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Ignorance of history? Germany’s culture of memory and response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Whilst Germany’s work to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust is commendable, its uncertainty following the invasion of Ukraine flies in the face of this historical legacy. It is high time that German society fully stood up and supported Kyiv in its struggle against Russian aggression.

July 8, 2022 - Marcel Krueger - Stories and ideas

Photo: Private collection of the author.

But they will not say: the times were dark

But rather: why were the poets silent?

Bertolt Brecht, In Dark Times

A picture from 1937 shows a gathering at my family’s farm in Lengainen/Łęgajny, in what was then the German province of East Prussia. It might be a spring scene, or one in autumn, as the people in the picture are wearing jackets and suits, a gathering in their Sunday best perhaps. The atmosphere is relaxed, joyful, everyone is smiling for the camera. At the same time, this picture shows the 20th century in Central Europe. The couple in the second row on the left are my grand-uncle Franz Nerowski and his fiancée Pelagia Stramkowska. At the time the picture was taken Franz was a spy for the 2nd Polish Republic. He would be arrested in 1940 and executed by the Nazi authorities as a traitor in 1942. Like Franz, Pelagia was a member of the Union of Poles in Germany, the Polish minority organisation in East Prussia, and worked in a Polish-language bookstore. She would be arrested in 1939 and again in 1940 for helping Polish prisoners of war. She ended up spending half a year in prison. In front of them, legs outstretched and in repose with a cigarette in his hand is Franz’s brother Otto, also a member of the Union of Poles. He avoided joining the Wehrmacht for a while by managing the family farm, only to be forcibly drafted in 1944 and disappear in the battles of spring 1945, somewhere in Czechoslovakia. The couple next to Otto are Agnieszka and Kazimierz Pacer, family friends. Like Otto, Kazimierz was drafted into the Wehrmacht but earlier in 1942. He deserted in Italy in 1943 and joined the Free Polish Anders’ Army there fighting the Nazis. Sitting to the right of Agnieszka is my grandmother Cilly, who managed the farm after Otto left and who, in 1945, was one of the one million female civilians deported to the Soviet Union to work in forced labour camps in the Urals for four years. Finally, sitting at her feet is Bruno, the youngest brother, who was killed fighting US troops in the Netherlands in the spring of 1945 two months before his 18th birthday, having volunteered for the German paratroopers.

As a German non-fiction writer, I have found that engaging with my own family’s history is an ideal vehicle to better understand the wider context of the politics, war and migration that the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century inflicted on countless lives – including those of my family. Also, I came of age in West Germany in the late 1980s and early 90s, was taught by some wonderful history teachers and had the chance to speak first hand with many survivors of Nazi persecution and the Holocaust. This made me a fierce anti-fascist and someone acutely aware that researching history means going into as much context and detail as possible to understand how and why individuals were affected. It is also important to understand the failures of the international democratic community to identify, condemn and curb the crimes of totalitarianism in the 1930s, from the Holodomor in Ukraine to the Spanish Civil War and the Munich Agreement in 1938. I have been researching and writing about Germany and Central Europe for over ten years based on my family history between Hitler and Stalin. I now understand how democratic structures can fall to extremists if left unsupported. This leaves me, as a democrat, with no choice but to support the resistance of Ukraine to all of my abilities.

As a German writer, I am deeply ashamed of both the response of the German government to the Russian invasion, and the public debate about support for Ukraine. The response of Olaf Scholz and his government is somewhat in line with the German politics of the last two decades, a politics of “watch and wait”. I did not expect anything better from German leadership when faced with Russian aggression – especially given the history of German appeasement towards Vladimir Putin and the overall reliance of the country on Russian oil and gas. What frustrates me is the atrocious communication strategy of the German government, the discrepancy between public posturing and the lack of timely support for Ukraine. The German chancellor repeatedly stands in front of the German parliament and the press and brags about the Zeitenwende, a declaration of distinct change in defence politics. He has also boasted about the “fact” that no other country supports Ukraine more than Germany, only to be disproved again and again. This behaviour strongly reminds me of populist upstarts like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson. That dithering leadership also strongly influences the public debate in Germany.

