Discover how Germany has confronted its dark past, including the Holocaust and World War II. After the war, Germany underwent a process of denazification, demilitarization, decentralization, and democratization, which included banning the Nazi party and all sub-organizations, investigating Germans for their roles in the Holocaust and war crimes, and trying major offenders in Nuremberg trials. Today, young Germany has a culture of remembrance, taking responsibility for the country's past actions and ensuring they are not forgotten. This includes mandatory education about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust in schools and the use of memorials, museums, and stumbling stones to commemorate victims. German patriotism is not pronounced, and there are no Nazi statues in the country. In schools, the topic of World War II, the Holocaust, and the Third Reich is taught extensively, with a focus on the suffering of the Jews and Nazi propaganda. Visiting concentration camps and hearing from historical witnesses are valuable experiences, but it's important to approach the topic with respect and sensitivity. Germans are more open to discussing politics and difficult topics, even with strangers, compared to Americans. Join the conversation and share your own experiences and thoughts in the comments.
Do Germans talk about the Holocaust? What do they teach about World War II in school? And is it okay to make a Hitler joke around a German? Hallo, Servus and welcome back to my YouTube channel. My name is Feli, I'm originally from Munich, Germany but I've been living here in Cincinnati, Ohio on and off since 2016. If you think of Germany, especially in a historical context, what comes to your mind? I bet at least 99% of you are thinking of Nazis, World War II, the Third Reich, Hitler and the Holocaust. And rightly so. It's one of the darkest chapters in history. I know that, you know that.
Yet a lot of people are unsure if this is something they can bring up around me and other Germans. Some people assume that it's a total taboo topic in Germany, something that isn't really discussed in society. But how much of that is actually true? How does Germany deal with its dark past? What is taught about it in school? And is it okay to bring the topic up around Germans? Now I have answered this question in different contexts before, like in this Q&A video for example where I gave a quick two-minute summary. But today I would like to dive a little deeper.
I'd like to talk about how this topic has been dealt with publicly in Germany over the last 78 years since the end of World War II. I'd like to share my personal experience of how it was approached in my school and my personal environment. And I'd also like to share how other Germans from different regions and of different generations have experienced this. To do so I asked my German viewers to fill out a survey about the topic and I received over 230 responses that will give you guys and myself a pretty good idea of how Germans in general think about the curriculums and the overall approach of how we deal with our country's dark past.
After the end of the war in Germany in May of 1945, the Allied Powers, France, UK, USA, and the Soviet Union divided Germany into four occupation zones and started the process of denazification, demilitarization, decentralization, and democratization, also referred to as the four Ds. To denazify the country, the NSDAP, so the Nazi party and all sub-organizations were banned and its laws were abolished and all signs of the Third Reich were erased from everyday life, including books, uniforms, medals, and street names. Germany also had to make reparation payments to the victorious powers and other affected countries that were mainly paid in machinery, manufacturing plants, and forced labor.
Most Germans were also subject to investigations by the International Military Tribunal that was looking to identify the different roles people played in the Holocaust and in committing war crimes. Germans were divided into five categories, from major offender to exonerated individuals. Major offenders were tried in the first Nuremberg trial from November 1945 to October 1946 and in 12 subsequent Nuremberg trials that were solely held by the US. All in all, 36 defendants were sentenced to death, 125 received prison sentences, 23 of them for life. Not all of these verdicts were actually executed though.
A lot of the convicts ended up being released after just a few years and pardoned from the death penalty as the denazification process became more and more lenient in the western zones. Due to the extremely high number of cases, less severe offenders were soon handed over to civilian tribunals under German administration and it became increasingly difficult to find a balance between punishment and rebuilding the country for which the occupying powers needed to fill a lot of important positions. And having hundreds of thousands of Germans in internment camps didn't exactly make that easy.
Now together with the development of the Cold War, during which West Germany was considered an important ally, the focus quickly started shifting away from strict denazification and more towards rehabilitation. By 1948, countless trials were ceased or never started and as I said, lots of people were pardoned, which to this day is heavily criticized as it meant that people that used to be active members of the Nazi party ended up keeping their high-ranking jobs and remained in positions of power in the newly founded West German Republic. In the Soviet occupation zone, denazification was followed through a lot more strictly and quickly. By spring of 1948, they had fired and replaced over 500,000 people.
