Germany after WWII, a personal perspective

by Christina Geyer on January 9, 2009 · 51 comments

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Yankee in a New World recently asked on her blog if Germans and Americans have historical guilt in common.  I started to answer that no, I don’t think we really do, then realized I had so much to say that I needed to write it in a post.

I think, out of countries that have committed atrocities in the fairly recent past (say, the last 300 years), Germany is one of the ones that has owned up to their involvement best.  Americans feel bad on some level about the enslavement of Africans, the extermination of most of the Native American population, and the treatment of African-Americans, but that’s about where it ends.  I don’t see American society as a whole really owning any of the other atrocities America has been involved with.  I’ve spoken with many people who have never heard about the treatment of Chinese during western expansion or the internment of the Japanese during WWII. And can many Americans really say that guilt from these acts has shaped who they are?

Things may be changing with the youth now, but my husband is a child of parents who went through WWII.  He was born very late to his parents, his much older brothers are my mother’s age, and I can honestly say that German historical guilt has shaped him to the core.  My father-in-law, Franz, was drafted and sent to fight in the Russian front, where he was captured and held prisoner in Russia.  Rainer told me once that when he was a child, his father would watch WWII documentaries, silently, with tears rolling down his cheeks.

My mother-in-law Hildegard’s fiance was drafted into the army and died in battle.  Rainer has said on a couple occasions that if Nazism and WWII hadn’t happened, he would never have been born.  I think that weighs on him sometimes.

Rainer’s grandfather was a local Nazi party leader for their very small village.  Rainer’s parents went through the rebuilding of Germany, through times when there wasn’t enough to eat, there were no utilities, no comforts.  How has this affected my husband?  Rainer is the most pacifistic person I have ever met in my life.

My family finds it hard to understand why Oliver will not be allowed to play with guns, or violent video games, or have action figures, or toy soldiers.  They joke about how Rainer won’t allow Oliver to wear camouflage or military apparel.  I used to tell Rainer that he married into the wrong family, my grandfather was a career Marine, a WWII and Korean War veteran.  My dad volunteered for the Marine Corp and fought in Vietnam.  I’ve got several active duty and retired military cousins.

But as time went on, and I got to know his parents and his country, and see how WWII affects them still, I start to wonder about how proud we are of our victory in WWII, of how we can’t get enough of movies glorifying the war.  I’ve become very aware of how often Germans show up as movie villains, and wonder at how easily Germans accept this.

When I was living in Rostock, I got appendicitis, and ended up in the hospital for a week with an 80-something year old roommate.  We had a grand old time and she taught me some Plattdeutsch (including some curse words!), until one day I sat up in bed indian-style.  “That’s how the American soldiers used to sit,” she said to me in German.  She told me about how she was a teenage girl during the war, and afterwards, when she and her friends saw soldiers coming, they ran and hid because they were so afraid of being raped.  Now I was thinking at the time that she was surely overreacting back then, yes rapes probably happened, but I have since learned that rape of the women was widespread.  That fear she had as a teenager was still there on her deeply-lined face, over 60 years later.

So no, I don’t think Germans and Americans have historical guilt in common.  I don’t think Americans actively feel much guilt about what our past countrymen, our ancestors, have done, but I think Germans do.  I don’t think Americans are educated enough about what Americans have done to feel guilt.  The people who do know about American committed atrocities often use the excuse that their ancestors weren’t the ones that did it.  Are you sure?  I thought the same thing, I thought my ancestors were either all more recent immigrants or northerners, but after over two years of genealogical research, I found an ancestor in Virginia who was a slaveowner in the 1700s.  And even if our ancestors weren’t involved, aren’t we all still living off the economic bounty provided by land taken from natives and work provided by slaves? Aren’t we still exploiting illegal immigrants for cheap labor?

Before the World Cup in 2006, you never saw German flags flying.  Since the World Cup, Germans are finally starting to feel some pride in their nation again.  It’s not strange to see a German flag flying from a house, or a car window, anymore.  And I’m happy about that.  I’m glad that Germans can feel good about their country again.

What is your experience?  How do you think WWII (and the Cold War) has affected the people of Germany?

  • Sebastian

    As a German guy in his twenties I feeled quite bad about the public debates about how great the flag-waving and “long-awaitened patriotism” were – as a “global normalization” during and after the World Cup.

    I really really think that there is just no need to feel good or even pride in a nation – such feelings are rather harmful.
    There should be absolutely NO emotions in nations, neither good nor bad emotions. Nations are just random chosen, borders are just lines on maps. Flags are just symbols, like traffic signs.

    I never felt that Germans were missing anything without a common patriotism – I deeply hope that other nations will feel alike some day. Beginning with the vanishing borders within Europe and spreading – until there are no nations anymore :)

  • Angela

    Hi Christina,
    I’ve been reading and am now finally leaving you a comment. Great post, I agree with everything you wrote. I am half German and have relatives that fought in WWI and WWII. I think we (as Americans)feel less or little guilt about much of what we do around the world because it rarely happens on our soil. We are always butting into other people’s business and for some reason we have kept the “American Hero” persona alive and well throughout the years. Despite our very bad behavior! I don’t know, though, I don’t have an answer to your question but they are good questions!

