Published on March 3, 2014 | by Caroline Schmitt


The school of German guilt

Caroline Schmitt

Caroline wonders why patriotism is unfashionable and widely frowned upon in Germany. [Benjamin Bishop]

In Germany, patriotism is not only unfashionable, it’s also regarded as morally offensive and is something that can easily get you into deep trouble.

When Germany smash it at the FIFA World Cup in Brazil this summer, the tabloid media will once again tirelessly attack those who attempt to wear their patriotic hearts on their sleeve, or their flags on their cars, just like it has done for decades.

I always found that a little frustrating, especially when sharing a pub table with Canadians or the Dutch during the Olympics, who don’t exactly beat about the bush about their love for home.

But then I watched The Book Thief last week and remembered that the past has not passed and will haunt German culture for as long as it exists.

The plot playfully combined the innocence of growing up with the absurdity of a world that is turned upside down in front Liesel’s and Rudy’s eyes, and that absurdity is something I have been more than familiar with.

I grew up with school trips that reinforced the “it’s all your fault” notion that Germans are so good at.

We spent two days in the concentration camp at Dachau because one just wasn’t enough to get a grasp of the “depths to the human abysses.”

We were locked in a gas chamber in Hadamar for five minutes where 70,000 people were gassed, for demonstration purposes.

I can tell you that at the age of 16, when drinking beer at Oktoberfest is finally legal, these education measures slightly diminish the experience of being young and careless.

Oppressive observations 

To this day, I can cite you entire passages of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, not because it bored me to death, but because of its painfully sharp and lyrically oppressive observations.

Germans are great at that, making drama and pain sound like something desirable through art and culture.

“What should our second generation have done, what should it do with the knowledge of the horrors of the extermination of the Jews? We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible, we may not compare the incomparable, we may not inquire because to inquire is to make the horrors an object of discussion, even if the horrors themselves are not questioned, instead of accepting them as something in the face of which we can only fall silent in revulsion, shame and guilt. Should we only fall silent in revulsion, shame and guilt? To what purpose?”― Bernhard Schlink, The Reader

If there ever was such thing as German blockbusters, and The Reader was coincidentally turned into one in 2008, they would all have something to do with WWII.

You can feel the guilt while munching popcorn in a retro East Berlin cinema.

You can feel the guilt during most history and German lessons in high school, while cheating your way through the tenth exam on the Kristallnacht in November 1938.

You can feel it throughout its commercial success and by skimming the review pages of the country’s broadsheets.

What started as a reflection and Aufarbeitung (accounting for the past), ended in a national obsession of the past and, strangely, a sort of stubborn inability to move beyond that.


I wonder whether my kids will one day grow up in a nation that celebrates its awesomeness and be able to drink beer in Munich without the complicated emotional mess its people caused a century ago.

But none of these efforts can ever erase the past; they won’t bring those who were killed back to life and they won’t ease the pain for anyone who still vividly remembers after 70 years.

And then there’s all this talk about the danger of forgetting. Can this ever happen again? Of course, have you watched The Wave?

But dozens of depressing books or movies are not going to eliminate the abysses of the human soul.

What failed to be conveyed during education is that this is indeed a human problem and the execution of evil is not reserved for the German soul only.

When I recently interviewed Dr. Malcolm Quinn for a piece about degenerate art, he said that racial supremacy could have occurred anywhere in Europe.

Quinn said: “What happened to Africa [in the late 19th century] then happened to Europe in the 20th century, essentially. That is a reversal of direction that we still have to process…I think that’s a grotesque and horrific aspect that it affected Europeans’ idea of themselves.”

I had never thought of this in a European or even global context, and perhaps that changes the way we contextualise history and “learn from it” – the constant German mantra.

But the emotional baggage of this past remains heavy and ever present. If your ancestors were complicit in murder, how do you ever get over that? How can you ever be proud or even patriotic of this nation?

I wonder whether my kids will one day grow up in a nation that celebrates its awesomeness and be able to drink beer in Munich without the complicated emotional mess its people caused a century ago.

I wonder whether there will be a time when Germany is known for its ease or its playfulness.

I wonder when the streets of Berlin will look forward instead of backwards, and I can’t help but hope that one day an intellectually unchallenging Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas type of film will hit cinemas and brains big time.

Now go and watch The Book Thief. It’s great.


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