But how did the Germans themselves deal with the war and this dark chapter moving forward? Well, for the first two decades after the war, it pretty much just wasn't talked about at all. The country was full of people who were actively involved in the crimes of the Third Reich and most common way of dealing with it was silence. Most of them weren't willing to face their own guilt, let alone take responsibility for their actions and their families often preferred staying in the dark about how badly their own spouses, parents and grandparents were really involved in it all. Same thing applied to schools.
Many of the teachers were formally involved with the Nazis and the details of the Third Reich were barely part of the curriculum. It wasn't really until the 1960s that young adults in Germany started demanding from their elders to take responsibility for their past and to start an open public dialogue. Some of this was part of the 1968 student movements in West Germany that arose parallel to protests all over the world at the time.
The outrage was partly triggered by different events that had taken place throughout the 60s including the so-called Swastika epidemic, the Eichmann trial, the Frankfurt-Auschwitz trial, the debate about the imminent statute of limitations of NS crimes and the election of a former Nazi party member, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, as chancellor. As a result, West Germans finally started owning up to their country's past more intensely in the 70s and 80s. Nazi Germany and the Holocaust became a mandatory part of school curriculums and TV shows like the American miniseries Holocaust that about a third of the population watched on German TV prompted people to reflect on the brutality of the genocide of 6 million European Jews and the emotional stories of the victims.
Other notable productions of the time are the German war film Das Boot as well as the French documentary Shoa among others. Today, Germany practices a very active culture of remembrance. It's all about taking responsibility for our country's devastating actions of the past and making sure that something like that can and will never happen again. This includes that it's actually illegal in Germany to deny or downplay the Holocaust – 17 other European countries have similar laws by the way – it's also illegal to do the Hitler salute or use Nazi insignia, unless it's part of art, science, research or teaching, and the topic is a visible part of public life.
Many former concentration camps have been turned into memorial sites that can be visited today to learn from the past and understand the scale of the Nazis' crimes. In addition to that, street names, memorials, museums and stumbling stones commemorate the victims of the Nazi regime all over Germany. The Stumbling Stone or Stolperstein project was started in the 90s by German artist Gunther Demnig and entails brass plates inscribed with the names and life dates of victims that are set into the pavement outside of their last known address or workplace.
You'll never know when and where you'll quite literally stumble over one, which shows that deportation took place anywhere and everywhere and by bending down to read the victims' names, you're pretty much bowing down to them to pay them respect. To this day, over 75,000 of those stumbling stones have been laid all over Europe, making it the world's largest decentralized memorial. And of course, there are countless movies, documentaries and books that critically deal with the Third Reich and the post-war era and that ensure that the victims of the NS regime aren't forgotten. To this day, the historical responsibilities that Germany carries are deeply ingrained in German culture and politics.
Germany has a very unique relationship to Israel for example and in the late 50s and early 60s, they signed contracts with Israel, with the Jewish Claims Conference and 12 European countries regarding compensation to victims of the NS regime, some of which are being paid up to today. You'll also notice that most Germans don't really have a very pronounced sense of patriotism. With the exception of sporting events like the soccer world cup, you won't see a lot of German flags for example, not even in schools and other public buildings, unless they're government institutions. There's no such thing as the American Pledge of Allegiance and the German national anthem is only sung on a small number of occasions.
Whether that goes back to an ongoing feeling of guilt and shame and whether or not that's still called for is actually a much discussed question among Germans. By the way, you won't find any Nazi statues in Germany. Hitler himself actually banned any kind of memorials of him from the beginning and other statues were either taken down by the Nazis themselves to repurpose their medal for the war effort, they were destroyed by bombings or at the latest taken down by the allied powers after the war. Now what do German students learn about World War II and the Holocaust in school? Let me start by sharing my own experience.
As you guys know, I'm from Munich which is in the state of Bavaria and I went to elementary school and then to a Gymnasium there. That's important to note because the school system and the curriculums in Germany actually differ from state to state. Now I'm 29 years old so it's been a while and I don't remember every single detail but I do know that we started talking about the topic relatively early. I think in 5th or 6th grade and then we pretty much talked about it all the way until graduation. And it wasn't just in history class but in a lot of different subjects.
It was a very present topic in German class for example. In 6th grade we read a book called Damals war es Friedrich which is about the friendship between a non-Jewish boy and his Jewish neighbor throughout the Third Reich. Then later on we read books like Die Welle, originally The Wave, which is about a school experiment about the Third Reich. And then we also read Die Schachnovelle by Stefan Zweig as well as Andorra and Homophaba by the Swiss author Max Frisch. We also talked about it in religion slash ethics class a lot cause yes that's a mandatory subject in Bavarian schools.