  • Tyrone

    Hello Christina,
    I find the fact that you (an American) actually wrote this article really interesting. Something i have never heard from am American.
    I am a German/American (or vice versa depending on the situation!), and grew up an army brat, living between GErmany and the USA. I must say that mostly i found a certain feeling of “superiority” in many Americans towards Germans, and what they did during WWII. However, at the same time I listened to the many stories of my mother and other relatives, that were not too different to the one you heard from your roomate in the hospital in Rostock. During the years I also learned more of the truths about atrocities carried out by not only Germans, but also Americans, Russians, even some of the French forces that occuppied Germany after the war, albeit the magnitude was less. As a result I think there is still so much that the world needs to reconcile with, not only Germany. Germany only now is beginning to feel just a little bit proud of what was accomplished in the past 60 years after the war, which is partly shown by the flags flying.
    But, Christina, preventing your child from playing with guns/etc. will not prevent him from being interested in all those types of things. We have 4 children and tried the same, wihtout luck. Our children did not have guns, but found alternatives when playing with friends, i.e. sticks, etc. Many of our friends tried the same. The problem is that the children interact with their peers, and the interest will rub off. What really matters is for them to understand the difference between “playing” and reality.
    Again, good article.

    Tyrones last blog post..Last day of year walk through our forest

  • Christina G

    Wow, great comments!

    @Sebastian: You make a good point. I remember, when I first moved over here, being asked by a lot of my new German friends why I was proud to be American and it always struck me as a strange question. I hadn’t thought about it since and never really saw it from the German side before.

    @Angela: Also a good point. I think a big part of it is that America hasn’t fought many battles, and none recently, on its own soil. Rainer and I were discussing last night how demoralizing it must have been to see entire cities destroyed, like Berlin and Dresden and countless others. Rainer said when the people saw their country destroyed, and the anger the destruction represented from the other side, they vowed that this could never happen again.

    @Tyrone: Good points as well. I think atrocities are committed in every war, by all sides. Rainer said it well last night, when soldiers are in battle, they are primarily running on fear and anger. When people are in extreme emotional stress, they do things they maybe wouldn’t under normal conditions. I also don’t think preventing him from having guns, etc, isn’t the solution, but my husband finds it disturbing, and that’s good enough for me at this point. We will be teaching him about the difference between reality and play when he’s older.

  • billypaintbrush

    interesting site, discovered it through the awards thing. couple thoughts

    i live in chicago, all of my ancestors are german and my neighborhood has a german heritage center in it. people are starting to speak german around here again and the cultural center has only had a flag out front for a couple years. what you say is true

    to angela about the usa butting in, it seems when the usa doesn’t get involved somewhere, then its criticized for that, too, easy scapegoat.

  • Janda

    Countries and people all do great things and follow them up with really bad things. Naturally we could feel pride or shame all in one day.
    I feel ashamed about “apartheid” in South Africa but I feel pride in a young country that have to learn a lot on the job. Yes, my mum may not feel that pride. Mum may not even feel the same shame. She comes from a different generation.
    South Africa is made up of many different cultures. Many nations. 11 official languages. Yes, it is one country but it could just as well have been 11 or more! Things are very hard there for many people. Everything is changing at lightning speed. There would always be differences. But I have faith that life would settle down to a balanced level in good time.
    We must just not allow our shame to belittle our pride or visa versa.

  • CN Heidelberg

    I also read Yankee’s post and agree that although Americans have a lot of bad, bad shit in our history, we don’t really feel very guilty about it, and we aren’t taught to either. Of course, a lot of us can write it off easily – it wasn’t really MY ancestors that had slaves or killed Native Americans, because I’m descended from later immigrants who only lived in the north.

    CN Heidelbergs last blog post..The Metric System

  • CN Heidelberg

    Clicked send too soon! Meant to continue on to ask, how many Germans can just write off what happened in WWII in the same manner that I can (justifiably or not) write off slavery and the extermination of Native Americans? Probably not too many.

    CN Heidelbergs last blog post..The Metric System

  • CN Heidelberg

    So they are bound to feel more guilty just in that regard, never mind being taught to feel guilty in school, where we are only taught to be proud, fear other forms of government, etc.
    Man, I should really think more before clicking submit.

    CN Heidelbergs last blog post..The Metric System

  • Stephanie

    I wonder if Americans and Germans feel differently about our history and how it affects us b/c of the time that has happened between events? My ancestors were not in America when slavery and Indian mistreatment (for lack of a better phrase) was occuring. Do I feel bad about it? Yes, but since it wasn’t a part of my lineage, we had no reason for it affect the way we live.

    Now, racial equality is something that has affected the way my family views things since my parents can remember when it wasn’t the case and black people were treated differently.

    Yes, I am an American. But like the typical American attitude, I don’t feel responsible for something that occured when my family was still living in Germany!

    Stephanies last blog post..Tito’s

  • Ann

    I thinks it’s a combination of things, the disassociation American’s can easily have with their past, the mentality of being suppressed, the location of the actions, and the way a group reacts to their government.

    I agree with the previous posters about feeling the guilt of our ancestors. American families often move from city to city, state to state. So, the atrocities committed in one part of the country could be completely ignored if your family has moved from or to that place since these things happened.

    Then there’s the victim mentality, or maybe… (and I’m only using this term because I can’t think of the right word right now) it’s loser’s mentality. While Americans may not collectively live with the effects of the treatment of African-Americans and Native Americans, I bet there are many African-Americans and Native Americans who do feel the effects of the lives of their ancestors. They were the victims, and Germans lost the war… stick with me for a moment.

    One thing that always struck me as interesting was how reluctant France was to be part of WWII. One reason is that they realized they were a civilized society, and hated seeing the effects of WWI destroy a generation of people. I think that the WWII generation in Germany, had to live with the fact that this came out of their country, there was no hiding from it, and no denying it. Coming to terms with what is expected to be a cultured nation, living in that community of where it happened. Their pride is tarnished. I can see where the guilt can come from.

