This particular German word, which I must freely confess that I do not know how to pronounce, is emblematic of two truths about the German language. For one, it is immensely complicated in terms of its grammatical structure (especially with regards to compound words), and for another, German contains very precise terms for matters which are linguistically extremely vague in English, to the detriment of the clarity of our language. For the unfriendly word that makes the title of this blog entry has a very precise meaning in German, a meaning that expresses much of the purpose of this entire blog, and therefore makes it a word worthy of discussing, however difficult it is to spell and pronounce.

For vergangenheitsbewältigung has the following renderings in English: “coming to terms with the past,” “mastering the past,” and “wrestling the past into submission.” Given the nature of the historical contexts that this term is used for by German historians, these definitions are somewhat ironic. It is also lamentable that English has no word to capture the mighty internal struggle by which people overcome the past and learn to live with it and accept it without a sense of shame or horror. For the Germans have a word that describes the way in which someone looks honestly at the past and its repercussions and learns how to accept that reality and, as best as possible, move on.

There are two contexts that prompt the use of this term by Germans. The first, and more common use, is the experience of Nazi Germany and the atrocities of Adolf Hitler. The Germans have borne a heavy guilt for the behavior of Hitler’s Nazi regime, a historical guilt that such a proud people must on some level deeply resent. There are a couple of ways that it would be natural and proper for Germans to distance themselves from that sense of shame. The first would be to make a scapegoat of Adolph Hitler, to place all of the sins of the Holocaust on him and his associates and to cast them out into the historical wilderness, never to return again, leaving the remainder of the German people free from that sin [1]. The second way would be to expand the underlying roots of the Holocaust from Nazi Germany itself to other cultures (like the Americans, with their dalliance in eugenics and social Darwinism and the poison fruit of evolutionary biology) and also implicate those nations (namely the entire world) that refused entry to many of those who sought to escape, leaving them trapped in Hitler’s path. In this case, Hitler’s willing executioners would include many others outside of Germany [2], and far outside of Europe.

The second context that prompts the use of the term vergangenheitsbewältigung is its use in discussing the desire to overcome the past of Communist oppression, which (sadly for Eastern Europe) followed directly on the heels of the suffering caused by Nazi Germany [3]. This coming to terms with the past of Soviet oppression (itself the result of a malignant Russian nationalism, which appears to be on the rise again in terms of Russia’s attempts to dominate its neighbors like Georgia and Ukraine) has often involved the desire of those post-Soviet states of Eastern Europe to develop a closer integration with a German-led European Union, as well as the security mechanisms of NATO in order to protect themselves from future Russian oppression, which they rightly see as not only a matter of historical record but also clear and present danger.

We can therefore see that this term has a two-sided focus and that there are two sorts of historical situations that nations and peoples must come to terms with. Both of them relate, as it would happen, to an ancient philosophical debate about whether it is better to be a tyrant or to suffer from tyranny. The answer, of course, is that it would be best for neither to be the case, but the answer of Socrates (which represents the consensus opinion of Western philosophy, if not the practice of Western geopolitics) is that it is better to be the oppressed rather than the oppressor because the damage caused by oppression from outside is less than the damage to one’s spirit as a result of being an oppressor of others. This would explain, of course, why the response of Germans to the Nazi scourge that they were responsible for has been so agonizing while the response of the peoples like the Estonians or Czechs to the oppression of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia has been less searing to their own consciences. If one has been abused, it is easy to resolve upon a policy of strength and security to seek the prevention of that situation recurring. If one has used one’s strength to oppress and abuse others, and been forced by the superior strength of others to give up one’s ill-gotten gains and been held accountable for that abusive behavior, there is no obvious policy to resolve upon except to exorcise one’s own historical demons and seek to prevent such an evil from happening ever again.

