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The Sins of the FathersGermany, Memory, Method$

Jeffrey K. Olick

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780226386492

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226386522.001.0001

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West Germany’s Normal Problems

West Germany’s Normal Problems

(p.289) Chapter 13 West Germany’s Normal Problems
The Sins of the Fathers

Jeffrey K. Olick

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

In this chapter, Olick describes the pragmatist politics of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, elected in 1974. He then introduces the figure of Walter Scheel, the new federal president elected in the same year whose ideology contained neoconservative elements. According to Olick, both politicians emphasized risk and the need for a positive historical consciousness to support German identity. Olick analyses speeches by Schmidt and Scheel commemorating the 1975 anniversary of Germany’s defeat in World War II and the 1978 anniversary of Kristallnacht to show how attitudes toward historical memory were changing. He discusses the rising popularity of institutional anniversaries in the Federal Republic that signalled a new turn toward patriotism and a new desire for normalcy as a state. In this chapter, Olick also provides a summary of Schmidt’s future-oriented politics and details West Germany’s deteriorating relationship with Israel during this period. The chapter concludes with a description of Karl Carstens, Scheel’s successor, and his attempts to normalize Federal Republic history.

Keywords:   Helmut Schmidt, Walter Scheel, West Germany, World War II, collective guilt, commemoration, Kristallnacht, WWII

The striking differences between Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt were apparent almost from the very first paragraph of Schmidt’s Regierungserklärung of May 17, 1974. However little evocations of the past had figured in Brandt’s Regierungserklärungen, they would have seemed even more out of place in Schmidt’s. Schmidt also left behind almost all traces of the ideological enthusiasm and rhetoric of regeneration that had characterized Brandt’s presentation.

Schmidt was the technocrat par excellence, and he adopted a sometimes sterile pragmatic posture. This posture, however, seemed to belong not only to Schmidt’s personal style but to the climate of the mid-to late Seventies, in which the progressivist spirit of renewal and forward-looking reformism had been taken over by a sense of the limits on growth—symbolized most prominently by the perceived pessimism of the 1972 Club of Rome Report, as well as by the costs of an ever-increasing welfare state in an age of cyclical economic downturn and international oil price shocks. Schmidt’s self-presentation was that of the professional manager tackling the normal problems of unemployment and security in a normal nation. His eloquence was limited to the frequent deployment of acronyms, as well as to his apparent profound understanding of the complexities of international agreements of all kinds.

Schmidt began his first address as chancellor by saying, “In a time of growing problems, we concentrate ourselves in realism and sobriety on the essential, on what is necessary, and we leave other things to the side.” (As the famous newspaper editor Marion Dönhoff [1992, 219] put it, “Most guess what that means: the end of all reform.”) Schmidt then listed many difficult management tasks for the government. A new term that emerged here was “risk.” This was (p.290) a reference to the complex problems that arise in a tightly interwoven international economic and political order, one that required careful monitoring and competent handling.1

Along these lines, Schmidt’s rare references to the past were issues of management and rationality, very much matters for administration. Thus, it was with regard to cooperative relations between unions and government that he was at his most eloquent: “Economic privation and mass unemployment once unleashed the fire in which the first German republic was burned. All governments have this lesson to follow. It is their duty to realize progressively that the workers can come to an indentification with their state only on the basis of social security and justice.” In regard to leftover matters of payments for the burdens of the past, he was all business and economics:

With the twenty-eighth amendment brought by the federal government to the equalization of burdens law that is currently being considered, and with probable minor changes that necessarily have to do with the history of the Germans, the federal government considers the complex of this war consequence burden [Kriegsfolgelast]—especially including compensation for prisoners of war, equalization of burdens, reparations, and laws related to article 1312—as concluded.

The Federal Republic of Germany—that is, the taxpayers of the Federal Republic—have in the past years levied 220 billion marks, and they will, following the applicable law, have to levy another 174 billion marks in the future for these war consequence burdens. Over and above that, the federal government sees no more possibility of placing further burdens on the taxpayer.

(p.291) Most remarkable here was not the administrative task being dealt with, but the change of reference from “the German people” to “the German taxpayer.”

In this address we also see an increasing concern with terrorism and with radical leftist opposition. Schmidt echoed Brandt in supporting the general value of engaged citizens, but he invoked the government’s right to control challenges to the basic democratic order. The emergent concept here was called “inner security” (innere Sicherheit), and was the 1970s incarnation of “militant democracy” (streitbare Demokratie) that we saw in debates over the Basic Law. As part of this, Schmidt supportively referred to the prohibition against radicals in public service (Radikalenerlass) that had been passed in 1972 (in radical circles this was known as the “career prohibition” or Berufsverbot; Braunthal 1990). These issues would become increasingly prominent a few years later, in the so-called German Autumn (Deutscher Herbst) of 1977, when the so-called Red Army Faction undertook a number of violent actions, most prominently kidnapping and murdering the industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer. In that context, conservatives accused Schmidt and the SPD of ideological sympathies with the terrorists. Yet Schmidt’s support for the security state was fairly clear in this first speech.

The Beginning of the End

Another important change in 1974 was the election of FDP leader and Foreign Minister Walter Scheel to succeed Gustav Heinemann as federal president, nine days after Brandt’s resignation and one day before Schmidt’s election. For the first time, the election of the president by the Federal Assembly was held in Bonn and not Berlin. This move indicated a change of style away from confrontation with the East as well as towards the permanent identity of the Federal Republic, a theme we will come across increasingly in the following years. Early in 1974, the free market liberal Scheel had become concerned with the rising power of the SPD’s left wing, which he did not want his party to be associated with, especially if it were to cause the government to fall. Like Heinemann, Scheel had a strong moral message, but it was one that contained neoconservative elements. Scheel emphasized the risks posed by the complexities of modern life, the limits on growth, and the need for a positive historical consciousness to support German identity. The last of these concerns was indicative of a coming shift in the legitimation profile.

According to Wolfgang Jäger (1986, 160; see also Glaser 1990, vol. 3, 93), the shift from Heinemann to Scheel in the office of federal president was crucial. Jäger writes:

(p.292) Heinemann could never hide the fact that he stood reservedly towards the first phase of the history of the Federal Republic. In his life history, he embodied the break with the Adenauer era, the conflict over the foreign policy orientation of the Federal Republic of Germany, and the controversy over the democratic development of the young state in the spirit of the Basic Law, which he saw less as a fulfilled mandate than as a promise and an offer.

By contrast, according to Jäger, “Heinemann’s successor Scheel symbolized with his biography as ‘Mister Federal Republic’ the ‘successful history’ [Erfolgsgeschichte] of the state. … He placed the accent on the timely adaptation and evolution of the politics of the Federal Republic, and not on a ‘new zero hour’” (Jäger 1986, 160). Enough time had passed so that the no-longer-new state had acquired its own tradition and now had the self-confidence not to harp on the radical transformation of its birth.

In his inaugural address on May 15, 1974, Scheel introduced a number of themes that would come to be hallmarks of neoconservative thought, though his articulations were more moderate than those of later proponents. He began by talking about the risks of modern life and the associated exhaustion of the welfare state:

Technical-economic development has led us to the limits of the possible and in many places has already overstepped the limits of the reasonable. … The world economic situation has enduringly changed in earthquake-like shock waves …

There are new tasks. People are seeking a new equilibrium. In the process, they look to the state. It is supposed to guarantee all that we today possess; it is supposed to ward off all that could be detrimental to our well-being. The state that is capable of achieving this does not exist.

Scheel was, however, full of praise for the Federal Republic:

We may also today trust the spiritual and moral powers that led our people out of the chaos. … In the Federal Republic parliamentary democracy has stood the test for the first time in German history. …

It was always the combination of civil diligence and creative achievement that distinguished our country. Today as well, the Federal Republic of Germany makes a proud contribution to the cultural development of Europe and the world.

(p.293) Scheel even reintroduced a concept of patriotism, though one careful to include respect for others, in implicit contrast to the nationalism of the nineteenth century. Within this formulation, it was perhaps implied that the Third Reich—or at least virulent nationalism—belonged more to the nineteenth than to the twentieth century: “The patriot of this century, in which millions became world citizens in the search for new fatherlands, is not the adversary to the world citizen. To the contrary, patriotism that grows out of tolerance and world citizenship do not exclude each other; they are mutually dependent.”