    After Vietnam, the U.S. experienced a more short-term guilt. A guilt that was maybe only brought to light because we lost. We weren’t ashamed BECAUSE we lost (though I’m sure some were), we, as a whole, were ashamed because losing brought out the fact that our military and government treated the Vietnamese poorly. Or maybe the media made us feel ashamed. Either way, Vietnam was was a blight in our history. And the subsequent wars emphasized that they would be the opposite of Vietnam (we would treat the country better, the returning vets better, we’d win).

    I think the U.S. was able to let go of their Vietnam guilt because in the US, we have our high-society parts and our back-country parts. We are very much an us vs. them within our own nation. The military is thought of as a certain segment of society and their wrong-doings happen in other parts of the world, shielded from the folks shopping at the mall. Vietnam vets who witnessed, but didn’t even partake in the atrocities, they suffered guilt. It effected them and their families.

    If Vietnam happened on our soil, then the U.S. would be completely different.

    Then there’s the way we deal with our government. When Americans don’t like something, and feel strongly about it, we speak up. And when you speak up and disagree with the government, I don’t think you end up feeling more guilty. For example… how many people in this country disagree with George Bush? Do you think the people that disagree with him feel any sense of responsibility for the decisions he’s made? No, they say they voted for the other guy. Not only did they vote for the other guy, but they are actively bringing to attention his mistakes and offering support to the people they feel he wronged.

    Maybe that’s where some of the German guilt from WWII comes from, too. The feeling that not enough people disagreed with their government at the right time. Truth is, though, is that’s too easy a solution to think of in retrospect. The conditions in Germany at the time may have made disagreeing impossible, or at least deadly. Disagreeing seems so easy, but sometimes, it just isn’t.

    Do Germans and Americans handle historical guilt differently? Yes. But our histories are different. It’s to be expected.

    P.S. I’d love for you to do a post about national pride because I have a ton to say on that topic, too.

  • Tammy

    It’s interesting to go to my husbands home town were he lives in the ‘immigrant’ area. His father’s family lived in what is now Poland. After the war, they were forced to flee because they were considered Germans because of their ancestry and forced to return to their ‘homeland’. They fled over a frozen to sea to a place they had never lived but were forced to make a new home. They thought it would be a temporary stay. His grandmother spoke of returning to the farm they owned until she died.

    A lot of these foreign born Germans settled in the area of town where Matthias grew up, and to this day, there is a bit of a stigma on that area. It is sill considered the ‘foreign’ settlement.

    I never thought much about that aspect of the war until I learned what his family went through. I also find it ironic that his dad’s side of the family have resentment towards the Polish who kicked them out. At the same time, a good friend of mine comes from Polish parents who immigrated to the US. When her mom first met Matthias, it was an issue that he was German. She had good reason; after all, most of her family had been killed by Germans when they invaded Poland. I guess enough time had passed that she could welcome him to the dinner table on Thanksgiving one year. She said, “He is really nice for a German.”

    War really messes up so many things. It’s great that you are going to try to inhibit the idea of ‘pretend’ violence in the toys and clothes that Oliver is exposed to. I think boys, by far, have that shoved down their throat so much. There is no ‘pretend’ violence, only practice.

    Tammys last blog post..Amerikanerin!!

  • rositta

    Interesting post Christina, there is one genocide you forgot and that is Holodomor, the intentional starvation of Ukraine by Stalin. I consider that the largest genocide or mass murder, whichever you prefer.
    As a German whose father was also on the Russian front and whose mother and aunt where both raped by Russian and American soldiers I have never felt the guilt of the Nazis. I was born after the war. My mother survived the firebombing of Dresden and my father Penemuende as he was being transported on a hospital ship. You are right, no one has ever taken as much responsibility than the German people and will continue to do so forever I think. They will not be allowed to forget, ever. Here in Canada Japanese and Germans were interred during the war but only the Japanese have received a formal apology and financial compensation. You have to wonder why that is, seems to me they were the bad guys in WWII too, after all didn’t they bomb Pearl Harbour?…ciao
    ps. I vote for your blog every day

  • cliff1976

    It’s great that you are going to try to inhibit the idea of ‘pretend’ violence in the toys and clothes that Oliver is exposed to.

    My mom insisted on that sort of thing for me when I was growing up. I never had any kind of war-related toys — except perhaps for Go-Bots and Transformers (the Autobots take the challenge to destroy the evil forces of…the Decepticons), but they weren’t remotely human, so maybe that didn’t count. But still a toy gun was never to be found in our house — Mom made kids who brought them over leave them outside.

    Nevertheless, at age four I still managed to bite my sandwich into the shape of a pistol and “shoot” (Pow!Pow!Pow!) her with it, which caused great distress.

    So Oliver might end up like me. Just sayin’.

    cliff1976s last blog post..this might be the last post for a while!

  • Rachael

    Where to start. Many thoughts have been said.

    Americans don’t have the same guilt because of several reasons. 1) our atrocites are not always taught in schools (WWII Japanese internment, for example) or are minimized, 2) our atrocities are intertwined and confused with accomplishments and pride — when you question the Iraq war (less so now), your patriotism and support for the troops are questioned– but what about Guantanamo, violations of human rights, etc. etc. etc. 3) nothing has been on our soil Look at 9/11 (the only recent exception)– we cannot stop talking about it, mentioning it, etc. It is an atrocity, sure… but it has shaped our psyche more profoundly than other events worldwide that are more extreme. 4) we dismiss atrocities that are older, like slavery, yet the effects are still there with racial disparities.. 5) We are hypocrites. Plain and simple. Do as I say, not as I do. So, its complicated.

