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Holocaust memorial in the centre of Berlin
German territories lost in both World Wars are shown in black, present-day Germany is marked dark grey on this 1914 map.

Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a composite German word with individual and collective significance that describes processes of coming to terms with the past (Vergangenheit "past"; Bewältigung "overcome [the negative, repressed and incriminating, mental injuries and guilt]"), which is perhaps best rendered in English as "struggle to overcome the [negatives of the] past".[1] It is a key term in the study of post-1945 German literature and culture.

Historical development[edit]

Vergangenheitsbewältigung describes the attempt to analyze, digest and learn to live with the past, in particular the Holocaust. The focus on learning is much in the spirit of philosopher George Santayana's oft-quoted observation that "those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it." As a technical term in English, it relates specifically to the atrocities committed during the Third Reich, when Adolf Hitler was in power in Germany, and to both ongoing and historical concerns about the extensive compromise and co-optation of many German cultural, religious, and political institutions by Nazism. The term therefore deals at once with the concrete responsibility of the German state (West Germany assumed the legal obligations of the Reich) and of individual Germans for what took place "under Hitler," and with questions about the roots of legitimacy in a society whose invention of the Enlightenment collapsed in the face of Nazi ideology.

More recently, the term Vergangenheitsbewältigung has also been used in the former East Germany to refer to the process of working through the brutalities of Communist institutions.

After denazification[edit]

Historically, Vergangenheitsbewältigung often is seen as the logical "next step," after a denazification driven at first under Allied Occupation and then by the Christian Democratic Union government of Konrad Adenauer. It dates from the late 1950s and early 1960s, roughly the period in which the work of the Wiederaufbau (reconstruction) became less absorbing and urgent. Having replaced the institutions and power structures of Nazism, the aim of liberal Germans was to deal with the guilt of recent history. Vergangenheitsbewältigung is characterised in part by learning from the past. This includes honestly admitting that such a past did indeed exist, attempting to remedy as far as possible the wrongs committed, and attempting to move on from that past.

Role of churches and schools[edit]

The German churches, of which only a minority played a significant role in the resistance to Nazism, have led the way in this process, developing a specifically German post-war theology of repentance. At the regular mass church rallies, the Lutheran Kirchentag and the Catholic Katholikentag, for example, this theme is developed as a leitmotiv of Christian youth.

The main institutionally driven sphere of Vergangenheitsbewältigung is in the schools, where in most German states the centrally-written curriculum subjects every child to repeated lessons on different aspects of Nazism in German, history, politics and religion classes from the fifth grade onwards. Typically there are school trips to concentration camps, and Jewish Holocaust survivors are often invited to schools as guest speakers, though the passage of time limits these opportunities.

In philosophy[edit]

In philosophy, Theodor Adorno's writings include the lecture "Was bedeutet: Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit?" (What is meant by 'working through the past'?), a subject related to his thinking of "after Auschwitz" in his later work. He delivered the lecture on November 9, 1959 at a conference on education held in Wiesbaden.[2] Writing in the context of a new wave of anti-Semitic attacks against synagogues and Jewish community institutions occurring in West Germany at that time, Adorno rejects the contemporary catch phrase 'working through the past' as misleading, and actually masking a denial, rather than signifying the kind of critical self-reflection that Freudian theory called for in order to come to terms with the past.[2]

Adorno's lecture is often seen as consisting in part of a variably implicit and explicit critique of the work of Martin Heidegger, whose formal ties to the Nazi party are well known. Heidegger, distinct from his role in the Party during the Third Reich, attempted to provide a historical conception of Germania as a philosophical thought of German origin and destiny (later he would speak of "the West"). Alexander Garcia Düttman's Das Gedächtnis des Denkens: Versuch über Heidegger und Adorno (The Memory of Thought: an Essay on Heidegger and Adorno, translated by Nicholas Walker) attempts to treat the philosophical value of these seemingly opposed and certainly incompatible terms "Auschwitz" and "Germania" in the philosophy of both men in a manner that is not simply comparative.

The cultural sphere[edit]

In the cultural sphere, the term Vergangenheitsbewältigung most frequently arises as the name of a movement in German literature, characterised by such authors as Günter Grass and Siegfried Lenz. Lenz's novel Deutschstunde and Grass's Danziger Trilogie both deal with childhood under Nazism, and are a good starting point for this literature.

The erection of public monuments to Holocaust victims has been a particular theme in Germany's Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Concentration camps such as Dachau, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Flossenbürg are open to visitors as memorials and museums. Most towns have plaques on walls marking the spots where particular atrocities took place.

