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I am curious about the perceptions of Germans today with regard to their country's past? What do they generally have to say about Hitler and the events of the holocaust?

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6 Answers 6

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This is a pretty complicated topic, made all the more complicated because your question is very vague ("perceptions" covers a LOT of ground). For example:

  • When you say "today's germans", are you including ~3% Turkish-rooted population or %4 Islamic population?

    They come from heavily antisemitic background; and 60% of whom found the way Germans handled their past "rather dounting" vs 25% "perfect")?

  • Are you distinguishing East vs West Germans (those who grew up under DDR)?

    They have different attitudes. I'll scare up references if asked, but DDR had a lot more neo-Nazis, for example, in 1990s-2000s.

  • Are you talking about Germans who were alive during Nazi Germany time only? Those who were adults at the time only? Generation born right after the war? People born in 1990+? They all have different attitudes.

    • More specifically, you are conflating having an opinion about Holocaust and feeling personally responsible in some way among those born significantly later (the latter is clearly diminishing greatly as new generations rise)

      The survey in Der Spiegel magazine said 60 percent feel neither guilty nor responsible for the Holocaust. But it also found wide support for German compensation payments to Nazi-era slave laborers and said 80 percent believe that only a small minority of Germans are anti-Semitic (source)

  • You are conflating Hitler and Holocaust. It's entirely plausible that someone can have shame over Holocaust but harbor nationalist feelings that make Hitler less of a hated figure.

    While I don't have figures for that in Germany, one needs only to witness positive feelings for Stalin in Russia these days to reject any assumptions that people may not plausibly view Hitler/nazis positively even if they are not in favor of Holocaust.

  • Different polls find wildly differing results. For example, the above-quoted Der-Spiegel poll is contradicted by AFP poll:

    Two-thirds (67 percent) of Germans aged between 14 and 19 agreed with the statement: "It is the duty of my generation to ensure that Nazi history and the Holocaust are not forgotten." Only 32 percent disagreed. Older Germans felt even stronger about this, with 69 percent of those aged 20 to 44 agreeing with the statement and 77 percent of those aged over 45.

    The youngest Germans appeared the least concerned that their country's grisly history could repeat itself, with a 71-percent majority of those in the 14-19 age group believing such a party could never again rise to power. In contrast, 57 percent of the age group 20 to 44 and 61 percent of those over 45 took this view.

    But it was the 14-19 age group that felt most personally affected by their country's history, with 59 percent saying they were "ashamed of what the Germans did during Nazism.". Other age groups were split down the middle on the issue.

One thousand people were surveyed for the poll, half of whom were between 14 and 24.

Some related further reading: http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/164

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  • "that Nazi history and the Holocaust are not forgotten" - this statement is very ambiguous, it is unclear, what does it mean. Someone may be opposing to Nazism and because of that not wishing it being forgotten. Similarly someone of nationalistic views can wish the Holocaust to be forgotten as "non-issue".
    – Anixx
    Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 16:00
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    Isn’t it also illegal to express support for Nazis, thus making it hard to collect objective survey data? Hard to answer a question honestly when you might go to jail as a result. Commented Feb 3 at 18:09
  • Mostly good points. Though you really can't separate Hitler from the Holocaust. His whole agenda and raison d'être was a war of extermination against the "jewish race" and you can hardly find any policy that was not directly or indirectly linked to that. That wasn't a "side project" but he really stirred up a total war of "us" vs "them" and I mean that literally. He ran a totalitarianism with that theme so there's hardly anything in that domain that is not tainted by that.
    – haxor789
    Commented Feb 5 at 11:53
  • @JonathanReez The questions in these polls don't seem to be related to outright support of the Nazi Party or their goals, it's rather about how one should deal with that, so that's a fair question. Also it's different to publicly support that and answer a poll question. So there's no legal trouble and probably no afterthought for those answering those. After all freedom of speech and opinion still allows for parties like NPD and AfD to exist which ride on razors edge in terms of legality so between an organization of criminals and a criminal organization.
    – haxor789
    Commented Feb 5 at 11:59
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I'm an American who grown up in Europe and is living in Germany now, and this is a personal account on how I experience it day to day.

For most people I talk to the Nazi era is a source of considerable guilt, shame and regret. Most people have grandparents who were involved in some way, and there is often an uncomfortable silence if they bring them up for some reason.

"Oh right, my grandpa told me that story about the wolf too when I was little."

not...think...about...that other stuff

People know it's not their fault, but they do know they are living in a culture that gave rise to the Nazis, and that is an uncomfortable part of their identity. Compared to, say, Switzerland, there is a considerably greater sense of gloom in how everyday life feels.

This is slowly giving way to a new identity of being one of the architects and cornerstones of the European Union, which fills them with considerable pride, and, I think, a sense of atonement.