In arts class we learned about what the Nazis classified as degenerate art and Arte de Kunst and the topic also came up in the context of arts interpretations. And even in music class we analyzed the musical and lyrical features of Nazi propaganda songs. And from what I remember the topic was also touched upon here and there in classes like English, sociology and geology. In history class the main focus on the topic was in 9th grade. I think we spent pretty much the whole year learning about the Weimar Republic, WW2 and post war Germany and that's also the year where we went to the concentration camp Dachau which is right outside of Munich.
That's something that was mandatory at my school and I think the same goes for most schools in the area. And then the topic was one of the main focuses again in history class in 11th and 12th grade. Since I grew up in Munich we also learned a lot about the resistance group of the White Rose, Weiße Rose, since they were located in Munich. I know that Germans in other regions don't learn about them as much but they were all students at the University of Munich, same university I went to, and they were arrested and killed in their early 20s by the Nazis for distributing leaflets criticizing the Nazi regime.
Their names are very present in Munich to this day, especially the siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl but also Willi Graf, Christoph Probst, Kurt Huber and Alexander Schmorell. Overall I feel like there was a lot of focus on the suffering of the Jews and how cruel and inhumane things were. We also learned a lot about Nazi propaganda and about the political, economic and cultural factors that made WW2 and the Holocaust even possible and that led people to believe in such an awful ideology. I don't really remember learning a lot about who Hitler was as a person and I don't remember talking a lot about the details of the war and warfare.
We definitely covered the timeline of the important events of the war but I don't remember talking about single battles or which weapons and strategies were used etc. And I'm mentioning this because a lot of Americans here actually know way more about all of that than I do and I think warfare in general is just a more popular topic in the US. Now there's probably a lot from my school days that I forgot to mention but I do remember that by like 8th or 9th grade a lot of us were honestly getting a little tired of the topic and we were sometimes just like, ugh, not again.
But of course looking back, it's definitely better to talk about it too much than not talking about it enough and I definitely say that by the time we graduated we walked out of there with a strong awareness for racism, discrimination and identifying populist and nationalistic tendencies and propaganda. Now of course WW2 is something that you'll also be confronted with in real life outside of school and that can be a very individual experience because depending on your family environment, your friends, the field you work in, you'll be exposed to it in very different ways.
In my case I definitely always felt relatively close to the topic because unlike most other people my age, it's not my great grandparents that lived through the war but my grandparents. Everyone just had children very late in my family so all four of my grandparents lived through the war as teenagers and adults and therefore were affected or even involved in it in different ways. One side of my family is from Upper Silesia for example which was German territory at the time but now belongs to Poland so when the Eastern Front got there, they lost their home and became refugees.
They were actually part of the winter tracks of January of 1945 which was historically cold and they fled partly by foot and then started from zero after the war like so many people in Germany. One of my grandfathers was also imprisoned in the GDR for a few years. Now only one of my grandparents was still alive when I was born, my grandma, but I did hear a lot of first-hand stories from her and of course I heard a lot of stories about my other grandparents from relatives and I read about it in their memoirs.
So that's my personal connection to the topic and maybe that's also the reason why I feel extra passionate about fighting discrimination of minorities and why I believe that war is the worst thing humans have ever invented. Now since I'm not the only one of 84 million people in Germany and as I said earlier, curriculums vary a lot throughout the country, I wanted to make sure that the experiences and opinions of other Germans are included in this video as well. It actually received over 230 submissions to my survey that I sent out so thank you guys so much to everyone who took the time to fill that out.
I will say it was a lot of work to go through it all and I won't be able to mention every single answer here but it was fascinating to read and I'm going to summarize it as best as I can. And I'll also be sharing quotes from the survey with you guys in German because I wanted people to be able to answer this in their native language but I'll add English subtitles.
To give you guys a general overview at first, I did get answers from people of all ages from 13 to 65 and from all over Germany and even a couple responses from Austria and to my question, how well would you say school educated you about WW2, the Holocaust and the Third Reich? Nobody selected not at all, about 2% said insufficiently, 14% said basics were covered but it could have been more, 47% said very well and about 38% even selected almost too well, the topic was hashed and rehashed over and over again. So I think that shows that most people definitely felt like the topic was taught about very intensely.
All other questions were open-ended by the way so I can't tell you the exact percentages but I'd say the overall consensus was that the topic was taught in a rather objective but also serious and very respectful way while being brutally honest and most people said that it was always age appropriate still and was slowly building up throughout the grades. Karina from Dortmund wrote for example, We never talked about guilt, only responsibility and the awareness that fascism is not an opinion but a crime. Korbinian from Hessen, and Alex from Karlsruhe said, In the end we were also allowed to ask questions. He said something about guilt that helped me a lot.
