Can Germany Help Central Europe Confront Its Dark Past?

Historians in the News

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).

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."...

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