The Chronicle Review

Can Germany Help Central Europe Confront Its Dark Past?

Bartek Wrzesniowski, Agence France-Presse, Getty Images

During a commemoration of Holocaust victims, wooden tablets recognize some of those who died at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp near Oswiecim, Poland.
March 04, 2012

The home of the German Historical Institute in downtown Warsaw is a handsome, 19th-century neo-Renaissance residence with arched doorways and a tranquil, cobbled courtyard. It is one of the few structures in Warsaw that the Nazis didn't raze during their 1939-45 occupation of the Polish capital. "Ironic, isn't it?," says Katrin Stoll, a young German researcher there. "A building the Germans didn't manage to destroy and now we're here."

Supported by Germany's ministry of science and education, the institute was established in 1993 to promote collaborative research, scholarly discourse, and exchanges between Germany and Poland, with a particular emphasis on the dictatorships and violence of the 20th century. It houses 14 historians and researchers—two-thirds of whom are German, the others Polish—whose publications at the institute include more than 75 books and hundreds of shorter studies.

In its high-ceilinged, patrician halls, the institute hosts an impressive range of conferences, lectures, and panel discussions; the topics never stray far from the events that compelled the Yale historian Timothy Snyder to label these territories—Central Europe from the Baltic coast to the Black Sea—as the "bloodlands" in his 2010 book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books).

Eduard Mühle, a German historian and the institute's director, takes pains to explain the institute's purpose. Mühle is acutely aware of the awkwardness of Germans, of all peoples, appearing to "tell the Poles how to do it."

"We are modest participants in Polish historiography," he says. "We're working together with Polish colleagues and helping them put Polish history in a European context. We share in their discussions and try to bring over ideas, concepts, and trends from German academia. German historiography has something to offer, but it has to be done cautiously, with the past in mind."

Yet some of the institute's topics are prickly ones for Poles and their neighbors, like the Baltic states and Ukraine. Stoll, for example, studies the fate of Polish Jews in 1946-7 Poland, after the Germans capitulated. The subject is a sensitive one here, as anti-Semitism was rife in postwar Poland, prompting vicious pogroms in some parts of the country.

"The Holocaust didn't end when the Red Army entered Poland in 1944," says Stoll, who last year organized a conference at the institute titled "To Stay or Go? Jews in Europe in the Immediate Aftermath of the Holocaust." "It's a difficult topic for Poles," she says, but at the conference, "they were discussing it openly in a way I don't think they were 15 years ago."

So how can Germans, and in particular German historians, aid their eastern neighbors—if at all—in the former bloodlands? The question arises whether Germany is in a position to "export," as the British historian Timothy Garton Ash puts it, its experience in coming to terms with an ignominious past.

The Germans have special, notoriously difficult-to-translate terms for their rigorous processing of the past, namely Vergangenheitsbewältigung and Aufarbeitung der Geschichte. Perhaps Garton Ash comes closest to the mark in translating them as "past-beating." This complex treatment spans disciplines—from law to theology—and categories from truth-seeking and atonement to reconciliation and remembrance. At West Germany's universities, tough-minded historians played a critical role in probing and questioning the taboos of early post-World War II years, at a time when politicians and society alike preferred to concentrate on economic recovery.

Postwar Germany's battle to come to terms with its past stands out as unique—and uniquely successful. Germans understand this process, which happened in fits and starts, and sometimes in the face of trenchant opposition, as integral to their forging a liberal democracy out of the ruins of the Reich. Today postwar Germans stake their republic's legitimacy on this "negative memory" and go to great lengths to ensure that future generations imbibe its lessons. Moreover, the Germans went about it not once but twice: with Nazism's legacy and then, after the cold war, with the Communist past in the unified country's eastern states.

In fact, so exemplary is the German experience that it has been adapted—with wide-ranging, country-specific variations—in post-totalitarian societies from South Africa to Chile. But those countries do not have such deeply traumatic relationships with Germany as do Central and Eastern Europe.

Germany may have something to pass on to the Central Europeans, explains the Polish intellectual Konstanty Gebert, of the foreign-affairs think tank the European Council on Foreign Relations. "The problem is that Germany cannot decently offer it."

"So, you come in, you show us how to kill the Jews, and now you come in and show us how to be sorry?" he says. "It can't work."

