11/07/2014 08:04 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Does German Unity Mean to the Post-Cold War Generation?

Harald Hauswald
the european

BERLIN -- "Aufklärung jetzt!" ("Clarification now!") sounds like a marching order from long ago -- "People, rise and let all hell break loose!" That was in 1813 when Germany had to be freed from Napoleon. As a war child, I was stirred into action already in 1945 for the Aufarbeitung (coming to terms). Since my childhood, I have thus been confronted with this double history of dictatorship.

In the old Federal Republic of Germany it was initially about the exposure of the Nazi crimes and the Second World War. The discussion was based on two questions: the question of German guilt, and how it was possible that the majority of the Germans fell for a diabolic Führer.

After 1945, there were other pressing problems resulting from the war: the destiny of the prisoners of war, the future of millions of refugees and displaced people, the reconstruction of a country marked by war, jobs, and the regaining of German sovereignty.

"It was always about German identity."

In 1961, the Wall was constructed; at the same time, because of the Eichmann process in Jerusalem, the genocide against the European Jews became an issue as well as the question of why the democrats of the Weimar Republic had been so weak. Why hadn't the Republic been able to resist to the totalitarian Nazi mass movement? Why had civil parties agreed with Hitler's enabling act in 1933?

All of these debates had a common denominator: they were about the identity of the Germans in the Federal Republic. It was a painful coming to terms with this history of dictatorship, one which was not without consequences for mental life. Among intellectuals, a fractured relationship with their own nation formed in many cases, eventually growing into German self-hatred.

In the German Democratic Republic, the Communists -- supported by the victorious power of the Soviet Union -- dictated their ideological historical perception, justifying the constitution of socialism. The historical discourses in both German states were about the reclamation of a new democratic or socialist German identity. Historical debates for the future's sake. Life moved on. But how? That was the question.

Hence, in the reunited Germany there originated a culture of memory of both dictatorships, each with its own memorials and monuments. Those serve as contemporary historical places of learning and as appeals for the protection of freedom.

In the middle of Berlin stands the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe, just a stone's throw away from the Soviet cenotaph for the fallen soldiers of the Red Army who lost their lives in the fight for Berlin. The coming to terms with the two dictatorships, that of the Nazis and that of the Communists, has therefore come a long way. But does the call to action "Aufarbeitung jetzt!" ("Come to terms now!") miss the point because the work is already done?

"'Generation German Unity' has to find its identity."

I don't think so; after all, the "Generation German Unity" has grown up. It is still stuck in a process of determination, assuring itself of its responsibility for the country. Behind this generation lies the German division into two states just as does the history of the dictatorships and that of the two World Wars. This generation knows neither the GDR nor the old Federal Republic from its own experience.

"Generation German Unity" also continues the way of the Germans which began long before their birth, over 1000 years ago. The Fall of the Wall in 1989 wasn't this generation's emotional joint "German" experience; more probably, the FIFA World Cup 2006 was.

At that time, as if by magic, self-confident young people holding German flags appeared to publicly support their team: "We want our team, the German team, to become world champion!" -- ignoring critics who thought it was in order to caution against a new nationalism. It was a surprising demonstration: the history of division lies behind us.

Because of that, this generation is facing another "coming to terms": What of historical German heritage is important to us? What do we want to pass on? At the same time, this generation has an information problem. In the universe of the Internet, German history is present in episodes, biographies, and documentations. It's a confusing supply of eras, historical personalities, and events.

Given that school history classes have been systematically devalued for decades now, many lack the orientation and the ability to classify these fragments into the course of history. The thread in these events is often absent -- and with that, so is the awareness of the continuity of their own German history, the one into which this generation was born and into which it will continue.

"Generation German Unity" will be the one shaping Germany's economic, cultural, and political future in Europe. Out of responsibility for its children and successive generations, it should be aware of its historical legacy. This applies in part to the crimes of the dictatorships, but mostly to the conservation of certain things: democracy, creativity in technology, science, culture, and the economic power of the country. The basis of our prosperity.

This piece also appeared in The European.

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