It's noticeable how this progresses year by year. People wave more flags at the world cup and it's okay to be proud of the winning team. The Residenztheater played an electronic-music inspired version of Goethe's Faust recently and people love it when you bring up the anti-authoritarian shit the man wrote. ("The church has a good stomach, gobbled up countries, never overate"*). Electronic Music itself is positively huge and counterculture is on the rise.

In short: They're reinventing themselves.

*Okay not everyone loves this but there are plenty

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  • Fascinating observation. If France seeded the EU to take control of the European narrative and avoid another regional war on French soil; did Germany seed the EU as a form of rapprochement? I think you've touched on cultural introspection being organic and always in flux towards something else. Commented Oct 23, 2014 at 0:08
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    Yes, absolutely; there is a series of extremely emotional interviews from retired German politicians who said they had to make the EU succeed, because they never could let something like the Nazis ever happen again.
    – John Woo
    Commented Oct 23, 2014 at 9:00
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Although this question is a little ignorant, it's akin to asking “What do Americans think about slavery, do they feel ashamed about it?” I will answer it.

Germans are for the most part, ashamed about that part of their history.

To make sure that Germans never forget that part, German schoolkids are obligated to visit the concentration camps like Auschwitz, Dachau, or Bergen-Belsen at least once during their school career, age 9-18.

At the same time, many Germans especially the younger ones feel that they can't be blamed forever for what the Nazis did. During the European Championships of 2000, there were some instances of British hooligans shouting stuff about how they should be able to riot in Belgium and Holland (not part of Germany) because they liberated these countries. Many Europeans were shocked by this.

On a personal note: My parents took me and my brother to Dachau. I was six, I understood what had happened but it didn’t have an impact on me because at six, you don’t get the full extent. The one thing I remember clearly was my brother, age 9, asking my mom inside the gas chamber if it was allowed to cry.

P.S. Consider that Jews in present day Germany are treated about 100 times better by Germans, than that African-Americans are treated by white Americans. There’s no institutional (governmental) bias against Jews like there is against African-Americans. I hope this gives you some pause to not ask these type of questions again.

Source: Wikipedia, history books.

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  • Also, -1: you presented no evidence that Germans are ashamed; NOR that once-in-10-years visit to the concentration camp memorial somehow guarantees being ashamed or feeling guilt.
    – user4012
    Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 16:49
  • I think the obligation for german schoolkids to visit former concentration camps was only for the DDR; it certainly didn't exist in the BRD in the 1970s/80s. And I request a citation for it existing today in every country. Commented Aug 27, 2014 at 23:02
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    It actually isn't obligated (welt.de/politik/article7821654/a). It's weird to only ask for governmental racial bias, especially for you free-marketing believing Americans - e.g. "The Mark of a Criminal Record" by Devah Pager, "The Great Service Divide: Occupational Segregation and Equality in the New York City Restaurant Industry" by Bendick . About that acting white thing: theroot.com/articles/politics/2013/01/…
    – user45891
    Commented Sep 22, 2014 at 18:48
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    -1. It really isn't your place (GwenKillerby) to both answer and dismiss the question on basis of not wanting to answer it - and then throw in an incendiary statement about US racism to spark a long comment chain. Stage magicians call this distraction. Commented Oct 23, 2014 at 0:13
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    Besides, the post script is extra deceptive considering that Germany isn't exactly a paragon of safety for people of African heritage. Sort of deflates the whole "Nothing to see here, move along" attitude that this answer has and the other answers do not. Commented Oct 23, 2014 at 0:20
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As said there are strong mandatory school programs to teach the young German about Nazism.

This is a very complex question because it may also vary from Bundesland to Bundesland and of course it will strongly depend on which generation you consider. The 'recent' generations usually are not interested to consider the matter and they just ignore the topic. So I would say they really absolutely don't care about that Nazi past But if some people think that "Germans are for the most part, ashamed about that part of their history" as mentioned in an other answer, this is not correct: German people are never ashamed of anything considering Germany, the German people and their history but they can wipe out their memories and simply not consider the matter.

On the opposite as I was Munich resident for several years and was often in the city of Dachau ( not far from Munich ), I was constantly shocked to see American tourists and schoolkids having fun and laughing in Dachau making fun of everything including the gas chambers while they were visiting the place. They were the only ones to behave like that.

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Disclaimer: Not really sure an individual German person can answer that, as their answer is inevitably only reflective of their own cultural bubble which, in a country of 80+ million people, is not necessarily representative, no matter what they end up stating. And in terms of polls, I'd be surprised there are many polls like "Do you like the Nazis"... Like the answer you're supposed to give (... and not in the sense of any sort of legal force or whatnot, but out of moral considerations) is: "NO!"! And I'd hope that was self-evident. So the polls that likely get highlighted are those where there's a deviation from the default. So this could also give you a warped perspective.

