What can we learn from Germany?

On CBC’s Unreserved last week, Murray Sinclair told host Rosanna Deerchild that it’s important that “the process of inquiry and investigation” focus on finding out how and why the children died, and then determining if any individuals or groups are responsible for their deaths. Holding people and institutions to account is important, and even though criminal convictions might be improbable, because of the difficulty of “finding the victimizer,” and then determining guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, one possible legal response would be to make it a criminal offence to deny the TRC’s findings in co-ordinated disinformation campaigns.

“It’s still an offence in Germany to deny the Holocaust, and it should be an offence in Canada to deny the existence of this story,” he said.

A friend in Germany has been sharing some of the things her country did, to reckon with the Second World War and the Holocaust. She was educated in the mid-1960s, and she acknowledged that it’s possible the curriculum or approach has since changed. But most of her generation had grandparents who had either served in WWII or lost husbands in WWII or had experienced bombing or displacement. They also lived under US (British, French, Soviet) occupation and the Berlin Wall was a fact of life.

In families, she shared with me, the facts of the Holocaust were not discussed. “For my family I believe that they honestly had no idea what happened. Simply because they lived far away from major cities and the locations of the camps. All of Germany was essentially under a propaganda blanket alike to what is happening today with Fox News, etc. viewers.”

There was a shared sense of “Germany lost the war and did terrible things” that, I think, seeped into the overall consciousness. Can’t remember feeling proud being a German for most of my life.

In middle school, around 7th and 8th grade we started to cover WWII in history classes and visiting local remembrance sites, like a synagogue that was burned on Reichskristallnacht.

In 9th grade, when we covered the Weimar Republic, the rise of Hitler and then the Holocaust in more depth (in History and in civics and in German literature) a lot of attention was spent to explain how this all lined up. We did not learn about major battles of WWII or how well the German army did. We learned about how Hitler manipulated the government of the Weimar Republic, the press, the public.

And then they sat us all down – this was a rather large school, we had 9 classes for each age group in middle school and the same for the secondary school that shared the complex – on one day and did a documentary marathon – ran the whole day.

We watched footage of the US forces liberating and cleaning up concentration camps. No movie, raw footage. I remember only few scenes from that but I will remember for the rest of my life the horror, revulsion and shock I felt. I know that US forces made citizens of towns surrounding the camps to visit and/or clean up the camps. And I think this is what sparked the conviction of “Never again” that drove the politicians of that time.

After that our German literature teachers took over and we read “Die Welle” (The Wave). In it, a small group starts to act out ideologies of separation, they come up with a group sign, etc. and this spreads fast. Our school didn’t go that far but my husband’s school allowed the experiment to go on for about o 6 weeks for their students to see how easily they were pulled into the ideology.

Germany is still holding remembrance days for the victims of the Holocaust. In every town there are places that are not built over because they are the site of a burned synagogue. And then, of course, we have larger monuments, eg in Berlin and the concentration camps that are kept and maintained for people to visit.

In the last decades the stumbling stones appeared which mark homes of people who were taken away by the Nazis. Jews, yes, but also dissidents and disabled people.

Germany has no culture that hails the military. We have a culture that honours the victim, the displaced.

We have freedom of speech, except for denying the Holocaust and/or glorifying the Third Reich. This will get you into trouble although we have a still existing (in the underground) scene of neo-Nazis and a political party (AfD) that is flirting with the ideology in the same way Hitler did: hinting, saying one thing, meaning another, playing with people’s fears and dissatisfactions.

Many of us also had a good sense of what had happened with the Native Americans. I believe, many Germans know more about this than Americans. Again, we took on the plight of the conquered and displaced.

It’s interesting, trying to describe this, how much the Allied Forces made sure that Germans learned what had happened and how little (especially the US) they did and do to ensure this in their own country…

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