Scheel added one other important element to his characterization of German collective identity: the importance of historical consciousness, though he did not mean consciousness of Germany’s misdeeds. Quite to the contrary, he meant the prouder moments of longer German history, as well as of the Federal Republic’s recent history. While earlier references to the new generation were usually a way to assert their freedom from the past, Scheel felt the costs of this freedom: “A new generation has grown up. They have not peered into the depths of German history, and its high points say nothing to many.” Later he added, “We know what gives us strength: the lessons out of our history, the image of our future, and the unbroken creative power of our people.” When he spoke of the “lessons of history,” furthermore, the only ones he mentioned were those of the last “quarter century,” though he referred rather obscurely to “the errors and mistakes that we elders made, experienced, and suffered.”

A Quarter Century of Progress

The year 1974 was also the twenty-fifth anniversary for institutions of the Federal Republic, and as such it occasioned significant commemorative addresses, celebrating the successful establishment of new traditions. But to an even greater extent than earlier such speeches, the ones in 1974 spoke of the founding of the republic as relatively distant history. Or perhaps it was simply that after twenty-five years, claims that the state’s founding was an historical rather than contemporary event seemed somewhat more plausible than they had in 1952. Part of this historicization, of course, was the repeated emphasis on the generational shift that had occurred. So, for instance, Helmut Schmidt said, “Now a third of our citizenry was first born in these last twenty-five years since the birth of the Basic Law, and for them the Basic Law is a matter of course.” Or, in one of his last speeches as president, Heinemann remarked that “in the meantime an entire generation has grown up. It is the first generation that did (p.294) not experience the bondage of the Third Reich.” None of this was particularly new, though.

What was new was that though there had always been some attempt to connect the ideas of the Federal Republic to longer German democratic traditions, the trend was more dominant here, and was now linked to Social Democratic ideas about the welfare state. In an interesting lumping-together of all the years between 1914 and 1945, for instance, Schmidt implied that perhaps poor management of social issues had been one cause of Germany’s difficulties: “This democratic order certainly remains strongly rooted, after the devastating [erschütternden] experience of the years 1914 to 1945, only if we, the governing and the governed, always take seriously the social mission of the Basic Law.” Heinemann made the connection between the democratic tradition and the welfare state more explicit: “The experiences from Weimar taught that we must bind both together: the rule of law and welfare.”

Both Heinemann and Bundestag President Annemarie Renger (SPD) waxed eloquent at this time about the tradition of democracy in Germany as something decisive for the historical founding of the Federal Republic. Renger first reminded her audience of the historical fact that the anniversary marked “the founding of a state in the free part of Germany after National Socialist despotism, and after the first years of effort to overcome the physical, spiritual, and moral consequences of the catastrophic collapse.” Only after telling of these distant events did she conclude generally that “the Parliamentary Council linked up with traditions worthy of being maintained, but at the same time drew lessons from the historical experiences.” Heinemann was more elaborate: “A hundred years after the first attempt of a German constitution, the Parliamentary Council took over much in our contemporary Basic Law, especially in the fundamental rights, from the Frankfurt Reich Constitution, right down to the word choice. With that, a meaningful and binding period of preservation and continuity stretches from the year 1849 to today.” In regard to overcoming “the encumbrance on democracy” which derived from the fact that “democracy was introduced after lost wars and under the influence of foreign models,” Heinemann argued that “the memory that democratic endeavors are in no way foreign to our history helped, and helps. … Our history is threaded with an abundance of attempts at a free order and at social justice that we are well-advised to remember. Their pioneers risked their lives and their freedom—most recently even in the Third Reich.” In such a perspective, the Third Reich appeared as an interruption, rather than an expression, of German history.

A third major theme in these twenty-fifth anniversary speeches was one already begun on the twentieth anniversaries: the concern with radical threats (p.295) to the constitutional order. Speakers in 1974 emphasized the right of the democratic state to defend itself, even at the paradoxical lengths of denying certain rights to particular factions. As always, the extension of authority required special justification. But, again, the urgency of such matters was increasingly clear in an age of radical terrorism, which had included not only numerous hijackings but the notorious murder of Israeli atheletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, certainly not an easy moment for Germany’s leaders.

May 8 in the Social-Liberal Era

In 1975, on the thirtieth anniversary of Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, Federal President Walter Scheel delivered a major address. While quite detailed and profound, it did not receive nearly as much notice (indeed not very much notice at all) in comparison to the one President Richard von Weizsäcker, a conservative, would give ten years later (as we will see below). This difference makes clear the importance of timing and context in the reception of particular ideas; but it also shows that ideas and arguments that at some point are successful or praised do not spring from thin air or merely respond to or take a position within a context; rather, they are also important instances in longer-standing genres that provide a horizon of terms, positions, and general precedents.

We have already seen the earlier history of the official representation of Germany’s surrender in 1945, articulated first by Theodor Heuss as a paradox of simultaneous defeat and liberation, and then by Brandt and Heinemann as only a liberation. In his 1975 address, President Scheel provided a more thorough acknowledgment of Germany’s defeat, and spent at least as much time examining the past as the present and future. Scheel’s feelings about his nation’s surrender had to be ambivalent, no matter how rationally desirable it had been. He accepted that Germany’s former opponents celebrated the day: “The sacrifice that they made for the victory over injustice gives them the right.” Scheel noted, “We were freed from a terrible yoke, from war, murder, bondage, and barbarism. And we exhaled when the end came.”

Nonetheless, in the first place, Germany had to be ashamed that the defeat of National Socialism had come only through foreign invasion, and not through domestic rejection: “We do not forget that this liberation came from outside, that we, the Germans, were not ourselves capable of shaking off this yoke that had to first destroy half the world before Adolf Hitler was forced from the stage of world history.” In the second place, according to Scheel, too much of importance for Germany was destroyed with the Third Reich for Germans to (p.296) have wished too strongly for that defeat: “But on the eighth of May not only did the Hitler dictatorship fall; the German Reich fell too. The German Reich was not a work of Hitler’s; it was the state of the Germans, the work of a great German statesman [Bismarck]. It was for generations of Germans the fatherland that we loved, as every person in the world loves his fatherland.” Scheel’s point was that German patriotism was not essentially different from patriotism elsewhere in the world, and that it was by implication possible to have wanted to protect that fatherland no matter who was at the helm: “Should we love it less because a dictator took it over, or because it now lay destroyed on the ground?” His conclusion was that “we Germans have no occasion to celebrate today.” All in all, he said, “the eighth of May is a contradictory day in German history. … We do not pretend that the downfall of the German Reich, and the amputation and division of our land that resulted from it, does not concern us.” Pointedly new here, among other things, was the positive valuation of the German Reich (empire).

Scheel moved on to call the day an occasion for self-examination. It was important, he said, that Germany acknowledge its entire history. He began in 1933, the year in which, he said, “the German tragedy begins …, not in 1945.” He argued for a balanced view of German responsibility. Hitler’s victory in 1933, he said, “was no inescapable fate. He was elected.” This admission was a departure from most other speakers, who usually made a semantic point of the fact that Hitler had never gained a majority of the vote in free elections. Scheel also denied the argument that people had not been aware of the dangers in the years leading up to 1933:

The years of the embittered fight against National Socialism before 1933 prove that one was fully aware of the danger; but then the terrible misery of the economic crisis sapped the power and the will to political resistance more and more. The shaky hope that an all-promising seducer could perhaps help us out of the worst suffering got the better of perceptual ability, of critique, and also of fear.

