Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a composite German
German language
German is a West Germanic language, related to and classified alongside English and Dutch. With an estimated 90 – 98 million native speakers, German is one of the world's major languages and is the most widely-spoken first language in the European Union....

 word that describes processes of dealing with the past (Vergangenheit = past; Bewältigung = coming to terms with, mastering), which is perhaps best rendered in English
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

 as "struggle to come to terms with the past". The German term Geschichtsaufarbeitung (lit. "processing of history") depicts similar processes, but is less common.

Historical development

Vergangenheitsbewältigung describes the attempt to analyze, digest and learn to live with the past, in particular the Holocaust
The Holocaust
The Holocaust , also known as the Shoah , was the genocide of approximately six million European Jews and millions of others during World War II, a programme of systematic state-sponsored murder by Nazi...

. The focus on learning is much in the spirit of philosopher George Santayana
George Santayana
George Santayana was a philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist. A lifelong Spanish citizen, Santayana was raised and educated in the United States and identified himself as an American. He wrote in English and is generally considered an American man of letters...

'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
Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler was an Austrian-born German politician and the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party , commonly referred to as the Nazi Party). He was Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and head of state from 1934 to 1945...

 was in power in Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

, and to both ongoing and historical concerns about the extensive compromise and co-optation of many German cultural, religious, and political institutions by National Socialism
Nazism, the common short form name of National Socialism was the ideology and practice of the Nazi Party and of Nazi Germany...

. The term therefore deals at once with the concrete responsibility of the German state (the Federal Republic of Germany
West Germany
West Germany is the common English, but not official, name for the Federal Republic of Germany or FRG in the period between its creation in May 1949 to German reunification on 3 October 1990....

 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
Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in church and state...

 collapsed in the face of Nazi ideology.

More recently, the term Vergangenheitsbewältigung has also been used in the former German Democratic Republic
German Democratic Republic
The German Democratic Republic , informally called East Germany by West Germany and other countries, was a socialist state established in 1949 in the Soviet zone of occupied Germany, including East Berlin of the Allied-occupied capital city...

 to refer to the process of working through the brutalities of Communist
Communism is a social, political and economic ideology that aims at the establishment of a classless, moneyless, revolutionary and stateless socialist society structured upon common ownership of the means of production...


After denazification

Historically, Vergangenheitsbewältigung often is seen as the logical "next step," after a denazification
Denazification was an Allied initiative to rid German and Austrian society, culture, press, economy, judiciary, and politics of any remnants of the National Socialist ideology. It was carried out specifically by removing those involved from positions of influence and by disbanding or rendering...

 driven at first under Allied Occupation and then by the Christian Democratic Union
Christian Democratic Union (Germany)
The Christian Democratic Union of Germany is a Christian democratic and conservative political party in Germany. It is regarded as on the centre-right of the German political spectrum...

 government of Konrad Adenauer
Konrad Adenauer
Konrad Hermann Joseph Adenauer was a German statesman. He was the chancellor of the West Germany from 1949 to 1963. He is widely recognised as a person who led his country from the ruins of World War II to a powerful and prosperous nation that had forged close relations with old enemies France,...

. 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 National Socialism, 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

The German churches, of which only a minority played a significant role in the resistance to National Socialism
German Resistance
The German resistance was the opposition by individuals and groups in Germany to Adolf Hitler or the National Socialist regime between 1933 and 1945. Some of these engaged in active plans to remove Adolf Hitler from power and overthrow his regime...

, have led the way in this process, developing a specifically German post-war theology
Theology is the systematic and rational study of religion and its influences and of the nature of religious truths, or the learned profession acquired by completing specialized training in religious studies, usually at a university or school of divinity or seminary.-Definition:Augustine of Hippo...

 of repentance
Repentance is a change of thought to correct a wrong and gain forgiveness from a person who is wronged. In religious contexts it usually refers to confession to God, ceasing sin against God, and resolving to live according to religious law...

. At the regular mass church rallies, the Lutheran Kirchentag
Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag
The Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag is a movement of lay members of the Evangelical Church in Germany...

 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 school
A school is an institution designed for the teaching of students under the direction of teachers. Most countries have systems of formal education, which is commonly compulsory. In these systems, students progress through a series of schools...

s, where in most German states
States of Germany
Germany is made up of sixteen which are partly sovereign constituent states of the Federal Republic of Germany. Land literally translates as "country", and constitutionally speaking, they are constituent countries...

 the centrally-written curriculum subjects every child to repeated lessons on different aspects of National Socialism in German, history
History is the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about past events. History can also mean the period of time after writing was invented. Scholars who write about history are called historians...

