Race + Reconciliation
Germany Works towards Reconciliation
Julia Strehlau is a graduate of the Native American Studies department of Montana State University. As a native of Germany, she offers an inside perspective to Germany’s reconciliation with its difficult history.
As a German citizen who has traveled much around the United States I soon experienced that questions about Germany’s Nazi history came up quite frequently. The holocaust is really one of German history’s darkest chapters, and also one that Germany is dealing with until this day. In my experience it is nothing that is being hidden or not talked about, quite the contrary. Within my school career during history and politics classes World War II was talked about extensively. We were made aware of the cruelty of German politics at the time, visited concentration camps that are now historic memorials and had to write lengthy papers about the time. Education is one way to deal with the past. But what about reconciliation? How can a country apologize for murdering six million Jews? This is the question I want to deal with here.
After May 8th, 1945 Germany’s government was completely taken down by the Allies. The United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union took over central decisions and governance until 1949. Germany was then separated into the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic. (As history will tell, in 1961 the two German countries were separated by “the wall”. It came down in 1989 and eventually ended socialism in East Germany. Today the Federal Republic of Germany encompasses the area of both East and West Germany, where the same values are shared.) With the foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany in May 1949 it was provided with a Basic Law that constitutes the values of life among all people in the country. Its first article entails that “the dignity of man is inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all public authority”, and article three says: “No person shall be disfavoured because of sex, parentage, race, language, homeland and origin, faith, or religious or political opinions. No person shall be disfavoured because of disability”. Therefore, the government diminished its own powers in being able to discriminate and persecute.
This Basic Law limited the possibility of another Holocaust and also provided those Jews who still lived in the country an opportunity to live a life in freedom and peace. Other than Native Tribes that have received an official apology by the colonial powers, there is no official apology by the German government to the Jewish people. I assume that the reason for that is that the Allies took over the government right after the war, and that in 1949 two completely reorganized countries were founded.
However, Germany’s first chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1951 said: “In the name of the German people indescribably awful crimes have been committed” and emphasized West-Germany’s willingness to pay for these crimes. The compensation or ‘Wiedergutmachung’ for war terrors was paid in reparations by West-Germany. In 1952 the Luxemburg agreement also called the Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany was signed by those two countries with the goal “to find a solution for the materialistic compensation-problem in order to ease the way for emotional cleansing of the infinite distress” (translated by me). West-Germany therefore agreed to help to economically stabilize the state of Israel, which was founded in May 1948, for twelve years, and also paid reparations to Jewish individuals who survived the terrors of World War II. Until the re-unification of Germany in 1989, East-Germany paid reparations to Poland and the Soviet Union.
Reconciliation in form of money and economic support for the injured of course cannot compensate the damage that has been done. Until today, however, Germany pays reparations and distances itself from the injustice of World War II. The reparations serve as a symbol to confess Germany’s guilt in the Holocaust.
Diplomatic relationships between Israel and West-Germany were non-existent until twenty years after the war. The first German ambassador to Israel, Rolf Pauls, arrived in 1965, and the first Israeli ambassador was welcomed in Bonn in the same year. At the time Pauls was welcomed under protests by the Israeli people, but within his term in office sentiments in Germany and Israel towards the other country improved immensely.
Another twenty years later, the German President Richard von Weizäcker delivered a speech on May 8th, 1985, the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in Germany. He called it the Day of Liberation despite the day of capitulation, which it was referred to until that day. He stated that on that day in 1945 Germany was liberated from the inhumane national-socialistic tyranny. He further argued that a collective guilt cannot be applied to the German people though he said that the former generation has left a difficult heritage and called his fellow Germans to accept that heritage. His speech was not only well received and very important to Germany. Translated into twenty languages, Weizsäcker’s speech represented a different Germany, with a different mindset and world view. He was invited by the Israeli government and was the first German President to visit Israel.
Of course I do not want to leave out that many of the high ranking Nazis of the Third Reich left Germany after the war and were never held responsible for their wrong doing. Others filled seats in the succeeding German parliament. Germany undoubtedly made mistakes in the aftermath of World War II. But I do feel like Germany has accepted its difficult heritage. One will find well maintained Jewish cemeteries in Germany. Memorials and synagogues are being built and re-built. Houses, lots, and money are given back to Jews until this day. There is at least one moment of silence every year being held in the German Bundestag and elsewhere in order to commemorate the victims of World War II. I really have to say that many things are being done so that the German people do not forget their ugly historical heritage.
Our intern Shauni Tighe is from Australia and studying Indigenous relations at Montana State University. Her blog post here shares how Australia has dealt with its dark history with its Indigenous people and how efforts towards reconciliation have made a difference.
In light of the recent racial tensions and debates in American society a lot of questions have been raised as to how America can ease this problem. Being an Australian here has been an interesting experience. I’ve gotten many questions lately on why Australia isn’t having the same issues. While Australia certainly has its share of racial tension with the Indigenous Australians, the question was put to me; How has Australia decreased its racial tension in society? What have we done there that America could look at and take note of?
Similar to the United State’s Indigenous people, Indigenous Australians were subject to the European thought of ‘civilization’ and treated as British subjects with no rights to land. Upon Britain’s first landing the ideas of Social Darwinism and the Great Chain of Being were used in Australia and the Indigenous communities were subject to discriminatory laws that would see them lose their homes, their families and their culture. Children were taken from their mothers (Stolen Generation) and adults were required to sever all ties with other family members and their way of life in order to classify as an Australian Citizen and have a chance of surviving in the new (White) European Australia (Dog Tag Policy).
Ever since these atrocities were committed contemporary Australian society has been trying to make amends with the Indigenous community and find a way to ease racial tensions within society.
Socially Australia has seen such initiatives as the National Sorry Day, now known as the National Day of Healing, which was first held on the 26th May 1998 and saw over 24,000 Australian’s sign their name to Sorry books for the atrocities that had been committed, especially the removal of the Aboriginal children. These books were presented to the Indigenous Communities and the National Sorry Day became and annual event. There are also such initiatives as Reconciliation Australia, which works to educate people in schools, workplaces and communities to remove stereotypes and discrimination, and NAIDOC week, which occurs each July and dedicates the week to the recognition and celebration of the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Legally and Politically, the road to reconciliation has not always been as smooth. Within the legal systems of Australia steps have been trialed to help the Aboriginal community cope with the laws they were now subject to, this involved applying Indigenous Customary law, rather than Western Common law, however this was advised against in 1986 by the Australia Law Reform Commission that found issues of fairness for the non-indigenous too great to overcome. There are however some adjustments that can, and have been made, such as community elders sitting in on certain cases to advise magistrates for sentencing.
Politically, Indigenous issues have been on a rollercoaster since the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1992 Primer Minister Keating acknowledged the wrongdoing of the Australian government by the taking of Indigenous children from their mothers in the Redfern Address. Four years later however in 1996 the Howard Government overturned this acknowledgement and denied that any damage had been done to the communities affected. Finally on the 13th February 2008 the issue was again brought forward in the Australian parliament, this time by new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who chose to apologize on behalf of the Australian Government. Since then legal claims for monetary reparation, as well as land title claims were brought forward to the courts and have been ongoing ever since.
In my opinion simply the acknowledgement of wrongdoing by the Australian Government proved to ease the racial tensions within Australian society and provided us with that first step that is required toward reconciliation.
For more information on Australia’s social and political reforms please see some of these links: