Germany confronts its painful past

Nearly 70 years since the fall of the Third Reich, the legacy of World War II still haunts Germany’s reputation. Many of my friends made Nazi jokes before Ileft for Germany, and they even gave me a tank top with an American flag printed on it along with the words “Back to Back World War Champs.”

I spent last weekend in Nuremberg, the location of the National Socialist Party’s headquarters and of the famous Nuremberg Rallies immortalized in Leni Reifenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.” The Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds is located there in the north wing of the former congress hall of the National Socialist Party.

The hall itself was designed by the Nazis, but was left unfinished. Covering nearly seven square miles, the hall resembles an enormous coliseum. It was designed to house 50,000 spectators for Nazi demonstrations.

Today, the permanent exhibition “Fascination and Terror” inhabits the north wing. It documents in chronological order the history of the Nazi party, from its beginnings in the Beer Hall Push to the fall of the party and subsequent trials and executions of party leaders. The museum offers guided audio tours for free in all major languages.

The exhibition doesn’t dance around any issue. The racist core of Hitler’s ideals and the Holocaust are not glossed over. The museum displays these issues up front, clearly and accurately.

The end of the exhibition leads guests onto a small balcony overlooking the enormous rally grounds before turning them around to walk down a glass corridor built for the museum that pierces straight through the building back to the main lobby. The transparent tunnel serves as a fitting symbol for the way Germans treat this particularly difficult chapter of their history: transparently piercing through the layers of facts and events that lead to the terror of WWII.

Some people have asked me if the Germans ever talk about the War. The answer is yes, in excruciating detail. Every German knows what happened, and every German is taught the lessons learned by it.

Today, it is illegal to wear Nazi symbols or have Nazi gatherings of any kind. Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” is still outlawed. On the international level, Germany has avoided nearly all intervention and military action in foreign conflicts. The German people have swung the pendulum of policy as far away from fascism and National Socialism as it can get.

Winston Churchill said famously of the War, “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.” While the scars of the Holocaust and World War II can never be recompensed, if there is a way for a nation to make amends and properly acknowledge what it has done, Germany is doing just that.