    Actually, I remember talking to you and Rainer when I visited Berlin, and he was a bit upset at the two of us when we were asking him about World War II and the average German’s thoughts on accountability, etc. He did not understand our curiousity about how he felt about various aspects as we toured around. (Funny how we were taught in the US more about German people who deny the Holocaust than about the vast majority who do not. We love judging but don’t want to be judged in the US… for sure.) The Holocaust Museum in Washington DC was incredibly moving and educational for me. The US and many, many other countries knew what Hitler was doing well before things escalated. We may not have been a “super power”, but still. We did nothing, and we were not alone.

  • Rachael

    Gun play.. My son is into the super hero thing and finding “bad guys”. They do not allow weapons at school, and we have none at home. But, he 1) makes pretend guns out of rocks, sticks, cars, anything; 2) asks about guns ALOT. We educate that policeman don’t use their guns very often.. and don’t want to shoot anyone. We have limited weapon play… with constraints (no pointing at people).

    An outright ban of this line of play may make your kid more fascinated. As you are into reading, you may want to check out “Who is calling the shots” (book on Amazon)… guns are about POWER. Kids love POWER. This gives some tips on how to deal with kids’ fascination with guns.


  • Tammy

    Cliff, I LOVE that story. The power of social programing.

    Tammys last blog post..Amerikanerin!!

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  • Marcelle

    As a South African my only connection to the war was my grandfather came over to fight in it, spent 5 years in overseas – when he got home my Dad was 5 and they took forever to bond which caused problems for him and a man.
    My husband was born in South AFrica, but his great grandparents were born in Germany so he comes from a German speaking family – he loves history and he has taught me so much – since living here I have such a better understand of what life must have been like back then.

    Marcelles last blog post..I love this little boy!!!!

  • cliff1976

    his great grandparents were born in Germany so he comes from a German speaking family

    Man, I wish my born-in-Germany-great-grandparents (and/or the steps in between) had passed some of that language on down to me.

    That would have helped a lot.

    cliff1976s last blog post..update on the move

  • QueZen

    Interesting subject. I moved to Germany in the early 80es, one night the subject of the Jews that used to live in that village came up. I remember asking my in laws, “but didn’t you wonder where they went?” Some Jews did come back with the US Army, they went right straight to the houses of the Party leaders with the MP’s, no extensive investigation needed.
    Similar story in my husbands family. Dad went to the Russian front, captured, years in the Russian POW camps, ect.
    Interesting comments about “guilt” and “victims”. There is a book “Das Brand” that describes the air bombardment of the German civilian population, at night by the British, and in the daylight by the US Airforce. No nation or civilian population has been more intensely bombed that the Germans in WWII, according to that book, but we never hear much about that when a few civilians are collaterally killed in modern conflict.
    The whole subject of guilt and nations seems to me to need a lot of definition of terms. “Nation”, once was loosely synonymous with “Tribe”. In the US it never was-in fact, re: the comment “I wish they had passed the language skills down to me”, I think WWI and II did in the extensive German culture, including language and newspapers, that once existed in the US, I am glad to hear that it is being revived in some areas, by the neighborhood people themselves.
    Now days “languages” and “Tribal identity” are often rewarded in the US at the expense of other groups (I worked for the Indian Health Service for years-these people get paid,well, to reconstruct their languages and cultures-and by the way they all get totally free health care to boot, they still whine all the time,if they don’t the federal funds might dry up-sorry; I have been there and seen it.)
    ‘Guilt’, I don’t know, can it be healthy to have ‘guilt’ for something you did not even do? Maybe ‘historical awareness’, so history does not repeat itself, but ‘guilt’?
    To me what is so different about the world today is the ease with which we all communicate with each other, like this blog, let’s see if this skill helps with the political changes the economic downturn is surely going to bring-like my husband always reminds me, “the Nazi’s turned the whole world on its head and they were just in power 12 years”, and they got there because the world economy fell apart.

  • Ute Olsson

    Danke. Great post! Not only is your post very thoughtful, but also the many readers who commented — they too put a lot of thought into this topic.
    Thank you for initiating this discussion!

    Ute Olssons last blog post..German ANGST: or why I worry about worrying

  • Patrick Kelly

    Very interesting post.

    I’m an American who after years of learning the horrors suffered by Jews at the hands of Nazis, and of hearing how German students really learned the truth about Nazism, I wanted to know more about what the Germans experienced, especially after the war.

    But about the old woman saying she and her friends ran from soldiers for fear of rape. That fear was real and very well documented. This is not to take away from the contribution of Soviet Soldiers to ending the war, but an estimated 2,000,000 German women were raped as the war neared it’s end and during the occupation. The rapes began in East Prussia as revenge for Nazi atrocities committed against Soviets, but by the time Soviet soldiers reached Berlin the rapes were considered a reward, or war booty, like watches and other things looted. One must understand that the Soviets suffered incredibly under Nazi occupation, but if one wants to be honest one needs to address the issue of rape. For decades women kept silent as did German men, women had to act as if they had been spared, but few were. Read Anthony Beevor’s The Fall of Berlin which is researched from Russian documents as well. Or read “A Woman in Berlin” (now a movie) which was a first person account of women enduring nightly and often multiple rapes by Soviet soldiers and how this woman (an anonymous journalist whose identity was revealed after she died) dealt with and survived this situation.

    It seems that in many ways the women of Germany paid for the sins of Hitler.

    Thank you and best to you.

