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Four words that tell us something about German culture

Four words that tell us something about German culture
Artist Gunter Demnig sweeping Stolpersteine laid in Hamburg in June 2021. Stolpersteine are placed on the ground to remember those deported during the Nazi era. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Axel Heimken
Germany has a whole host of words to describe almost any conceivable feeling or situation - but it also has a number of words that speak volumes about the uniqueness of German culture. Here are four of them.

Erinnerungskultur (‘culture of remembrance’)

Roughly translating as ‘culture of remembrance’, this word refers to the structures in society designed to memorialise and maintain consciousness of the horrific crimes and atrocities of the Nazi era. 

Erinnerungskultur is characterised by a host of campaigns, commemorations, memorials, monuments, curricula and more which serve to underline its most influential message: ‘nie wieder’, meaning ‘never again’. 

Remembering and honouring the victims of the Holocaust and the persecuted groups who suffered during that period is immensely important to German culture.

Erinnerungskultur also often centres on the premise of bearing witness and testifying to the crime, destruction and brutality inherent to Nazi Germany.

Many Germans see this as a way of holding themselves to account for their past, given that statistically a majority of their grandparents and great-grandparents either passively enabled or acted in the interests of the Nazi party. It revolves around acknowledging the full gravity of the atrocities of their national legacy, whilst committing that they themselves will act against such injustice in the future.

READ ALSO: Stolpersteine – standing defiantly in communities amid rising tensions

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Participation in this Erinnerungskultur has previously been seen as a prerequisite for belonging to the broader community, but this has increasingly been challenged as German society diversifies: after all, why should it be the responsibility of immigrants with no connection to the perpetrators, or of people who belong to the groups who were persecuted? 

Erinnerungskultur is not only a prevailing cultural mood, but also a key factor in foreign and domestic policy to this day. 

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Sommer

READ ALSO: How Germany remembers the Holocaust

Vergangenheitsbewältigung (‘the process of working through the past’)

This term is similar in content to Erinnerungskultur, describing the process of working through and coming to terms with shameful aspects of a country’s past, particularly where those events suggest culpability on the part of the country’s people as a whole.

As a feminine noun, it is formed as a compound from Vergangenheit (the past) and Bewältigung, which refers to a process of overcoming. One synonym which is often used is ‘Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit’, which was popularised by a lecture by Theodor Adorno entitled ‘Was bedeutet: Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit?’, or ‘What do we mean by ‘working through the past?’

A sticker saying ‘no to Nazis’ at a demo in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Soeder

It is predominantly used in discussions of Nazism, war crimes committed by the Wehrmacht (armed forces) during WWII and the Holocaust. However, it has also been suggested as a strategy for countries to acknowledge the atrocities of their colonial pasts. The same term has also been used in the context of reviewing and studying the East German communist dictatorship’s crimes and injustices.

While Vergangenheitsbewältigung shares many of its key tenets with Erinnerungskultur, it distinguishes itself from the latter by also implying a psychological process of denazification, a complete mental overhaul to recognise and condemn the atrocities of the Nazi state in their entirety. 

At the centre of the concept is the idea that remembering the past in fullness and memorialising those who suffered will prevent history from ever repeating itself, though this notion has been criticised in recent years as complacent.

Feierabend (‘end of the working day’)

Feierabend refers to the period after the end of the working day, the moment when you should, according to Germans, draw a strict line between your work and the rest of your life.

In recent years it has come to stand in for Germans’ famed ability to maintain a healthy work-life balance, and has an almost mythic status as the driving force behind the incredibly high levels of productivity within the country’s economy. In many countries where it is standard to work after-hours, Germans’ insistence on adequate leisure time combined with their renowned efficiency is a point of envy. 

The word has been around for centuries, and formerly structured the divide between hours spent at work and hours spent engaging in religious life. The Feierabend used to be marked by church bells, following which there would be evening prayers.

People in Munich enjoy Feierabend. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Elke Richter

It would be a lie to claim that Germans don’t also sometimes find it hard to switch off from work – surveys suggest that the average German full-time employee still works on average five hours more than they are contracted for.

But core to the idea of the Feierabend is making a mental transition from the desk to the living room sofa, whether that’s by changing from workwear into loungewear, taking time away from technology or having your first evening drink – and this is something which is only becoming more important in the age of ‘working from home’. 

READ ALSO: Why every country should get on board with the German Feierabend

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Waldeinsamkeit (‘forest solitude’)

This word, which literally means ‘forest loneliness’ or ‘forest solitude’, translates roughly as the sense of peace and sublime enlightenment that you might achieve while alone and at one with nature. 

Germans love forays into nature as a way of working through their philosophical musings, something which has boomed during the pandemic as we have found our options for safe and distanced fun suddenly limited. Luckily, there’s nothing more socially distanced than contemplating your thoughts and feelings alone in the wilderness.

A cyclist in Daugendorf, Baden-Württemberg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Warnack

But the word also speaks to a wider infatuation with the natural world, and particularly forests, which sits at the heart of German culture. It is seen as a mysterious and mystical space full of possibilities for self-discovery and adventure. Anyone who read any of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales as a child will intuitively understand this – in German folk stories, woodland is always a space rife with fantastical supernatural occurrences and beings. 

Forests and nature also loom high in German medieval and romantic texts, and they have imprinted strongly on the national consciousness as nowhere else. If you pay a visit to the beautiful woodlands in Germany, you’ll definitely see why – and make sure you drop in for a scheduled personal epiphany.


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