He noticed during his lectures that young people often have guilt even though they had nothing to do with it. But that doesn't change anything. Instead it is our task to ensure that it cannot repeat itself. There was also a lecture by a former neo-Nazi at our school. In the 11th grade two history courses of mine were included and an excursion to a concentration camp in France. In German religion we dealt more with the perspective of the persecuted and what role the church played at the time. Among other things through the diary of Anne Frank.
By the way, most people mentioned that they started talking about the topic sometime between 5th and 9th grade but a few even said it was brought up as early as 3rd grade and lining up with my own experience throughout all kinds of subjects. Anni from Northern Westphalia even shared her experience in a video. I think that we talked about almost every subject. Let's see, history class for sure. German class where we would read important literature like Anne Frank. Religion which is also part of the curriculum in most German schools where we would not only learn about our religion but also about others. And then English class because we also learned about history.
French, same thing. French history where we talked about the Normandy and D-Day and you name it. Silke from Oldenburg said about this. One person said that they watched The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in English class for example and in German class people mentioned reading the books I mentioned earlier but also books like The Diary of Anne Frank, Als Hitler das rosa Kaninchen stahl or Die Blechtrommel and movies such as Schindler's List. A few people also mentioned analyzing Hitler's rhetoric as well as his speech and writing style to better understand his propaganda techniques.
Hitler's own book Mein Kampf however was only mentioned by one person in the whole survey which probably has to do with the fact that up until 2016 it wasn't actually allowed to be printed in Germany due to copyright issues so if the book was discussed in school it was usually just in the form of extracts. In addition to learning about personal destinies from books and movies a lot of people also mentioned visiting concentration camps. I was actually a little surprised by how many people mentioned that especially since not every school is close to a former concentration camp so for many this included an overnight trip. Some people even traveled to Poland to visit Auschwitz.
Charlotte from Niedersachsen said Karina wrote In addition to that a lot of people mentioned visiting museums, memorials, synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and things like the Reichsparteitagsgelände in Nuremberg or the home of Klaus von Stauffenberg even. A lot of schools also organized a trip to Berlin which is actually something we did too in 10th grade and that certainly included visiting the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe among other things. And a lot of people also said that they had historical witnesses talk at their schools like we heard in one of the quotes earlier which I think is one of the most valuable experiences you could have especially since today most of them aren't around anymore.
One thing that I could definitely tell from the survey was how heavily people's experiences were dependent on the teachers they had. I think that's always the case in school of course but I think specifically with this topic not everyone had a good experience. Sabine wrote for example In 10th grade we read books about the topic. Of course they weren't that brutal yet but later we weren't spared. We had to look at pictures in a cruel way and we were also in Auschwitz or Israel where we talked with victims of the Holocaust. Overall the way the Holocaust was taught to us at school traumatized me.
I went abroad later and only after years was I able to develop a relatively normal relationship to my nationality. Today I don't feel guilty anymore. And a person from Mainz shared another pretty negative experience. Responding to the question in what manner it was taught they said I do want to say that this experience was definitely an exception but I wanted to include it to show a few different aspects here. Other people were very lucky with their teachers though like Lara from Duisburg. I thought that all teachers were very good at it, chose the right tone and warned us about bad pictures or videos.
If you wanted to step out of the way you were allowed to. In my age, second generation after the war, it wasn't very detailed and was rather overused. The actual knowledge didn't come from school but from becoming older through documentaries. As students we were like, okay we can't cut it short but we'll make it as short and superficial as possible. I think only now that a lot of time has passed you don't feel as trapped anymore. The persecution of Jewish people was clearly on the holocaust while the persecution of other minorities like Sinti and Romani, homosexuals, political opponents, people of color and the euthanization of disabled people etc. were barely covered.
Other aspects that people said weren't covered enough included WWII outside of Germany including the Pacific war but even the actions of Germany's allies or the German invasion in Greece or Yugoslavia. Those are all things that I personally agree with too, I don't remember any of those things being part of the curriculum.
And a lot of people also said they would have liked to learn more about post-war Germany and the denazification process, also about the history of antisemitism and that it wasn't something that the Nazis just came up with themselves, about German refugees and I also saw quite a lot of people sharing my experience that they didn't learn a lot about the details of the war in terms of tactics, different battles etc. and about Hitler as a person. I think no one is born evil and I cannot recall that we talked about what had happened to him, why he became that kind of person, so yeah I think this would have been also important to understand.