  • Sean

    As an Active Duty American serviceman about to take my second posting to HQ US European Command in Stuttgart, I can say that a buddy of mine summed it up in a way that was easy for me to understand when he said: “I don’t think I would call my feelings ‘proud’ to be German. I do realize that I am very lucky to live in my country, and have a good life, so I consider myself ‘happy’ to be German.”

    I did have the opportunity to meet several German soldiers and sailors in my time, and I always feel a bit sad when I notice that most professional (Officers or career NCO’s) German military folks are held in a bit of indifferent contempt by certain parts of German society.

    Unlike the US where military service is generally seen as an honorable profession by most, it seemed to me if you are German and are serving past your mandatory obligation, it’s almost as if people think there MUST be something wrong with you…perhaps it was simply a vocal minority giving me that impression.

  • Christina G

    @sean: I think you summed up the feelings of many Germans towards the military very well. Thanks for adding to the discussion. I think it probably is a vocal minority, but there is a certain percentage of the population that is anti-military.

  • chuck

    Read Witness To History by Michael Walsh-it’s a free download on the will never view WW2 the same again

  • Chuck

    I’m glad to hear that WWII sentiment is over.

    I don’t have much experience with foreigners, but I do recall one years ago.
    I worked in a hospital with a couple of women in the early 1980’s.
    There was German girl and a Polish girl working in the same department. Both were immigrants from their respective countries. They both came to the US at young ages. Spoke English fluently… The German girl had a problem assimilating. Dated and married a German. Spoke fondly of Germany, her relatives and how she missed it. Kept her distance from a Jewish employee…
    We thought we were experiencing WW2 all over again. The German girl would pick on the Pole and despised her. We couldn’t figure out why. They both seemed like nice girls. Although the German one had a temper. She must have had a chip on her shoulders.
    The way things would go down: The German girl would do something mean to the Polish one(top student, best worker). The Polish one wouldn’t fight back, but the manager noticed that something was amiss. She would step in and punish the German girl for her behavior by giving her a tougher work load. Finally, the German girl went to another hospital and that was the end of any malice in the department.

    Anyway, these women must be in their fifities today. I’m glad that the younger generation does not share the old sentiments.

  • Parker

    There are so many points that are being missed!

    1. The victors write the history. The entire US government, economy, society, etc., was totally devoted to the war effort (this does not just mean fighting, many made millions in profits), everyone of these entities wanted to justify, even glorify, their involvement. Hence USA is great! USA won because they are great and everything they did was great. Now lets go on with our lives and not ask any questions.

    2. Any questions would weaken future propaganda efforts. The “proof” that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction shows how powerful USA government propaganda still is and how unwilling USA citizens are to ask questions. USA good, everyone else bad. End of story. Don’t ask questions.

    3. A USA soldier who VOLUNTEERS to go to Iraq is a hero while a German soldier who was drafted is a war criminal? Please! The USA soldiers are only making money for Haliburton and other companies. If americans were at all inquisitive George Bush, Dick Cheney, and many others would be in prison.

    4. History has show that what Germany did in world war II was lose. Nothing more, nothing less. All other countries committed their share of atrocities and war crimes. I think it is time for Germany to show pride again. I would prefer Germany to make decisions independent of the USA both economically and militarily.

  • Seriously?

    Name me one incident more horrible than the mass murder of 6,000,000 civilian, non-uniformed men, women and children, comitted BY a first world country in the past century…I mean, yes we all have to move forward but not at the expense of forgetting the past. Never Forget, and dont let it happen again….

  • Graham

    Its funny how here in England we think highly of the Germans, but poorly of the French. Even though we have been on the French side against the Germans in the past two wars. I guess the old wounds are the ones which hurt the most.

  • Christina Geyer

    @graham: I think the French-British rivalry goes back a long way, it does seem that the old wounds are the hardest to get over.

  • maureen

    I just finished watching Adrien Brody in “The Pianist” and am not feeling a lot of Nazi love at this point.
    I am Irish/French , and when left to ruminate on it too long , think the British stink on ice for how they have treated the Irish, The Potato Famine was the Brits attempt at genocide , actually shipping food stuffs out of a nation under their control where the population was starving to death!
    Americans have shown that the racial stuff is pretty much behind us by over whelmingly electing Pres. Obama. Who is still at record popularity ratings.
    And the animosity shown towards the French, who were also instrumental in the success of the American Revolution, is shared by the English and the Anglophile Americans, because they fear French culture and civilization surpasses their own. In a word , ENVY.
    I am also a Catholic, French AND Irish? C’mon! And I have REAL issues with the former Nazi Pope! He could have resisted, others did , conscientious objectors who were also put in internment camps. But our current Pontiff? Heck NO!
    I’m sorry, I have a problem with that.
    So, SUE ME!

  • Rachael

    Racial stuff is behind us in America? I only wish you were right. We’ve come a long way, but there is much farther to go.

    Yes, it is momentous that the US elected a black President. But the legacy of Jim Crow lives on, from achievement gaps to health disparities. And don’t forget that some crazy number (20%?) of people think Obama is a Muslim (which is essentially something many equate unfairly in the US with being a terrorist!)

    This black/white thing is not our only racial / genocide “issue”. Internment camps of Japanese Americans, and the current reservations that we so kindly gave the Native Americans (high unemployment, education gap, etc). Our policies and outlook on immigration (no doubt a complex issue) bring out racism along with the compassion. The general uninformed sentiment about Muslims all being terrorists… this is a lot of stuff that shows me we’re not past race / cultural /ethnic / religious bias.