Anyway... First of all, because it's still somewhat of a surprise to some (despite it being mentioned everywhere, where this question is asked, including the other answers), no, talking about these topics is not a taboo. Germans do know about the Nazi era, the regime and it's crimes, the holocaust and so on. It's not being silenced, it's not being a taboo, in fact you can't successfully pass any school in Germany without having it in at least the history curriculum at least once, often in "German (language courses)" (grammar, orthography and literature, etc) it might come up as well and so on. On top of that schools might have extracurricular activities that educate about the topic, visit historical sites related to that or have a survivor of the holocaust tell their story (that becomes more difficult due to many of them dying by old age, but it was still a common thing).

The latter parts are often very insightful, because it's easy to get away, after abstractly being told, with a feeling of "Yeah I know that's bad. I got that the first time you told me". And it's something else to visually and emotionally realize the full impact and the size and scope of that. Like 6 million Jews and millions of other minorities, those are huge numbers, but the figures alone aren't really able to express the millions of individual lives, where each had a unique story of it's own. So being aware of those stories and being aware of the fact that there are millions more of those makes you realize much closer how you cannot even fathom the full extend of that crime and that it must never happen again.

Or the part that it were crimes and not an accident. Like you can find famines where similar or more people died, but these deaths were planned. These people were murdered. And they were murdered in such large numbers that they didn't just need to muster the inhumanity to slaughter someone else. Which is already the highest crime in most legal systems and something most people would think they are incapable of. They needed to solve problems of logistics. This was an industrial genocide. They had killing factories. Not just concentration camps where death was acceptable, but death camps where murder was the purpose of their existence.

Seriously those are levels of inhumanity that probably leave even some murderers appalled.

Where another part comes into play, namely that it's easy to think of those things in the abstract, in the far away, either far away in the past or far away in space. But for these millions of people you have a larger number of friends, families, neighbors, acquaintances etc who's lives have been impacted by that. Like even the tiniest villages in Germany had Jewish people being discriminated against and disappearing, if they hadn't fallen victim to progroms earlier and people have taken their property, businesses, houses etc. Even if they didn't know about the death camps, they certainly knew enough to suspect as much, given from what was happening already in their immediate vicinity and from the hatred that was officially propagated.

Those things aren't abstract, they are very real and to this day victims and perpetrators are often still alive, that's how close it actually is to today. And that's a part that is often much harder to grasp, that the loving grandpa has passed through the Hitler Youth, that another might have been in the Waffen-SS, that even if they weren't directly involved with the killing (and a lot were), they nonetheless contributed to upholding the system that did that and which was apparently doing that. Not in much secrecy or at least even the parts that were said out loud would have been more than bad enough.

Or that when it comes to "de-nazification" the occupying forces had ambitious plans but soon gave up due to cold war conflicts, leaving lists such as that: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liste_ehemaliger_NSDAP-Mitglieder,_die_nach_Mai_1945_politisch_t%C3%A4tig_waren

of members of the Nazi party who were still able to be involved in politics after 1945 including 2 presidents and a chancellor. Which largely ended up pardoning each other even those guys: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naumann_Circle Or how the organization tasked with the protection of the constitution was riddled with former Nazis https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/ns-vergangenheit-und-verfassungsschutz-ueber-die-seilschaften-der-altnazis-1.1150775

How pretty much most of all companies existing in Germany during the Nazi era, used slave labor and/or contributed to the war or even the genocide. Or how many were build on stolen funds.

These things have long been kept secrets and were not talked about by the immediate after war generation that tried to keep a low profile and pretended to be busy with the rebuilding of Germany and the economic growth, so it often took decades or is happened now that these things are being researched and investigated while a lot of perpetrators got away scots free.

So even though they look far away from today's perspective, 91 years since the Nazis had taken power, they are often much closer than people realize and certain things that war accepted as the status quo might still have tangible connections to that era.

That being said probably the vast majority of Germans would not see themselves as Nazis, would condemn the crimes of the Nazis and unequivocably reject their ideology. After all it sounds very anachronystic. Like the original Naziism played on topic and conspiracy theories of it's time, of a conservative believe in strong hierarchies and the leadership principle, of a bastardization of the Marxist idea of a class struggle with racist ideas to a race struggle where only one can win, of hero cults, eugenics, pagan esotherics and obviously the strong believe in a Jewish world conspiracy.

Apart from die hard Neonazis these things are rather repelling than attracting. And even they usually rather pretend the holocaust didn't happen, than to acknowledge that killing by industrial genocide was their plan according to a completely fanatic following of a completely bullshit conspiracy theory (as well as probably a large part of opportunists that took advantage of that fanaticism). That being said, in order for their quest of national pride, they still have a hard time acknowledging a failure of those epic proportions, so they can't let go of it and either must identify with the perpetrators and pretend it's a good thing or pretend that it didn't happen in the first place, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Though while dangerous with regards to their potential for crime and violence these kind of people are usually scarce in numbers.

