa and Asia with starvation. “All our hope is in famine,” Kremlin propagandist Margarita Simonyan announced last month, shamelessly, at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.

How did this situation come to be?


Visitors at an exhibit of portraits of Jews who died in the Holocaust in the Information Center
Visitors at an exhibit of portraits of Jews who died in the Holocaust in the Information Center

Visitors at an exhibit of portraits of Jews who died in the Holocaust in the Information Center of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial, in Berlin on Jan. 24, 2013. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The answer has to do not only with the past, but also with how we understand it. The collapse of communism was accompanied by what the Germans call Vergangenheitsbewältigung (or “grappling with the past”). West Germany had begun to grapple long before 1989, and in many ways, post-communist Germany has been a model of open acknowledgment of past crimes. The German state has paid billions of euros in reparations to Jewish victims; young Germans have fulfilled their civil service requirement by working in Israeli nursing homes, hospitals, and youth centers. Former concentration camps like Dachau and Buchenwald have been turned into museums and memorial sites, educating visitors about Nazi atrocities. In 2005, a 19,000-square-meter memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe opened next to the Brandenburg Gate in the very center of unified Berlin.

Yet elsewhere, this grappling met with much more resistance. Confronting the past dissolved into memory politics, a Manichean discourse of innocence and guilt best captured in a 2018 Polish law providing for a prison term of up to three years for those who “publicly and against the facts attribute to the Polish nation or the Polish state responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes committed by the German Third Reich … or for other crimes against peace, humanity or war crimes.”

Russia’s 2014 Law Against Rehabilitation of Nazism is similar in content and more harshly enforced. Both the Polish and Russian memory laws are typical of memory politics in their curation of public historical understanding in such a way as to insist that all evil came from others. This attempt to find a place of comfort among one’s own where innocence is assured is doomed to fail: The tragedy of the human condition is that there is no such place. Yet this failure is not even the most meaningful one. More ominously, by implying that responsibility in the present is dependent on guilt in the past, memory politics have obstructed, rather than bolstered, the taking of responsibility.


An elderly woman holds a portrait of Soviet leader Josef Stalin near Red Square
An elderly woman holds a portrait of Soviet leader Josef Stalin near Red Square

An elderly woman holds a portrait of Soviet leader Josef Stalin near Red Square ahead of celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany and the end of World War II in Moscow on May 7, 2015. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In May 2016, I participated in discussions in St. Petersburg, Russia, organized by several German foundations. The topic was Russia’s relationship to Europe, and the conversation continually returned to a question: Who should apologize—and to whom? Germans have for decades been performing atonement for Nazism. Why then have Russians neither apologized nor atoned for Stalinism? There were long discussions in St. Petersburg about pokaianie (or “repentance”), a Russian word inflected with religious overtones.

The discussions laid bare a misunderstanding. Germans and Russians alike accepted the essential questions: Who should apologize to whom? Under what conditions should repentance on behalf of the dead take place? But in truth, the essential questions should be others, namely: Under what conditions did Nazism and Stalinism come to be? And what made terror possible?

Germans feel guilt toward Russians for what the Wehrmacht did during World War II. In fact, there was no Russia, per se, when on June 22, 1941, Adolf Hitler broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and launched Operation Barbarossa. Nazi Germany declared war not on Russia but on the Soviet Union; the Soviet Army then included people from all Soviet republics, especially the Ukrainian and Belarusian republics, which were then the most dangerous places to be.

These were the lands where the populations were passed back and forth between Nazism and Stalinism, where the Holocaust by bullets took place, where partisans were most active, and where population losses were proportionally the greatest.

German guilt has often been performed as a reluctance to pass judgment on the Kremlin’s imperial ambitions. This is, perhaps, in part as compensatory indulgence of a former victim—and, in part, a principled if subliminal impulse to reserve condemnation of savage imperialism for Germany itself. Exacerbating these inclinations is a lingering “end of history” delusion that Putin could be tamed toward liberal democracy through business relations. Moreover, German atonement has often taken the form of a retreat into quasi-pacifist passivity, a reluctance to act—as if to make up for having once acted too much.

The Russian case, while different, results in a similar problem. Bolshevism was a revolution that devoured its children. Inside Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, there was no position analogous to that of an Aryan in Nazi Germany. Soviet terror was self-inflicted; everyone was terrorized, and everyone was implicated. Time and again, my co-participants in the 2016 St. Petersburg discussions invoked dead grandmothers.

To repent on behalf of one’s grandmother for her complicity in Stalinism threatens to bring a crushing burden of guilt: After all, the grandmother was also a victim of Stalinism—and of Nazism as well. To apologize on behalf of dead grandparents is to betray the memory of their unbearable suffering. As a Russian émigré composer recently reminded me, the history of any Soviet family makes Shakespeare’s dramas seem like stories for kindergarteners.

What Americans share with Germans and Russians is a conflation of guilt and responsibility—a failure to disentangle one from the other.