    Finally, we were not a superpower during WWII, but we knew what Hitler was doing. We did NOTHING about it. Many nations knew… and did nothing.

    I think we;re learning, though, to transcend these issues a bit in the US. My son (4yo) was incredulous when we were explaining that some people were (and still are) judged for the color of their skin rather than their deeds. This gives me hope… that in time, we can REALLY say that this racial stuff is behind us in the US. It is truly momentous that Obama was elected President… but, we’re not past this stuff yet… but, I’m hopeful.

  • maureen

    Japanese internment camp were disgraceful , they did not , however include ovens!
    I for one, am tired of America being the Military Policeman of the World. Our defense budget is ridiculously high!
    And I am not sure about our refusal to get involved in WW@ an earlier date, we were, after all , still in the middle of the Great Depression, and yes, I am protectionist about America and her citizens of all races and creeds.
    The main distinction raised in the USA today is an ECONOMIC one. Money, read lobbyist and Corporations rule the country more than any political party or race.
    And you need to also look at Demographics, Caucasions will be the minority in the USA fairly soon, the year 2042 last I looked so , yeah, I’d say racism is bound to diminish in the USA.

  • Rachael

    Just reading the news today…. I agree we’re coming along and will more (Obama’s election a good sign!), but then you read the news to realize as a culture we still have a way to go on the issue of race. (I’ve heard many a racist comment on non-Caucasians being outnumbered in the next few decades, too.)
    White supremecists using Nazi swastika and Confederate flag symbols in protest during demonstration re: courts handling of a dragging death. Yuck. I live in the South….
    Racial profiling of Harvard scholar (who admitedly was not cooperative due to his profiling), arresting entering his own home (forcefully, due to door jam).

    I m also tired of us playing policeman of the world, but perhaps for different reasons than others. Besides the expense (bottomless pit!), we are arrogant and think we know what’s right. Ha! And, yet we are a bit hypocritical and only selectively intervene when it suits our economic interests. (We’re not exactly having a big presence in Sudan. We weren’t in Rwanda, either. And then, look at Vietnam and that mess (in interest of democracy). We have armed Iran, Iraq, Israel etc. in Middle East over past several decades. We armed Afghan groups to fight the Russians. We’ve created or contributed to some really messy, complicated conflicts). I do think we need to look more critically at this!

  • Anne


    as a German, I can readily clear up something which appears to have been seen as debatable here: the vast majority of fellow Germans I knew and currently know are anti-militaristic. So the poor view of people voluntarily staying in the army after their draft time is up is by no means that of a minority, I’d say it’s the majority instead. My personal suspicion is that one of the main reasons the Bundesarmee is not turned into a purely professional army is that they are quite afraid they won’t be getting enough volunteers.

    The opinion I can most empathize with is that of Sebastian. I see absolutely *NO* sense in being nationalistic, being proud of any country whatsoever, and – to top it – to me the nationalistic/patriotic stance of people is the one main and most important reason that we, as a species and as a civilization, are not advancing as we should and could, and are still fighting each other (well, apart from simple greed, which is the other main culprit). As long as we cannot overcome this egocentric and tribal thinking, we will know no true peace. Anyone care to enumerate just how many wars have been waged since 1945, moreover, by whom and for what real reasons?

    I have been totally shocked by the US invasion of Iraq, not the politicians’ role in that, rather the agreement this war got from the US citizens, am currently greatly displeased about the ongoing war (with German involvement of all things!) in Afghanistan and was for the first time at least marginally proud of a German politician when Schröder refused to engage in Iraq. My late father had visited Iraq some 20 years ago, as a cultural tourist, saw museums and collections, many of the first monuments ever created by mankind and one of my last memories of him are watching both together reports about what happened to the cultural world heritage during and after the invasion of the US troops. He was crying at the time, crying over the fact that the country which had very carefully preserved and nurtured this heritage of Ur was been bombed and pillaged, with whole museums ransacked, old monuments used as latrines or strategic cover. He was an architect by profession, by the way, directly influenced by his wish to “build up again” after the bombings of WWII.

    Regarding atrocities committed by the Nazis, as a descendant of concentration camp prisoners, I make a distinction between the Nazi regime, the NDSAP members and those who had little choice. I’m also intelligent enough to realize, that what happened in Germany, can happen anywhere else. Anyone who doubts that ought to research a bit:

    I have been in the USA several times, at differing times in my life, and actually found peer pressure there to be much more forceful, and much more accepted by all people, than this is the case in Europe and Germany. Unfortunately the tide is changing.

    So, that’s no excuse, it’s an explanation and also a warning in my opinion. I would never start counting body bags, whether the Holocaust during the Third Reich, whether the Gulags of Stalin, whether the Tutsi-Hutu massacres, whether the genocide of the Red Indians or the boxer killings – atroctities have been and are still happening. Every single death is one too many, and I can’t find Nazi Germany not specifically more culpable than Stalinistic USSR or the early expanding or slavetrading USA. To me every of these atrocities is equally atrocious, their differences are just a matter of numbers, not one of less guilt.

  • al

    Before commenting on the German ‘guilt’ and inaction of the German people they should read:
    and question a variety of people who lived through that time and record their sentiments so the truth be known as they saw it.Not to many of us left.Historians can be liars too unless they have first hand experience of what happened around them.
    As for Americans, I think their lowest point was the McCarty time.They might not have shot their fellow countrymen, but destroyed them nevertheless economically.