Scheel thus seemed unwilling to attribute everything to an impossible circumstance, to a horrible ineluctability, though he also did not focus on arrogant or even evil motives of the general populace. In answer to the long-standing question of how it all could have happened, he blamed Hitler: “Hitler wanted the war; his life had no other goal than the war. He transformed our country into a huge war machine, and each of us was a cog in it. That was recognizable. (p.297) But we closed our ears and eyes, hoping it would be otherwise.” Scheel thus acknowledged that the general populace had played roles in the horrible machinery of war and destruction, however passive and forced he characterized those roles to have been. There was some responsibility for having closed eyes and ears, if not for more insidious actions. As usual, Scheel rejected collective guilt, but not nearly as unequivocally as many others had done: “One was fully aware of the danger.” He formulated the issue this way:

After the war there was an agitated discussion over whether there was a collective guilt. Today we have enough distance to recognize: Hitler became our fate because we—in a time of greatest social misery—did not respect the idea of law enough, did not give it the rank in our political reality that the constitution assigned to it. …

In the intervening section of the speech, Scheel said, “The evil spread itself out.” He listed the damage to freedoms, the destruction of law, and the millions of murders that had occurred in the name of Germany. Finally: “The question of guilt? Whether he wants to feel guilty about it, or ashamed of it, every German who lived as a responsible person in this time may alone as an individual settle with himself.” This formulation is interesting because, while rejecting the idea of collective guilt, Scheel did not entirely free individuals from a contemplation of conscience (though of course this applied only to the older generation). Nonetheless, he was clear that whatever individual contemplation would produce, it was not a matter for politics. This passage also provides another good example of the memory of memory, the entry into the debate about German responsibility for earlier solutions to the question—namely, the early guilt debate.

In this address, Scheel thus addressed those who “want to hear nothing more about our dark past.” In response to the claim that such historical commemorations involved having people “run around in sackcloth and ashes because crimes were committed in which they had no part”—more memory of memory, or at least a response to claims others were making about the importance and proper form of memory—Scheel argued that such people missed the point. While it would not make sense, he said, to demand that young Germans atone for things that happened before they were born, “all words of national dignity, of self-respect, remain hollow if we do not take on ourselves the entire, often enough pressing weight of our history.” In order to win back the national honor lost in 1933, the contravention of all that was “good and noble in the (p.298) history of our people,” Scheel argued, “Germany must accept this dark history.” In putting it this way, of course, he made clear the distance of this history from the present.

There was, however, reason to be proud, Scheel said, when one examined what Germany had made out of the catastrophe and learned from it: the new traditions. Despite the omnipresent destruction after the war, including destruction of moral values and traditional beliefs, “there nevertheless was hope.” West Germans had consistently rejected extremism, had renounced military violence, and had established a social welfare and constitutionally grounded state: “The Basic Law that we created was born out of the suffering and errors of German history.” And, “we have learned that the time of national power politics in Europe is over. For this reason, this country has subscribed to the unification of Western Europe and will stick to it until the task is completed.”

All of this proved, said Scheel, that West Germany had learned the lessons of the past. Nonetheless, unlike many earlier leaders—with the exception of Brandt, who also accepted this—Scheel acknowledged that there was still suspicion towards Germany in the world:

We must be aware that one observes our country from abroad carefully, and that certain occurrences, which would find no attention were they to happen in other countries, register nervously. This too is a consequence of our past that we should understand and calmly accept without reacting oversensitively on our side. If we stick to freedom and law and nonviolence, then it [over-careful attention to the German past from outside] will lessen and finally disappear entirely.

This was a significant contrast to the words of earlier speakers, who often expressed outrage at the ways in which the world misunderstood Germany and the putative self-righteousness with which they treated it. In conclusion, Scheel stated that he believed Germany had gotten wiser (a touch of the moral superiority trope). He argued that the evidence that Germany had learned its lesson from the past provided “the deepest reasons why today this country is once again respected in the world.”

All in all, then, Scheel’s commemoration of May 8 was a balanced one. He did not defensively seek to discount German responsibility, or even its guilt. He also did not wallow in self-blame, but focused instead on what his country had learned. He maintained the importance of accepting that history. He was not strident about escaping from suspicion, and he honored the victims of German aggression without providing a German victim for every non-German (p.299) one. Nonetheless, he was proud of what his country had accomplished, and asked his people to remember the past while looking towards the future. It will be important to keep this speech in mind when we come to the one made by Richard von Weizsäcker ten years later.

In 1975, Helmut Schmidt also gave a brief commemorative address. By this time, the subjects of such a speech were well established, even routinized. Schmidt began by characterizing the day as one of “liberation from National Socialist domination.” He was, however, more defensive than Scheel. While taking almost verbatim from Scheel the acknowledgment that Germany’s former opponents were justified in celebrating the day, he did not go on to say that Germany could not celebrate it. Rather, he characterized it as an occasion to inquire into what Germany had made out of the catastrophe. Schmidt’s assessment, not surprisingly, was overwhelmingly positive. But he used this judgment not entirely for positive reinforcement, but in a more defensive manner. For instance, he argued that this positive assessment demonstrated that it was “a mistaken judgment if some few still suspect us, or impute that we understand the day of unconditional capitulation as a day of mourning for the defeat of Hitler.” Schmidt argued that Germany did indeed mourn on this day, but for the victims—not for Hitler or even, as Scheel had, for the Reich.

Nonetheless, Schmidt expressed the wish to move away from the downsides of this mourning, using the same phrase Scheel had used. “We Germans therefore do not need to go around in hair shirts in perpetuity,” he said, though Scheel denied that this was what was happening, while Schmidt was saying that it would be inappropriate if it were. Schmidt also placed perhaps greater emphasis here on a generational defense than other recent speakers had done—though all recent speakers had included it, if more briefly on this occasion than on others. He said, “The great majority of the Germans living today were born after 1933; they can in no way be burdened with guilt.” He also pointed out that no member of the present government had been old enough to vote in 1933.

As proof of Germany’s accomplishments—that it had learned and integrated the lessons of the past—Schmidt referred to the rejection of extremism, the reconciliation with the West, recent progress with the East, the renunciation of violence, and West Germany’s faithful integration in the Western security alliance. He reassured his international listeners that “there is in our country no disagreement over the necessity of continuing this peace policy.”

Like Scheel, Schmidt acknowledged that there were those who were still reserved towards Germany: “We know that there is still also in some places and with some victims of the Hitler aggression mistrust towards us Germans—in (p.300) the East, but also in the West.” Unlike Scheel, however, Schmidt did not say that this was understandable. Rather, he mentioned his discussions with world leaders about the necessity of having greater confidence in each other. In this reference, he appears to have blurred the lines between suspicions towards Germany because of its past, and general security suspicions between East and West. In conclusion, he claimed a communion with Germany’s former opponents:

We want today—in commemoration of May 8, 1945, and of the millions of fallen and victims of the SS state in Germany and in many other countries of Europe—to give prominence to that element that today binds us with the former war opponents of National Socialist Germany: the peace politics that arises from the knowledge that war as the continuation of politics by other means is a useless, inhumane instrument.

Here, then, was a clear residue of “the moral nation.” Schmidt’s emphasis, however, was on normalcy.

In sum, Schmidt was a bit more strident than Scheel was in the same year. In comparison to Brandt five years earlier, Schmidt focused somewhat more defensively on the past. While Brandt had used the occasion as a resource in arguing for his Ostpolitik, Schmidt also appears to have understood the past as a significant constraint, at least insofar as it raised guilt feelings for Germans or expectations from others, as well as suspicions about Germany’s normal foreign policy role.


During his chancellorship, Schmidt projected an image of stability and solid leadership in a time of economic and geopolitical uncertainty. He became known as the Macher (the doer), which was meant by moralists on the left as a putdown, and by industry, military, and bureaucrats, both domestically and internationally, as a compliment. In his first years as chancellor, Schmidt sought to stabilize the economy—which was reeling from the oil crisis, among other things—and to finalize, solidify, and carry forward Brandt’s Ostpolitik initiatives, though with a sharp eye towards security interests.

Scheduled elections in 1976 kept the SPD-FDP coalition in power, though with a substantially smaller majority than before. Though the CDU/CSU, under the direction of its new leader Helmut Kohl, made overtures to FDP Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the FDP remained in its coalition with (p.301) the SPD. In his second Regierungserklärung, delivered on December 16, 1976, Schmidt announced the continuity of his second cabinet with that of his first, and placed highest priority on continued economic stabilization, which was nevertheless made increasingly difficult by such events as the Iranian revolution, the collapse of the US dollar, and the global recession. In this business-like address the Nazi past was distant, rarely mentioned, and not presented as directly relevant. There were only a few minor references to it, most of which simply mentioned the now obvious distance from that past. Schmidt thus used an implicit contrast between history and the Federal Republic to praise the latter generally:

Our country has in no way been involved in military conflicts for more than thirty years. The former opponents in the West long ago became our allies, and we are on the wide way to normal neighborly relations with our former opponents in the East.

Domestically, we remain committed to the policy of gradual reform. Never before in history has there been a more free and more socially just order on German territory.

