How Germany Avoided Its Own ‘Lost Cause’ Movement
Readers respond to our December 2022 cover story and more.
Monuments to the Unthinkable
America still can’t figure out how to memorialize the sins of our history, Clint Smith wrote in the December 2022 issue. What can we learn from how Germany remembers the Holocaust?
Thank you for this engaging article. As I read it, I could feel Mr. Smith’s empathy for the victims of the Holocaust and their families. I’ve never had much of an inclination to travel to Germany, but after reading this article, I would really like to follow the path he took. It would be great if The Atlantic could publish a sister article by a German writer providing their perspective on visiting museums and historical sites in America that pertain to the story of African Americans.
I visited Dachau in 1985, when I was 20 and traveling through Europe. My friends and I were shocked that it was just a short walk from a town where “regular people” lived (and still do). It was incredibly disturbing.
After the tour, we made our way back to the train station. We had 45 minutes to wait before the next train to Munich, so we went to a café across the street. When we entered, two older men—in their late 50s or early 60s—came over to speak with us. They asked, in English, if we had toured the camp. They then proceeded to explain that they had grown up in Dachau and had been teenagers during the war. They tried to convince us that no one in the town had known what was going on. That was more disturbing than what we had seen in the camp. It was so obviously false: No one living in the town of Dachau could have been unaware of what was happening—the trains, the smoke, the smells.
I cannot describe how my blood still runs cold thinking of those two men, retired from their trades but spending their days waiting by the train station to attempt to convince strangers that the townspeople had been ignorant and innocent. I hope they eventually came to recognize their town’s complicity. As teenagers, they may have had no ability to make a difference, but as adults, they should have recognized the horror. That they were not doing so 40 years later was a shocking lesson for me.
New York, N.Y.
I traveled to Germany in 2019 on vacation. At the time, concerns about rising anti-Semitism led many friends to question my decision. But we stuck to our plan and framed our trip around historical sites, visiting not just the memorials and museums that Smith discusses but also cities and towns where we learned a wealth of Jewish history—often in places where today a single Jewish person is unlikely to reside.
Memories of the atrocities of the Holocaust are present on every corner in Germany. They are hard to miss—and therefore hard to forget. But memorials and museums can only go so far. They can educate and start a conversation, but it’s what people choose to do with this knowledge that will truly make a difference.
Silver Spring, Md.
In 2007, as a high-school student, I visited Auschwitz, Birkenau, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and the Jewish Museum Berlin as part of an educational trip in the footsteps of the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. Smith’s description of standing in the gas chamber at Dachau moved me to tears. Capturing the complexities of remembrance is difficult, and Smith approaches the subject with deep thoughtfulness and sensitivity. With national-survey results indicating that nearly two-thirds of Millennial and Gen Z Americans do not know that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, Smith’s reporting is all the more crucial.
I served as a soldier in Germany for seven years during the Cold War. “Monuments to the Unthinkable” made me reflect on the memorials to the Holocaust that I saw—they were overwhelming. I took no photographs; to do so seemed almost sacrilegious.
Anyone who has lived in Germany will recall that the World War II monuments there honor the victims—those killed in the Holocaust, those who died opposing Hitler’s regime. There are no monuments to German generals, only graves of individual soldiers in cemeteries throughout the country. These are not heroic testaments to military deeds but somber places of final rest. As an observer once put it: “We do not honor them for what they did for Germany; we mourn that they had to pointlessly die.”
Germans didn’t avoid their own “Lost Cause” movement by accident. At the end of World War II, the Allies set policies to ensure that there would be no tolerance for anything memorializing German military traditions or the Nazi Party. The Allies understood the importance of ensuring that everyone, Germans especially, faced the realities of what took place from 1933 to 1945. And that meant ensuring that there would be no myths glorifying military figures.
This established an environment that required the defeated Germany to face responsibility for what happened. The defeated American South never faced such a reckoning, and we still live with the consequences.
Peter V. Huisking
Sierra Vista, Ariz.
I am from Germany and am now 86 years old. I was born during the Nazi Reich; I was 9 when the war ended and the “enemy” drove through our village. I didn’t realize it was a liberation until later, but I’ve always been grateful for it.
Every year on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, November 9, my eldest daughter and I polish the 100 Stolpersteine in our neighborhood.
Imagine my surprise when someone forwarded me the December issue of The Atlantic. The Stolperstein on the cover is that of my paternal aunt, Marion Ehrlich; my parents named me to honor her memory.
Marion Ehrlich’s brother, Gerd, was my father. When his mother, stepfather, and sister were deported to Auschwitz on November 29, 1942, my father went into hiding. Much has been written about his experience living as a “U-boat.” He remained underground in Berlin until October 1943, when he was betrayed by a fellow Jew.
My mother and father donated my father’s artifacts, which he carried with him as he escaped from Berlin to Switzerland, to the Jewish Museum Berlin. Among that collection is a gown worn by my aunt, Marion.
Thank you for highlighting an individual Stolperstein. It enhances the article by Clint Smith and adds personal context to the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Behind the Cover
In this month’s cover story, “We’re Already in the Metaverse,” Megan Garber considers the dark side of our immersive, always-on entertainment environment. For the cover, we asked the designer and illustrator Shira Inbar to interpret the experience of existing within the metaverse that Garber describes. Employing a retro-futuristic style—lurid colors, diffuse light, a granular texture—Inbar surrounds a figure with a hall-of-mirrors-like series of screens that stretches into an endless void. The result is a canny representation of an uncanny world.
— Gabriela Pesqueira, Associate Art Director
“How Ireland Blundered Into the Modern World” (April 2022) originally stated that Charles Haughey, who became the minister for justice in 1961, oversaw Ireland’s censorship of Casablanca. In fact, the country’s censorship office had banned the film when it was first released, in 1943. “Monuments to the Unthinkable” (December 2022) originally misstated the year in which Dachau was built. It was built in 1933.
This article appears in the March 2023 print edition with the headline “The Commons.”