The German Perspective – National Socialism and Auschwitz



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The German Perspective – National Socialism and Auschwitz

A report from Andreas Kraus


I want to start with a quote which I believe focuses the essential things that have to be said after Auschwitz and concerning Auschwitz: “Hitler forced upon the people in their stance of captivity a new categorical Imperative: To shape their thinking and their actions in a way, that Auschwitz wouldn’t repeat itself and nothing alike it would happen.” (Adorno, Negative Dialektik, P. 358) In this quotation, Adorno, a Jewish Philosopher and Sociologist, driven into exile by the Nazis and after the war returned to Frankfurt, explicitly speaks to all people, not only the Germans and therefore puts an emphasis on the universal perspective of the ethical obligations that have to be drawn from Auschwitz. At the same time, it clearly shows, that the demand not to allow the repetition of Auschwitz or any events alike it is not just any random request. It is a moral obligation, that is to be followed directly, at any time and no matter what happens – this is the meaning of the term “categorical Imperative” as Immanuel Kant used it in the 18th century. And this demand doesn’t just apply to the actual actions but to the people’s thoughts as well.
If one accepts that this is a general ethical obligation that everybody must follow, and whose content also is included in the UN-Charta of Human Rights, then one can surely argue that a special ethical obligation exists for the Germans (and the Austrians, whom I won’t discuss any further here) to fulfill this categorical Imperative. Some of these reasons will be discussed in the following. But I first want to tell that this ethical obligation is not a central part of the general everyday moral conscience or political culture in Germany. But one can surely say that essential disputes in the political and cultural arena in the after-war time in Germany were and still are about moral and legal implications that are connected with Auschwitz and National Socialism – and probably, with less sharpness, will still be in the future. But more about that in the course of this report.
When talking about “Auschwitz” here, it also has a special meaning. It first of all is, as we know, the German name for the concentration and extermination camp next to the so-named city, that today lies in Poland. It therefore was a geographical and an administrative term; in general all camps were named after the towns they were close to. After the war, “Auschwitz” became the best-known camp of all and a synonym for the National Socialists’ camp and extermination system in general, short: a symbol for the contempt and extermination of humanity of the terror of the NS-Regime, that was expressed in an especially harsh way in the death camps – especially this one. Therefore the town’s name became a historical-universal focus of an almost transcendental category, seen apart from its exact geographical function. Probably a lot of people around the world know that it was a death camp during the time of National Socialism but wouldn’t know where it was or where the memorial site and museum are to be found today.
Every term used as a historical ‘Terminus Technicus’ to mark the event that we want to refer to has a limited semantic surrounding which also gives it the perspective from which one looks at it. “Holocaust” and Shoah” e.g. mainly stand for the perspective of the Jewish victims of NS-terror; for the historical semantics of the People’s Republic of Poland “Oswiecim” mainly was (and still is) the place where the Polish nation suffered first. It is difficult to find a term that brings all the complex historical events to one point – one focus –, that takes all the different perspectives into account and also does the victims justice. So as there is no other term that would fit better I will use “Auschwitz” here in the sense that I mentioned above where it explicitly includes all different kind of groups who became victims of the NS-regime. By doing so I neither want to solve nor conceal the semantic problems; on the contrary, the discussion about the used terms is an essential aspect of the discourse of remembrance.

Penalty, Guilt, Responsibility

Karl Jaspers, a German philosopher, in his short essay “Die Schuldfrage” (“The Question of Guilt”) – written right after the war – distinguished between four different terms of guilt that one can – in their essential meaning – still refer to today.


