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A Nation Deals Honestly with its Historical Sin

A series of political, cultural, and social events in the early 1980s led to many Germans to deal honestly with the Nazi horrors of the past. Before 1980 most Germans regarded themselves as victims of the Second World War. Vast numbers had lost family members, friends, colleagues. As the post-war generation was coming of age, "more and more Germans came to grasp the enormity of Nazi crimes against others, especially Jews." The actions of the nationally repentant were numerous and mostly local.

In schools and communities, research soared, as ordinary people … got to work. Teachers, housewives, retirees, and students researched what happened in their neighborhoods. They affixed plaques to destroyed and desecrated synagogues, and restored local cemeteries (often with the help of Jews who could read the Hebrew inscriptions). They figured out the places where Jewish people were deported from and where the barracks of nearby concentration subcamps were located. They also established an enormous network of contacts.

In many communities, Germans wrote letters to Jews who were forced to emigrate or had lost kin in the Holocaust. They wrote to get their stories. They wrote to help identify other Jews from the city, town, or neighborhood. And they wrote to invite them back. In large and small cities communities invited Jewish people to return for a “visitor week,” with the communities typically paying for travel and lodging. People gave speeches, wrote articles, and even books. Some local historians wrote about nefarious hometown Nazis. Other historians worked out the fate that befell local Jews, “members of our community,” as many Germans began to call them.

This German-version of the civil rights movement, if it may be called that, dramatically changed how people in the Federal Republic thought about their history and who belonged to it.

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