For Germans, the beginning of the war is still 22 June 1941

interview with Wolfgang Templin, former Eastern German dissident and essayist

There was a mass absolution in East Germany of its Nazi past, says Wolfgang Templin, former director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Warsaw and recepient of the European Solidarity Centre Medal in 2010. It’s just that only those acknowledging the Communist interpretation of history were absolved.

Wolfgang Templin (b. 1948)  former Eastern German dissident and essayist. In 2009 he was awarded Dialog Magazine Prize of the Polish-German Society and the 2010 European Solidarity Centre medal (author: Neil Bates; CC BY-SA 3.0)

Mikołaj Mirowski: First came the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, then 1 September 1939: the invasion by Nazi Germany of Poland that began the Second World War. Yet several years ago, a political scientist and former director of the German Historical Institute in Warsaw, Prof. Klaus Ziemer, said that in Germany this anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War is a little-known date. How do things stand today?

Wolfgang Templin: You are quite right in what you say. For many years in Germany – even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, during the Cold War – the focus was mainly on the invasion of the Soviet Union, which was seen as the actual beginning of the Second World War. For that reason, both the date 1 September 1939 as the beginning of the war and the question of Stalin’s key contribution to the conflict – in Germany, we call it the pact between Stalin and Hitler, not Molotov-Ribbentrop, as you call it in Poland – were rendered secondary and the whole concept of joining two totalitarianisms would seem impossible to maintain.

The fact that the attack on the Second Polish Republic from two sides was an act that should be explicitly called a total war against the Polish nation, which led to its occupation and the destruction of the Polish intellectual elite, appeared in German but also in international consciousness only later. Yes, Klaus Ziemer was right.

Except that for at least ten years we have more and more researchers and historians from Germany and other countries dealing with this issue, with extensive social and grassroots initiatives being established, which finally talk about the extent of this extermination. Recently, in Germany, there is more and more talk of 1 September as the beginning of the war. And it is also obvious that Germany’s leaders should be in Poland on that day [for commemorations].

The secret appendix to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact naming the German and Soviet spheres of interest (public domain)

To my satisfaction and approval, German researchers are also trying to include all other nations that have suffered as a result of the Nazi-Stalinist alliance. Thanks to the work of historians and social initiatives in 2008, on the 70th anniversary of the Hitler-Stalin Agreement, the European Parliament decided to establish 23 August as the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism.

Of course, it is only ten years and this date has not yet firmly taken root in German memory, but I think we are on the right path to make it happen. And yet the memory of this event is also important for other “forgotten” victims of the first period of the Second World War. I am thinking here primarily of the Baltic states occupied by the Soviet Union at that time, as well as the poorly remembered Soviet assault on Finland.

Which date from the period of the Third Reich and the Second World War is crucial for Germany? Where on that scale is the date 1 September 1939?

This must be stated openly, but it is hardly surprising that for German awareness of 1933 to 1945 – because this period needs to include the time when the Nazis came to power – different dates and events have been in the foreground and I think they still are: the take-over of power by Hitler in the spring of 1933; German surrender in May 1945; and the date I mentioned earlier, 22 June 1941, inaccurately accepted as the beginning of the Second World War.

There are other important events, like attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler, intentions by the Wehrmacht command to carry out a coup, not to mention of course the most famous failed attempt at assassination, on 20 July 1944, carried out under the leadership of Col. Claus von Stauffenberg. The events around the Munich Agreement of 1938 are also known and discussed.

Germans invading Poland in border checkpoint at Kolibki which is the begining of the Second World War 1 September 1939 (author: Hans Sönnke ; public domain).

However, new and different stories and layers of resistance to National Socialism appeared in German consciousness later – such as the figure of Sophie Scholl along with the White Rose anti-Nazi student organization. Those events had been unknown. The same applies to the date 1 September 1939. But I emphasize once again: in this case, we can speak of a clear development in recent years, which is reflected, for example, in the joint Polish-German initiative regarding the creation of a monument, a memorial site dedicated to total war and its Polish victims. Of course, we have had delays in this respect, but it is important that this is happening.

Perhaps the reasons for this situation might be traced back to the Cold War period? Until 1990, there were two German states, thus two different memories of the Second World War – is this dichotomy still valid since reunification? Are there still differences in the approach to war issues, if someone had lived in East or West Germany?

