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16 June 2015

Coming to terms with the Past

A look on the past from Germany: lessons for Russia

The seventieth anniversary of the end of World War Two in Europe was a moment for reflection across the continent and beyond.  It was the hook for television programmes, book publications and the production of countless column inches in the world’s press.  But, it was also a moment to consider the contemporary attitudes towards the war – that most seismic event of the 20th Century – and to ponder how far some nations have come in confronting their complex, difficult pasts, and how far others still have to travel along that road.

Germany’s journey has certainly not been an easy one.  The Nazi past has tormented and tortured generations of Germans and continues to loom very large in Germany’s national discourse – and rightly so.  The ‘process of coming to terms with the past’ even has its own word in German; the curious neologism ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’.

It was a process that, in truth, took some time to get going.  In the 1950s and early 60s, Germany had more pressing problems, and an objective engagement with the recent past was perhaps rightly seen as a luxury that the battered country could ill afford.  In addition, too many of those intimately connected to the Nazi regime were still in the nation’s midst – either as politicians and industrial leaders or as fathers and grandfathers – for any honest assessment to take place. 

When it began, the process was not without acrimony.  The student revolts of 1968, for instance, were about many things, but to a large extent they were a generational rift; a pointing of the collective finger of youth at their elders.  “What did you do during the war?” was no longer an idle question, it had become an accusation.

Yet, despite such confrontations, the issue of wrestling with that difficult past was mainly confined to the sometimes arid musings of intellectuals in the opinion pages, typified perhaps by the Historikerstreit of the 1980s.  For the majority of Germans, it was still a subject that was too raw to address with any genuine introspection and few dared to address the complex issue of what lessons the nation might learn from its past – beyond the banal platitude of “Never Again”.

On 8 May 1985, the fortieth anniversary of V-E Day, an important lead was given by the West German president, Richard von Weizsäcker, addressing the Bundestag in Bonn.  It has been called the most important speech on the subject of the war and the Nazi period that has ever been given in Germany.

The 8 May, Weizsäcker said, was a “day of liberation” for the Germans too, a liberation from the “inhumanity and tyranny” of the Nazi regime, but also from the “aberration in German history” that it represented.  There was no such thing, he went on, as “the guilt or innocence of an entire nation. Guilt, like innocence, is not collective, but personal.”  Everyone who experienced that period, he said, had to examine their own conscience but – importantly – no-one expected the generation born after 1945 to “wear the penitential robe” just because they were Germans.  Nonetheless, he warned, it was not a question of simply ‘coming to terms with the past’, that was not possible; the past could not be wished away.  “All of us” he added, “whether guilty or not, old or young, must accept the past.  We are all affected by its consequences, and take responsibility for it.”

Weizsäcker went on to address that crucial question, the issue of what kind of “usable past” could be rescued from totalitarianism, genocide and war.  He did so with characteristic clarity and elegance, suggesting to his audience that remembering the Nazi persecution of the mentally impaired will inspire the modern Germany to prioritise the care of the mentally ill.  “If we remember how people persecuted on grounds of race, religion and politics and threatened with certain death often stood before the closed borders with other countries, we shall not close the door today to those who are genuinely persecuted and seek protection with us.”  And, where Nazi Germany exacted penalties for free thinking, the Federal Republic would “protect the freedom of every idea.”  In short, modern Germany was to define itself as the very antithesis of the Third Reich.  Only in that way, Weizsäcker concluded, could the country “look the truth in the eye.”

Weizsäcker’s speech did not close the book on the Nazi past – the grand shift in German attitudes to the war would come after reunification in 1990, when the most visible geo-political consequence of the war, the division of the country itself, was healed – but it gave a vital moral lead.  Crucially, it sought to mark the essential distinction between modern Germany and Nazi Germany, while simultaneously stressing that there were still lessons from that dark period for the nation to learn.  It enabled Germany to approach what the rest of the world might call ‘normalisation’. 

German history may never be completely ‘normalised’.  Even after the remaining few of those that directly experienced the events of 1933-45 have passed away, the cultural and political resonance will remain.  And, in spite of Richard von Weizsäcker’s elegant words of thirty years ago, Germany’s sense of collective guilt for the depredations of Nazism will take many more decades to fade.  In the Germany of today, German responsibility for the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities is written very large indeed; the public tone of debate is resolutely one of mea maxima culpa

Yet, though that guilt may prove durable, Germany has nonetheless made tremendous strides in engaging with its hideous history.  Through its own efforts, it is now able to address its recent past with an ease and an objectivity that was not only unthinkable just a few decades ago, but should be the envy of its less encumbered neighbours. 

What is more, it has achieved the remarkable feat – advocated by Weizsäcker – of forging a “usable past” from the most harrowing chapter of its history; developing a narrative of human rights, liberal democracy and equality as a counterpoint, and a retrospective antidote, to fascism, totalitarianism and genocide.

Germany has very clearly come a long way in confronting the horrors of its wartime era.  Other nations with ‘challenging’ 20th centuries behind them would do well to emulate its bravery and honesty in not just “coming to terms with the past” but in actively and openly confronting it. 

Russia is a good case in point.  Russia’s dominant narrative of World War Two is still essentially the same as the one that prevailed in the immediate post-war years; it is one of heroism, sacrifice and unimaginable suffering incurred in combating the fascists.  In truth, there was no shortage of heroism and sacrifice in the Soviet Union’s wartime story, but there was much else besides; and therein lies the challenge for modern Russia.

If they are honest, the current generation of Russians must acknowledge that – alongside the heroism of their Soviet ancestors – there is also much in their wartime story for them to question, to regret, even for them to be ashamed of.  Take, for instance, the Nazi-Soviet Pact; Stalin’s misguided 22-month flirtation with Hitler; or the annexation of the Baltic States; or the mass deportations from eastern Poland in 1940; or the Katyn Massacres.  Consider, perhaps, the deportations of Chechens, or of the Crimean Tatars; or the brutal treatment of returning Soviet POWs post-war.  The list goes on.

Clearly, some analogous process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung is sorely needed in Russia, but it is scarcely in evidence.  There are many reasons for this absence, not least amongst them lingering Soviet nostalgia and the desire of the present regime to harness history to its aggressive, Russian nationalist agenda and muzzle all dissenting opinion.  Now, as in the Soviet era, history is what the Kremlin says it is.

In time, however, a new Russian narrative of World War Two must surely emerge, and it will be one which will be markedly different from that which currently prevails. It will draw a clear distinction between modern Russia and the Soviet Union.  It will be forthright in acknowledging civilian suffering and Red Army heroism, as well as the fundamentally criminal nature of the Soviet state.  It will honestly and fearlessly examine the darkest chapters of the wartime story – chapters of suffering inflicted as well as suffering endured.  It will, like Weizsäcker did in 1985, seek no excuses or exculpations, but instead will attempt to distil a usable past from a century of horror.  Only when that happens, I suggest, will modern Russians finally be able to “look the truth in the eye”.

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