There are many instances of German endeavors, says Gebert, "like an educational program or an exhibition that we can borrow from if they're good ideas. On the individual level, the obscenity of it is absent. But you put it at a general level, then hell, no, we're done learning from Germany!"

Whether in politics, economics, or historiography, Germany's every move in Central Europe after the Wall carries the potential to rub salt in old wounds. An independent Polish state was wiped off the map as a result of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact and then fully occupied by the Nazis as of 1941. Nazi Germany used Polish territory to exterminate millions of Jews and other enemies, including more than two million non-Jewish Poles. Germany marched into or set up quisling regimes—or both—in the lands from the Baltic all the way to the Mediterranean. Scholars like Mühle and Stoll don't dare say it, but there are plenty of German historians—as well as colleagues in Europe, the United States, and Israel—who feel that Central Europe could do with a good dose of German-style, self-critical introspection. Jan-Holger Kirsch, a historian at Potsdam University, argues that for better or for worse, Germany has become a kind of "international aid worker in the business of processing the past."

Micha Brumlik, a German historian in Frankfurt, and his colleague the Polish Germanist Karol Sauerland, argue that the Central and Eastern Europeans—to different degrees in different countries—have been inexcusably slow to confront the dark sides of their World War II pasts, and in particular their role in the Holocaust. These scholars are not alone in arguing that a rigorous wrestling with that past is long overdue and an inescapable part of a thoroughgoing democratization process. The International Holocaust Task Force, an American and Israeli-dominated organization of which Germany is a member, requires its members to meet certain criteria in confronting their histories, like opening Holocaust-related archives, committing to Holocaust education, and establishing a Holocaust Memorial Day.

Concerns about Central Europe's memory politics are not without basis. After all, nationalist politicians and far-right populists rely on patriotic historical narratives that glorify authoritarian, chauvinistic figures from their pasts for legitimacy, as well as for ammunition against their leftist and liberal opponents. Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, and the Baltic lands had ultranationalist, Nazi-allied governments that willingly participated in the war as well as in the Holocaust. In Nazi-occupied Poland, many Poles actively cooperated in the interning and killing of Jews.

Today in Hungary and Romania, nationalist politicos have led efforts to rehabilitate the likes of Admiral Miklos Horthy, an ally of Hitler, and Romania's wartime ruler Marshal Ion Antonescu, both of whom sent tens of thousands of Jews to their deaths. The current right-wing government in Estonia is drafting legislation to honor former Estonian members of the SS.

Countries in which these discourses are strongest usually have high levels of anti-Semitism and other illiberal values. Those ideologies can be reflected not just in party programs but also in textbooks, museums, and the mass media. The Museum of Genocide Victims, in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, devotes vast space to a heroic Lithuanian resistance against the Soviet occupation but scant attention to the Lithuanians who helped Nazis send more than 200,000 Lithuanian Jews to their deaths. Some of the nastiest far-right movements, like the neo-fascist Jobbik party, in Hungary, grew out of right-wing, revisionist history departments.

The Central and Eastern Europeans have by no means been inactive, since the Soviet bloc's collapse, in coming to terms with their pasts. But they've concentrated on the more recent legacy of Communist rule. In addition to the opening of archives such as those of Communist-era secret police and ruling parties, there have been legal proceedings against the administrators of the ancien régime as well as emotional debates over the relevance of the past and its representation, in museums and memorials, for example.

But the Central and Eastern Europeans have been markedly less enthusiastic about delving into their World War II pasts, especially into periods during which their nations were perpetrators and not victims. And scholars who lift those rocks, such as the Polish-American historian Jan T. Gross, author of the 2001 book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, are set upon by the right for damaging Poland's image abroad.

At the German Historical Institute in Warsaw, an array of research projects examine aspects of the Nazi and then the Soviet occupation of Poland, which together spanned 50 years. With the East bloc's demise, Polish historians, like many of their colleagues throughout Central Europe, made a priority of research into Soviet rule in their countries during the cold-war decades.

"There was an incredible, untouched trove of archival and other materials that were suddenly open to historians," says Mühle. But the Central Europeans were "focusing very much on Communist domination and occupation, emphasizing what Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and the peoples of Southeastern Europe suffered rather than how Jews suffered under them."

"There is no one way or one model that can be 'exported,'" says Norbert Frei, a historian at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena and author of several works on Germany's treatment of its past. "Even this so seemingly perfect German model took its time to develop. It took the Germans until the early 1980s to have a societal consciousness of the Holocaust. This took place only 30 years after the fact, so it takes time. And it will in Central Europe, too."