In Germany, after reunification, extensive efforts were being made to have a common German memory, but the most important discussion about the Second World War from the late 1980s, which had swept across the West, was repeatedly being taken up. I am talking about the “historians’ dispute” – the famous Historikerstreit, the great debate of German historians about the Nazi past, and their attitude towards that past.

Demands that Germany should settle the past consistently and to the core and give a full accounting of German guilt during the Nazi era also returned in the 1990s. The scale and uniqueness of crimes resulting from racial madness, as well as from plans for world domination, were questioned only by a small group of “revisionists of history.”

Jews loading onto trains at the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw during the German occupation of Poland (public domain)

On the other hand, in East Germany, the true history of the USSR, the essence of Communist-Stalinist rule, even the Gulag system or other crimes after the end of the Second World War, had been absent or displaced, or propaganda had distorted those issues. In a nutshell, German crimes had been the work of Hitler and his supporters, and their war had been directed against peace-loving Soviets.

After the occupation of the eastern territories of the Third Reich by the Soviet Union, after the take-over of power in the Soviet Occupation Zone by German Communists and anti-fascists, after making statements that all war criminals were punished, there was a collective absolution of the Nazi past. The only issue is that only those who acknowledged the Communist interpretation of history and saw their place in East Germany were absolved. That procedure was so artificial that it had to give rise to serious problems with German memory, since a sincere account of the war past practically did not occur in East Germany.

It is worth remembering that this propaganda carried many contradictions. Hatred among East Germans towards the Russians was enormous – after all, every family living between the Elbe and the Oder Rivers lost someone on the Eastern Front. The hostility to Communism had not disappeared either. In East Germany, people were artificially cut off from the past, and blame for the Third Reich was placed on Germany.

It is not without reason that the Socialist Party of German Unity (SED) always said that it is a party of young people. No other Communist Party in the Soviet bloc emphasized it so strongly. Well, the point was to show that the youth had no burdens associated with the Nazi past, and they are building a “great future”. This also had considerable psychological significance. This message assumed that older people were solely to blame for all the atrocities of Nazism, including the Holocaust, and after 1945 a “new world” had been born.

Erich Honecker’s speech in Zittau, 1950 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-08583-0017 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Political memory did not count in East Germany, only the historical one did. This schizophrenic split did not facilitate full settlement, but only blurred the painful truth. This situation was also visible after 1989, and its traces can still be found. Historical ignorance, revisionism, tendencies to relativize, and the attitude of “it was Hitler and his people, not us” are unfortunately present and not just in eastern Germany. Confronting this type of thinking remains a challenge for the future.

In 1996, the US political scientist Daniel Goldhagen, in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, pressed charges against Germans. He made, among others, the assessment that “ordinary Germans” were equally responsible for the Holocaust, along with Nazi ideologues. The book sparked a huge discussion in Germany, but surprisingly – given the uncompromising nature of Goldhagen’s conclusions – German public opinion accepted it with understanding. Would it be similar today?

 The discussion on the book and thesis of Daniel Goldhagen was broad, especially in Germany, but also in Poland. As for the German debate and the thesis about the guilt or complicity of ordinary Germans, which consisted of “looking away” and supporting the Nazi regime, most German historians had a similar opinion to Goldhagen.

Understanding and acceptance of that thesis by readers, as well as by most public opinion, resulted from the fact that Germany did not want to question anything from the book, to not be exposed to the charge of downplaying crimes of the Third Reich. I think there was a fear that arguing with Hitler’s Willing Executioners could give way to easy potential accusations against Germans for their unwillingness to assimilate the whole painful truth about the crime of Nazism and the role of specific people in those procedures.

Would it be similar today? I will say this: revisionist attempts to change the meaning of German guilt, as has been the case in discussions about exhibiting about the Wehrmacht, in statements by right-wing extremists or supporters of the party Alternative für Deutschland [AfD], cannot undermine the state of affairs.

Significant historians in Poland, including the then director of the Jewish Historical Institute, Prof. Feliks Tych [from 1995 to 2006], questioned Goldhagen’s sharpest claims about “genetic anti-Semitism of the Germans.”

I know those voices and I can only thank them. German Jews spoke in a similar tone about the book, and this was also important for Germans.

Considering German society, when taking into account the positions of major political parties, are Germans convinced that they have settled their accounts with the Nazi past 80 years after war broke out?

This is a difficult question, because the account of the darkest chapters of German history can probably never be considered closed. Every year, new scientific papers are written and published, new historical initiatives appear, and the Federal Agency for Civic Education has been active for many years now, systematically supporting the search for new facts and connections – this constantly forces us to reflect again.