The most elementary and most definite guilt for Jaspers is the guilt in a judicial sense. According to this guilt, those people are to be prosecuted and punished after generally acknowledged measures of law who intentionally and wantonly destroyed or damaged anybody’s life, body, psyche or possession, short: those who violated other people’s lawful rights. The results of the prosecution of NS-criminals by the judiciary and judicial prosecution authorities of the Federal Republic are not very positive. In the years immediately after the war Allied military courts were responsible for bringing about the trials and after 1949 the Western and Eastern German judiciary got the responsibility. Law and prosecution came under the shadow of the Cold War. While in the DDR the prosecution of NS-criminals was oftentimes used for propaganda against the so-called ‘Klassenfeind’ (class enemy) and for the myth of the communists as the victims, in Western Germany people were more concerned with domestic policies and economic stability as well as reaching integration into the ‘West’. It wasn’t the primary political goal to catch and punish NS-criminals. Particularly since most of the judicial authorities’ personnel worked on from the NS-time. In German courts – before the big Auschwitz-Cases of the 60s in Frankfurt – it was quite common – if it even came to a trial – that with a reference to a “Befehlsnotstand” (having to obey orders) people were found not guilty or got only lesser penalties. The judiciary that went along willfully with the NS-terror during the Third Reich mutated into a machinery that white-washes the murders in a democratic Germany. While the practice of prosecution surely was (and partly is) a scandal from a judicial point of view one has to see that the Federal Republic of Germany diverted some important law norms from Auschwitz. The basic rights with their preference for the human dignity and the protection from government access for each individual person, the right for conscientious objection and the right of asylum for politically persecuted (unfortunately limited in the 90s), Anti-Discrimination-Laws, the judicial ban of the so-called “Auschwitzlüge” (the lie that Auschwitz never existed) and the use of so-called anti-constitutional symbols surely are on the positive side.
The second sense of guilt that Jaspers talks about is the political guilt. It mainly concerns the political and social elite that brought the system to power and supported it and the voters of the National Socialists. While the general structural changes of the society in the DDR actually had the result that that elite was deprived of its power (while of course another anti-democratic elite was established), the same elite in the Federal Republic didn’t suffer any considerable political or other consequences for their collaboration with the Nazi-Regime. Of course all the Nazi-Organizations were dissolved and banned but most of their members where found – after a short time of ‘Re-Education’ – everywhere as turned into democrats who fit in well with the new system. Lawyers, doctors, intellectuals, scientists, managers and employers and all those who had connected their work with the Nazis and their ideology weren’t taken to court but established themselves well among the high ranks of the Federal post-war Republic’s society. The journalist Ernst Klee incidentally just published a book that empirically leads to this point. Not until the student movements with their rebellion of the young against the old elite – a classical conflict between generations – was this way of ignoring the past challenged. The young elite wasn’t willed to bear the lies any more that the older generation was still carrying around. That didn’t really change who actually had the power in the society but it at least forced everybody in the political arena of the Federal Republic to justify their collaboration with the Nazis politically as well as morally and this obligation still carries on today.
And even in this political sense of guilt one can notice further consequences that were drawn from Auschwitz as the Federal Republic was based on a political and normative foundation. We have a stable democratic-political system with satisfactory ways or chances of participation and a republican public that mainly functions on rational and normative standards. One would like to see more initiative against right-winged extremism and anti-Semitism but all in all the political reflexes and the law-enforcement instruments are working. As a motor for European union and as a skeptic concerning the military way of conflict solving, the German political elite is involved in civil social and international structures that are supposed to prevent any repetition of irrationalities or barbarities. And this even seems to be a consensus among all parties. As well controversial is the fact that today’s German political elite supports the right for the existence of the state Israel and the admission of Poland into the EU – those, too, are special political-moral obligations that other countries in this world wouldn’t agree on right away.