Moreover, Schmidt went on to praise the Bundeswehr (the military), implying that it could no longer be burdened by associations with its predecessor, the Wehrmacht (the Nazi forces): “One can say that in the fulfillment of its peacekeeping mission, the Bundeswehr has found good rudiments of its own tradition; it is no longer dependent on deriving models from past generations.”

In a characteristic, even archetypal statement for this period, Schmidt brought up the issue of protecting the individual from the forces of technology, which he nevertheless embraced. In contrast to radical conservative critics of earlier decades, Schmidt was confident in the ability of modernity to regulate itself properly:

We want the state to acknowledge and protect the private sphere of the individual. Technical progress, the highly organized presence of the technical demands of the state and the economy, has grown strongly. That brings risks with it. In order to minimize them, the Bundestag has taken an important step with the Data Protection Law (Datenschutzgesetz); but others must follow.

The idea of protecting personal data was at least in part a reaction to the extensive record-keeping—and misuse of those records—by the Nazi state, which enabled its dictatorship administratively.

(p.302) Finally, in an interesting indication of desired normalcy for the Federal Republic as a state, and in anticipation of later cultural policies under Kohl’s conservative government, Schmidt brought up the subject of the nation’s (or was it the state’s) capital:

We are also looking in this context at the city of Bonn, which will be the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany for a long time. We are therefore obliged to shape the face of the city in light of this, its future. In the last few years, a committee of the city of Bonn and the state of North Rhine–Westphalia has done much to shape this city in such a way that it can be viewed from abroad, as well, as the capital city of the Federal Republic.

The Federal Republic, he thus emphasized, was there to stay—there in the West, that is.

Normal Traditions

Beginning in 1974, addresses on the Federal Republic’s institutional anniversaries became more prominent. One indication of this was that they began receiving prominent place every year in the Bulletin of the Press and Information Agency, when previously usually only the speeches given on major anniversaries (e.g., intervals ending in zero or five) were noted at all. The most obvious explanation for this was the perceived threat to the constitutional order deriving from terrorism and radical protest; one of the government’s answers was to defend the Federal Republic’s constitutional order more vociferously than before, by emphasizing its accumulated tradition.

Indeed, fearing the impact of missing symbolism, President Scheel joined the anniversary occasions together with the annual awarding of Federal Service Medals, thereby creating a more regal state ceremony than before—though, as always, any state pomp required some defense. Thus, in 1975, on the twenty-sixth anniversary of the Basic Law, Scheel said, “The Basic Law obliges us to resist those who want to disturb and eliminate its order. On the other side, this state deems it an honor to honor and single out those who have earned it.” Scheel recalled that in the Weimar period, democratic leaders had not wanted such traditions because of their associations with earlier feudal orders, and because they were seen as inappropriate to a democracy. But he cited Heuss, West Germany’s first president, for justification: “For him, there was no reason why a free democracy that wins its strength, powers, and regard from the consent of the people should not honor and single out those who have in a special (p.303) way made themselves valuable to the state and the collective good.” Two years later, in 1979, on the thirtieth anniversary of the Basic Law, Scheel continued on this theme:

Many of our citizens have an ambivalent relation to forms and symbols of the state. Of course, that has its grounds. There was a time in which the state symbols were nearly ubiquitous. It was a time in which the saying applied: “You are nothing, your people is everything.” And the state symbols at that time entirely had the goal of always making clear to the individual that he was nothing. After the war, one could not see any more flags. …

Many, consciously or unconsciously, carried over their justified disinclination toward the symbols of the National Socialist state to the symbols of the democracy. …

I believe we are in danger of making formlessness our form.

Whatever taboos—and in some cases, outright prohibitions—on patriotic symbolism might have been understandable in the early years, they had by this point outlived their purpose. Further restrictions were not only outdated, but might actually create troublesome deficits.

In 1975, Bundestag President Annemarie Renger (SPD) made clear that the celebration of the Basic Law was indeed a response to the legitimation crisis implied by rampant terrorism and the government’s inability to do much about it:

… how necessary it is that the citizens are prepared to identify with their state and to stand up for it.

While precisely in the difficult hours of the Weimar Republic an ever-expanding segment gave up its loyalty to the existing state and opposed parliamentarianism, here in our time the state is completely, unquestionably treated with trust, and security is expected from it.

It would be good if the annual birthday of our constitution could serve to facilitate for our citizens, and especially the young people, the consciousness of belonging to a state with a constitutional order to which one can give his full consent, and to which one feels obliged out of conviction.

One is reminded, as a contrast, of Heuss’s ambivalence about September 7, Constitution Day, as a worthy occasion for celebration. Renger’s abandonment of the term “Basic Law” in favor of “Constitution” was also not insignificant.

In 1978, Scheel added more emphasis to the importance of historical consciousness as further justification for loyalty:

(p.304) Behind the young constitution and our still young state stands a long German history. And both the Basic Law and our Federal Republic of Germany reveal their uniqueness and their quality, but also their vulnerability, only to him who knows this history. The older generation that experienced the war, National Socialist domination, the Weimar Republic, and, where still possible, the First World War and the empire hold personal and—insofar as they refer to war and the unjust Nazi state—painful memories of this history. They know what it means to live for thirty years in inner and outer peace.

A rebuke to the younger generation, seen as seduced by the forces of disorder, was unmistakable. At the same time, it was understandable that they knew little of this history, since they had not experienced it.

Schmidt, Israel, and the Holocaust

As we have already seen, Schmidt was much less inclined toward moralistic rhetoric than Brandt or Heinemann had been. Schmidt was a technocrat, and indeed often spoke about the general imperative towards strategy and management of risk above morally motivated policy. In this endeavor, he frequently employed the sociologist Max Weber’s distinction, from his famous “Politics as a Vocation” (Weber 1946), between an ethic of responsibility (Verantwortungsethik) and an ethic of conviction (Gesinnungsethik). Weber had called the latter ethic irresponsible, arguing that the politician who put principle above all else was not serving the interests of his people, and that the modern polity requires a tactician.

Schmidt’s only address at a concentration camp was a brief one given at Auschwitz on November 23, 1977. (As already noted, Brandt did not speak at a concentration camp during his chancellorship.) Though brief and little noted, the speech displayed a remarkable and disturbing peculiarity. Not once did Schmidt, standing in Auschwitz, mention Jews. Indeed, he characterized the main crimes there as having been committed against the Poles, for a relationship with the latter group was his goal. “We have come to Auschwitz,” he said, “to remind ourselves and others that without knowledge of the past there is no way into the future, and also no way to a new and uninhibited relationship between Germans and Poles.”

Schmidt emphasized the importance of remembering the past: “The crimes of Nazi fascism, the guilt of the German Reich under Hitler’s leadership, ground our responsibility.” His formula for this responsibility was as follows: “We Germans of today are as persons not guilty, but we have the legacy (p.305) of the guilty to carry; herein lies our responsibility.” The goal, as always with Schmidt, was to shape the future: “Out of it [the responsibility] grows the mandate not to leave the future to chance, but rather to form it with courage and prudence.” Schmidt himself, of course, had been conscripted into the military during the war, and had served in various low-level capacities. The degree to which this is a relevant consideration for evaluating his claim that he belonged to the generation that was “as persons not guilty” is open to debate, though it was not debated at the time. It would be, soon enough.

At Auschwitz, Schmidt characterized the Poles as the Third Reich’s main victims. Of course this fit well with Polish self-perceptions, which had often viewed the persecution of Polish Jews as simply one instance of the more general persecution of Poland (though they did not mean to imply any unproblematic acceptance of and identity between Jews and Poles). Interestingly, Brandt’s kneeling at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial had not been well received by many Poles, in large part because they did not understand why he had chosen that spot rather than the other major war memorial in Warsaw, which honored fallen Poles. In contrast, Schmidt said:

We know that we cannot make anything un-happened, but we can draw the consequences for the future. We have been doing this for thirty-two years; we do it in regard to all victims of Nazi fascism in all lands of Europe, and also in our own land. And I think our Polish partners, exactly because they had to suffer the most, will understand the best if I also remind them that the first victims of Hitler’s were Germans, and that Germans too became victims of his dictatorship in increasing number until Hitler’s end.