It is also relatively easy to see how this same particular process takes place not only for people on the grand historical scale like the German and Eastern European survivors of Nazi and Communist oppression, but on a more individual scale. In recent years there has been an explosion of memoirs dealing with the survival of child abuse, an explosion that has frequently found its way to my own library. Here in this group of memoirs there is often both individual distinctions as well as overarching parallels. The particular contexts of our own pasts that we must come to terms with are to some extent individual, in the particular situations of isolation and vulnerability and threat, just as the particular sufferings of East Germans, the Baltic peoples, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Ukrainians, and so on and so forth are all distinct based on their particular histories and cultural and political contexts.
That said, there are clearly parallels as well. Those who are abusers of others often see themselves as either the victims of history or those who defend the victims against oppression. A large part of Hitler’s popularity in late Weimer Germany came about because of his strong opposition to what was viewed as an oppressive peace forced by diktat at Versailles (of course, that harsh peace was itself influenced by Germany’s own harsh peaces inflicted upon defeated Russia at Brest-Litovsk late 1917 and against France in 1871, a cycle of historical violence). Likewise, the oppressive Soviets saw themselves as defending the proletariat against an exploitative and abusive group of internal and external enemies, similar to the way in which many contemporary cruel dictators wrap themselves up in the language of defending the people of the world against supposed American cruelty and imperialism.

There is something deeply troubling with regards to the politics of victimization both on the individual and the collective level. We who have suffered deep horrors and wrongs at the hand of others can easily be tempted to desire some sort of special treatment as a result of that historical experience and fail to develop the resilience and the agency that allow us to be more than victims, but allow us to experience some degree of wholeness and to help provide an example and a model of how the past can be overcome to others who have been in our same position. Likewise, seeing ourselves as victims long after the wrongs have ceased can also blind us to the fact that we are not only the innocent victims of the wrongs of others but that we can all too easily be the oppressors who, once we have acquired sufficient power, can easily use that power to coerce others into gratifying our own selfish desires. This is as true of nations as it is of individuals, and largely for the same reasons (namely that nations are themselves led by people whose individual and personal psychologies can have immense consequences on a global scale).

We must therefore seek in vergangenheitsbewältigung more than merely the attempt to see ourselves as some kind of permanent victims of past oppression who deserve special treatment because of past wrongs. Coming to terms with the past means recognizing the choices of others and the choices that we have available to us. People, whether individually or collectively, can suffer great evil and yet can refuse, when they have the opportunity to do so, to commit those same evils in turn. This is possible because we are not determined by our past. We do not have to fall into the same errors as our fathers, and so there is no need to be ashamed for what they did. We should look at the past clearly, admit its wrongs openly, celebrate its beauty and glory, guilt or shame, and resolve to choose the wisest and best possible options here and now for the sake of the best future that is possible for ourselves and those around us. By recognizing the influence of the past upon the present, we can ensure that this influence is consciously directed for moral ends rather than running rampant because it is uncritically used to bolster less noble ends. As beings with free will but with bounded experiences, we cannot choose what happens to us, any more than we could choose to be born into one group or another. What we can choose, regardless of our own personal or collective histories, is how we will respond to the contexts in which we have lived, in relationship to our own dreams and visions for a better future not only for ourselves but for all who dwell under the sun.

For coming to grips with the past and wrestling it into submission are not only the tasks of the German people themselves (even if they are very rare in having a term for it) but the task of every man, woman, and child who has ever walked this earth, and who ever will. We are all born into contexts with personal and family and collective histories of oppression suffered at the hands of others, and as oppressors and exploiters in the histories of others. We must all wrestle with the fact that we cannot change the past at all, for ourselves or others, no matter how much we might fervently desire to wipe away the memories of shame and guilt, of blunders and mistakes and errors and sins. Yet we must also come to grips with the fact that we are all free to choose how we will respond to this past, to know that if the past is an impenetrable stone wall that cannot be carved, even if it may eventually fall into oblivion, the future is an empty book full of possibilities that depends on our imagination and our individual choices given the constraints of reality that we all face. What we write on those pages depends in large extent on us, and on the choices that we make. We must therefore recognize that we have a choice in the matter, and choose wisely, for we will be held responsible for those choices by our Creator and Judge, and by those who follow us and must live with the consequences of what we have said and done in the short time that we are here on this earth.

[1] This would appear to be a vain effort given the historical record:

[2] See:

[3] See: Bloodlands:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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