Posts Tagged ‘collective amnesia’

Geraldine Schwarz: Those Who Forget

July 15, 2020

61udheakoXL._AC_UY218_    71n8k53ll6L._AC_UY218_     I read this book in French, having come across it on a French website, and found myself cynically thinking, ‘here’s another really important book that will never make it into English’. But I’m pleased to admit I’m wrong as it’s due to be published here in September, as the illustration shows.

Géraldine Schwarz is of French and German parentage, and she explores and documents the amnesia that overtook entire nations after the Second World War: the French blotted out the shame of their collaboration with the Germans and their eager assistance with the deportation of the Jews, pretending that their Resistance was far greater than it actually had been. Germans, only too glad to have the war finally over, ‘forgot’ how they had almost all aided and abetted the Nazis’ insane and evil plans by remaining silent, becoming what Schwarz calls ‘Mitläufer’ – those who go along with… Her origins allow her to anchor a good deal of her investigations in her own family’s history on both sides, and much of what she explains illuminated for me things I had been vaguely aware of in my younger years.

Nazi leaders were judged and condemned at Nuremberg, but collective guilt and fellow-travelling was swept under the carpet of ignorance: Hitler and his top henchmen could thus be seen as a ‘criminal gang’ who had managed to ‘take over’ Germany, and lesser fry could be exculpated. Of all the Allies, the Americans were the most vigorous in their pursuit of war crimes but ultimately they all allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by the scope of the task of de-Nazification and overtaken by the needs of the Cold War. Because their own situation was so dire in the immediate post-War years, it was harder for ordinary Germans to feel any guilt about what they had allowed to happen to Jews. It was shocking to learn of the wholesale whitewashing of everyone’s Nazi past – including the Wehrmacht and many of its military ‘heroes’ – under the Adenauer government, and the acceptance of all this by the Western Allies.

Coming to terms with the evil had to be done if a healthier society was to develop, and the way this happened in Germany was most interesting. Ordinary Germans had to have known and been implicated in what happened to Jews if only because there were many public auctions of Jewish property after the owners had fled abroad or been deported, and the origins of the goods were obvious, auctions often taking place in the recently vacated apartments themselves.

French anti-semitism was cultural rather than racial, the anti-semitism that had resulted in the scandalous Dreyfus affair at the turn of the 20th century; there was also the more silent anti-semitism of the US and Britain who did not use the knowledge they had of the ongoing extermination programme to make any effort to disrupt or halt it. It’s also important to note that there are no recorded instances of Germans being executed for refusing to carry out orders connected with the extermination programme: they may have been demoted, received a military punishment, had promotions blocked, but that was as far as it went.

The breadth and scope of the book impresses as Schwarz shows how German attitudes were shaped and developed in the 1970s and 1980s, with the coming to maturity of a new generation of citizens: it was these generations who had grown up after the war who started asking the necessary questions of and about their forebears. Schwarz is very good on how subsequent generations challenged the willed amnesia, and revealed the truth and reality of Nazi times in the country. According to Schwarz it was the fact that the challenge of facing the past, and changing attitudes came from within German society and not from without, that ultimately made it so powerful and effective. She also addresses the issue of relativism, in comparison with Stalin’s crimes, a favourite trope of apologists for German warcrimes and Holocaust deniers. It took the French even longer to come to terms with their shameful Vichy past but eventually they did. Schwarz’ dual nationality allows both trenchant analysis and also sensitivity to the human factor in people’s actions and denials, without excusing any of this.

I was not aware of the deliberate obfuscation by Austrians of their Nazi past, enthusiasm and collaboration; it took far longer for them even to admit that they had been Nazis, sheltering as they did behind the idea that they had been occupied by, rather than welcomed the Nazis. The situation, although a little more complex, was similar in Italy, where there are even now extreme right-wing and openly fascist groups and parties in power. Schwarz’ concluding analysis is right up-to-date and a serious warning to us all, with the growth in power and influence of the far right across the entire EU. Truly, we are living in dangerous times, and in danger of forgetting the past.

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