Mar 2002 Journal

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Combating the 'Big Silence': Hitler and the man-in-the-street

'How was it possible for Hitler and the Nazi movement to win the "hearts" of millions of ordinary Germans?' This fundamental question remains unanswered despite the enormous volume of research on the Nazi era, Stephan Marks told a well attended international conference on genocide organised by the Wiener Library on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Dr Marks is the director and founder in 1998 of the Freiburg-based research project History and Memory. Among questions the project is seeking to answer are: to what extent do members of the 'first generation' remain influenced by the experience of the Nazi years, and how do they express this experience in communication with 'second-generation' members? In an attempt to answer these questions, members of the research project are presently interviewing individuals who committed themselves to the cause of National Socialism as members of the NSDAP, the SS or other Nazi organisations.

The research project emanates from the current increase in neo-Nazi activities in Germany and the seeming ineffectiveness of prohibiting far-right organisations. Furthermore, educating people about the Holocaust appears to have reached its limits: many young people have little knowledge about Hitler's persecution of the Jews, even though this topic is widely taught in German schools. The project's findings will be applied in both schools and in work with senior citizens. The aim is to improve communication between the generations so as to overcome what has been described as the 'big silence' of German society regarding its Nazi past.

While research on the History and Memory project remains ongoing, Dr Marks singled out a major element in ordinary Germans' acceptance of Hitler: the shame many citizens felt at Germany's perceived humiliation in the wake of the First World War. Hitler, Dr Marks said, offered them 'redemption' - relief from their shame through the possibility of inflicting humiliation on others.
HS

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