Two points here are relevant. First, Schmidt noted the accumulated history of acknowledgment, implying that it had become a routine part of the West German political liturgy. But second, he seemed struck with an older reflex to remind his listeners of German victimhood; this reminder was not only a thing of the past, but also a harbinger of a rhetorical turn to come. Beyond that, it was Poles who “had to suffer the most.”

Schmidt’s relations with Jews generally were not particularly good, and at times were fairly disastrous.3 Trouble had begun as early as 1973, in the context of the international oil crisis and the Yom Kippur War. The problem in that (p.306) instance was German neutrality. West Germany, much more than the United States, was vitally dependent on Arab oil. Any gesture at all towards Israel would have been taken as a violation of neutrality, and would thus have placed the West German economy in terrible jeopardy because the Arab nations would have retaliated by withholding oil supplies (which they were already doing to some degree).

The first crisis came over American supplies for Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The United States rushed emergency supplies to life-threatened Israel, and used its air bases in West Germany as an intermediate staging ground. During the crucial period, West Germany did not react at all, and indeed sought to hide the fact that they were allowing the United States to conduct this operation in part from German soil. As soon as Israel was out of immediate danger, though, the West Germans protested to the US government that this use of air bases in West Germany violated West German neutrality. As the historian Michael Wolffsohn (1988, 39) put it, “Through its attitude, the Brandt/Scheel government killed many birds with one stone: Israel was helped and with it one’s own conscience; to the outside world, one could show how normal the federal German foreign and Near East politics had become.” This is but one example of the West German attempts to appease the Arab world at Israel’s expense during the 1970s and early 1980s. Wolffsohn (1988, 40) describes the change in the Federal Republic’s Israel policy between the governments of Brandt and Schmidt as a major one involving a significantly new style, a move to what he calls “Israel policy without atonement symbolism.” As we will see, this is an apt characterization.

Though the relationship between West Germany and Israel deteriorated steadily through Schmidt’s chancellorship, it moved to a new low when Menachim Begin became Isarel’s prime minister in 1977. Begin was the first Israeli head of government who had personally suffered in the Holocaust; all his predecessors had already been Zionist pioneers in Palestine many years before the Second World War. One might have expected that his attitude would be different towards Germany; indeed, he had long been a vocal opponent of relations with the Federal Republic. Schmidt, however, demonstrated no sensitivity—indeed, substantial insensitivity—to this fact.

Early on in his chancellorship, Schmidt lost favor with Israel by advocating for the rights of Palestinians at the United Nations. Additionally, as we have already seen in his 1977 speech in Auschwitz, he often excluded or downplayed Jewish victimhood in his references to the past. The major crisis, however, developed in late 1980 and early 1981. As part of West Germany’s touted neutral and “normal” posture towards the Mideast, Schmidt and Foreign Minister (p.307) Hans-Dietrich Genscher (FDP) began dealings with Saudi Arabia for a Saudi purchase of West German Leopard 2 tanks. West Germany’s immediate interest in such a sale was to secure the favor of—and thus oil from—the Arab oil suppliers.

Wolffsohn (1988, 40), however, argues that the real goal lay elsewhere: “If one spins the thread of the year 1980/81 (Leopard export) back to 1974 (Germany, as first West European state, self-determination for the Palestinians), doubts about the more short-term considerations are appropriate, and the real goal becomes visible: a new politics of history.” As we will see directly, there is good reason to accept Wolffsohn’s assessment. When the Israelis found out about the West German–Saudi discussion, their relations with West Germany came to a major crisis point. And the struggle played itself out largely in terms of Holocaust guilt and responsibility issues.

When Begin with his hard-line policies came to power in Israel in 1977, Schmidt made no secret of his antipathy to Israel’s new course and leader. Indeed, the West German government had attempted to head off the new Israeli hard line even before the new government came into power. In the fall of 1977, the federal government issued a statement saying that they wholeheartedly supported the European Community’s peace initiative, which called for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. This was, of course, unacceptable to the Israelis, who responded that they expected more support from, and closer consultation with, the Federal Republic than they had been afforded. Schmidt also traveled to Egypt at the end of 1977 to express his admiration and support for the Egyptian leader, Anwar Sadat. In contrast, he had been avoiding an invitation to Israel for more than four years. A further West German provocation occurred when former Chancellor Brandt met with PLO leader Yassar Arafat in July 1978.

At about that time, the Jerusalem Post published an interview in which it quoted Schmidt as saying that Israel was following a dangerous path;4 and Schmidt also later let it be known within government circles that he viewed Begin as “a threat to world peace.”5 Begin’s response to the Jerusalem Post interview was quick and vituperative. He said, “Specifically the Germans should keep their advice to themselves. … Europe is soaked with Jewish blood from the Atlantic Ocean to the Volga” (Deutschkron 1991, 408).

(p.308) By the summer of 1980, relations had descended another level. In July of that year, Saudi King el-Asis paid an official visit to Bonn and met there with Chancellor Schmidt to discuss Saudi Arabia’s interest in buying tanks from West Germany, ostensibly to defend against a Soviet invasion. This proposal unleashed a serious debate in the Bundestag, as well as vehement opposition from the Israelis.

Schmidt was scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia in April 1981, and wanted to have a response for the Saudis by then, but because of significant parliamentary opposition he was not able to make a solid promise to deliver the weapons. Before his trip, however, he reacted to Israel’s concerns and vociferous objections by denying that his lack of solid commitment to the Saudis had anything at all to do with a sensitivity to Israel’s demands: “Among all industrial states, Bonn has imposed the greatest hesitancy in the export of weapons and other armaments. It should remain so in the future too. … We do not allow other states to prescribe to us what we do and allow” (quoted in Deutschkron 1991, 417). Before the issue was finally decided in May 1982, however, the memory-political dimension of the issue became startlingly clear. On his return trip from Saudi Arabia on April 30, 1981, Schmidt is credited with having said that West German foreign policy could no longer be held hostage to Auschwitz (Wolffsohn 1988, 42). This comment, though not absolutely confirmable, ranks among the most famous utterances on the past by any West German leader in the forty years of its history.

However, what Schmidt said in a German television interview on April 30—that is, upon his return—is certain.6 In that interview he offered some general remarks about the impact of the Nazi past on West German foreign relations, arguing rather peculiarly that relations with Saudi Arabia were somehow easier because Germany owed the Saudis nothing from the past:

And we Germans also have, for once in the world, an historical advantage there [Saudi Arabia]. We are otherwise burdened, terribly, with guilt that a previous generation loaded upon itself, but on us too in the process.

The entire moral, historical baggage [Gepäck] that I would like once to refer to with the keyword “Auschwitz,” burdens the present generation and burdens our foreign politics. We have burdens in regard to the Dutch, in regard to the Danes, in regard to the Norwegians, where we marched in under Hitler’s (p.309) leadership; in regard to the French, in regard to the Greeks, in regard to the Italians, to name only some.

In regard to the current context, he argued: “These Arab peoples are in this way seemingly the only ones in the world who have had no negative experiences with the Germans. One should not forget that. It plays a role in the open friendliness with which they have met us halfway.” Schmidt, of course, did not mention that the “historically friendly relations” between Germany and the Arab world—which went back as far as the Ottoman Empire—had especially flourished during the Nazi period, when Arab leaders cooperated enthusiastically with Nazi policies. Indeed, German anti-Semitism was a very positive attraction for many in the Arab world during the Second World War.

It seems as if Schmidt was expressing how wonderful it was to be able to deal, for once, from a position of normalcy rather than guilt. The most important feature of the statement quote above, however, was his careful listing of those to whom West Germany owed an historical burden: Israel or the Jews were remarkably absent, or at least consigned to a category of “and many others, too.” This served to diminish the obvious prominence of guilt to the Jews as a category apart. In addition, Schmidt argued that he considered West Germany to have a moral obligation to the Palestinians, considering Germany’s own experience with refugees and expellees. On top of that, the remarks came on the Israeli day of remembrance for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust (Deutschkron 1991, 419). Where political scientist Peter Reichel, in another context, characterized the multiple meanings of November 9 as a “grace of the calendar,” this was more of a disgrace.