  • Stutz

    I think Americans don’t feel too much guilt about historical atrocities like the extermination of Native Americans or slavery for the simple reason that they occurred far enough in the past for us not to feel culpable for them. One could argue that we feel like people living “back then” really couldn’t have been expected to know better. Conquest and slavery was the way the world worked in centuries past, from the discovery of the Americas to the colonization of Africa and beyond. (Not saying that this is an excuse, but it is an explanation of how we feel.) WWII, however, took place in the mid-20th Century, a time when our moral sensibilities had evolved enough to know that the systematic extermination of a people was wholly wrong and unjustifiable. Americans ought to feel guilty about racism and the internment of the Japanese and Vietnam and plenty of other things that took place in recent times when we should have known better, but none of these is exactly the Holocaust, is it? Again, this isn’t to excuse us, but to explain why we don’t (and maybe shouldn’t) feel historical guilt quite to the degree the Germans do.

  • maggie

    I don’t think that the older germans feel much guilt about letting someone like Hiltler come to power or for what he did. My first husband was in the Air force the first six years we were married and I met a lot of German women who married American airmen and came to the US. I also lived in a city with a very big population of military people and retired military where I also met a lot of German immigrants who had married American servicemen.

    Most of these people were young adults and children when Hitler was in power, and nearly all that I have talked to are at least partly defensive of what he did and would say that he wasn’t all bad and that he did a lot of good. When one woman was complaining about the starvation after the war, I asked her if she had it any worse than the people in the concentration camps. She became indignant and said that they were just jews not people.

    No I do not think Germans, at least the older ones have a collective guilty conscience at all.

  • Scott

    I was reading up on expats on the web and I came across this.
    What I would like to add here, maybe a bit late in the discussion, is that it seems most of you young people don’t even know what the Holocaust and other German war crimes were. Let me try to tell you now: The German people of the relatively recent past chose to set out on a war to conquer the world, and set up a vast system of linked assembly line factories to INDUSTRIALLY and SYSTEMATICALLY murder NINE MILLION people, (half Jews) and to track down and machine gun to death in pits a million more. And to try to murder half of all Russians and Poles and keep the other half as slaves. Tens upon tens of millions of lives ruined by injury and grief.

    Not all Germans of the time were guilty of this, and NONE of today are, but it wasn’t just a few corrupt dictators who “forced them” either, the way the post-war Germans deceitfully and cravenly pretended. Most (=more than half) Germans went along, many with great enthusiasm.

    This is something way way WAY beyond what we Americans did to the Africans or the Indians, as bad as those were.

    Furthermore, America stopped itself from its crimes on its own, or tried to. Germany killed millions more soldiers just to defend its ability to keep its murder machine going. They were FORCED to stop, yet some continued to complain that “they suffered too”– in the pointless war that THEY unleashed on the world. And some even complain that the victims didn’t forget and shut up about it fast enough for THEIR (German) convenience and comfort. Whose fault was that disgraceful reaction?

    Most Germans today are not like that at all, and some actually comprehend the magnitude and horror of what their country chose to unleash on the world, and feel bad about it. That is why it is an issue in Germany for a some people (not most I am sure). Actually, they shouldn’t feel guilty or even ashamed at all, cause it wasn’t them, but obviously there are issues here beyond the ones other countries with shamefull histories have to deal with. That’s why it’s different.

  • Stormchaser

    I am of Choctaw and African decent… living in Germany now. It still amazes me how much of the story of Native Americans and Africans is not told in American History classes as it should and as the story of the Holocaust is here. The Germans I meet often know more about it than the Americans. Native Americans and African Americans were used as slaves and genocide was perpetrated on them without very many apologies and was justified over and over again by the people and government.

    Scott, I get the impression you are a descendent of people killed by the Nazis. That is painful. But I don’t see how what the Nazis did diminish the horror of what happened to my ancestors and what my people still go through today. Can we really rank genocides to see whose was the worst? Who can really judge if the Nazi murder machine really was worse than the US government sanctioned extermination of Native Americans? Are concentration camps REALLY worse than sending troops to Native villages with ORDERS to kill all the men, women and children? With ORDERS to bash the childrens heads against rocks to save money on bullets? Maybe they were, but I think both are utterly horrifying and disgraceful.

    Yes, the US stopped itself. It stopped slavery of Africans after a bloody civil war fought brother against brother that killed hundreds of thousands of people in the process. There would not have been war if a large portion of the population did not want slavery to continue and felt it justified. Then Jim Crow laws continued for a century beyond the war, and racism still exists. The US stopped its destruction of the Native Americans. After they were nearly exterminated and moved onto reservations placed on lands that no one wanted. And even these were taken away, like when gold was found in the Black Hills in 1875.

    For those wanted to learn more these books will help you understand: “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”, “I will Fight No More Forever” and “They Came Before the Mayflower”.

    Finally my husband’s grandmother, 16 at the end of the war, was one of the German women who was repeatedly raped by Soviet soldiers in the aftermath of WWII. I hope you don’t think her suffering was justified because she happened to be German. I cry for her just as much as I cry for the victims of the Holocaust and for my ancestors.

  • Christina Geyer

    @scott: I’m just wondering where your conclusion has come from that none of us knows what the Holocaust or other German War Crimes are. Because I, for one, learned all about them in history class, not to mention through reading books, watching documentaries and visiting museums. Plus, given that John Demjanjuk is on trial for Nazi war crimes, there are still people alive who were responsible for war crimes and Germany is still holding them accountable.

