Project Germany: The past, the present, and peace

Germans' sense of history safeguard for future peace

by Rita Forbes and Valerie German

Our three weeks of McCaleb research were both deeply satisfying and completely exhausting. We traveled to 10 different cities within 22 days, staying in youth hostels and sometimes even the spare bedrooms of new acquaintances.

In a blur, we zigzagged back and forth across Germany, through the Alps, over the Rhine River, and down the streets of cities such as Berlin, Munich and Nuremberg. Our days were filled with brainstorming, researching, conducting lengthy interviews, outlining preliminary drafts of articles, and planning the next stage of the journey. We took advantage of long train rides to transcribe our interview material, bounce ideas off each other, and get some much-needed sleep.

Many of our interview partners generously gave us books, which we eagerly added to our already-heavy backpacks. At the end of the trip, we were each staggering under an additional 10 pounds of reading material.

We expected to learn from the trip. But we had no idea how rich the experience would be. Conducting research in a foreign country is a real privilege. We were able to meet with university professors, museum directors, history teachers, grassroots peace activists, college students and more. These people had breathtaking credentials, intriguing personal stories, and fascinating insights.

Through our interviews and exploration, we gained a new understanding of both Germany’s history and the country today. Many of our own misconceptions were corrected. We learned a great deal, not only about Germany’s commitment to peace, but about ourselves and our own responsibility to work for peace as well.

Our mission

When we began our research in July 2008, our intent was to probe modern-day Germany’s commitment to peace and harmony. Everyone is aware of the country’s role in World War II. Say “Germany,” and images of Hitler, swastikas, SS men and concentration camps immediately spring to mind. The fact that Germany was recently named the 14th most peaceful nation in the world is less well-known.

We were ready to proclaim, “The Nazis are gone!”

And they are. But they aren’t.

We were aware that Germany’s aggressive, tragic past still commanded an intense interest from the rest of the world. But we didn’t expect that everywhere we turned in search of Germany’s new peaceful face, the Germans themselves would turn our gaze back to their history.

Individuals, organizations, schools and the government all recognize the importance of remembering the Holocaust. From museums and monuments to newspaper articles and TV documentaries, World War II is ever-present in the German consciousness.

Even objects as humble and insignificant as cobblestones in the street can turn into reminders of the past. In front of over 13,000 houses throughout Germany, individual brass-plated cobblestones bear the names of people who were removed from their homes and deported to concentration camps. Artist Gunter Demnig developed this project, which he calls Stolpersteine, or “stumbling blocks.” Thanks to his efforts, the tragic fate of ordinary people living in ordinary neighborhoods is frequently brought back to mind.

We wanted to move away from Germany’s violent past, looking instead at its peaceful present. But as we explained our project to the people we interviewed – German citizens of all ages, from all walks of life – they consistently returned to the topics of World War II and the Holocaust. We began to see that Germany’s current commitment to peace is inextricably bound to its past experiences with war, dictatorship, and mass murder.

In the articles that follow, then, we have attempted to give a glimpse into the way Germans continue to come to grips with their history. Through scholars’ viewpoints, personal accounts of young and old, descriptions of unique German institutions, historical explanations, and our impressions of museums, memorials and events, we hope to convey some of what we learned this summer. Remembering the past is Germany’s safeguard for maintaining peace now and in the future.