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‘Zeitzeuge’: what the world can learn from how Germany presents the past

Journalist Sarah Wilson explains what other countries can gain from 'Zeitzeuge', an untranslatable German word that encourages learning history from the traces of it that still remain.

'Zeitzeuge': what the world can learn from how Germany presents the past
Berlin's Haus der Wannsee Konferenz

On a trip earlier this year, I visited a former plantation in Charleston, South Carolina. Set behind a cluster of willow trees and a river that glittered in the sun, the red-brick house at the centre of the grounds possessed the same sinister beauty as the Haus der Wansee-Konferenz; an idyll marred forever by the horrors that once took place there.

The tours I took inside these buildings, however, exposed one stark cultural divide: whilst Germans have been facing up to their troubled history for years, the English-speaking world is lagging woefully behind.

The tour guide leading our party around that red-brick house in Charleston – itself a product of slave labour – mentioned slavery just once over the period of an hour. Pausing at a narrow staircase, she gestured towards it and told us neutrally that  “it would have been used by the slaves”, before moving curtly on to the decorative plaster lining the walls. The ramshackle buildings that the slaves once lived in were gone without trace, whilst a pet dog who died on the grounds was commemorated by a plaque.

By contrast, German museums don’t flinch when it comes to uncomfortable truths. In the Topography of Terror, depicting the horrors of World War II and what led up to it, museum-goers are reminded repeatedly that “the German people” were collectively responsible for Nazi terror, even in passivity.

A term to talk about the past

The German language even has specific terms for talking about the past that English doesn’t. “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” is a word describing the act of coping with the past, whilst “Zeitzeuge” roughly translates to “time witness”: a person, still living, who has witnessed history in their time.

With no direct translation into English, “Zeitzeuge” is a holistic understanding of history not as distant or alien, but as an enduring influence on the present. Its conspicuous absence from English pinpoints precisely where the UK and USA fall down when it comes to “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”.

Drawing sweeping parallels between the histories of different countries is, of course, always doomed to fail. But Germany, the UK and the USA certainly all share formative histories of inflicting immense pain, destruction and death upon millions of people, whether those victims were colonial citizens, African slaves or Jews.

Of the latter two groups, I know plenty. Attending school in the UK meant endless history lessons on Hitler and World War II. We studied the Holocaust with sensitivity, visiting Auschwitz on a school trip at 16. When I was 14, my history class spent weeks studying the civil rights movement in America, meaning I produced written work on Rosa Parks before I heard a peep about the Bristol bus boycotts of the 60s.

Simply put, history that made Britain look bad was left out of my education entirely. The British Empire, which spanned decades, covered 25% of the world’s land surface and caused millions to suffer, was boiled down to ten minutes of looking at a map one afternoon in history.

Until attending university, I was utterly ignorant of those people imprisoned, tortured and starved under British colonial rule. Some estimates put the number at 29 million, but thanks to the destruction of government records pertaining to colonial crimes, precision is near impossible. In 2016, a survey found that four in ten British people view the Empire as a good thing.

UK schoolchildren aren’t the only ones suffering from the ignorance of exceptionalism. In one survey conducted earlier this year, just 8% of American high-schoolers correctly cited slavery as a reason for the South seceding from the Union. In many places – including Charleston – the confederate flag still flies unchallenged.

Germany: 'intensive and thorough treatment' in schools

The German system is far from perfect, of course. It’s widely acknowledged that whilst the wall was up, the split nation struggled to come to terms with the horrors of their recent history. Regardless, Germany’s efforts to educate its population on the horrors of its past since then have been concerted, with the federal government’s educational-monitoring agency urging in 1991 – just after the fall of the wall – that the Nazis be subject to an “intensive and thorough treatment” in schools.

In 2008, Bavaria made it mandatory for schools to visit concentration camps in the wake of neo-Nazi violence, and in March of this year, Berlin state legislator Sawsan Chebli called for these visits to be obligatory across the country. Germany’s endeavours to face history head on have been so visible, in fact, that this attitude has practically become a mark of German national identity.