The response from Begin was quite harsh and included a devastating ad hominem attack on Schmidt (Deutschkron 1991, 419–21). Begin argued that it was unacceptable “to say to the German people that it has an obligation to the Palestinians, but not to say to the German people that it is obligated to the Israeli people in this and all coming generations!” He said it was “naked arrogance and freshness” to tell the Jews of his generation that Germany had a debt to the Arabs. Begin went on to attack Schmidt personally by insinuating that he had had connections to the purges following the Twentieth of July attempt on Hitler’s life. Begin’s reference was both obscure and without foundation: “Here it is a matter of the arrogance of a man who, in a particular room in Hitler’s presence, was a witness as generals who wanted to expurgate the devil in 1944 were hung on piano strings. I believe that I am not the only one who knows who was present there.” Here Begin was alluding to a rumor that Schmidt had been present at a screening of a film of the execution (p.310) of generals involved in the Twentieth of July conspiracy. Begin later recanted on the details, but not on the thrust, by saying the event in question was not a film screening but a trial (Deutschkron 1991, 421). In a subsequent session of the Israeli Knesset, Begin continued the attack by saying that Schmidt had remained true to his loyalty oath to Hitler, and had remained a faithful officer until the very end. This was Begin’s real point, and it was perhaps the most devastating accusation because it challenged a basic German claim about the innocence of the common soldier.

Begin’s remarks were met with outrage in the Federal Republic. Leaders across the political spectrum denounced such personal accusations. Schmidt is also reported to have said that he would continue to refuse to visit Israel until he received a personal apology. No such apology was given. Indeed, Begin added a demand that Schmidt make a gesture similar to the one Brandt had made at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial.

Schmidt recognized very quickly, though, that his attempt to demonstrate the normalcy of West German Mideast policy had failed, and that the associated attempt to rework German historical responsibility—however extreme Begin’s attack—had done significant damage. According to Wolffsohn (1988, 42), in order to repair some of this damage to West Germany’s reputation in regard to historical burdens, Schmidt had copies of the speech he had given in 1978 on the fortieth anniversary of Kristallnacht, in which he avowed acceptance of special Jewish claims on West Germany, rereleased to a wider public.

Nonetheless, the damage was done. Begin’s attacks had succeeded in raising questions in the historical record about West German exculpatory strategies. How valid were claims that normal Wehrmacht soldiers bore no responsibility for the “Final Solution?” I will turn to this issue later in this chapter, and to Schmidt’s Kristallnacht speech promptly. But while it is impossible to determine the concrete role Begin’s denunciations or the issue of responsibility to Israel generally played in the West German decision, by May 1982 the Bundestag did finally and absolutely reject the Schmidt-Genscher deal with Saudi Arabia. By then, of course, Schmidt’s government had other problems.

Guilt and Expiation: Kristallnacht Past and Present

As already discussed in the first pages of this book, on November 9, 1938, on the anniversary of a failed Nazi putsch, the Gestapo unleashed a vicious pogrom against Jewish businesses, places of worship, and homes. Synagogues were burned to the ground, stores looted, arrests made, and many people hurt (p.311) or killed. This so-called “Night of Broken Glass” or Kristallnacht was a most infamous date in a most infamous period. As such, it required acknowledgment from West Germany’s leaders—though, as we will see, it received more attention later than earlier.

In the early years of the Federal Republic, Kristallnacht was marked only occasionally, and never in significant detail at the federal level; the statements were few and far between. One of the first such statements was by the mayor of West Berlin, Ernst Reuter (SPD), in a short radio address he gave on November 9, 1951. Reuter described Kristallnacht as “a day with which a new chapter of injustice in the name of Germany was begun, whose consequences peaked with horrible logic in war, murder, and destruction until the catastrophe came, the consequences of which we [the Germans, particularly in Berlin] are still suffering and will suffer for a long time.” Additionally, Reuter described Kristallnacht as standing for “an inexorable logic of criminal insanity. … This night was the beginning of a will to destruction that increased from year to year until it set peoples and areas of the world in flames and finally let Germany and the German people sink in an almost hopeless abyss.” While he acknowledged the importance of remembering Kristallnacht for the purpose of avoiding a repetition, he also included standard defenses about German victims, as well as passive constructions about the crime having been done, and only by a small group. What is perhaps more interesting, though, is that Reuter characterized Kristallnacht as having been connected to the “German catastrophe” of May 1945, as being an early indicator of what was to come. While he did not mention Hitler’s rise in 1933 as the root of the problem, he nevertheless gave some acknowledgment that the real problem had come before the “catastrophe” of 1945 (though perhaps it was only 1938). Reuter, a former Communist, had himself been imprisoned in a concentration camp, and had spent the war years in Turkish exile.

The only official printed response to the twentieth anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1958 was an extremely brief message from Adenauer to the Central Council of Jews in Germany, as well as an interview he granted to the Jewish-German newspaper Allgemeine Wochenzeitung der Juden in Deutschland (General Weekly Newspaper of Jews in Germany). The only significant aspect of the brief message was that Adenauer mentioned the reparations agreement; he referred as well to a gradual (and, in truth, minimal) reawakening of Jewish life in Germany as a sign of the success of his reparations policy. Adenauer discussed these same issues in the interview. His main point was to emphasize that the history of West Germany over the previous nine years had been a successful one that had included the overcoming of old attitudes. He (p.312) pointed to the number of revived Jewish communities in Germany (seventy-three) and to the fact that of the 267 destroyed synagogues, 12 had been rebuilt. He mentioned as well that anti-Semitism had been overcome, aside from occasional individual cases. Reminiscing about his interview with the same editor (again, the unfortunately-named Karl Marx) nine years earlier, his first interivew as Chancellor, he repeated that he had viewed the respect for differing beliefs and backgrounds to be the essence of Christian belief, which had its “blackest day” on November 9, 1938.

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1963, again the only mention was a small notice, this time from Chancellor Erhard, in the Allgemeine Wochenzeitung. As in his other speeches, Erhard included a bit more description than Adenauer: “At that time the open persecution of the German Jews, our fellow citizens, began with robbery, murder and violence. The synagogues went up in flames.” Erhard drew a general lesson: “The best that we can do is take to heart the warning. Contemplation on the ninth of November should strengthen our will to make sure we protect freedom and dignity of man as the highest good.”

It was not until the fortieth anniversary of Kristallnacht, in 1978, that there were major addresses by national leaders. One of these was the speech at the synagogue in Cologne that Schmidt later used, in the midst of the above reported controversy with Begin and in face of doubts over his own attitudes towards the past, as evidence of his unequivocal acceptance of Germany’s collective responsibility. Federal President Walter Scheel, as well as Bundestag President Karl Carstens (CDU), who would later succeeed Scheel as federal president, also presented interesting remarks.

Scheel delivered his speech on television and radio (thus a much more public presentation than previous guilt occasions) on the eve of the anniversary—that is, November 8. In his speech, Scheel provided remarkable admissions of responsibility and even of guilt, in both substance and grammar (though of course such admissions fit the occasion, which is the quintessential guilt occasion). He began by listing some of the statistical results of the events, but then added, “Millions of Germans saw it, and they did nothing or could not do anything against it.” He said as well that

only a few Germans had the courage after the ninth of November, 1938, to face up to the consequences of the pogrom. But we of today view the whole context. We may not circumvent the truth, not even when it is painful and shaming.

The injustice that we did to others came back terribly on ourselves. The outrage of 1938 ended in the defeat of 1945.

(p.313) Scheel thus drew a connection between the misdeeds of Kristallnacht—the racist crimes of the Nazis—and the total collapse of Germany in 1945. And, in speaking of people being unwilling or unable to prevent the misdeeds, as well as not having the insight to see the consequences, he left a larger door open for a general political guilt of adults of the time. By the same token, Scheel said that the Germans had failed to stop it, rather than perpetrating or supporting it themselves.

For his part, in a statement before the Bundestag, Karl Carstens rather strangely combined a number of different historical events. He began by talking about the founding of the Weimar Republic sixty years earlier, recounting the events in some detail. Only then did he turn to “a further occurrence from our recent history: forty years ago, on the ninth of November, the first systematic and extensive persecution of the Jews began.” Carstens uncritically drew a loose cause-and-effect relationship—as the Nazis had—between Kristallnacht and the murder of a German consular official in Paris by a young German-Polish Jew, which the Nazis took as the proximate occasion for the revenge pogrom. He characterized the day as “only a beginning,” thus again identifying Kristallnacht as the starting point of the horrors to follow.

