What were the varied reactions of the Germans to the Jewish Holocaust?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There were distinctly varied reactions of Germans to the Holocaust both during the event and afterwards in reflection.  There were incidents of resistance to the Nazis' actions during their rise, individuals who opposed what the Nazis were doing and acted in the name of helping individuals who were being targeted. Some political groups sought to assassinate Hitler in the belief that what he was doing went against German identity.  The university group entitled The White Rose group distributed pamphlets advocating a rejection of the Nazi regime.  Yet, I think it is difficult to find many examples of outward resistance to the Nazis.  For so many Germans, historical reality shows a very compliant embrace of Nazism.  Hitler and the Nazis were able to gain much in way of prestige and respect with Germans that they complied with much of what the Nazis said and did and, thus, their reaction to the Holocaust was one of support.

Since the Holocaust, there have been some distinctly varied reactions to the Holocaust.  One strong reaction is a sense of shame.  Germans have demonstrated a large level of reproach and disdain towards what happened during the Holocaust.  Another distinct reaction that Germans have demonstrated during the Holocaust is continually questioning where the balance between shame and progress lies.  Germans have been open about wondering where this balance exists and how it should be navigated.  On one hand, the Germans themselves suffered greatly during World War II, but to place their own suffering before those who suffered at many of their hands seems emotionally inappropriate.  Henryk Broder, a German author, captured this challenging emotional dynamic and the response it has generated in modern Germany:

Everything the Germans had to go through during the war and after the war was a mere discomfort compared with what the Nazis did to their victims... In a world in which everyone wants to be a victim even the grandchildren and great- grandchildren of the perpetrators want to stand on the right side of history.  In the end even someone whose grandfather fell drunk from a watchtower will be able to claim he lose a relative in a concentration camp.

At the same time, another distinct reaction was seen in Martin Walser- Bubis debate in the late '90s.  Walser, upon receiving an award honoring his writing, spoke of how the shame heaped upon Germany has denied any real reflection about the Holocaust.  He articulated that this is something that he, himself, is rejecting about Germany and his role in the Holocaust:

Everybody knows our historical burden, the never ending shame, not a day on which the shame is not presented to us. [...] But when every day in the media this past is presented to me, I notice that something inside me is opposing this permanent show of our shame...Auschwitz is not suitable for becoming a routine-of-threat, an always available intimidation or a moral club [Moralkeule] or also just an obligation. What is produced by ritualisation has the quality of a lip service [...]. The debate about the  Holocaust Memorial in Berlin will show, in posterity, what people do who feel responsible for the conscience of others. Turning the centre of the capital into concrete with a nightmare [Alptraum], the size of a football pitch. Turning shame into monument.

In this discourse, one can see the challenging nature of varied reactions to the Holocaust that Germans, themselves, experienced after World War II.

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