Summary of presentation to Second International Genocide Conference at Sacramento State University, 2004 by Ilka Hartmann, Sonoma State University, Holocaust Study Center, 1991 - 2005
From Silence to Education: Holocaust awareness and responsibility for the past in present day Germany.
Most children of the Nazi generations - born during or soon after World War Two - grew up not hearing much or anything about the persecution of the Jews, Sinti and Roma, Communists, gays, disabled and other groups during the National Socialist era. What they heard and saw was how devastating the effects of the war had been on Germany. The majority of male adults were dead or injured and many cities destroyed from bombing. There were millions of refugees from the east, and life was hard with severe housing, food and fuel shortages.
What they did hear was that the war had swept over the country like an enormous deadly hurricane. There was no mention of responsibility for the persecution of innocent human beings. Thirteen years later, this changed. The schools started to teach about the persecutions, and Fischer Pocket Books published National Socialist documents with a small photo of dead human beings stacked up like pieces of wood.
Questioned by their teenage children, many of the parents and grandparents replied: “We didn’t know, and if we did know, what could we have done about it?” The German Jewish writer Ralph Giordano calls this answer “The Second Guilt”, the first one was the actual murder of millions of innocent human beings, the second the denial of any participation or knowledge of their suffering.
In the 1970s, the American television series, “Holocaust” was shown in West Germany. The streets were empty during the nights of the program. West Germans were looking at their past now, the Nazi crime of killing innocent members of German society had been given a name: The Holocaust.
In 1968, the young generation in West Germany, many of those who were now university students, began to vocally protest. They questioned the older generation about “what they had done” during the Nazi era and exposed that numerous judges who had been National Socialists now were comfortably employed in the successful Federal Republic off Germany. Students exposed authoritarianism in the German culture and studied fascism, most also studied communism and became intellectual communists for several years.
As they entered the educational system as teachers and young professors, they tried to transform West German society from an obedience oriented to an anti-authoritarian, informed and independently thinking society by educating the next generations.
In the course of their working life, the curriculum in the schools was changed to contain Holocaust education as a major part. Field trips to concentration camps and even death camps became common among school children and youth groups. The cities and villages changed, too. Where there was no indication of what had happened in one’s home town earlier, there were now signs, markers and memorials. Books, films and exhibits followed. The most famous exhibit is the “Wehrmachts Ausstellung”, the documentation about the knowledge and participation of the German army in the atrocities on three fronts.
The children of the Nazi generations had been taught that the German army (most of them draftees) had been honorable, it was those who were specifically National Socialist - the SS and card carrying members of the Nazi party - who had to be held responsible.
There were demonstrations by right wingers as the exhibit traveled across the country, and it was prevented from being shown in the Bundestag (national parliament).
Nevertheless, the army exhibit prompted a public debate in the parliament of Germany where delegates from all parties openly talked about their fathers’, their uncles’, their older brothers’ participation in the Nazi era. It was aired on the radio and published word by word in the weekly “Die Zeit”.
Over the years, the “collective guilt” which connected most members of the children’s generations in sadness and anger, even though they were not responsible, has given way to a heritage of responsibility, and understanding that this new generation is responsible for standing up for human rights wherever they are being violated.
The large “Gesellschaft für Bedrohte Völker” (“Society for Threatened Peoples”), a volunteer organization, has brought to public attention - along with many other topics - the plight of the Sinti and Roma (formerly called “the Gypsies”) during the Nazi regime and in present day Europe.
The “Gesellschaft für Bedrohte Völker” activity works on behalf of threatened peoples and speaks out against injustice inside unified Germany and throughout the world.
Today, the majority of Germans born during or since the National Socialist era are aware that knowledge of their country’s past has given them the responsibility yo not ever let the past be repeated. Unfortunately, there are still roots of racism, and prejudice, and xenophobia which have to still be continuously fought.
Ilka Hartmann taught Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Sonoma State University for 14 years. Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1942, she studoed at universities in Berlin and Hamburg, and later at the University of California, Berkeley. For thirty years she has been a photographer concentrating on human rights issues with an emphasis on Native Americans.