    @stormchaser: I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee a few years ago and it hurt my soul. Thanks for the other book suggestions, I’ve added them to my list of books to read. You’re right, there is no reason to rank genocides, they are all tragedies and many could have been prevented. I think some people assuage their guilt (for lack of a better word – maybe their need to be educated about what happened is more what I mean) by saying that “What we did wasn’t as bad as what the Nazis did,” but that is no excuse for not condemning past genocides or standing up against currently occurring ones. “It’s only a few hundred thousand people, look at how many the Nazis killed,” I’ve heard that about Darfur. There is debate about even calling it a genocide. It’s sad and things don’t seem to change.

  • Scott

    Christina, and also Stormchaser,
    Thanks for letting me post my feelings on your blog, also for responding. I actually have lots of answers to your question, but I’m afraid the explanation would be too long, and probably not in the spirit of your blog either.
    If you want to read more, maybe you would prefer to take the discussion off the blog, and you can post and respond to anything you find interesting (if there is)? My email is
    But at least let me say here that I don’t diminish anyone’s suffering in my mind, and I don’t hope for anyone to suffer–that’s not part of the answer at all.

  • Rich


    I do believe there is some truth to what you are saying. However, I think you miss a very critical point about America. America is comprised of people from all corners of the globe especially over the past 100 years. So although horrible things did occur in America with slavery, etc. most people that live in America today moved to America subsequent to those events. I know this doesn’t make it okay, but it is like telling someone from Mexico to feel guilty for what happened in Germany. Once again, I think Americans do feel guilt for those wrong doings, but you can’t just look at a country with over 300,000,000 people with most of them migrating from around the globe during the 1900’s and expect them to fully fill the guilt that they don’t have direct ties to.

  • Dashiel Badhorse

    Americans are shameless demons when it comes to Native Americans. Blacks had it bad too and the Jews but Indians had it the worst, how many Indians do u see in America? not many becos they were massacred but u didnt read about it in (american) history class.

    Americans are proud of their history but dont show any sypathy for the enslaved african or the defeated Indian. they act like nothing happened. africans and indians done many things to help white people (slavery, native american resources, land, etc) the blacks and indians never done wrong to them and got nothing in return and the rest is history..

    germans should be proud to be german, they got their homeland and nation and pride – i am apache/cheyenne

  • Maddie

    This is the topic of a story i am currently composing and the blog and all comment contributions have assisted incredibly with my understanding of the worlds perception of Germany post WWII.

    I am the grandaughter of a german who fled the war with no Nazi connections or affiliation whatsoever.
    Nazi crimes against the jewish population were horrifying.
    All war is an attrocity.
    There is nothing we can do now to escape that.
    Guilt included.
    Though it is important we recognise the past there is no War so publicised in text as WWII, from the Jewish perspective in particular.
    Hitler was a dictator. And we need to view the history of the second world war in context.
    More importantly, stop judging Germany for the crimes of a very sick man and his followers- it is a country of individuals, the war giving birth to a multitude of individual stories and situations. Germany has the right to lose its immediate assosciation with evil as a country that has recognised the past- and biased text and people do little to help this.

  • Ale

    Honestly I never paid any attention to WWII until I marry my American husband that is quite interested in that part of history. Before that I had few interaction with Germans, but it always amazed me that my exboyfriend, who was educated in a German school thought Germans were better… we entered endless discussions… and when I was in Grad School there was a good number of Germans in my program, and one African chic made the comment once, that she thought Germans were too proud and feel better than everybody else, and we were so surprised when one of the Germans answered back “we know we are better, we just don’t say it aloud”. So I’m surprised to hear that the German pride has been supressed, those events I’m describing happened in the 90’s.

  • Jessica

    Random thought:
    I’m not an expert on WWII, but it would seem to me that it was the first war where we have extensive video footage serving as an eyewitness to the genocide that took place.
    I think we Americans tend to feel less “historical guilt” because we are not bombarded with concrete evidence of the things our country has done to other peoples. There are no reels depicting displacement of Native Americans or the despicable treatment of African slaves, crushed bodies of Irish coal miners, starving indentured servants during the Industrial Revolution, etc… What is out of sight tends to be out of mind. Meanwhile, I can flip through the channels every day and find endless documentaries on Hitler, the Holocaust, images of starving bodies.
    I think it is a real tragedy, though, that Americans have a black/white perspective on WWII. I’d say 99% have no idea about the massive rapes, killings of innocent people by the “glorious allies”. Black and white thinking makes us dangerously close to believing we are incapable of wrong-doing.

  • ahern

    it is unfair to tell someone who was born 10, 20, 30, 40, etc years after the attrocities committed in WWII that they are somehow responsible, or that they should feel guilt for crimes their parents committed. The generation of Germans who participated in WWII should feel guilty, but not their children. It is the same in America- even if your great great grandfather was a slave owner, that does not mean you have any responsibility for his actions, or should feel guilty about it, no matter how much you dislike the facts. Attrocities that happened in the past should be remembered so that they cannot be repeated, but guilt should not be imposed on those who did not commit any crime.

  • BSankaran

    Hi All,
    Wonderful Blog. I am neither German nor American. Basically from India. Recently I started read the book named “The Rise and Fall of Third Reich” by Williams Shirer. Not sure why I started having atmost interest in all the stuff relating to WWII and some how feel that we humans at some point in time loose the real reason why we are called the Social Beings. It is very unfortunate that people change the basic behaviour of their very existence, but as it is said it is always Change that is constant. I think the main thing in this blog that needs to be noted is the truth that History Is Written And Re-Written By People Who Win. And may be that is the real reason why Germans do feel bad about their role in WWII and Americans are proud about it. It all boils down to the propoganda.

  • Pingback: An interesting blog post on the concept of historical guilt « Ami in Franken()

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