Have you ever thought about World War Two and felt guilty? Many of you won’t, because you come from a country that was on the “winning” side (US, UK, Russia etc.) But for those who are German, French, Austrian and Polish (to name but a few) “guilt” is a word that can be filled with a lot of meaning.
As a child of a German mother and a Spanish father, having grown up in France, I have heard, read and learnt a lot about World War Two. Sometimes even more than I wanted (oh those long history lessons back in high school). I have been shown images of Death camps, I have read all about Hitler and his ideals. I have done more than one presentation about WWII; I have analysed strategies to attack and defend, who was with whom, where and when. I have been shown documentaries about Jewish extermination; I was taken to museums that used to be prison cells, hospitals for the disabled, schools and bunkers.
Now, my point is, most countries teach the history of WWII. But not all of them teach it the same way. I went to an International school in France: my history lessons were in both French and German, and only in German for the last three years of my high-school education. I have had to buy many books from many editors and authors. And it is not the same everywhere.
The French have an unfortunate tendency to gloss over (at least in the books we had, this might have changed since then) their own involvement in surrendering to German command and events like the Vel d’Hiv roundup, which cost 13,152 Parisian Jews (including 4000 children) their lives. It took until 1995 for a French official (in this case former President Jacques Chirac) to apologise for this event. Films about the war tend to be more on the comedy side (think Papy fait de la résistance and La grande vadrouille), except for a rare (recent) few like La rafle. Everyone knows about De Gaulle and the famous French Résistance.
The Germans on the other hand have decided in later years (at least after the mid-70s) to take a completely different approach: that of guilt. Even though it isn’t written black and white in the books, nor taught that way by teachers, it is felt in everything we learn. Whether you actually had family in the Nazi party or not, it doesn’t matter. I clearly remember a page in my history book which actually raised that question of guilt: whether we should (still) feel it, even though we are now several generations away from the events and their protagonists. I can clearly see the cover of a German magazine (think Stern or Spiegel) which clearly asked: should we still feel guilty now? Should we raise our children and our children’s children to feel guilty about something we had no control over?
I know the points of view differ a lot on the subject. In my own class back in school, not everyone was feeling the way I did. Others felt it worse. One of my friends did a year as an English assistant in a German school, and told me about an exhibit they organised. About the Holocaust. And how many parents had asked the same thing over and over again: why are you teaching 8 year olds about this? Why should they feel guilty about something they didn’t do?
But isn’t that why we teach history in the first place? So that we can learn about the past and our mistakes, and learn not to repeat them? Obviously it’s not that easy: war has always existed and we can’t seem to learn NOT to fight each other over money or religion or politics. But we should try. As Nelson Mandela once said:
“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Personally I consider myself a sensitive person anyway. I cry at books and movies (when I say cry, sometimes it’s actual weeping) and I have a tendency to take things to heart a little too much. So yes, I feel guilty. My family on my German side wasn’t really involved in the Nazi party. My Spanish family was against Franco and eventually fled to France. So in theory, I have even less reason to actually feel guilt.
Yet when I watch something like Schindler’s List, or when I go to the Imperial War Museum to see their Holocaust exhibit, I can’t help but feel a heaviness in my heart, a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach. I feel insanely sorry. I cry for all those people whose lives were cruelly cut short, the parents, the children, the elderly and the sick. Maybe I’m burdening myself with the pain of something that has long come and gone, and some might tell me that I should be more worried about children dying in Syria for example.
I believe that remembering what has happened, the good and the bad, makes us stronger. That we should embrace our mistakes and accept them. That I, as a person, may not have been responsible for anything. But that I can still choose to feel sorry about it.