Growing up I was drip-fed a steady stream of guilt. Germany is an evil country, one without a soul or hope for national redemption/salvation. Germany, in fact, existed in a historic vacuum only emerging on occasion to be the villain, the bogeyman for the world. Often, the only time when Germany would really be discussed in any meaningful sense by most people, in the times I was living in the USA, was in the context of wars — mostly WWII, sometimes WWI. There were the occasional references made to Germany’s music, literature, art, and engineering. Most of the time, though, it was the war. When in Germany we sought simply to get by in life. The war was not a common subject of discussion — though the scars were everywhere, it was something best left alone. Things such as flag waving were simply not done and patriotism was passively discouraged. Even quiet guilt is still guilt, scars are merely nature’s way of covering a wound.
These scars were not the scars of victims, however. Germany started WWII and it was Germany that was guilty of the tens of millions of death — civilian and military. Germany was responsible for the Holocaust. In time, however, wounds heal — not quite forgotten, but the memories fade ever further into the back of the national consciousness as more and more things take place after that. Germany was divided, Germany was held hostage by France for its political motivations. Germany survived and it thrived. We rebuilt, we became strong, and I would argue better, that we had ever been before. Still, there was that spectre hanging in the background. Then something happened — the World Cup. The entire world saw Germany as it is, not as it was then. A new country, a country without jackboots or criminally insane dictators with ugly moustaches. Suddenly Germany was reborn, or rather, Germany was brought forward in its best.
On a personal level, my sense of national guilt had already been dispersed before. This guilt was a bit stronger than most. Two great-grand-uncles were involved with the Nazi government. One was a high ranking regional official, the other a slave labour “farm” manager. It was a family matter for me, not just a national matter. Yet, when I met Holocaust survivors — I’ve had two experiences — they had no bitterness for me, nothing but kind words and warmth. I was not their enemy, nor should I, could I, ever apologise or feel shame for that. That guilt, that blame was not my own. That was done by others decades before I was born, before my parents were born. To have someone who watched virtually her entire family shot in front of her eyes or starve to death after being worked to the point of immobility shake my hand and say that to me carried more weight than anything. To have a man whose entire family were executed in front of his eyes tell me that I had no need to fear his hatred as he had none to offer was worth more than all the gold in the world.