Made in Germany: Tools for Contending with the Past

The German Way of Dealing with the Past

Contending with the past in other European countries: they do things differently there. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been taken up as the model by many in Northern Ireland; however, it has hardly featured in Central European debates on the legacy of the Communist dictatorships. Indeed, the only advocates of truth and reconciliation commissions were ex-Communists, who believed that such commissions would legitimate their participation in politics and enable them to present themselves as democrats. Instead of looking south, the post-Communist elites have looked west — to the Federal Republic of Germany. In their opinion, to quote Timothy Garton Ash, ‘contemporary Germany offers the gold standard for dealing with a difficult past’ (Guardian, 16 March 2011).

This reputation took decades to acquire. Like most European societies following the Second World War, West Germany did not deal with the past but rather blocked it out or broke it up into more manageable pieces. Returning to the land of her birth five years after ‘zero hour’, Hannah Arendt found ‘a deep-rooted, stubborn, and at times vicious refusal to face and come to terms with what really happened’ (Arendt, p. 352). It was only in the wake of a wave of anti-Semitic vandalism at the end of the 1950s that the Federal Republic decided that the health of the young democracy required people to remember rather than forget the crimes of the past. West Germans, though, did not set out to draw a line underneath the past. Instead, they established a culture of continuous discussion — one that is highly self-critical and based on high-quality historical scholarship.

The ongoing historical debate about the Nazi past has not only sustained the interest of scholars and the political elite, but also engaged the wider public. Museum shows, memorials, the visual arts, novels, plays, memoirs, television dramas, documentaries, press articles — all of these things have played their part in Geschichtsaufarbeitung (‘the process of working through the past’). And nor has the historical debate precluded victims seeking justice in the courts. In fact, the historical and legal approaches have supported each other.

The lessons slowly learned dealing with the Nazi past were quickly applied when dealing with the Communist past. Trials were held, purges were conducted and history commissions were established. The first of the last was the Enquete Commission in the German Bundestag for the Treatment of the Past and Consequences of the SED-Dictatorship in Germany. It was made explicitly clear that the Bundestag was not claiming a monopoly on dealing with the past, that the commission was not usurping the role of historians and that the report would not be a history legitimated by the state. Joining the Bundestag deputies on the commission were a range of experts, including historians, who had been selected by the parties. Easterners were also fairly represented, allowing the commission to claim — with some justice — that it was an all-German body. Despite their concerns (of which more below), victims’ organisations nonetheless welcomed the Enquete Commission as both a public stage and an advocate. To speed up the process, working groups, dealing with matters such as education and archives, were established. The first round of investigations was completed by the spring of 1994 and the findings had serious implications for the institutions that had been surveyed.

Problems with the German Approach
But, all that glitters is not gold: the Enquete Commission was seriously flawed. This, though, is perhaps what makes the German experience so instructive. From the start, the commission’s proceedings were shaped by the politics of the politicians. Western conservatives and Eastern dissidents worked together to attack what they saw as a dominant left-wing interpretation of the history of the Democratic Republic. Where academics had been ‘soft’ on Communism, they were going to take a hard line. The report therefore was meant to discredit East Germany completely and to build up public support for a renewed ‘anti-totalitarian consensus’. By producing a report that departed so frequently from the historical record, the commission appears to have done more to hinder inter-German understanding than to help it. Certainly, the Party of Democratic Socialism — the ex Communists — went on to double their vote in the 1994 federal elections.

The debate surrounding the creation of the Enquete Commission was marked by giddy rhetoric, not least about how a failure to treat the wounds of the past would lead to society growing sick in the present. However, although the needs of the victims were constantly trumpeted in speeches, the commission in practice largely silenced their voices. The Bundestag deputies preferred to keep the spotlight on the regime and to keep control of the narrative than to give over the stage too often to the victims. Such was the public’s disappointment at this approach that another Enquete Commission was created and charged with addressing issues that mattered to victims. The second commission’s focus was on political prisoners, the use of the death penalty and the Stasi’s strategy of Zersetzung (‘disintegration’) — engineering personal and professional misfortunes as a way of pushing an opponent out of politics. Other forms of victimhood were not considered in any meaningful way and the regime rather than individuals was the lens through which the past was viewed.

Both the commissions, then, paid almost no attention to the experiences of ordinary East Germans, reducing their history to that of the regime. Many easterners complained that they were unable to recognise their own pasts in the reports on the past. The ‘antitotalitarian’ narrative said nothing to them about their lives.

