The Shadow of World War II

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The Gates of Dachau, translating “Work Makes You Free”

It’s no secret that the Holocaust still lingers over Germany. It’s a dark stain on the nation’s history, but it’s not one the citizens aren’t moving past.

I lived with two older Germans when studying abroad last summer: Michael, who is seventy-nine years old, and Inge, seventy-seven years old (pictured below), both of whom were able to tell me their own experiences from the World War II years. Michael was ten at the time of the German defeat, but he was living in the area of Germany that is present-day Poland. He recalls needing to leave the area quickly because he had heard rumors of the Russian armies closing in on the area, and his family had to flee to a more western area of Germany. Inge was a bit younger, but she remembers her father going off to war and never coming back, presumed dead. Neither of them had much positive to say about their childhood during the war, but they weren’t shy about sharing their opinions politically.

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Where does this leave Germany in the present day? I asked this question to my family, and Michael shared with me that he and other Germans don’t believe their country is a descendant of Hitler’s Third Reich. The current government is a response to it and an obvious reaction to the atrocities of the war, but Michael says they prefer to think of their government actually beginning with the Weimar Republic, the first semi-successful attempt at democracy in the nation. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was a good beginning for the newly-formed union of Germany municipalities.

Inge told me that the people are changing, too. Not every German in the time of the war was a supporter of Nazi ideals (contrary to what American students might be led to believe when taught in schools), but as technology advances and younger people are exposed to more and more of the international world, she believes they’re able to empathize more with all the people they come in contact with. While there are still terrible things going on in some areas, Germany is able to reflect on their mistakes in the past and make an effort to right them.

There isn’t a way to make up for the loss of so many lives during the war. The Germans are aware of that, as both Michael and Inge told me. They said they’re both hoping to see changes for the future of Germany and the international community, and they want to see the war era “to be left in the past but not forgotten.” Germany can only better itself by pressing on, but the past cannot tie them down. Like any other country, they have to keep moving forward.

Sarah Warren is a junior at the University of Kentucky majoring in German.