When the seat of government was moved from Bonn to Berlin in 1999, an extensive "Holocaust memorial", designed by architect Peter Eisenman, was planned as part of the vast development of new official buildings in the district of Berlin-Mitte; it was opened on 10 May 2005. The informal name of this memorial, the "Holocaust-Mahnmal" is significant. It does not translate easily: "Holocaust Cenotaph" would be one sense, but the noun Mahnmal, which is distinct from the term Denkmal (typically used to translate "memorial") carries the sense of "admonition," "urging," "appeal," or "warning" rather than "remembrance" as such. The work is formally known as das Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (English translation, "The Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe"). Some controversy attaches to it precisely because of this formal name and its exclusive emphasis on Jewish victims. As Eisenman acknowledged at the opening ceremony, "It is clear that we won't have solved all the problems — architecture is not a panacea for evil — nor will we have satisfied all those present today, but this cannot have been our intention."

Other European countries[edit]

In Austria, ongoing arguments about the nature and significance of the Anschluss, and unresolved disputes about legal expressions of obligation and liability, as well as more recent concerns about the ascent of "Haiderism",[a] have led to very different concerns, and to a far less institutionalized response.

Poland has maintained a museum, archive, and research centre at Oświęcim, better known by its German name of Auschwitz, since a July 2, 1947 act of the Polish Parliament, while Czechoslovakia established in the same year what was known first as the National Suffering Memorial and later simply as the Terezín memorial in Terezín, Czech Republic, better known for its part in the Holocaust as Theresienstadt. In the context of varying degrees of Communist orthodoxy in both countries during the period of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, historical research into the Holocaust was politicised to varying degrees, and Marxist doctrines of class struggle were often overlaid onto generally received histories, which tended to exclude both acts of collaboration and indications of abiding antisemitism.

There remains the difficulty that the advance of the Einsatzgruppen, Aktion Reinhardt, and other significant events in the Holocaust did not happen in the Third Reich proper (or what is now the territory of the Federal Republic), and that the history of the memorials and archives which have been erected at these sites is not easily disentangled from that of the Communist regimes which possessed them for more than four decades after World War II. Given that the seizure of so much of Central and Eastern Europe, and the accompanying violence directed against various Slavic groups, Jews, Communists, homosexuals, prisoners of war, and so-called partisans, was part and parcel of the Nazi idea of the German nation, and that the forced departure of German settlers and ethnic Germans (the Volksdeutsche) living in the extended Reich before the advance of the Red Army was amongst its consequences, the memory of the violence accompanying German occupation and then evacuation of that land is another abiding element of this struggle.

Analogous processes elsewhere in the world[edit]

In some of its aspects, Vergangenheitsbewältigung can be compared to the attempts of other democratic countries to raise consciousness of earlier undemocratic historical eras, such as the South African process of truth and reconciliation, or the Czechoslovakian or Polish lustration. Comparisons have also been made with the Soviet process of glasnost, though this was not mainly focused on the past but rather on achieving a level of open criticism necessary for progressive reform to take place (which generally assumed the maintenance of a continued monopoly of the Communist Party). The on-going efforts in eastern Europe and the independent states of the former Soviet Union to reconfigure how the communist past is remembered is sometimes spoken of as a postsocialist Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

In popular culture[edit]

Political satirist Roy Zimmerman has a song called "Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung," on his album Security. [3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Haider's growing popularity was protested by many Austrians as proto- or neo-fascism after its electoral successes in the Austrian legislative election of 1999 and subsequent entry into coalition government with the Austrian People's Party.


  1. ^ Collins German-English Dictionary: Vergangenheitsbewältigung
  2. ^ a b Boos, Sonja (2014). Introduction to Theodor W. Adorno's "Was bedeutet: Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit" (The Meaning of Working through the Past). A media supplement to: Boos, Speaking the Unspeakable in Postwar Germany: Toward a Public Discourse on the Holocaust. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. The website (under the banner of the "Signale" book series on modern German literature and culture) includes the audio recording of Adorno's lecture, along with links to the German text and an English translation.
  3. ^ Roy Zimmerman - Lyrics - Security - Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung


  • Frei, Norbert; Vergangenheitspolitik. Die Anfänge der Bundesrepublik und die NS-Vergangenheit. Munich: C.H. Beck, 1996. [In English as Adenauer's Germany and the Nazi Past: The Politics of Amnesty and Integration. New York: Columbia University Press]
  • Geller, Jay Howard; Jews in Post-Holocaust Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Herf, Jeffrey; Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.
  • Maier, Charles S.; The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.
  • Maislinger, Andreas; Coming to Terms with the Past: An International Comparison. In Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Identity. Cross National and Comparative Perspectives, ed. Russel F. Farnen. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2004.
  • Moeller, Robert G.; War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
  • Moeller, Robert G. (ed.); West Germany Under Construction: Politics, Society and Culture in the Adenauer Era. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.
  • Pross, Christian; Paying for the Past: The Struggle over Reparations for Surviving Victims of the Nazi Terror. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.