The Bundestag deputies had not been willing to be guided by history: the outcome of their evaluations of the Democratic Republic had been set in place from the very start. The East was criminal and disposable; the West was normal and the only possible future. It was all but inevitable that the commissions would have what the historian Andrew Beattie has termed a ‘hybrid scholarly political nature’ (Beattie, p. 6). Nonetheless, the coming together of the discipline of history and the politics of the politicians need not have taken on the shape that it did. For instance, the commissions could have tried to reconceptualise Germany’s divided past or to draw up a joint-narrative for the post-war years. Moreover, the politicians miscalculated. As the historian A. James McAdams concludes, the main parties ‘probably would have served their long-term interests more had they pushed for a less stereotypical assessment’ (McAdams, p. 174).

Questions for the Northern Irish Debate

History does not so much teach lessons to be followed as suggest questions to be asked. Of course, the ‘regime(s)’ in Northern Ireland were not like East Germany, the case is nevertheless instructive. What questions, then, does the German experience suggest should be asked in the debate about contending with the past in Northern Ireland?

  • By deciding not to do something, what stand on the disputes is being taken? ‘Drawing a line under the past’ — i.e. doing nothing — would effectively be the same as telling most victims that the suffering inflicted upon them over many decades was of little importance when placed against the dangers of destabilising the peace process. Today, few people want to go this far. Nonetheless, there are still many voices in the debate which question the need for a role for history in contending with the past. Healing Through Remembering rightly states that ‘society needs to find ways to remember more sensitively, inclusively and honestly’ (Healing Through Remembering, p. 4). Yet, the sheer scale of the Northern Irish conflict renders it impossible to remember as it truly happened and therefore risks it being remembered as it was not. The professional study of the past is the best guard against this threat. So, a decision not to set up a history commission would be tantamount to arguing that no such protection is needed.
  • Should Northern Ireland break with European norms and not establish a history commission? The Proposed Agreement of 31 December 2013 notes that ‘Other countries and regions’ have had to ‘contend…with the legacy of the past’ and ‘Each has adopted methods and mechanisms suited and moulded to the particular experience, nature, and needs of that society’ (Haass and Sullivan, p. 19). This is somewhat exaggerated, however. Recent European and South American scholarship has demonstrated that there is something like international best practice. Consequently, the terms of the debate should perhaps be shifted, with the obligation now upon those opposed to a history commission to justify this position.
  • How could a history commission be insulated from short-term party-political agendas? The German experience suggests that politicians need to be protected from themselves. Rehearsing familiar narratives of Northern Ireland’s conflicting pasts will almost certainly fail to engage the public and to meet the challenge of reconciliation. This problem is not simply about getting the composition and supervision of a history commission right; it is also about ensuring that terms of reference do not pre-determine the outcome.
  • Should a history commission address more than just controversial state and paramilitary practices? In Germany, the commissions’ focus on the regime delivered reports that did not map on to people’s personal memories. Healing Through Remembering has long highlighted that a similar approach to Northern Ireland’s past would also leave victims alienated from the process. But, a history commission need not conform to an outdated caricature of what historians do. Why, for example, should a history commission not look into people’s forms of thinking about what they have been through and about the loss of grandparents, parents, children, brothers, sisters, friends, colleagues, comrades, neighbours and individuals whose lives briefly crossed their own? Historians could offer new ways of conceptualising the Northern Irish conflict, breaking out of the old narratives and building up inter-community understanding.
  • What are the dangers of leaving history out of the ‘systematic’ approach? The Proposed Agreement of 31 December 2013 recommends that the ‘moment’ ‘has come’ for a ‘systematic’ effort to contend with the past (Haass and O’Sullivan, p. 20). If history is excluded, however, then that entire enterprise could be endangered. Academic historians would continue to investigate and interrogate Northern Ireland’s past, invariably producing discomforting and disruptive work. By contrast, a history commission could play a stabilising role by encouraging and informing an ongoing public debate about what happened and why. It could also narrow in places and expand in others the scope of that debate.

Hannah Arendt, ‘The Aftermath of Nazi Rule: Report from Germany’, Commentary, October 1950, pp. 342-52

Andrew H. Beattie, Playing Politics with History: The Bundestag Inquiries into East Germany (Beghahn Books, 2008)

Timothy Garton Ash, ‘Germany Can Show Reborn Arab Nations the Art of Overcoming a Difficult Past’, Guardian, 16 March 2011

Healing Through Remembering, Dealing with the Past? An Overview of Legal and Political Approaches Relating to the Conflict in and about Northern Ireland (Healing Through Remembering, 2013)

Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan, An Agreement among the Parties of the Northern Ireland Executive on Parades, Select Commemorations, and Related Protests; Flags and Emblems; and Contending with the Past (accessed at

A. James McAdams, Judging the Past in Unified Germany (Cambridge University Press, 2001)

James Mark, The Unfinished Revolution: Making Sense of the Communist Past in Central-Eastern Europe (Yale University Press, 2010)