ZOiS Spotlight 9/2023

Blind Spots in German Historical Awareness: Occupied Ukraine in the Second World War

by Tatjana Tönsmeyer 03/05/2023

As the war against Ukraine continues, the 78th anniversary of the end of the Second World War is approaching in the coming days. For large sections of the civilian population, war means occupation, as is evident again in Ukraine today – but there is little awareness of this in Germany, despite its history.

Example of the early culture of remembrance in Germany that does not explicitly mention the Shoa: memorial at the Jewish cemetery ‘Weinberg’, Wuppertal, inaugurated in 1955. Frank Vincentz / CC BY-SA 3.0

Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.

The war in Ukraine has now lasted more than 14 months – and the 78th anniversary of the end of the Second World War is approaching in the coming days. Notwithstanding the diversity of Germany’s commemorative efforts, there are still some blind spots, as Russia’s war against Ukraine has shown. They include a lack of knowledge of what occupation meant or means for the people who had to – or have to – endure it. This article looks at how this knowledge gap came about and what its effects may be.

The silence about National Socialist crimes in the young Federal Republic

Confronting German society with the National Socialist (NS) crimes was one of the first tasks on the Allies’ agenda. However, many Germans saw themselves as victims and refused to accept any responsibility. Their own participation in crimes was hushed up. ‘The occupiers’ were other people – the ‘Russians’ (‘Russia’ was used as convenient shorthand for the Soviet Union for some time) and the Western allies. As a consequence, the culture of remembrance focused mainly on Germany’s own victims.

Even references to the victims of the Shoah – the mass murder of the Jewish population – were oblique at first, as epitomised by typical memorial inscriptions such as ‘In memory of the victims of hate – lest future generations forget, 1933-1945’. With surveys showing that around one citizen in three in the Federal Republic held anti-Semitic views, the surviving victims could only speak about their suffering under the conditions imposed by mainstream society – in other words, by sparing that society the task of directly confronting these crimes.

Eastern European victims vanished behind the Iron Curtain. During the Cold War, and with anti-communism undiminished, they were often unrecognised even by their own governments and had few opportunities to make their voices heard in the German public sphere. News from ‘the East’ was generally regarded as propaganda, and there was a widely held belief that the Wehrmacht’s hands were clean.

German narratives about 8 May

Early discussion of the National Socialist past was dominated mainly by the generation that had experienced it, by those who had known war and occupation but did not want to face up to these realities. With the trials that took place in the 1960s, however, the crimes began to permeate German public consciousness to a greater extent and 9 November became a day of remembrance for the Jewish victims.

For other groups of victims, commemoration on 8 May – the day on which the Second World War ended – might have been considered, but the Federal Republic struggled with that for a long time. In his address on the 20th anniversary of the end of the war in 1965, Federal Chancellor Ludwig Erhard said that this involved looking back to a world ‘that friend and enemy could no longer fully comprehend’. Five years later, in November 1970, Willy Brandt fell to his knees before the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto fighters – a gesture of empathy which did not find universal favour at home.

The speech by Richard von Weizäcker on 8 May 1985 has also entered the collective memory. It is regarded as a watershed moment due to the Federal President’s framing of 8 May as a day of liberation. It has also been criticised as marking the start of a form of remembrance that identifies with the victims and hence as an attempt to position Germany on the ‘right side’ of history without actually addressing that history. In keeping with tradition, in his speech, the Federal President spared his audience a confrontation with issues of responsibility. Although he referred to a ‘criminal regime’, he painted a largely passive picture of German society and urged that: ‘Everyone who directly experienced that era should today quietly ask himself about his involvement then.’ In other words, not publicly and not judicially.

The path to the present

Since the 1990s, the politics of remembrance have gained considerable momentum: the Nationalist Socialists’ mass murder of the Jews has come to epitomise genocide in what is a now global Holocaust discourse and this is reflected in an ever more sophisticated research and awareness-raising infrastructure. Jewish victims have increasingly acquired a face and a voice in this process. Exhibitions such as ‘Crimes of the Wehrmacht’ and the establishment of a foundation to deal with compensation for forced labourers provide knowledge and keep memory alive on the basis of historical research. This is also reflected in commemorative speeches, such those given by Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Wieluń, Poland, on 1 September 2019 and in Berlin on 18 June 2021 (remembering the 80th anniversary of the start of the Second World War and the anniversary of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, respectively).

Wherever it has been recognised that the Germans themselves were not the main victims of the National Socialist regime and war, this has often been accompanied by the dictum ‘never again’: Auschwitz – never again! War – never again! By contrast, the words ‘Occupation – never again!’ are rarely heard. Notwithstanding all the progress made in memory politics, occupation barely features in the German discourse on commemoration. The silence, described at the start, has led to its being forgotten and there is still a lack of awareness that war and occupation are not identical phenomena and that occupation, as a highly asymmetrical relationship between occupier and occupied, is often extremely hazardous for the latter. If we consider that Ukraine was occupied by Germany between 1941 and 1944, and that a knowledge of occupation therefore once existed in sections of the German population, Ukrainian irritation at such forgetfulness on the Germans’ part is hardly surprising. In the Federal Republic, however, the silence after the war has perpetuated the ongoing lack of awareness of the dangers faced by civilian populations under occupation and thus contributed to a gap in the knowledge of what occupation means: threats, fears, humiliation, physical and mental abuse, hunger, lack of medical care, deportation, rape and other forms of violence.

Occupation a presence again in Ukraine

History does not repeat itself. However, a knowledge of history can raise awareness. And bringing this into the present, as it were, this time in relation to Ukrainian victims, Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in his policy statement on 27 February 2022, commented that ‘many of us still remember our parents’ or grandparents’ tales of war’. Once again, this is about the victims’ experience. But where were these fathers, grandfathers or even great-grandfathers in the war? Thousands of them served as occupiers in Ukraine – a fact which features far less prominently in the intergenerational debate.

Europe at the height of German occupation, 1941-42. Copyright: Morgan Hauser/ CC BY-SA 3.0

Today, it should be recognised that the German occupation during the years of the Second World War forms part of Europe’s dark heritage: at the height of Germany’s expansion of power in 1941/42, around 230 million people lived under German occupation – from Norway to the Greek islands, from the French Atlantic coast to districts deep within the Soviet Union. The renowned British-American historian Tony Judt argued that World War II was primarily ‘a war of occupation’ and as such a civilian experience. This has largely been forgotten in Germany but is present in Ukraine today.

Professor Tatjana Tönsmeyer holds the Chair of Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Wuppertal.