Culture of memory

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Culture of memory

“Someone greeted me with the Hitler salute today,” my roommate told me this week while we were having a chat.

She is an intern at a Korean broadcasting station and German, like me. I was shocked when she told me that particular story. To do the Hitler salute is illegal in Germany, and to be greeted by a gesture loaded with as much pain and shame for those of German descent is truly one of the most embarrassing and uncomfortable experiences you can put them through. Of course, it doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it hurts.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and Germany once again expressed its guilt and deep regret over the crimes committed by the Nazi Regime in a commemorative speech on May 5 by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In Europe, World War II ended on May 8, 1945, following Adolf Hitler’s suicide and Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allied forces. “Only by being conscious of Germany’s everlasting responsibility for the horrors of our past can we build a bright future,” Merkel said in her speech.

The culture of memory has been one of the central national policies of Germany since around 1958, after a series of anti-Semitic scandals broke out. Since then, the guidelines of the educational plan for history have been revised and set to educate the young generation on Germany’s war crimes. Furthermore, we have built commemorative monuments to memorialize the victims of World War II, established a central administration that handles National Socialist crimes and proclaimed new laws to keep our citizens from forgetting this dark era. Remembering has become a part of the German national identity.

I was in fourth grade, about nine years old, when I first learned about the Nazis. Our teacher showed us black and white movies of soldiers standing in lines, listening to Hitler’s speech and saluting him. The way he spoke sounded funny, and his mustache was, too, so some kids started laughing but were quickly shushed. Only after the movie ended did she explain the Shoah to us, the murders, the horrors of World War II. Those same kids that were laughing only moments before turned paper white. “I don’t want to be German,” I remember my close friend saying to me at the time.

On the German Federal Agency for Civic Education’s website, Kai Ambos says in an article about institutions and memory that “the process of dealing with the unjust past of a state is a requirement for the establishment of a new law and social order and development of peace and reconciliation.”

To deal with the past also means to give the victims a right to the truth and juridical-political evaluation. Recently, a German prosecutor charged 94-year-old Oskar Groning, a former German SS-Unterscharfuhrer who was stationed at the Auschwitz concentration camp, as an accessory to murder in 300,000 cases. It’s the first Auschwitz process in 24 years, with the search and prosecution efforts for Nazi criminals reinvigorated in 2009 after the Demjanjuks case.

Historically, Germany’s biggest court hearings for World War II criminals were the Nurnberg court hearings from 1945 to 1949. The biggest Auschwitz court hearing was held in Frankfurt from 1963 to 1965. These hearings grabbed international attention and made Germany known for actively confronting and acknowledging its dark past. Seventy years after the end of the war, Germany’s political position is clear: Its crimes cannot be forgotten.

Seventy years have passed for both East and West Germany.

Japan, who was allied with Germany during the war but whose war crimes are completely different and hardly comparable to Germany’s, surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945 to the Allied forces after the tragic atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to issue a commemorative statement on the same day this year. The Japan Times stated that he also plans to “uphold previous statements of contrition on the 50th and 60th war anniversaries and make a new declaration in August.”

Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byung-se remarked that Abe’s upcoming address could be a “golden opportunity” to improve bilateral ties between South Korea and Japan.

But the Japanese government has recently come under international criticism for several issues, the most prominent being the “comfort women” issue.

The Japanese government denied involvement in the abduction and sexual enslavement of thousands of young Asian women, most of them of Korean descent, until the release of the Kono Statement in 1993. It also requested U.S.-based publishing company McGraw-Hill Education to change passages about the comfort women in its history textbooks.

The Japan Times reported that 187 scholars stated in an open letter on May 5 that “denying or trivializing” what happened to the women is “unacceptable.”

It is not easy to be constantly reminded of your country’s past crimes. But, as the former president of the Federal Republic of Germany, Richard von Weizsacker, said in his impressive commemorative speech on May 8, 1985, “[…] the secret to salvation is called memory.”

“The 8th May is for [us Germans] a day to remember what people had to suffer through. It is at the same time a day of contemplation over our course of history. The more honest we are walking our path, the freer we are to face the consequences of our acts and take responsibility.”

*The author is a German exchange student at Sogang University. Readers can contact her at

by Gwendolyn Domning

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