, politics
Politics is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs, including behavior within civil governments, but also applies to institutions, fields, and special interest groups such as the...

 and religion
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

 classes from the fifth grade
Fifth grade
Fifth grade is a year of education in the United States and many other nations. The fifth grade is the fifth school year after kindergarten. Students are usually 10 – 11 years old, and are preteens...

 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

In philosophy, Theodor Adorno's writings include the lecture Was bedeutet die Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit? ("What is meant by the working through the past?"), a subject related to his thinking of "after Auschwitz" in his later work. This work is often seen as consisting in part of a variably implicit and explicit critique of the work of Martin Heidegger
Martin Heidegger
Martin Heidegger was a German philosopher known for his existential and phenomenological explorations of the "question of Being."...

, 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
Germania was the Greek and Roman geographical term for the geographical regions inhabited by mainly by peoples considered to be Germani. It was most often used to refer especially to the east of the Rhine and north of the Danube...

 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

In the cultural sphere, the term Vergangenheitsbewältigung most frequently arises as the name of a movement in German literature
German literature
German literature comprises those literary texts written in the German language. This includes literature written in Germany, Austria, the German part of Switzerland, and to a lesser extent works of the German diaspora. German literature of the modern period is mostly in Standard German, but there...

, characterised by such authors as Günter Grass
Günter Grass
Günter Wilhelm Grass is a Nobel Prize-winning German author, poet, playwright, sculptor and artist.He was born in the Free City of Danzig...

 and Siegfried Lenz
Siegfried Lenz
Siegfried Lenz is a German writer, who has written novels and produced several collections of short stories, essays, and plays for radio and the theatre. He was awarded the Goethe Prize in Frankfurt-am-Main on the 250th Anniversary of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's birth...

. Lenz's novel Deutschstunde and Grass's Danziger Trilogie
Danzig Trilogy
The Danzig Trilogy is a series of novels and novellas by German author Günter Grass about the interwar and wartime period in the Free City of Danzig .The three books in the trilogy are:...

 both deal with childhood under Nazism, and are a good starting point for this literature.

The erection of public monument
A monument is a type of structure either explicitly created to commemorate a person or important event or which has become important to a social group as a part of their remembrance of historic times or cultural heritage, or simply as an example of historic architecture...

s to Holocaust victims has been a particular theme in Germany's Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Concentration camps such as Dachau, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen
Bergen-Belsen concentration camp
Bergen-Belsen was a Nazi concentration camp in Lower Saxony in northwestern Germany, southwest of the town of Bergen near Celle...

 and Flossenbürg
Flossenbürg concentration camp
Konzentrationslager Flossenbürg was a Nazi concentration camp built in May 1938 by the Schutzstaffel Economic-Administrative Main Office at Flossenbürg, in the Oberpfalz region of Bavaria, Germany, near the border with Czechoslovakia. Until its liberation in April 1945, more than 96,000 prisoners...

 are open to visitors as memorials and museum
A museum is an institution that cares for a collection of artifacts and other objects of scientific, artistic, cultural, or historical importance and makes them available for public viewing through exhibits that may be permanent or temporary. Most large museums are located in major cities...

s. Most towns have plaques on walls marking the spots where particular atrocities took place.

When the seat of government was moved from Bonn
Bonn is the 19th largest city in Germany. Located in the Cologne/Bonn Region, about 25 kilometres south of Cologne on the river Rhine in the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, it was the capital of West Germany from 1949 to 1990 and the official seat of government of united Germany from 1990 to 1999....

 to Berlin
Berlin is the capital city of Germany and is one of the 16 states of Germany. With a population of 3.45 million people, Berlin is Germany's largest city. It is the second most populous city proper and the seventh most populous urban area in the European Union...

 in 1999, an extensive "Holocaust memorial"
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe , also known as the Holocaust Memorial , is a memorial in Berlin to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold. It consists of a site covered with 2,711 concrete slabs or "stelae", arranged in a...

, designed by architect Peter Eisenman
Peter Eisenman
Peter Eisenman is an American architect. Eisenman's professional work is often referred to as formalist, deconstructive, late avant-garde, late or high modernist, etc...

, 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

In Austria
Austria , officially the Republic of Austria , is a landlocked country of roughly 8.4 million people in Central Europe. It is bordered by the Czech Republic and Germany to the north, Slovakia and Hungary to the east, Slovenia and Italy to the south, and Switzerland and Liechtenstein to the...

