The German Model for AmericaHistorians in the News
tags: Holocaust, slavery, Truth and Reconciliation
In the mid-1950s, a decade after World War II ended, the town of Dachau took down the directional signs that pointed to its concentration camp.
Visitors had swarmed the area — not just survivors of the Holocaust who’d been imprisoned there, but journalists and tourists who wanted to see what remained of the first Nazi concentration camp, where more than 200,000 people were detained and at least 32,000 were killed between 1933 and 1945. The attention exasperated the local population.
A writer for the New York Herald-Tribune made the trip to Dachau in March 1954 and met a German caretaker who tried to convince him that it was the Americans who had built the larger of the camp’s two crematoriums to make the Germans look bad. A clipping from a German newspaper dated around the same time parroted the claim: America had wanted to “pin guilt” on the innocent German people.
Local leaders in Dachau — some of whom would have watched as thousands of people were marched at gunpoint from the town train station to the camp — wanted to be rid of the spectacle. One official recommended that the crematoriums be bulldozed. When the municipal government dismissed the proposal (which had gone public, spurring an uproar from survivors), the town settled for a subtler revision, removing the signs instead.
The excision fit a national mood. Germans weren’t keen to dwell on the atrocities of the Nazi period, let alone to consider what portion of the blame — for the mass murder, the torture, the forced labor — should fall on them. If evidence of the Holocaust couldn’t be razed, at least it needn’t be emphasized. And with the erasure, a counternarrative rushed in to fill the void. In the 1940s and 1950s, Germans were clear about who the war’s real victims were: Who had suffered more than they had?
Decades later, some of the children and grandchildren of the postwar generation would insist that the nation own up to its deep shame. The actions that followed were called Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, which translates to “working off the past.” The process was so widespread in the 1980s and 1990s that some don’t remember the entrenched, miserable resentment that preceded it.
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