Memory and Responsibility in Germany

Time magazine named Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany as its 2015 Person of the Year. She was awarded the honor principally due to her handling of the Greek debt crisis, and the refugee wave overwhelming Europe. In each crisis, she was given credit for not only being tough and fair, but prevailing in keeping the European Union together when each situation threatened to tear the EU apart.

merkel time
Cover of Time Magazine with Angela Merkel
2015 Person of the Year

Merkel also shaped a subtle message over the year: the role of memory and responsibility for individuals and countries.

Personal Actions to Forget

A person’s “Right to be Forgotten” in online searches dates back many years. The “1995 Data Protection Directive” included a clause that an individual had the right to have certain information deleted once it was no longer relevant. That Directive underpinned a 2010 complaint by a Spanish citizen to a local newspaper and Google that personal information that showed up in searches should be removed or altered since the information was no longer correct.

In May 2014, the EU courts ruled that people have some rights to be forgotten, particularly if the information was no longer relevant (a financial hiccup that was fully resolved). The court determined that it would review personal complaints on a case-by-case basis.

In September 2015, France pushed Google to read the EU court ruling broadly, such that the search engine would need to apply individual requests coming from Europe globally, and not limit the “Right to be Forgotten” to searches within Europe.  Europeans cherished their privacy, and wanted their protections everywhere.

National Activities to Remember

In October 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a speech in which he suggested that the idea to kill the Jews in Europe in the 1930s came from the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. While Adolf Hitler may have sought to rid Europe of Jews, it was al Husseini that suggested the “Final Solution.”

German Chancellor Merkel quickly squashed that interpretation of history. Her spokesperson said All Germans know the history of the murderous race mania of the Nazis that led to the break with civilization that was the Holocaust…. This is taught in German schools for good reason, it must never be forgotten. And I see no reason to change our view of history in any way. We know that responsibility for this crime against humanity is German and very much our own.

In an environment where courts were allowing people the “right to be forgotten,” the head of Germany stepped forward to declare that there are things that must never be forgotten. To forget history would ignore responsibility. Such action should never be permitted when the activities were so widespread and heinous, such as Germans drive to exterminate the Jews.

Memory and Responsibility.
Punishment and Forgiveness

In July 2015, history and memory overlapped in Germany.

While Google pushed back against a global order to permit the “right to be forgotten”, two events occurred: a German court found a 94-year old German sergeant from Auschwitz guilty of accessory to 300,000 murders; and over 2,000 Jews from around the world came to Berlin to compete in the Maccabi Games in the same forum as Hitler hosted the 1936 Olympics.

The intersection in time of these events underscores the role that Germany has tried to achieve regarding memory and responsibility, and its ramifications.

While modern Europe sought the right of an individual to escape from being tainted with stale information, Germany made clear that a society must always remember its own past. If some information was no longer relevant as the past situation was fleeting and rectified, perhaps that could be forgotten.  But there are actions that can never be undone, and therefore never removed from consciousness.  Memory demands taking direct responsibility, even decades later.

Germany’s active accounting for its actions paved a path for reconciliation with Jews and the Jewish State of Israel today.  That 2,000 young Jews would return to the very center of the hatred that sought to exterminate them and their families, reveals how memory coupled with responsibility can lead to forgiveness.

Times Magazine honored Merkel with the person of the year award for resolving crises.  In the Greek debt crisis she held firm that Greece could not escape its debt and irresponsible fiscal behavior.  In forcing Greece to confront its past and alter its future behavior, she paved a path for the EU to forgive some of the Greek debt and remain part of the EU.  She similarly showed that she held her own country and people responsible for its own gross failings.

It is a lesson for the world to value as it leaves the year 2015.

Related First.One.Through articles:

A country that will not assume responsibility for its role in the Holocaust: Austria’s View of Kristallnacht

Persecuting the “Other”: The End of Together

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2 thoughts on “Memory and Responsibility in Germany

  1. Pingback: The Last Sounds of “Son of Saul” | FirstOneThrough

  2. Pingback: Israeli Olympians get their #IsraeliLivesMatter Moment | FirstOneThrough

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