Germany, East Central Europe, and Moral Responsibility for the Holocaust: Part I
Since June 22nd marks the day Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, it’s an appropriate time to consider the question posed by Paul Hockenos, an accomplished journalist and political analyst in Berlin, in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Can Germany Help Central Europe Confront Its Dark Past?” Unsurprisingly, the answers his interlocutors provide range from “yes” to “no” to “it depends.” The yea-sayers generally argue that the truth is the truth and, if Germans can help promote it, so be it. The naysayers insist that the Germans have no right to preach morality in a region they devastated in two world wars. The it-depends camp says that truth-telling is fine—as long as it’s done with sensitivity and tact. I come down hard in all three camps.
The problem is obvious. The German Reich and Austria-Hungary brought World War I to Central and Eastern Europe from 1914 to 1918. Twenty-five years later, Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR dismembered Poland. On June 22, 1941, Adolf Hitler turned on his erstwhile pal and attacked the Soviet Union. In both conflicts, the countries that suffered most from German aggression were Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine, and those that died in largest numbers were Poles, Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Jews.
While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a German helping East Central Europe “confront its dark past,” it’s not hard to see why such an effort, however well-intentioned, could easily misfire. Germany and Germans represent power, wealth, and arrogance to Central and Eastern Europe in the same way that America and Americans represent power, wealth, and arrogance to the world. And it doesn’t much matter whether the German or American really is powerful, wealthy, or arrogant. Back in 1976, when I was doing a six-month Eurail pass trip through Europe, I spent a month in Frankfurt and Munich. Almost everyone I met held me personally responsible for the Vietnam War, the arms race, racism, and Watergate. Just how a politically ignorant 22-year-old with a shoestring budget could have had so much influence in Washington didn’t seem to trouble my interlocutors, but they obviously knew that, as an American tourist, I necessarily represented American imperialism.