I lived in Kreuzberg, a poorer neighborhood of West Berlin that was a haven to artists. Kreuzberg was also full of Turkish Gastarbeiter, guest workers who had helped rebuild Germany after World War II but then “outstayed their welcome” by having children who became citizens under Germany’s birthright citizenship laws. This conflict was as old as the metics of ancient Athens and as fresh as the “dreamers” and DACA students of the 21st-century United States. Many more lessons on racism in those days, but I resisted it rather than passively letting it seep into my brain.
I had a German girlfriend and we regularly visited her parents on their farm in the village of Kisdorf in the Schleswig-Holstein region of West Germany. On one visit, in 1978, the nine-and-a-half-hour, American mini-series Holocaust aired on the WDR network over the course of four evenings. Panel discussion with historians and other experts followed each evening’s episodes. My girlfriend’s siblings and their partners and I all wanted to watch. Her parents, who had both lived through the war, had very different responses. O—, the mother, ran from the room, almost crying, insisting that these constant reminders of the Holocaust were unfair. After all, she had not been involved and didn’t she know some Jewish people and hadn’t she been perfectly nice to them while they were still around. B—, the father, said that he would watch with us. Hmm. B— was an uneducated farmer and one of the kindest people you could ever meet, but in his youth he had bought into the Nazi propaganda, enlisted in the Wehrmacht, and only escaped death on the Russian Front—according to family legend—by missing his troop transport train and, not knowing what else to do, walking back to the farm. B—’s viewing of Holocaust was somewhat comical. The program aired late at night, and after 9pm, the 68-year-old dosed in and out. He seemed to waken whenever anyone in the show said something about “the greatness of Germany,” then resumed his snoring whenever the Jews were being boarded onto trains for the death camps.
In “Fear of the Past? Notes on the Reaction to Holocaust,” the historian Julius H. Schoeps described similar responses in households across Germany. WDR had set up phone banks to take viewers’ calls during the broadcast. Some callers expressed latent anti-Semitism, making claims that the program had been financed by Jews, or was broadcast as a way to disparage the German people. A few callers were more overt, denying the Holocaust or claiming that the Jews were to blame for it. But as the mini-series progressed, as Germans of the post-war generation kept watching, most of the calls expressed sadness, consternation, shame, and guilt. “How could it have come to that?” viewers asked again and again. According to Schoeps:
"After four evenings … after roughly 10,000 incoming telephone calls … something was set in motion … More than just a few became aware for the first time that they had repressed the murder of the Jews that was committed in the name of the German people and had previously avoided dealing with the past. Did the Hollywood film “Holocaust” signal a turning point in these attitudes? Only the future will tell."
In 2000, the German television station ZDF produced a documentary called Holokaust, amid a fresh surge in anti-Semitic and racist hate crimes.