The third sense of guilt is the moral sense. It concerns the German “Tätergesellschaft” (society where everybody did something) mainly as a society of people who went along or watched, a society of bystanders. Contrary to the judicially relevant sense of guilt – that in general follows criteria of laws that are brought to trial in front of public courts – and the political sense of guilt – that is ‘brought to trial’ in the political arena of society – the moral guilt is an individual conscientious conflict that is ‘brought to trial’ before an ‘inner court’ – as Kant described it metaphorically. Even though only a very small part of the Germans were the actual murderers one has to admit that most people maybe didn’t actually sympathize with the persecution of political enemies, disabled persons and Jewish citizens but widely stayed indifferent or even were supportive. Civil courage and resistance out of moral reasoning against the deprivation of rights, the deportation and the murdering were the very few exceptions. The dilemma of this generation is that their moral self esteem is destroyed – if from fear of terror, from the willingness to adjust or from secret agreement.
But as morality is a “soft” category which one can’t directly connect to a law, a political institution or a political action we don’t know much about the inner moral-psychological state of the people from that generation that went along. Actions motivated by morality are based on openly admitting them and not denying or trying to forget them. Therefore great parts of the German discourses on history are debates on the background of a plagued conscience. And they should be. The irritability that lies in these debates is a measure of how the past (still?) won’t pass and won’t be forgotten. The undignified way in which German companies kept victims of forced labor waiting for their compensation shows how much resistance had to be broken when an actual ethical obligation as a result from Auschwitz came up. In the collective national memory Auschwitz and the National Socialism are probably going to cause a troubled conscience or at least a feeling of shame for a long time to come. Nonetheless, over the course of some time, a moral transformation has taken place. The category of moral guilt changes from generation to generation to the category of a moral obligation and therefore takes the place of that impulsive obligation that is included in the categorical imperative that Adorno described. For us this implicates much more than for all the other nations that were affected by Auschwitz and the National Socialism that we have a moral obligation to historically preserve the memory and the feeling of shame.
The last category of guilt mentioned by Jaspers is the metaphysical one. It is a little hard to grasp this one as defining this term requires defining a lot of pre-conditions while Jaspers doesn’t exactly say what he himself means by it. Maybe this much: What happened in Auschwitz is an absolute break with humanity – a break with civilization – that never occurred before and that no one can imagine any worse. It happened in the 20th century in Europe in a nation that had enriched humanity with its culture – and now performed the biggest mass-murder, this vast genocide. Naturally, this incident puts questions in front of us that are more fundamental then questions that any other historical or physical event before or after it could create. Theology and religion, history and science, even the human self-understanding itself are questioned because none of them was capable of developing a human behavior throughout the process of civilization that would have prevented Auschwitz. And maybe even more: That this process of civilization itself played its part in bringing forth Auschwitz. I can just vaguely hint those things here and point out the thoughts of Adorno in his book “Negative Dialektik”. In any case this category of guilt tries to grasp the non-historical meaning of Auschwitz. It might be that this dimension is not as essential to us 50 years later and with the experience of the ongoing world events behind us then it was for those who were directly affected by it. But I still wanted to mention it. And this guilt, says Jaspers, affects us all as we are questioning and searching beings.