Well-heeled Germany is generous in financing a wide range of projects and programs—from exhibitions and professional museum training to book translations and scholarships—that bear on confronting the past.

For instance, various German institutions, both private and public, sponsor conferences that bring together Eastern and Western European scholars. One is the annual International Conference on Holocaust Research, which attracts scholars from across Europe as well as from Israel and the United States. The conference's 2011 topic was "Helpers, Rescuers, and Networkers of Resistance."

Along the same lines, in recent years major German universities like those in Munich, Freiburg, Frankfurt, Heidelberg, and Berlin have hosted high-level academic conferences that focus on World War II-era issues, with special attention to Central and Eastern Europe. German foundations like the Goethe Institute, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and the Robert Bosch Foundation have also sponsored conferences that expose European scholars and practitioners to new ideas and methodologies in memory studies.

Germany has also reached deeply into its pockets for publications and translations. Just one example is the in-progress, 16-volume series titled "The Persecution and Extermination of the European Jews by Nazi Germany 1933-1945," eight volumes of which will be primary sources dealing explicitly with Central and Eastern Europe.

Such conferences and publishing projects promote quality research in a way that appears to have no critics.

"International cooperation is always better than individual, isolated work, and that goes for everybody, including Germans," explains Christoph Dieckmann, a German historian who specializes in Nazi Germany's 1941-44 occupation of Lithuania. "Just imagine Germans or Americans or whoever working all alone. You're going to get less perspective."

German universities like those in Munich, Potsdam, Frankfurt, and the eastern college town of Jena have Central European institutes that attract students and scholars from the regions under study. The Imre Kertész Institute, in Jena, provides 10 scholarships a year to students and researchers from Central and Eastern Europe. In the German institutions, those students, and more-senior scholars as well, can enjoy an academic freedom they don't experience in their own countries, particularly when nationalist-minded administrations are in power.

Perhaps two of the most prominent examples of Germany's research presence in Central and Eastern Europe are the German Historical Institutes in Warsaw and in Moscow. The institutes "and the German historians do a fantastic job," says Feliks Tych, a Polish historian and former director of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. "What they bring to Poland is very important, and I admire the way they work. They speak the bitter truth."

Yet there is obviously something more that Germans—and other countries—believe they can provide the Central Europeans. The historian Frei, for example, travels regularly in the region to speak about the German track record in confronting its fascist history. "Sure, if they ask us to tell them about the way we did it, we can do that," he says.

The German historian Volkhard Knigge, the country's leading expert on history didactics and director of the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation, goes further. Recently returned from the countries of former Yugoslavia, Knigge says civil-society organizations there were "interested in the German experience because they know that this is important to establish a society based on human values, based on human rights."

"If you want to establish a real democratic culture," he says, "you cannot avoid this self-critical view on their own past, even if it hurts—and it hurts. You can't avoid going through all of these discussions. Germans have to stay modest because we also have our debates on how to remember the German past, German suffering, and we also have people thinking in nationalistic terms. But I think it's something that might instruct other nations."

Ljiljana Radonic is a Croatian-born historian at the University of Vienna who teaches a course on Central Europe and the politics of memory. She believes that the German experience is at least in part transferable.

"There is a tradition in Germany of gaining positive German identity through this negative memory," she explains. "And for the Germans, it had a political function in that it dampened down nationalism while giving Germans something to be proud of. When this is transferred as knowledge to Eastern Europe, it can serve a similar function."

"When we look at the role that Germany has in the discourse of these countries," Radonic says, "it's quite useful for the liberal and left political forces who want to deal critically with the past. They can say, and this has actually happened in Croatia, 'Look what Germany did. That's what we want to do, too." But ultimately, she says, the impetus has to come from within these societies.

The representation of memory, for example in monuments, memorials, and museums, is an area where Germany and the Central Europeans tend to part company.

