Daniel Goldhagen: Turkey should follow Germany's example ... and deal with its history





[Mr. Goldhagen, a member of Harvard's Center for European Studies, won Germany's triennial Democracy Prize in 1997 for his contributions to German democracy for having written "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust."]

... The Turkish government and people should use the Pamuk affair as a spur to rethinking the wisdom of their historical cover-up of the Armenian genocide. And to do that, they should look for guidance to the center of Europe itself, to Germany.

Since 1945, Germans, including German political leaders, have had to struggle with how to confront their country's and countrymen's crimes, chiefly the slaughter of 6 million Jews. This confrontation with historical truth, with their own country's and their own people's souls, with survivors, and with the need to perform repair, has been immensely complex and variable, with substantial successes and continuing failures.

To be sure, there was for decades no great willingness on the part of Germans and their leaders to come clean about what so many of them had willingly done, namely to slaughter Jews and non-Jews in the cause of creating a European Nazi imperium. But they could not deny these truths or completely ignore them: The victorious allies made some semblance of an honest acknowledgment of the past and some considerable reparations to the victims a condition for Germany's re-entry into the community of nations. So German historians and newspapers began writing about the Holocaust, the German government in 1952 signed a reparations agreement with Israel, and the German courts, albeit reluctantly, began to try and convict the murderers.

During the 1950s, 1960s, and even to some considerable extent to this day, these measures have been either extremely unpopular or have at least dissatisfied considerable minorities within Germany. It is not easy to confront the horrific part of one's past, to make good on material and moral debts, and to bend a knee in contrition - as German Chancellor Willy Brandt literally did in 1970, falling to his knees at the site of the destroyed Jewish ghetto in Warsaw.

Yet as many in Germany, particularly its political leaders, slowly and in the 1990s finally came to understand, being truthful about the past and acting to make amends with the victims as best one can - always principally done for pragmatic reasons - neither shames nor weakens Germany, but strengthens it and enhances its standing in the world.

I know this firsthand. In 1996, I published "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust," causing a furor and a sensation in Germany, causing the entire country to undergo - for many an unwanted, for virtually everyone an unpleasant - soul searching about the one central aspect of the Holocaust that had been buried by German scholars, namely that ordinary Germans were not coerced by the Nazi regime to kill Jews but they by and large willingly did so because of their own anti-Semitism. There was an unprecedented and as yet unequalled flood of attention for this. There were national debates. There was much agonizing. Germany's apologists did not want the truths to be discussed, so many attacked my book viciously. But more Germans insisted that the truths had to be known, and the issues had to be worked through. This was all closely watched and reported in the media around the world, sometimes with surprise at how well Germans were accepting the difficult truths, and always with admiration at this aspect of the reaction.

Discussing and being truthful about the past crimes of one's countrymen, and carrying out the duties of repair, while difficult, only brings credit to a people and their country. Can anyone honestly say that Germany, the leading country of Europe, a member of the European and international community in good standing, seen in many ways as a model for others, has suffered for its truthfulness? Has Germany's relations with other countries ever been harmed because of Germany's willingness to acknowledge the crimes of its past? Has the German economy been weakened? Has German culture ceased to flourish?...


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