Chancellor Schmidt’s speech in the synagogue in Cologne combined traditional defense mechanisms, historical explanation, and acceptance of a generally conceived responsibility. He began by describing the events in the pogrom, and referred to it as “a station on the way to hell.” He then listed some results: the numbers of people dead, arrested, and so on. He finally mentioned the decision made three years later to carry out the “Final Solution.” Schmidt also said it was essential to accept the truths of the day, which he construed as follows:

The truth is also that very many Germans disapproved of the crimes and offenses; and that in the same way, very many at that time learned nothing or almost nothing of it.

The truth is that at the same time that this occurred before the eyes of a great number of German citizens, and that a further proportion gained immediate knowledge of the occurrences.

The truth is that most people remained fearfully silent, and that the churches too remained fearfully silent—although synagogue and church serve the same God and are grounded in the spirit of the same testament.

Schmidt went on to evaluate these facts by adopting a position from the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. Twenty-five years earlier, Buber had given a speech (p.314) in the Frankfurt Paulskirche in which he said that he could not hate people for not being willing to become martyrs. Schmidt concurred in this position, though he added that indeed there were many who had been willing to become martyrs. He quoted the opposition member General Henning von Tresckow, who, when arrested by the Nazis, said he hoped that as God had spared Sodom for ten good men, history would spare Germany for the attempts of the small opposition.7

Having established this defense, Schmidt went on to inquire into the causes of the events, which he openly characterized as a collective crime, though he did not explain what he meant by that term: “How could this terrible collective crime happen? What had gone before that such an outrageous collective crime could without impediment come to pass through many perpetrators? How could it come in the German Reich to that process preceding the crimes of the dissolution of the German-Jewish connection?” Schmidt answered these questions in terms of the lack of support for democracy in the Weimar Republic:

The generations of that time could in 1933, 1935, or 1938 no longer prevent an antihuman dictatorship because the democracy proclaimed in 1918 had already slipped out of their hands, even before they had consciously accepted and unfolded the democracy. …

Many understood democracy only as technique, and not as a moral attitude by which the dignity of man is the highest basic principle.

Schmidt argued that the social and economic problems—the overwhelming sense of deprivation and defeat—resulting from the worldwide economic crisis, as well as the Treaty of Versailles, had made people ripe for scapegoats:

Many Germans of that period who in part saw themselves robbed of the protections favoring their old entrenched privileges, who in the other part saw themselves robbed of their shimmering idols, who in the third part were deeply disappointed over the outcome of the war, the meaninglessness of the sacrifice, and the shrinking of the Reich—they all scorned and hated the democracy and the democrats because they sought guilty ones at whom they could direct their anger.

(p.315) We will need to recall this argument ten years later in the context of the Jenninger scandal, when Jenninger was attacked for making sense of historical German perceptions.

Because the Jews were the embodiment of principles of emancipation and enlightenment associated with democracy, Schmidt said, the population was ready to accept them as scapegoats. The problem, though, was not simple anti-Semitism per se, which had existed for a long time, and by no means only in Germany; it was the lack of appreciation for democracy and humanity.

It was Hitler and his associates who with unparalleled criminal energy led Germany and its Jews and our neighboring peoples into the catastrophe—but the ground had already been prepared. The socialization to democracy, the socialization to one’s own judgment, the socialization to humanity, the socialization to dignity and freedom of person had already been insufficient for generations.

Notable here was the equal placement of Germany, Jews, and neighboring people as the victims of Hitler; all had had the catastrophe brought over them passively. In this, Schmidt sounded similar to Adenauer. He also added that “only the labor movement” had provided a foundation for solid democratic values. And in this he echoed Schumacher.

With this explanation of origins, Schmidt sought to understand the legacy; he argued that the goal was to learn how to live together. Of course, he provided the almost universal preface about the change of generations: he said that the lessons were for the sake of “those who were children at that time, or who were born later—that is, in Germany, more than two-thirds of all citizens.” He warned against assigning any blame to those subsequent generations:

The point cannot be to throw our people into the guilt dungeon of history. I repeat what I said in Auschwitz: the Germans living today are most often not guilty. But we have to carry the political inheritance of the guilty and to draw the consequences from it. Here lies our responsibility.

It would be dishonest and otherwise dangerous to want to burden the younger generation with guilt. But it [the younger generation] carries our history with it, it [the guilt] is—as we are ourselves—part of our history. The involvement leads us into responsibility for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. But I add to that with great emphasis: young Germans too can still become guilty if they do not recognize their present and future responsibility that grows out of the events of that time.

(p.316) Schmidt thus provided, despite his defensive preface, a rather clear definition of the collective responsibility that the younger generation must accept. Part of this responsibility was to resist what he described as the fear, insanity, and hysteria out of which aggressiveness grew and could grow, and which, according to him, had characterized the events leading up to and following Kristallnacht.

Schmidt added two further interesting points. First, he made a concession to Israel by asking for Jewish input into the upcoming final debate about the statute of limitations.8 Second, he added a statement of support for the right of existence of all parties in the Middle East conflict, including the Palestinians.

The Growing Legitimacy of Commitment

These were only some of the serious problems Schmidt faced in his second term. These were years of important change in West German society as well as in the international order. Internationally, the delicate détente achieved in the late Sixties and the first half of the Seventies dissolved as US President Jimmy Carter abandoned the policy of small steps and compromise in favor of absolute moral principles on human rights.

Within West Germany, the Green Party emerged as a real national force, while the CDU and CSU regrouped and revived. Within the conservative bloc, there had been a long-standing controversy between the CDU and the CSU which now devolved to the point of a threatened split. The problem involved an internal power struggle between the CDU leader, Helmut Kohl, and Franz-Josef Strauß, the leader of the CSU and a perennial controversial figure. Strauß was an intolerable figure to anyone on the left (recalling the Spiegel affair), and to many within the CDU as well. On the other hand, Strauß continually lambasted Kohl as being unsuited to the chancellor candidacy. An agreement was reached whereby Strauß would be the candidate in 1980. Many commentators have speculated that this was the major reason why the CDU/CSU lost that election. Additionally, the possibility of Strauß as chancellor may have been a prime factor in deterring the FDP from forming a coalition with the CDU/CSU. After his loss, Strauß largely removed himself from the national stage, returning to Bavaria to be minister-president.

(p.317) By 1979, victories in state elections had produced a CDU/CSU majority in the Federal Assembly. Thus, though Walter Scheel had been a relatively popular president and would have served a second term, the CDU/CSU used its advantage to nominate and elect one of its own, Karl Carstens, to succeed Scheel as president. Carstens was a well-respected and prominent political figure throughout much of the history of the Federal Republic. He had been a professor of law, and had served as a state secretary in various ministries and finally as president of the Bundestag. There were, however, at least two major problems. First, the idea of having a federal president from the ranks of the opposition was one met with skepticism and concern by many; Carstens was, however, largely able to reassure those concerns. Second, as a young man Carstens had joined the Nazi party. But such activities had not proved much of a stumbling block in very many cases in the past, and with the exception of some negative commentary, Carstens survived this liability relatively unscathed.

Carstens began his inaugural address by pointing out that the assembled joint session of Bundestag and Bundesrat emphasized the federal character of the West German government. As was usual in such speeches, he warned against the tendency towards centralized power—a tendency, he implied, of Social Democratic ideology. In a vivid demonstration of dialogical rhetoric, Carstens then went on to present a review and characterization of his predecessors in the office of president. He praised Theodor Heuss for his moral message after the horrors of the past: “To the Horrors of the death camps, to the relationship between Germans and Jews, about the role of the Bundeswehr, about the freedom of citizens, Heuss made fundamental statements that today are still effective.” Lübke he praised for being a “trustee of the nation” and for his humanitarian concern for the Third World; Heinemann he characterized as a reformer; and Scheel as raising basic issues of German society in “an always more technologized world.” This listing of matters handled by his predecessors had the effect of placing the issue of atonement for the past as a problem in the first years of the Republic, and thus as something distant and accomplished. While he said otherwise elsewhere, as we will see in the next chapter, in this general legitimacy claim he portrayed such matters as no longer pressing. The administrative tasks had been accomplished. Beyond this, the way in which Carstens reviewed the contributions of his predecessors is a clear demonstration of the operation of genre memory; here Carstens was seeking not only to provide a memory of memory, but to orient his own work within the tradition of his predecessors. This is something, of course, that his predecessors could not have done. This too was an implication of the review.