, ongoing arguments about the nature and significance of the Anschluss
The Anschluss , also known as the ', was the occupation and annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938....

, and unresolved disputes about legal expressions of obligation and liability, as well as more recent concerns about the ascent of "Haiderism
Jörg Haider
Jörg Haider was an Austrian politician. He was Governor of Carinthia on two occasions, the long-time leader of the Austrian Freedom Party and later Chairman of the Alliance for the Future of Austria , a breakaway party from the FPÖ.Haider was controversial within Austria and abroad for comments...

", have led to very different concerns, and to a far less institutionalized response.

Poland , officially the Republic of Poland , is a country in Central Europe bordered by Germany to the west; the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania to the east; and the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave, to the north...

 has maintained a museum, archive
An archive is a collection of historical records, or the physical place they are located. Archives contain primary source documents that have accumulated over the course of an individual or organization's lifetime, and are kept to show the function of an organization...

, and research centre at Oświęcim
Oświęcim is a town in the Lesser Poland province of southern Poland, situated west of Kraków, near the confluence of the rivers Vistula and Soła.- History :...

, better known by its German name of Auschwitz, since a July 2, 1947 act of the Polish Parliament
Polish parliament
Polish parliament is an expression referring to the historical Polish parliaments. It implies chaos and general disorder, and that no real decision can be reached during sessions...

, while Czechoslovakia
Czechoslovakia or Czecho-Slovakia was a sovereign state in Central Europe which existed from October 1918, when it declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until 1992...

 established in the same year what was known first as the National Suffering Memorial and later simply as the Terezín memorial in Terezín
Terezín is the name of a former military fortress and adjacent walled garrison town in the Ústí nad Labem Region of the Czech Republic.-Early history:...

, Czech Republic
Czech Republic
The Czech Republic is a landlocked country in Central Europe. The country is bordered by Poland to the northeast, Slovakia to the east, Austria to the south, and Germany to the west and northwest....

, 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
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

 domination of Eastern Europe
Eastern Europe
Eastern Europe is the eastern part of Europe. The term has widely disparate geopolitical, geographical, cultural and socioeconomic readings, which makes it highly context-dependent and even volatile, and there are "almost as many definitions of Eastern Europe as there are scholars of the region"...

, historical research into the Holocaust was politicised to varying degrees, and Marxist
Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry that centers upon a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis and critique of the development of capitalism. Marxism was pioneered in the early to mid 19th...

 doctrines of class struggle
Class struggle
Class struggle is the active expression of a class conflict looked at from any kind of socialist perspective. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote "The [written] history of all hitherto existing society is the history 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
Einsatzgruppen were SS paramilitary death squads that were responsible for mass killings, typically by shooting, of Jews in particular, but also significant numbers of other population groups and political categories...

Aktion Reinhardt
Operation Reinhard
Operation Reinhard was the code name given to the Nazi plan to murder Polish Jews in the General Government, and marked the most deadly phase of the Holocaust, the use of extermination camps...

, 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
Central Europe
Central Europe or alternatively Middle Europe is a region of the European continent lying between the variously defined areas of Eastern and Western Europe...

 and Eastern Europe
Eastern Europe
Eastern Europe is the eastern part of Europe. The term has widely disparate geopolitical, geographical, cultural and socioeconomic readings, which makes it highly context-dependent and even volatile, and there are "almost as many definitions of Eastern Europe as there are scholars of the region"...

, and the accompanying violence directed against various Slav
Slavic peoples
The Slavic people are an Indo-European panethnicity living in Eastern Europe, Southeast Europe, North Asia and Central Asia. The term Slavic represents a broad ethno-linguistic group of people, who speak languages belonging to the Slavic language family and share, to varying degrees, certain...

ic groups, Jews, Communists, prisoners of war
Prisoner of war
A prisoner of war or enemy prisoner of war is a person, whether civilian or combatant, who is held in custody by an enemy power during or immediately after an armed conflict...

, 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
Red Army
The Workers' and Peasants' Red Army started out as the Soviet Union's revolutionary communist combat groups during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1922. It grew into the national army of the Soviet Union. By the 1930s the Red Army was among the largest armies in history.The "Red Army" name refers to...

