- This approach reflected the first post-war phase in the German treatment of Hitler’s legacy. The idea was to suppress anything that might tempt the Germans to fall back under his spell. The Allies and the new German government followed a policy of “de-nazification”, under which known Nazis were banned from important positions.In the late 1940s and 1950s Germans avoided discussing Hitler. Many men were returning from captivity. Germans had been both perpetrators and victims, and had no words for their state of mind. Many were traumatised and could not bear to talk about their experiences.A new phase began in the 1960s, after the Israelis captured, tried and executed Adolf Eichmann, a leading Nazi. This made more details of the Holocaust public.Official Germany found two responses. East Germany adopted the fiction that its righteous communists had resisted the “fascists” all along. In effect, it never reckoned with the past. But West Germany accepted its guilt and atoned publicly. It became a pacifist society, often called “post-heroic” in contrast to the Allies’ warrior cultures. It also became “post-national”: West Germans rarely flew their flag and barely whispered their anthem at sporting events.
- But starting in the 1970s a pent-up fascination with Hitler began to re-emerge. Two biographies and a documentary came out, and in 1979 Germany aired “Holocaust”, an American television series.After reunification in 1990—the formal end of the post-war era—the German public became ravenous for more research.For young Germans the Führer has thus receded far enough into the past to seem outlandish and weird rather than potentially seductive.One by one, post-war taboos connected to Hitler are vanishing. Flag-waving is one. A breakthrough occurred in 2006, when Germany hosted the football World Cup. For the first time since the war the black-red-and-gold came out everywhere, draping balconies, prams, cars and bikinis. But so did the flags of the visiting countries, and Germany turned into one big street party. Hosts and visitors perceived it as nothing but fun.
- In a poll by YouGov this year, Germans were asked what person or thing they associate with Germany. They named Volkswagen first (awkwardly, given subsequent revelations of its cheating). Then came Goethe and Angela Merkel, the chancellor, next the anthem, the national football team and Willy Brandt, a former chancellor. Hitler ranked a distant seventh at 25%. In the same poll 70% of Germans said they were proud of their country. About as many thought that Germany was a model of tolerance and democracy, and that it was time to stop feeling guilt and shame.And yet 75% also said that Hitler’s crimes mean Germany still cannot be a “normal” country and must play a “special international role”. This means that many Germans somehow combine both pride and penance.In contrast to the French, British and Americans, Germans worry a lot about surveillance by governments, whether foreign or German. The anxiety stems from memories of Hitler’s Gestapo.There is also a wide consensus that Germany has a special responsibility towards Israel. Pacifism runs through all mainstream political parties.
- Domestic life is governed by Germany’s post-war constitution, which was adopted in 1949 as a direct rejoinder to Hitler’s worldview and has become a source of patriotism today. Its first article stipulates that “human dignity shall be inviolable”. This translates into police practices that would count as touchy-feely in America, prisons that resemble low-budget hotels, and one of Europe’s most welcoming policies towards asylum-seekers.This does not mean that Hitler made today’s Germans boring. Official Germany still displays virtues the world considers German, such as punctuality and reliability.Many Germans adopt highly idiosyncratic lifestyles in everything from hobbies to sex. Contrary to stereotype, Germans are often secret eccentrics.
- Here is, however, an even more intimate domain in which Hitler continues to torment older and middle-aged Germans: their minds. One generation, defined roughly as those born between 1928 and 1947, is called the Kriegskinder (“war children”). The other, born between 1955 and 1970 or so, consists of their children and is called the Kriegsenkel(“war grandchildren”).Much of what seems strange today about some older Germans has roots in these repressed memories, he says.Their children, the Kriegsenkel, have different problems. As they grew up, their parents were often emotionally frozen. The elders came out of the war in a sedated or numb state from which they never fully emerged.This impaired relations with their children, who, by intuiting what must never be said or what was omitted with a sigh, inherited their parents’s trauma.In recent years support groups have formed for the grandchildren of the war. Only about 40% of middle-aged Germans share such “transgenerational” trauma.As “Mein Kampf” loses its copyright, German society is more complex than ever. One in five Germans today has immigrant roots and thus no family link to Hitler’s time. Many of the young know little history and find Hitler alien and fascinating.