Voices that undermine these achievements, which want to draw a veil over the times of National Socialism and the Third Reich, appear from time to time, but I am convinced that they will not break through in the democratic system of Germany.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, President of Germany (Адміністрація Президента України, CC BY 4.0)

The German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, took part along with Chancellor Angela Merkel in anniversary commemorations on 1 September 2019 in Poland. I was impressed by words Steinmeier spoke in Wieluń [site of the war’s first bombing]:

What occurred there will never be a thing of the past. It occupies us. “For anyone who was born a German does have something in common with German destiny and German guilt.” Anyone referring to German history must also grapple with this statement by Thomas Mann. What occurred will never be a thing of the past. Nor will our responsibility. We know that. As Germany’s Federal President, let me assure you that we will not forget. We want to, and we will, remember. And we will bear the responsibility that our history imposes upon us. I bow before the victims of the attack on Wieluń. I bow before the Polish victims of German tyranny. And I ask for your forgiveness.

To these words I would add the great idea to commemorate Polish victims of the Second World War in Berlin. Such gestures are very important for Poles – is there a consensus in Germany on this matter?

I consider the speeches of President Steinmeier in Wieluń and Warsaw asking forgiveness to be very important, necessary and good. In his remembering and appreciating Polish victims and Polish resistance, I missed him also mentioning the fate of Polish and European Jews and any direct reference to the Holocaust. The issue of the tragic fate of Polish Jews, citizens of the Second Polish Republic, was raised by [Polish] President Andrzej Duda. Which does not change the fact that Steinmeier’s speech was extremely significant and unprecedented for German politicians since the reunification of the country.

However, if there was one fly in the ointment – I think it was words referring to the “humble emperor and pilgrim Otto III” who stood barefoot on Polish soil. According to historians of the Middle Ages, Otto was not only a pilgrim, but also a confident monarch aware of his power, so I think I wouldn’t mention it.

Elżbieta Witek, Chairman of the Sejm (Kancelaria Premiera, public domain)

As for consensus about commemorating Polish victims of the Second World War in Berlin, first of all it is worth paying attention to the meeting in Berlin between [Polish] Chairman of the Sejm Elżbieta Witek and [German] President of the Bundestag Wolfang Schäuble. Well, Schäuble and Witek participated, along with others, in a meeting at the Askanischer Platz, where, according to originators of the plans, a monument dedicated to Poles – victims of the German occupation – is to be erected.

Although the group of social activists, scientists and politicians had made the initiative to erect such a monument in 2017, Schäuble, while meeting with Elżbieta Witek, confirmed his support for this project. In his opinion, this type of commemoration can contribute to a better understanding between Polish and German people as a “visible sign of memory” in the centre of Berlin.

And it’s worth remembering that the site has a symbolic meaning, because it lies near the ruins of the Anhalter Bahnhof train station. And there, in November 1940, the Soviet chief of diplomacy, Vyacheslav Molotov, who arrived on a “friendly” visit, was one of the architects of the “devil’s pact”, which would determine the outbreak of war and the fate of Poland.

However, the tone in German pop culture, particularly visible in films, has recently changed and differs from the attitude of the German political elite. Starting with the idealized picture about Col. von Stauffenberg (Operation Valkyrie: The Stauffenberg Plot, 2004) and ending with the ZDF series Generation War (Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter, 2013), this has been perceived in Poland as a historical scandal.

Is it that the young generation of German artists don’t want to constantly be held responsible for faults of their grandparents, but would rather see Germans as victims, as well? And isn’t this also a reason that Alternative for Germany, the right-wing AdF party, is so popular?

The history of National Socialism, of the Second World War, and of German and international resistance has been shown in recent years in films and books of varying quality. Relativization, kitschiness, as well as distortion of historical facts in individual works testify to their lowest level.

Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg (public domain)

However, there have also been reports, documents and cultural events of incomparably greater importance. Let me remind you that five years ago, the Polish exhibition about the Warsaw Uprising was very popular, presented in the former SS command building and the Gestapo headquarters [in Berlin, and renewed in July 2019 at the Topography of Terror museum there]. It is also worth seeing a two-part documentary produced by Polish Television and ZDF telling honestly about the invasion by the Third Reich of Poland. This is to me the German and the only interpretation of what happened during the Second World War.

Courtesy of

Translation: Alicja Rose & Alan Lockwood