 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

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 Africa
South Africa
The Republic of South Africa is a country in southern Africa. Located at the southern tip of Africa, it is divided into nine provinces, with of coastline on the Atlantic and Indian oceans...

n process of truth and reconciliation, or the Czechoslovakian or Polish
Poland , officially the Republic of Poland , is a country in Central Europe bordered by Germany to the west; the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania to the east; and the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave, to the north...

Lustration is the government process regulating the participation of former communists, especially informants of the communist secret police, in the successor political appointee positions or in civil service positions in the period after the fall of the various European Communist states in 1989 –...

. Comparisons have also been made with the Soviet
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

 process of glasnost
Glasnost was the policy of maximal publicity, openness, and transparency in the activities of all government institutions in the Soviet Union, together with freedom of information, introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in the second half of the 1980s...

, 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

Political satirist
Political satire
Political satire is a significant part of satire that specializes in gaining entertainment from politics; it has also been used with subversive intent where political speech and dissent are forbidden by a regime, as a method of advancing political arguments where such arguments are expressly...

 Roy Zimmerman has a song called "Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung," on his album Security.

See also

  • Functionalism versus intentionalism
    Functionalism versus intentionalism
    Functionalism versus intentionalism is a historiographical debate about the origins of the Holocaust as well as most aspects of the Third Reich, such as foreign policy...

  • Nazi foreign policy (historiographic debate)
  • Sonderweg
    Sonderweg is a controversial theory in German historiography that considers the German-speaking lands, or the country Germany, to have followed a unique course from aristocracy into democracy, distinct from other European countries...

  • Historikerstreit
    The Historikerstreit was an intellectual and political controversy in late 20th-century West Germany about the historical interpretation of the Holocaust. The German word Streit translates variously as "quarrel", "dispute", or "conflict"...

     ("Historians’ Dispute")
  • Transitional justice
    Transitional justice
    Transitional justice generally refers to a range of approaches that states may use to address past human rights violations and includes both judicial and non-judicial approaches. They include series of actions or policies and their resulting institutions, which may be enacted at a point of...

  • Truth-seeking
    Truth-seeking processes allow societies to examine and come to grips with past crimes and atrocities and prevent their future repetition. Truth-seeking often occurs in societies emerging from a period of prolonged conflict or authoritarian rule...


  • 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
    Columbia University Press
    Columbia University Press is a university press based in New York City, and affiliated with Columbia University. It is currently directed by James D. Jordan and publishes titles in the humanities and sciences, including the fields of literary and cultural studies, history, social work, sociology,...

  • Geller, Jay Howard; Jews in Post-Holocaust Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
    Cambridge University Press
    Cambridge University Press is the publishing business of the University of Cambridge. Granted letters patent by Henry VIII in 1534, it is the world's oldest publishing house, and the second largest university press in the world...

    , 2005.
  • Herf, Jeffrey; Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
    Harvard University Press
    Harvard University Press is a publishing house established on January 13, 1913, as a division of Harvard University, and focused on academic publishing. In 2005, it published 220 new titles. It is a member of the Association of American University Presses. Its current director is William P...

    , 1997.
  • Maier, Charles S.; The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.
  • Maislinger, Andreas
    Andreas Maislinger
    Andreas Maislinger is an Austrian historian and founder of the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service and Braunau Contemporary History Days.- Studying and learning :...

    ; 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
    Transaction Publishers
    Transaction Publishers is a New Jersey-based publishing house that specializes in social sciences books. Some of its books have been published with the imprint "Transactions Publishers".-Overview:...

    , 2004.
  • Moeller, Robert G.; War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany. Berkeley: University of California Press
    University of California Press
    University of California Press, also known as UC Press, is a publishing house associated with the University of California that engages in academic publishing. It was founded in 1893 to publish books and papers for the faculty of the University of California, established 25 years earlier in 1868...

    , 2001.
  • Moeller, Robert G. (ed.); West Germany Under Construction: Politics, Society and Culture in the Adenauer Era. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press
    University of Michigan Press
    The University of Michigan Press is part of the University of Michigan Library and serves as a primary publishing unit of the University of Michigan, with special responsibility for the creation and promotion of scholarly, educational, and regional books and other materials in digital and print...

    , 1997.
  • Pross, Christian; Paying for the Past: The Struggle over Reparations for Surviving Victims of the Nazi Terror. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press
    Johns Hopkins University Press
    The Johns Hopkins University Press is the publishing division of the Johns Hopkins University. It was founded in 1878 and holds the distinction of being the oldest continuously running university press in the United States. The Press publishes books, journals, and electronic databases...

    , 1998.

Content notes

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