Hill Times October 25, 2021
When Germany was defeated in World War II, infrastructure was ruined, the economy destroyed, separated east from west, and some wondered if the country could ever return to its former influence. Look at Germany now. It’s one of the most influential countries in Europe and the world. To get there, it had to reconcile with the countries it tried to destroy and with groups it tried to kill during the war.
The country and its people were unable to come to grips with their collective history of genocide and the Holocaust in the years following 1944. Lily Gardner Feldman wrote Germany’s Foreign Policy of Reconciliation: From Enmity to Amity. Virtually every German family had members who fought for the Nazis and more who passively supported Nazi action (or did not actively oppose them). She calls the period after the war ‘the big silence’—an era in which Germans didn’t want to talk about the crimes done in the Holocaust, or couldn’t cope with the trauma of accepting shared responsibility, or couldn’t agree on the degree of guilt that should be borne by Germany, or refused to admit there was even crimes done.
Germany chose to pay compensation to Jews and Israel in 1951. The West German chancellor legislated paying “moral and material indemnity” for the “unspeakable crimes … committed in the name of the German people” to Holocaust survivors in 1951. These continue today with an estimated $1.1-billion yearly (separate from restitution to victims). The Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in the mid 1960s, led by Germany to prosecute criminals, also opened up dialogue about shared guilt.
Germany criminalized Holocaust denial in 1994, under its Criminal Code Sec. 130, with sentences of up to five years. It is also illegal to “glorify Nazi rule,” punishable with up to three years in jail.
Actions of successive chancellors have led the reconciliation journey. In 1970, Brandt said “no German is free of history,” a significant move as many in the country still argued that the individual perpetrators were to blame as opposed to the collective guilt of a country which allowed it to happen. Chancellors opened memorials at Dachau and Buchenwald and more sites, commitments to ongoing truth-telling which school kids visit as part of the curriculum. And art exhibitions on the pain and healing from genocide, and thousands of local, regional, and national activities to support ongoing dialogue to ensure that Germans never forget. It all contributed to the national healing, so that Merkel was able in 2015 to quietly ask Japan to take its steps in reconciliation for its actions in WWII.
There are some lessons for Canada in how a country navigates reconciliation.
The balance between collective guilt and individual prosecution. Criminals must be charged. Because it’s the law. Organizations that played a role also need to face any prosecution for their actions, and governments are not above the law. There is a collective guilt to bear and Canada is only just starting to feel it. This will be painful but putting it off will only make it harder.
Teach Canadians about the failures. Build many museums on residential school grounds and show school kids about our history. Take down obscene statues of white men who signed off on potentially criminal policies that led to the deaths of thousands of Indigenous children, and put up memorials to those who we have lost.
Learn and tell the truth. Canada has been a great country for many, but not for all. When leaders attempt to glorify its history, Indigenous peoples are intentionally erased and their experiences denied. Criminalize residential school denial and hate speech against Indigenous peoples.
Legislate reconciliation and take it out of the whims of partisan politics. This is not a “Liberal” platform or a federal issue. Reconciliation is the responsibility of every political leader and elected official, at every level in this country.