What angers me most, however, is the reaction of some parts of the German public. This is exemplified by the stance of German intellectuals. After an outpouring of support during the first weeks of the war, a number of open letters to the German government signed by publicists, writers, actors and scientists have since urged Olaf Scholz to stop all military support to “not escalate the war”. One letter states that “even justified resistance to an aggressor is at some point unbearably disproportionate to [the level of destruction and human suffering among the Ukrainian civilian population]”. New Eastern Europe thankfully published a much more realistic open letter in response, which I wholeheartedly signed as well.

As a German, I am shocked at the ignorant tone of this public discussion, which often ignores Ukraine’s right to self-determination, or even completely denies that it is a fully formed nation state. It seems to me that with regards to Ukraine, the German Erinnerungskultur, the culture or politics of memory that has enabled the country to – up to a point – openly and honestly discuss the crimes and legacy of Nazi Germany, is failing. Instead of developing a deeper understanding of the complex history of Ukraine and its relationship to Germany, or learning more about the Holocaust on the territory of Ukraine and that the Nazi authorities treated the country as a colony to be exploited and eradicated, the discussion is dominated by platitudes, stereotypes and the regurgitation of Russian propaganda. On TV talk shows, German sociologist Harald Welzer stated that Germany’s history as a perpetrator enables us to understand the war better than Ukrainians and advised the Ukrainian ambassador to stop demanding support and instead listen to Germans. At the same time, political scientist Ulrike Guérot declared that there is no invasion but instead a civil war in Ukraine. Her colleague Johannes Varwick stated that Russia has “vital interests” in Ukraine that we need to respect. On social media, I have encountered claims made by politically active and well-informed acquaintances that as the situation is calm in Kyiv there cannot be a genocidal war; that the Euromaidan protests in 2014 were engineered and executed by the CIA; that Putin potentially targeting the Baltic states and Poland if he is successful in Ukraine is “American propaganda”.

Denying Ukraine democracy is to apply stereotypes and prejudice and puts a lack of knowledge on public display. This discussion is only taking place among Germans and displays a willingness to view the war in the most abstract and simplistic ways possible. Ukrainian voices from all parts of civil society are today as widely available as never before, in books, art exhibitions, podcasts and on social media. However, for some reason Germans have found it difficult to talk to Ukrainians, and there are hardly any Ukrainian voices in public discourse – even the pro-Ukrainian positions on talk shows are represented by Germans.

I was rightly brought up with the responsibility that the Nazi rise to power and Holocaust must never happen again. Now, Germany faces that responsibility in the need to support a European democracy against a genocidal attack aimed at eradicating the country and its culture. But somehow “never again” has become “no war” for many in Germany and I find it difficult to understand why. It seems the historical experience of a necessary military struggle for a just cause, the experience that violent resistance against a criminal opponent is not only morally imperative but can also be successful – a thing that my grand-uncle Franz understood early on – is missing from the current debate. The legacy of the resistance fighters and partisans who defeated National Socialism after a long and difficult struggle is regularly commemorated in Poland, Ukraine and many other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. However, this is not understood to be a part of Erinnerungskultur. Instead of seeing that we as Germans need to constantly keep up the memory and educational work connected to the Holocaust, the inner workings of Nazi Germany and how it was defeated, I am under the impression that for some that work is seen as complete. It is as if we no longer need any further instruction in historical matters because we have already done our homework. This is dangerous, and as exemplified by Harald Welzer, can lead to smug arrogance towards representatives of countries that have a different historical experience.

Coming from a country that takes much of its identity today from the fact that it is open and honest about its past crimes, I wonder why there are no louder voices in Germany condemning the targeting of Ukrainian synagogues, the shelling of memorial sites like Babyn Yar, or the fact that Ukrainian Holocaust survivors were killed by Russian forces or had to flee their homes. I do hope that soon more public intellectuals, more writers, publicists and actors, start to speak up in support of Ukraine. But for the moment, sadly, public debate in Germany is not influenced by the culture of memory, but instead by Geschichtsvergessenheit, the ignorance of history. 

Marcel Krueger is a German non-fiction writer and translator living in Ireland who explores themes of memory, identity and migration through family history and his own existence as emigrant. He is a former fellow of the German Culture Forum for Central and Eastern Europe and in 2019 worked as the official writer-in-residence of Olsztyn in northern Poland, a region to which he remains closely linked.

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