And, in the end, Stalin defeated Hitler. That it was the Soviet Union’s greatest moment—and arguably only great moment—creates a natural temptation for reenactment.

Around the time of my own 2016 trip to St. Petersburg, a sociologist friend in Vienna, originally from Soviet Kyiv, was in Russia conducting interviews. One of the questions she posed was about Stalinist terror: How could it be prevented from happening again? Not only did her respondents not have an answer—she told me—they did not even understand the question. Her respondents perceived Stalinism as a violent act of nature. How could you stop a storm from coming? At best you could keep an umbrella in the closet.

In interviews given since the war began, Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak has emphasized that the critical difference between Ukrainians and Russians is neither ethnicity nor language but rather political culture. In philosophical terms, the difference is about perceiving oneself as a subject versus an object of history, as an actor bringing about historical events rather than a passive receiver of fate.


People walk down 16th street after volunteers painted "Black Lives Matter" on the street near the White House on June 05, 2020 in Washington, DC
People walk down 16th street after volunteers painted "Black Lives Matter" on the street near the White House on June 05, 2020 in Washington, DC

People walk down 16th street after volunteers painted “Black Lives Matter” on the street near the White House on June 05, 2020 in Washington, DC.Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The cases of Germany and Russia are not so far removed from today’s reality in the United States as Americans might believe. Following the attempted coup of Jan. 6, 2021, Americans have debated critical race theory—a school of thought based on the insight that racism is engraved in structures inherited from the past. The American past includes slavery; it includes lynchings and Jim Crow laws that provided the inspiration for the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws.

Slavery in the United States was abolished in 1865, most Jim Crow laws were overturned by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and anti-miscegenation laws were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1967. Yet over half a century after the Civil Rights Act was created, the racial wealth gap between the average white and Black family remains 10 to 1. The 1980s War on Drugs prescribed harsher sentencing for possession of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine—the former being associated with Black and the latter with white drug users.

One in three Black men in the United States will go to prison, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. A history of negative racial stereotypes portrays Black women as welfare mothers and Black men as super-predators. White Americans objectively benefit from being exempt from negative stereotypes applied to Black people, even if they do not subjectively hold racist views themselves.

Many Americans villainize critical race theory out of a refusal to accept guilt for what they have not done themselves. Acknowledging the role of structures is seen as violating an American ideal of individualism. Americans live in a country where—as former Democratic National Convention chairman Bob Strauss expressed it—every politician wants us to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself.

Yet paradoxically, Americans’ insistence on individualism inhibits rather than augments the taking of responsibility. What Americans share with Germans and Russians is a conflation of guilt and responsibility—a failure to disentangle one from the other.


Protestors hold a sign depicting Russian president Vladimir Putin
Protestors hold a sign depicting Russian president Vladimir Putin

Protestors hold a sign depicting Russian president Vladimir Putin as former Nazi leader Adolf Hitler during a rally in support of Ukraine in Nantes, western France on March 5. LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images

These three cases suggest that guilt on behalf of previous generations can occlude responsibility whether the guilt is accepted, as in the case of Germans, or rejected, as in the case of Americans and Russians. Germans, by repenting on behalf of previous generations, feel they have fulfilled their responsibility for the present. Russians and Americans, by refusing guilt for past generations, feel justified in not taking responsibility for the present.

At stake in the critical race theory debate is, in essence, the same question at stake in Marxist debates after Stalin’s death: Where is the border between determining historical conditions and individual agency? In the 1960s, Eastern European philosophers such as Karel Kosik, Jan Patocka, and Leszek Kolakowski reached the conclusion that there was no either/or: The relationship between subjective choice and objective circumstances was an interactive one. Although always embedded in educational systems, political institutions, and socioeconomic practices that predate our own lives, we are not inert; we can act. This understanding of individual agency should be the model for accounting with the past, replacing repentance for the sins of dead grandparents.

As German philosopher Martin Heidegger (himself guilty of serving Nazism) wrote, each of us is “thrown” into history. Just as there is no magical Archimedean point outside of the world to which we can retreat and look on the world purely as an object, so is there no tabula rasa on which we can create our lives with no constraints. The ground on which we act includes structures we did not create ourselves, and of whose creation we are not guilty.

Yet not being guilty does not absolve us of responsibility. The source of this responsibility is not guilt; the source of responsibility is that we are human beings sharing a world. We are responsible not for atoning on behalf of those who lived in this world before us but for seeing the unbearable crimes of the past—slavery, lynchings, gas chambers, gulags, death by starvation, collaboration, and terror—with our eyes wide open. Moreover, as the German case teaches us, that is not all: we are also responsible for confronting the present.

Today, in Ukraine, Russian soldiers are raping women, blowing apart children with artillery shells, and tearing off the skin of men they have taken captive. Ukrainians need more weapons. Hesitation is irresponsible—and morally unsustainable.

Marci Shore is an associate professor of history at Yale and the author of The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe and The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution. Twitter: @marci_shore

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