"A lot of the new museums built in Central Europe address national suffering and exclude those chapters of history that cannot be painted in black and white," explains Knigge. Two of the most egregious examples of slanted historiography, he says, are the Warsaw Rising Museum, in Warsaw, and Hungary's House of Terror, in Budapest, both of which have come under heavy criticism for their highly politicized exhibitions. The Warsaw museum, conceived and financed by conservative Polish political forces, bombards the visitor with emotional, interactive multimedia that portray the uprising against the Nazis as the purest of patriotic endeavors, without ever mentioning, for example, that the cause was a lost one from the beginning, opposed even by the exile Polish government in London. The Budapest exhibition, a product of the current ruling party, outdoes its Polish counterpart, crudely equating the German Nazi occupation of Hungary (1944-45) with Communist rule during the postwar decades.

In Europe, Knigge argues, museums and monuments have to be "sensitive to the bad heritage of nationalism." Exhibitions can't tell people what to think, he says. "They have to present facts and pose questions."

But according to Knigge, there is a right way and a wrong way for Germany to communicate that mind-set to Central Europe. In the 1990s, he says, the West tried, somewhat condescendingly, to "teach" or "update" the East. Today historians, curators, and educators are sitting down to talk with one another like equals. He cites as exemplary a German Research Foundation-sponsored program to support young scholars who critically analyze the newest museums in Central Europe. Moreover, he is working with Russian historians on an exhibition about the Soviet gulag.

"As historians we have to take into consideration that the Central European historical experience of the 20th century is horrible," says Knigge. "The Central Europeans had to experience the National Socialist aggression and then Communism. We have to underscore the very complicated past that they have to reflect on."  

When approached modestly, the wide range of cooperative projects tends not to raise hackles, or when it does it is primarily among conservative nationalists. But there are programs that have come under fire, both from the Central Europeans and from German historians.

Two of those are the German organization Erinnerung, Verantwortung, Zukunft (Remembrance, Responsibility, Future), or EVZ and the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research. The EVZ, financed by the German government and the private sector, offers educational programs, scholarships, research projects, and other endeavors, many of them in Central Europe, that link treatment of the past with human rights and democracy.

The task force, founded in 1998, is an intergovernmental body "whose purpose is to place political and social leaders' support behind the need for Holocaust education, remembrance, and research, both nationally and internationally." It has a stringent set of criteria that its members—and those countries wishing to become members—must adhere to.

"Some individuals and organizations, and they're not just Germans, understand it their mission to tell the 'truth about the past,'" says Dieckmann, the expert on Nazi occupation of Lithuania. "Their attitude is very sanctimonious; it's, 'I know all about the Holocaust and no one else does.' They go about it as if they're in the possession of the truth and everybody else has to follow them. They set out to teach a certain set of values, which isn't what history is all about. They insinuate that if you don't do as they say, you're not civilized, and you'll go down a wrong road."

But, says Johannes Houwink ten Cate, a professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at the University of Amsterdam who is associated with the task force, if the organizations are a little pushy, there's reason for that.

"When it comes to Holocaust awareness, some Eastern European diplomats and politicians object to being pushed around" by the task force, he says. "They feel like schoolchildren being told to do their homework. But they probably wouldn't have done anything if the IHTF hadn't pushed."

"The problem with an approach like this," says Radonic about the EVZ, "is that everything to do with World War II and the Holocaust has to be linked to a diffuse and imprecise human-rights discourse. This is something they even force their partners to implement in order to get financed. Everything has to end in a 'Yes, we have learned our lesson from the Holocaust ,and in a very general way today we are talking about human rights.'"

"It turns critically dealing with World War II into only a moral issue," she says. "So you lose all the details on who were the perpetrators, what happened exactly. Everything is lost in this moralistic, wishy-washy, human-rights discourse."

"The fact is that pushing is probably going to be counterproductive and force a negative reaction," says Frei. There are cases, like Poland, he and others agree, that are leagues beyond where they were just 10 years ago in confronting their pasts. That is a result of professional, conscientious historians in Central Europe, international support and collaboration, and political liberalization.

The German historians say a distinction must be maintained between their scholarship and the political battles fought between left and right in parliaments and the media.

Dieckmann argues that the groundbreaking research on the World War II period emerging from Lithuania is the result not of external pressure, but of the collective efforts of Western academics, among them Germans like himself, Lithuanian historians, and scholars of the Lithuanian diaspora. When the political rulers enable the historians to have the freedom they require to do their work, as is the case now in Lithuania, they do it with impressive results, says Dieckmann.

As Knigge puts it, "It's all about the difference between history and memory."

Paul Hockenos is a journalist and political analyst in Berlin. His books include Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany (Oxford University Press, 2008).