IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Germans still grapple with WWII legacy

Even though modern day Germany shows no resemblance to the "Third Reich,” Hitler's Nazi Germany, and has developed into a firm, liberal democracy, the historic burden still effects the lives of young and old. NBC News' Andy Eckardt reports from Germany.
A man walks in front of a large photographic print of the destroyed Pariser Platz after World War Two in Berlin
A man walks in front of a large photographic print showing the destroyed Pariser Platz after World War II, which is pictured in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin last month. The print has been erected to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.  Michael Dalder / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

German policymakers will gather for an official state ceremony in the Berlin parliament on Sunday to commemorate the victims of Nazi tyranny, 60 years after Germany capitulated to Allied forces at the end of World War II.

At the same time, only a few blocks away, several thousand neo-Nazis are expected to march through the streets.

Even though modern-day Germany shows no resemblance to the "Third Reich" of Hitler's Nazi Germany, the historic burden of that era still haunts the lives of young and old.

As a nation, Germany must navigate the fine line between recognizing and learning from the tragic legacy of the Nazi regime, and not dwelling on that past so much that it is incapable of creating a modern national identity.

Ghosts of the past
Only three months ago, nearly 5,000 neo-Nazis gathered in the eastern German city of Dresden to stage their own commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Allied bombing of the city, calling the air raid on Feb. 13, 1945, "a bombing holocaust.”

The right-wing demonstration triggered a wave of dismay among Dresden locals and politicians. Up to 50,000 people spontaneously gathered in the city center that same night to form the words, "This city is tired of Nazis," with an ocean of candles.

  "type": "Slideshow",
  "element": null,
  "html": null,
  "ecommerceEnabled": false

The far-right demonstration will be kept away from sites dedicated to the victims of the Nazi regime — like the new Holocaust memorial. But, the gathering is still a thorn in the eyes of a great majority of Germans and especially of those politicians, who had tried to ban the march.

However, Germany's liberal rules on demonstrations and free speech prevented an overall ban of the expected march.

But, the regained strength of the country's far-right and especially the extremist right wing party, known as NPD, is a political phenomenon which has come and gone in waves over the past 10 years. And, it remains a worry for the country. Experts warn that the problem should not be underestimated.

Ongoing discussion
"The violence is real," wrote Jürgen Leinemann in a special edition of Der Spiegel magazine, which addressed the impact of history on today's Germany.

"As in other European countries, a considerable potential of racist and anti-foreigner sentiments in a reunified Germany is indisputable," wrote Leinemann.

It is nearly impossible for many Germans not to think back to the Nazi regime when they see that extreme right-wing groups are still managing to recruit new members.

"In the Federal Republic of Germany, dealing with the Nazi past has become an element of cultural identity," German historian, professor Norbert Frei, told Der Spiegel magazine.

Yet, a recent study, conducted by German television ZDF and Die Welt newspaper, revealed that only every second German under the age of 24 can associate the term "Holocaust" with the murder of more than 6 million Jews.

Constant need to revisit history
"That is why we as journalists have a strong responsibility — that is why it is so important to continue the education of future generations," said professor Guido Knopp, a historian and TV producer.

Knopp has produced several prize-winning documentaries about Nazi history for German television, ZDF. A total of 4.6 million viewers tuned in to a recent documentary on the bombing of Dresden.

"There is no such thing as collective guilt, guilt is always linked to individuals," Knopp said. “But there is a collective responsibility in Germany not to forget," he added.

For many years, Knopp and his team have been traveling across the country to collect eyewitness reports and to do interviews with the World War II veterans.

"After the end of the war, many tried to forget their horrible experiences, concentrated on building families and rebuilding the country," Knopp said.

"Only when they reached retirement age, did they find the time and were they willing to reflect on their wartime past," Knopp said.

Fighting stereotypes
For many German, American and British veterans of the war, it took almost 40 years before they could face their former enemies at the beaches of Normandy and at other historic sites across Europe.

"I believe that both sides have taken too long to properly deal with the historic past," said Franz Gockel, 79, who was drafted into the German Wehrmacht at age 17 and was assigned to protect Omaha Beach in Normandy in 1943.

"Ever since I came out of an American POW camp, I have made reconciliation a primary goal of my life," said Gockel, who captured his wartime experience in a book called “The Gate To Hell.”

During the many D-Day anniversaries he attended, Gockel talked about his view of the deadly battle with his former foes. One of the American veterans he met during those get-togethers in Normandy is due to visit him in Germany. "Some real friendships have developed over the years," Gockel said proudly.

In the past weeks and months, Gockel has been closely following anniversary documentaries and specials, but says he was dismayed by some media reports.

"It makes me sad to see that stereotypes get used over and over again and even today, historic facts are simply ignored," Gockel said, referring to British newspaper headlines which  tried to portray the new German-born Pope Benedict XVI as a Nazi.

When the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected, Britain's Sun newspaper ran the front-page headline, "From Hitler Youth to Papa Ratzi,” while other British papers nicknamed Ratzinger the "Panzer Pope" or "God's Rottweiler.”

Ratzinger, whose very religious family was said to be anti-Nazi, joined the Hitler Youth in 1941. "At that time," Gockel said "membership in the group was compulsory for all 14-year-olds, you simply had no choice." 

Lost identity
As a growing number of Germans are now openly expressing fatigue over dwelling on their guilt-inducing past, media reports have been posing the question whether the Germans are beginning to see themselves as a "community of sufferers without a true national identity.”

As a matter of fact, any form of rising nationalism or patriotism has been deliberately suppressed in German society for the past 60 years.

The singing of the national anthem in German classrooms at the start of the day, for example, is non-existent. And, most Germans refrain from openly saying "proud to be a German" because Germany's neo-Nazi scene has hijacked the expression as a provocative slogan.

Public display of the German colors are rarely seen in this country and it seems that Germans only wave their black, red and gold flag during large sports events.

Instead, every German high-school student has to take mandatory history lessons on the Holocaust and Germany's dark Nazi past.

"In my generation, we lived under the impression that the term patriotism was poisoned during Nazi times," former president Richard von Weizsaecker, who experienced the war, told Germany's Berliner Zeitung.

"German history, unlike American or French history, did not allow the growing of patriotism in a natural way," said von Weizsaecker.

Taking pride
Yet, most of the country's new leaders, who are among a vast majority of Germans born after 1945, are beginning to lose their fear of displaying national pride, without being accused of ignoring the country's historic past.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was delighted to be the first German leader to receive an official invitation to the 60th anniversary of the Allied Invasion in Normandy last year.

And, when German President Horst Koehler took office in 2004, his first words were — to the surprise of many — "I love our country.”