One thing that was very interesting was that about half of the people said that they really focused on how the Nazis seized power and how the weaknesses of the Weimar Republic led to that which is what I mentioned too that that was focused on a lot in my school but then the other half listed this under things that weren't covered enough and many also said it should have been talked about more how we can recognize warning signs and parallels of similar developments in society today. And last but not least this was a common point of criticism as well. Ich bereue auch, dass ich so wenig über andere geschichtliche Themen gelernt habe.
Der Holocaust und der Zweite Weltkrieg hat alles überschattet. Which I would generally agree with, we really didn't get to cover a whole lot of other topics of recent history but at the same time I also think that it was important that we covered the topic so intensely like Markus from Hildesheim says too. In der Schule hatte ich immer das Gefühl, dieses Thema wäre überrepräsentiert. Wenn ich jetzt mitbekomme, wie schlecht einige darüber informiert sind und wie diskriminierendes, rassistisches und rechtsradikales Gedankengut in und rund um Deutschland wieder aufkommt, wünsche ich mir, dass all diejenigen sich nochmal gründlich damit beschäftigen und damit dafür sorgen, nichts aus dieser furchtbaren Zeit auch nur ansatzweise zu wiederholen.
Britta from Berlin says, And even Laura, who became a history teacher, said this, In terms of how present the topic is outside of school in Germany today, people shared a lot of different opinions and experiences and I won't be able to include all of them in this video but many mentioned for example that some German TV channels pretty much show Nazi documentaries 24-7, which is definitely true and I know that that can be pretty surprising for people visiting Germany. Some people said that the current political developments all around the world worry them and that they feel like German politicians should be more actively fighting that.
Some mentioned how this whole topic of inherited guilt, Erbschuld, is still weighing on us as a country but most people said that they think that Germany is doing a rather good job dealing with this topic, even though it's not perfect, and that it's important that the German government commemorates the victims of the NS regime on days like the International Holocaust Remembrance Day or on German Volkstrauertag and other memorial days. And some people also shared how difficult it can still be within their own families. I'm just going to read one quote from a young German that represents that pretty well. This is from Vivi18 from Lüneburg. This is from a German that represents that pretty well.
This is from a German that represents that pretty well. Last but not least, is it okay to ask a German about World War II, the Holocaust and Nazis or is that offensive coming from a foreigner? Now I didn't include this in my survey but based on my experience I can say yes, you can absolutely talk to us Germans about World War II. I even feel like a lot of Germans appreciate talking about it with outsiders from another country, especially when they find that they're educated on the topic. However, it's definitely important to us to stay respectful.
I found that Germans can be a little more sensitive to jokes about the whole topic for example and not every German is going to be in the mood to talk about it, especially if people are still in school or just graduated and might be a little tired of the topic. But generally this is something that we're very open about in Germany and most of us will not feel personally offended just because you bring up our dark past. Let me know if you guys agree with me on that or not in the comments but I recently came across this video by Radical Living.
Hey Hans, I was wondering since you're German and all, do Germans still feel like guilty about World War II? How do you feel? Um are you are you hungry? You look hungry. I'm gonna make us some sandwiches okay? See you in a bit. I mean your grandfather must have fought in the war right? You ever talk to him about how it was being on the evil side and everything? Oh god I think I forgot the sausages in the car. I'm gonna go grab them okay? And then he just ends up making up more and more excuses and ends up driving away because he really wants to avoid talking about the topic.
And even though I know it's satire of course and I'm not trying to deny that that's his reality, I just wholeheartedly disagree with the message of this. That's just never been my experience at all. By the way just in general, it's a lot more common in Germany to talk about politics and difficult topics even with strangers and that's also why Germans often ask Americans very directly about controversial topics in the US and how they feel about them. Again thank you to everyone who took the time to fill out the survey and to Anni for recording a whole video. You can find her entire response on her YouTube channel by the way.
If you went to school in Germany, what are your experiences with the topic? Which aspects would you like to add? And if you're not from Germany, how does your country teach about World War 2 or their own difficult past? And was there anything that surprised you in this video? Let me know in the comments below. I hope you found this interesting. Thank you guys so much for watching. If you enjoy my content it would be great if you hit that subscribe button. You can also send me a super thanks underneath or support my channel via Patreon or by buying me a coffee.
This is where you can find me outside of YouTube and with that I hope I'll see you next time. Tschüss!.