This isn’t to say that the average British or American schoolchild is totally ignorant of their country’s own history. But when held up in comparison to the German approach to history, it becomes clear that what’s desperately missing is context. The German “Zeitzeuge” is not a relic of the past but a living part of the present world that must be acknowledged. The enduring presence of confederate monuments, imperial statues and the recent election of Churchill as the face of the 5 pound note speaks volumes about the UK and USA’s failure, or perhaps unwillingness, to acknowledge this. Whilst Germany has issued official apologies and paid billions to Jewish survivors since the war’s end, the UK and USA choose to stick their heads in the sand and pretend the past never occurred.

But these histories explain facts like the segregation that still occurs in neighbourhoods across America, and the presence of immigrant communities – invited post-war from commonwealth nations – in Britain. Without this context, populism and racism quickly takes hold. It can be argued that this was shown by the 2016 Brexit vote, where the Leave campaign played heavily on xenophobia and the vague idea of the Empire’s “glory days” to a population who never lived through them. The year afterwards, Germany resisted the wave of populism many were sure would seize Europe when Angela Merkel’s social-democratic party gained another – albeit weakened – election win.

All being said, recent outbursts of neo-Nazi activity across Germany have demonstrated the danger of complacency when it comes to learning from the past. In 2018, we are approaching an age where the living Zeitzeugen – those who remember the horrors of Nazi Germany – are dying out. As Merkel herself once said, “when the generation that survived the war is no longer with us, only then will we discover if we have learned from history”. Here’s hoping for the posterity of Germany’s good example.

Member comments

  1. I think that the article concerning German’s open history is a disgrace. Why should Winston Churchill’s portrait on a banknote say anything about our attitude to anything other than the fact that he was a great man who certainly saved Britain from a humiliating fate in the 2nd world war.
    To picture him alongside a despotic tyrant (Stalin)is a gross insult and the obviously young reporter is guilty of a grossly biased, liberal distorted outlook on history.

  2. The author of the article studied in UK and their nation has not said anything about the atrocities committed on millions of people during their colonial times. For example, millions of Indians were killed by Britishers by bringing forced famines. It was even worst form of dying than used by Hitler, as it is a slow death by starvation.
    So, Germany has done a much better job in explaining its past.

  3. The author… wow, I’m at a loss for words to explain how wrong she is and how wrong Germany is in its policies. History is nothing more than what people “say” happened, not necessarily “what” happened. The Past is the past, it cannot be changed. If something happened in the Past and it is reported this way or another, that is the subject of “history” and as such, is and should be a matter subject to debate and questioning as to the veracity of the report(s). The author correctly points out that this is not always done. What she fails to point out is that, in reference to the “holocaust,” Germany is just as guilty of false reporting and suppression of the facts as she accuses other nations of being. In fact, Germany is one of a number of nations (up to 19 now, I believe) where it is ‘illegal’ to even ‘question’ the correctness of the official narrative, even when the so-called “evidence” is questionable or even fraudulent.

    As I said, the past is the past, it simply is. It needs no legal defense. Either the evidence will lead to what is true or it will lead to what merely seems to be true (but can never be held as absolute due to the lack of sufficient data or hard evidence) thus creating a narrative of what we “think” happened. In either case, to make it a criminal offense to “question” a historical narrative where there is evidence that the official narrative may not be correct, is the exact opposite of both “Zeitzeuge” and “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”. It suppresses genuine inquiry into past events.

  4. The author of this piece has obviously never visited or heard of, the Museum Of Slavery in Liverpool and it’s sister Museum in Bristol. Both of these Museums detail accurately and in quite distressing detail the evil of the Slave Trade and Britain’s leading role in it.
    There are also similar displays in both the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and The Docklands Museum Of London.
    Schools certainly now teach about the British Empire without glamorising it at all, if anything they go out of the way to highlight the perceived “ills” of Britain’s Colonial Past and I know this as my wife is a Secondary School Teacher.
    As a country we are not above criticism but I wish people would check their facts a bit better before doing so.

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