Heinous crimes committed years ago cannot be excused by appealing to the ‘social context’ of the age
Rooting around the basement of my family home in Mannheim, south-west Germany, some years ago, I discovered evidence that in 1938 my grandfather had taken advantage of antisemitic Nazi policies to buy a small business from a Jewish family at a low price. I also found letters from the only survivor of this family: his relatives had been killed at Auschwitz. After the war he wrote asking for reparations, but my grandfather refused to face up to his responsibilities.
I was shocked. Seeking to investigate my family’s Nazi history for a book I was working on, I started by calling on two first-hand witnesses. My aunt Ingrid, born in 1936 and who suffered through wartime bombardments and postwar poverty, excused her father’s actions: “We can’t put ourselves in their place. They lived under a dictatorship – you had to be a hero to resist.”
My father, Volker, born in 1943 and part of the generation in the 60s that forced German society to face its Nazi past, was much less lenient: “I used to tell my father: what upsets me is not that you’ve done the Nazi salute, since I might also have done that; its’s that even today you still don’t recognise the atrocities of the Third Reich and your own responsibility.”
Testimonies are less reliable than documents. They are filtered through experience and emotion, sadness and anger, but also love and loyalty. I had to confront them with historical facts. How far was it possible not to be a Nazi under the Third Reich? What were the risks? What did ordinary Germans such as my grandparents know about the Nazis’ crimes, about the fate of the Jews?
If conceiving of Auschwitz was difficult, it was still impossible to have “seen nothing, heard nothing” as my grandparents’ generation claimed until their deaths. Especially as many took part in auctions held in the apartments of deported Jews: homes abandoned in haste, where there might still have been cups of coffee on the kitchen table or toys in the children’s room. Joseph Goebbels himself said that his compatriots plunged “like vultures on the warm crumbs of the Jews”.
I also took into account the psychosocial mechanisms that form social and individual attitudes: conformism to moral standards, fear, opportunism, as well as political and ideological manipulation. The Third Reich did more than just inundate all levels of society with propaganda; it also devised the perfect way of making people become complicit while keeping their consciences clear: making crime legal.
Eventually I came to the conclusion that my grandfather was not blind to the immorality of his actions. He was enabled by the legalisation of the looting of Jewish property, but he acted from an opportunism that was his own. Of his own initiative, he participated in a state-organised crime, feeding into the inhumane enterprise of a regime he didn’t even support. The fact that antisemitism was the norm by that time doesn’t alter his personal moral failure.
Beyond the complexity of historical contexts and the grey areas of any human endeavour, there are actions that were as wrong yesterday as they are today. Taking refuge in moral relativism while facing the shadows of history is an easy escape, but it leads to a dead end. Yet how many countries are stuck in denial under the pretext that they refuse to judge their imperial past by today’s standards?
Slavery, for instance, was never “good”. In European Christian societies, slavery has always provoked certain resistance and caused unease – it clearly contradicted the messages of love. Throughout history, Christian dogma had repeatedly expressed its rejection of slavery. It was, then, preferably practised far from home, so that English and French ladies and gentlemen could drink their sweet tea or eat their chocolate desserts without having to think about the suffering their pleasure was costing others. So nations and businesses could make vast profits without pausing to consider the human cost, the devastation in faraway lands.
The millions of Europeans who directly and indirectly benefited from the slave trade while keeping a Bible by their beds were not ignorant or unenlightened. They were simply opportunists and hypocrites, bigots betraying their God when it suited them.
This hypocrisy became all the more unbearable as the political idea that every person is born free and should enjoy the same rights was advancing in western countries. How could Britain, France, the Netherlands and the US, nations that fashioned themselves as the champions of freedom, continue unscrupulously exploiting and oppressing others through slavery and colonialism for centuries? Here again, we can’t say that our current perspective is distorting the past. Throughout this dark history, voices, especially those of the enslaved and colonised themselves, were calling out these immoral double standards.
If Britain and other nations want to come to terms with their past, they need to accept a minimal consensus: slavery and colonialism cannot be explained by the “social and moral standards” of a different age, but by a rapacious desire for domination and profit. How convenient that your thirst for exploitation is justified by a racial hierarchy in which you happen to be on top.
Such consensus wouldn’t “cancel” the debate; instead it would depolarise it. It would open the possibility for fruitful dialogue and help overcome the old victim-versus-perpetrator dialectic, replacing it with a culture of honesty and responsibility. Despite claims to the contrary, failure to have this dialogue, languishing in denial, is ultimately more damaging than facing the past. It reveals a profound misunderstanding of how important this process is for democratic maturity.
From personal experience, I know the heavy responsibility that comes with judging an era you haven’t lived through, populated by dead people who can no longer defend themselves. But I also know how necessary it is to overcome blind loyalty to your own family or country, to work to correct prejudices and take others’ perspectives into account, if you want to really search for truth. While investigating my family’s history, I often asked myself: what I would have done under the Third Reich? I’ll never know. But reading German historian Norbert Frei, I understood that the fact that we cannot know what we would have done “does not mean that we do not know how we should have behaved”.
Géraldine Schwarz is an author, journalist and film-maker. Those Who Forget is published in paperback by Pushkin Press