In mentioning the thirtieth anniversary of the Federal Republic, Carstens (p.318) argued that “the most important consequence that we should draw from the historical retrospect is our conviction and preparedness to maintain the free order on which this development depended.” The legitimacy claim here was thus based on a very general use of history as a source for values, though he did not spell them out here in their particulars. At the same time, Carstens advocated an increased emphasis on historical consciousness in the area of education:

In my opinion, German culture and particularly German history should be dealt with more strongly than before in the schools, German history with its highs and lows, and with the goal to show how German history has begun in the last thirty years to become more and more a part of a collective European history.

He also advocated for a normalization of the history of the Federal Republic itself:

I plead that our constitution, our Basic Law, be handled more thoroughly in the schools, and that the chances that exist for the self-realization of young people in freedom be shown. At the same time, the free origins of our Basic Law—the Weimar Constitution and the Frankfurt Constitution of 1849—should be illustrated. The great names of the most important framers of these constitutions should be presented to our younger generation, just as the founding fathers of his country are made known to every young American.

As we have already started to see, this idea of Germany’s long-standing liberal tradition was beginning to receive much more play, since Schmidt, than it ever had in earlier years. It was only after thirty years of successful democracy that it had seemed safe and compelling to look at the positive side of the Weimar Republic (thus no longer conceiving of that period as a total disaster with no redeeming qualities). Until then, moreover, Heuss had been the only one to put a great deal of emphasis on reference to 1848, as he did in his 1949 inaugural address. The reference here to “German history with its highs and lows” would also become an emblem of the coming epoch, “the normal nation.” But like subsequent speakers, Carstens certainly meant as much, or even more: a revival of interest in Germany’s longer history, and a reduced focus on the Nazi period.

Another important theme for Carstens, and a sort of interpolation in tradition, was nature, in the form of the German landscape as an essential national (p.319) treasure. Indeed, Carstens became famous for his walking tours through all parts of West Germany. In his plea for a renewed awareness of Germany’s beauty, there were perhaps echoes of a more Romantic national feeling. Indeed, he concluded his inaugural speech by answering Heinemann’s description of Germany’s burdens in the idea of a “difficult fatherland”: Carstens said he wanted to serve for “the benefit of our country, our—despite the heavy burdens it carries—loved fatherland.”

On the fortieth anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War—September 1, 1979—Carstens also gave a brief radio and television address, and Schmidt published articles in the French newspaper Le Figaro and in the German Bergsdorfer Zeitung (just one place in which the same article appeared). Both Carstens and Schmidt adopted Heinemann’s high level of generality, and Schmidt advanced a theory of political stability based on Germany’s geographical and “moral” position in the center of Europe. Carstens commemorated the war which, he said, had “lasted five years and eight months” and had “destroyed the German reputation in the world and created the prerequisite for the division of Germany and Europe.” (For other commentators, of course, as well as on Kristallnacht, Germany’s reputation had already been in ruins before the war, and the relevant period under consideration was usually thirteen years, not five.) Carstens’s only foray into issues of responsibility and guilt here included the succinct but unspecified statement that “Germans at that time brought heavy guilt on themselves. We think in this regard about the abomination of the concentration and extermination camps [this was a first for such a distinction in political rhetoric], the million-count murder of Jews and their comrades in suffering.” Carstens followed this directly with an acknowledgment of the opposition. He concluded these references by stating firmly and simply, “As far as this there is a broad consensus in our people.”

Carstens also said, however, that he had to respond to a difference of opinion in the public which, in the context of the peace movement of the time, was the source of great concern. He sought to protect the reputation of the common soldier in the Second World War, perhaps (though he did not say this) to shore up the reputation of soldierly duty in general in the divisive climate of the present. Carstens thus complained:

Many, above all in the younger generation, are not prepared to concede honorable thoughts and actions to those who fought and suffered on the fronts and who died by the millions. They are missing the experience of inner conflict in which the soldier of that time stood. Most believed they were fighting for their Heimat, and nevertheless knew or guessed that at the same time they were (p.320) keeping a system of injustice alive whose disrespect for people had nothing in common with the Germany for which they were fighting.

Those who lost their lives in the process deserve our honorable commemoration just as did the many Germans who found death as civilians in the Heimat.

Such an admission, that the ordinary German soldier had had a hint that he was serving injustice, was of course new. Nevertheless, arguments like this laid the groundwork for the Bitburg affair that would take place in 1985.

In his September 1 article in Le Figaro, Schmidt expressed his hesitancy to address the occasion at all, especially to a French audience: “Couldn’t the mention injure someone or the other who still carries the sorrows inflicted on him?” He said he had finally chosen to make a statement because “we Germans are accountable for our history. … There is no other political occurrence in the twentieth century that changed the social and political situation in Europe, in the world, and in Germany so radically and so enduringly.” Presumably, this included January 30, 1933, the Nazi seizure of power. Out of this historical fact, Germany had a collective responsibility, which Schmidt described thus: “I am not speaking of a collective guilt of all Germans. I am speaking of a common German responsibility: just as the individual cannot remain indifferent in regard to the injustice that a member of his family does or has done, so little can he divide himself from what has happened in the living area and in the name of his people.” According to Schmidt, West Germany had behaved in accordance with this responsibility, pursuing reparations and peace treaties with France and the East. The memory of this memory was a resource.

In both the French article and the one published in a German newspaper on the same day, Schmidt presented an argument about Germany’s geographical position in Europe, and about the consequences of the war for that position and for current policy. According to Schmidt, Germany’s role in the middle of Europe was not simply to politically balance East and West, but was also to “give room for the different flows and streams of European culture and civilization; for meeting and mixing, for controversy and mutual respect.” Schmidt characterized the war (“Hitler’s war”) as being directed “against this historical task of Germany in Europe.”

Regarding the policy implications of the war’s outcome, he argued, “With the defeat of Germany this possibility of the middle and of mediation is destroyed for an unlimited time.” Out of this result, Schmidt outlined three policy tasks: the securing of peace; good neighborliness; and political, economic and cultural cooperation in Europe. For Schmidt, the means to fulfill these (p.321) goals were the “balance of defense powers,” and “membership in the Atlantic Alliance.” His more general conclusion, and perhaps the more relevant one in the context of debates about West Germany’s role in NATO, was: “We may not be undependable.” Here we see the enduring power of initial tropes, even in very changed geopolitical circumstances: reliability redux.


(1.) “Risk” was also becoming a buzzword of sorts for social scientists of the time. The anthropologist Mary Douglas and the political scientist Aaron Wildavsky published their important book Risk and Culture in 1980. The sociologist Ulrich Beck published his well-known treatise Risikogesellschaft in 1986; the English version, Risk Society, first appeared in 1992.

(2.) In the first years of the Federal Republic, the Adenauer government had undertaken an extensive program of “equalizing burdens’” (Lastenausgleich), not only for the expellees from Eastern territories but for war damages more broadly. The term “equalization of burdens” refers to a complex arrangement whereby those who lost property in the war, or after the war by expulsion from their homes, were compensated by the federal government to some proportional degree for their losses. In addition, Article 131 of the Basic Law reinstated civil servant pensions for those who had served the Third Reich, including soldiers and widows. See Schillinger (1985) and Hughes (1999).

(3.) In fact, Schmidt revealed in 1980 (though it did not become widely known) that his father was Jewish. Before that, according to Schmidt, this had been a secret he held tightly within his intimate circle.

(4.) The interview was in the July 22, 1979, edition of the Jerusalem Post. The press spokesman of the Federal Republic later denied the accuracy of the quote.

(5.) This statement was attributed to Schmidt in the September 9, 1980, edition of the West German news magazine Der Spiegel.

(6.) This interview took place on a program called Television Discussion, on the major West German television network, ARD. Several journalists questioned Schmidt and engaged in discussion with him.

(7.) I examine speeches commemorating the July 20, 1944, opposition as a model case in the conclusion.

(8.) Recall that in 1965 the limitation was extended four years, to account for the four years after the war and before the Federal Republic existed. In 1969 the Bundestag voted to add an additional ten years to the statute. Finally, in 1979, soon after this speech, the statute of limitations on crimes against humanity was once and for all eliminated entirely.