Memory and Memorial Sites

“In the house of the hangman one doesn’t speak of the rope” – this psychological saying naturally applies to Germany in a special way. I will, for illustration, start with an example that I experienced myself and that surely is typical for the way of dealing with the past. The protestant church community of the little town I live in invites to an event. The former archivist of the town did very detailed research on the fate of the Jewish citizens of the town, when and how they lived and what happened to them between 1933 and 1945. An average picture: A little more than 50 Jewish citizens lived in the town which is the percentage average in the German Empire back then. Neither is their fate any different from that of most other Jews in Germany: boycotts, “Arisierung”, deprivation of rights, emigration, burning down of the little synagogue in the back of a house (and extinguishing of the fire by the local firemen), deportation, death. The town’s archivist had experienced the time as a child and a teenager himself. He even was an eyewitness of the burning of the synagogue during the Pogrom on November 9th 1938.


So, following the invitation of the church community he unpretentiously and objectively talks about the fate of the disappeared neighbors in front of about 60 mostly elderly listeners, names many people, streets and house numbers and tells what the last sign of their whereabouts that he could find before their supposed death (deported to Warsaw, deported to Riga, to Auschwitz) was. After about 45 minutes his report ends – the reaction: none! Not a single question, no expression of sympathy or sorrow, nothing – complete silence, getting up, leaving. Although most of the listeners knew those who had disappeared. They were from the same age group. In a small town with a few thousand inhabitants everybody knows the Jewish doctor, lawyer, merchant.
So this little episode stands as a typical example: the German society is confronted with what happened, with the realities by single persons (historians, drama people, pedagogues). But the mainstream remains silent – especially when they were involved themselves.
The establishment of a public discussion and memory is a painful process that meets a silent majority and oftentimes has to be established against their will, rarely with their help. I quote the last sentences of the commentary to the movie “Nacht und Nebel”, that lyrically works with the meaning of memory and remembrance in this context referring to the crimes of the National Socialistic Germany: “Who then is responsible? While I am speaking to you water is penetrating the death chamber. It is the water of the swamps and ruins. It is cold and clouded like our memory. The war is just slumbering. On the Appellplätzen (*yards for regular inspections*) and around the blocks the grass has come through. The crematories are out of work. The Nazi-methods out of fashion. This landscape, this landscape of 9 Million dead! Who of us watches here and warns us when the new hangmen come. Do they really have faces different from ours? (...) . There are still those who never wanted to believe it or just from time to time. And us, who at the sight of these ruins honestly believe that this racist insanity is buried underneath them forever. Us, who pretend that we have hope. As if we really believed that all this just belongs to one time and one country. Us, who look over the things beside us and don’t hear that the cry never ends.”
The discussion can therefore not explicitly be about ritual ways of remembrance – so to say remembrance for remembrance’s sake – but primary about a reflexive way of dealing with the past, one that connects to the present. The memorial sites are in a way the topographically fixed points in the process of memory and remembrance. Spread over Germany and the back then occupied Europe one can build a network of the remembered crimes and atrocities from them. The leading intention in this would be to see the deprivation of rights that is happening today more clearly on the background of this past.
The inner connection between self-reflection as remembrance and a democratic culture of recognition of any other human being as a person becomes clear when looking at the example of Turkey. The genocide of the Armenians is not a relevant part of the schooling process there; no memorial sites reminding of the deported and murdered Armenians exist. A strategy of ignoring the past to prevent any self-criticism about the present situation of human rights in the own country. Partly because of this – the unsatisfactory human rights situation – Europe still denies Turkey admission to the European Union.
In this sense it is a cultural-historical achievement not to just mourn one’s own victims but that the ones who committed the crime remember the victims of their crimes. The planned Holocaust Memorial in Berlin which now is in the process of being built – by some critics called the “official wreath-drop-off” – can and actually must, because it this much sticks out topographically in the German capital, keep this wound in the collective memory of the Germans open. But a lot depends on how this memory is shaped through the communicative processes of the society within itself. In any case it stays a negative memory, meaning one that remembers “the others”, those, who, sociologically speaking, don’t belong to the own group but to a the group of foreigners. In the house of the hangman one therefore must speak of the rope – unfortunately there are to many ropes in our house that are rarely spoken about.

Auschwitz, modern society and future

The modern society has – if one wants to believe sociologists – a rationale concerning its own purposes. It takes little interest in history, ideologies and religion; its imperatives are efficiency and functionality, governed by economy and law. If following the cautious and skeptical optimism concerning history that Kant talked about, then this undemanding process of European union fits into this sociological frame of an objective and problem-solving-oriented development of modern societies on a supranational level. At the moment it is hard to believe that any European countries from the EU would fight a war against each other for religious, ideological, imperialistic or any other reasons. A trading-war would be the only faint possibility.


Wars, hate, violence have something strange and of the past, something surrealistic, something that doesn’t fit into the highly modern world with all its functional models and methods to solve conflicts. Countries and nations, if with a republican constitutionality, so did Kant hope, too, won’t do any such thing any more unless morally sanctioned and legitimized by international law, e.g. as a UNO-mission. Therefore Auschwitz sticks out into the European and German present as a relict from the past, it represents a kind of human history, from a time when a great deal of killing was still common. The genocide in the Balkan region that happened just a few years ago is overlooked by the pacified view on human coexistence. Maybe from criminalistic and forensic points of view one can get a little further towards the events on the Balkan in the perspective of this post-modern society. But one can’t understand any more why groups of people massacre each other motivated by religious and nationalistic reasons.
Concerning the remembrance of and in Auschwitz there has to be a change in its ways. We can already see it in the architecture of the memorial sites that use elements of the post-modernism and deconstructivism, e.g. in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, in the Holocaust-Memorial in Washington D.C. or in the planned Holocaust-Memorial in Berlin. Remembrance and memory loosen from their direct historical context and gain a more symbolic-abstract and ethical-universalistic character. Who those murderers were and why exactly they did it becomes a secondary part of the historical process because the murderers themselves don’t live any more and their ancestors can’t be held responsible in any way after several decades – especially when they explicitly differentiated themselves from the murderers. If it is a Japanese or a German group that goes through the memorial site of Auschwitz in 50 years won’t make too big a difference any more – probably both are going to be astonished and frightened in the same way by what happened in Europe 100 years ago. The only difference for the Germans will probably be that they will have a deeper knowledge about the events and that they can read the exhibited documents without translation.
Modern societies are rational and without a memory in a mythological sense of remembering; but they can preserve the ethical demands posed on them through the death of the murdered, if their analytic and reflexive learning processes discuss the violence, the power structures and the ideologies that caused people during that inhumane time of barbarity to kill other people. This is what remains of Auschwitz.


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