That being said what is taught in school is not only the crimes of the Nazi era, but also crucially how they got there and what we can learn from that. Because while Hitler and parts of his inner circle might have been committed fanatics who willfully drank the lunacy of an (even at the time) already disproven conspiracy theory, it's too simplistic to just say "oh they were all mad as hell". No they won't. On the one hand there's method to the madness if you take their fucked up premises (which you absolutely shouldn't), so it's not just lack of intellect that is the problem. On the other hand it was not just the effort of committed lunatics, there were plenty enough people who were sane and intelligent enough to see what they were doing and who did it anyway. You don't start with a country high on antisemitic conspiracies to the point of a frenzy where they think genocide is an acceptable solution to a problem of their own imagination.

You start with a country where conspiracy theories against minorities are acceptable, were fringe hate groups are no longer treated as threats democracy, to the peaceful coexistence and the equal rights codified in most constitutions, but as "a valid opinion", where violence against minorities is no longer seen as a threat but "as long as it's not me... meh" or even "the less they have the more I have" or "they probably deserved that. Those [insert scapegoat] are all criminals anyway". Where those messages are no longer contradicted but multiplied. Where it's acceptable to opportunistically throw other people under the bus for ones own benefit. Where swift, hard and mass appealing actions trump any reasonable compromise and function independent of their actual use. Where it's no longer about a peaceful coexistence but an "us" vs "them". Where you end up no longer talking to each other but about each other.

And while the specific themes of the Nazi brand of fascism are likely to be a matter of the past, their tactics, concepts and practices are still haunting modern politics and not just in Germany. "Us" vs "them" narratives, easy populist narratives, "strongman leaderships", looking the other way when people are thrown under the bus and seeing it as a nuissance rather than vital when the protest, fabricated conspiracy theories to perpetrate hate and all the like are still things that occur in the political discourse and far right parties are still again scoring double digit numbers. Yet there's also democratic resistance and recently millions of people protested against for example the rise of a more and more neofascist party and their ideas of "remigration" read deportation(!) of "foreigners" including those with German passports.

So TL;DR the Nazis have a pretty bad reputation in Germany, but that doesn't mean that democracy is not something that people actively need to fight for. Though with respect to Weimar Germany, there are nowadays a lot more people in favor of democracy than back then, let's hope it stays that way.

PS: Also as people here mention "shame" and "guilt" a lot here. You should probably set that in context. Like "guilt" is something experienced by the perpetrators of a crime who is aware of it being a crime. Like even the generation born during or after the war is barely in a position where you could attribute "guilt" to them. Though the generation of the perpetrators who have actively or passively contributed to the system is much more prone to that feeling of guilt. So not talking about it, keeping a low profile, starting your company chronicles after 1945 that is emblematic of a feeling of guilt. They knew what they had been doing and that it wasn't the right thing to do.

So when people complain about being guilt tripped with the Nazi crimes, they usually are not speaking about their involvement in the actual Nazi crimes, you usually hear these statements from far right politicians who like to continue where the Nazis left off, who want to go back to a untainted pride for their country and are willing to just ignore the dark parts. So again that guilt does not relate to the historic Nazis that relates to their present actions and their unwillingness to accept the past for what it is.

Similar things apply to "shame", which you experience if you regret the crimes you did or which may be pushed upon you by attributing you to a group of criminals. So feeling shame for the Nazi crimes usually means identifying yourself with them. Now here it gets tricky, because on the one hand a "wasn't me", is correct and a not identification with that is a valid position on the other hand just saying "wasn't me" also tends to ignore the legacy effects of that where despite it not being you, you are still living in the world where this is a past event that shaped the course of history. Like there was a case where a heir to a German company just said how they just wants to enjoy the luxury of their heritage and people pointed out how that heritage comes from the fortune their parents and grandparents made by slave labor during the Nazi era. Which they denied but later research confirmed. So despite not being a Nazi yourself you might still find yourself in a situation where you're current position builds upon Nazi crimes.

Though is that a reason to be ashamed or shame someone? Not really, again it's not their personal guilt, what matters is what they do with the situation, whether they take their own path forward and try to set things right as best as they can or whether they deny or even glorify that past and build up their own crimes.

Also, while not being taboo in Germany and being extensively taught in school and outside of it. It might still get annoying for Germans if all you ever talk about are Nazis. Like after all that era officially ended almost 80 years ago and since then lots of shit happened in Germany that current day Germans are more able to tell you about then about things they haven't witnessed themselves and just learned from others. Like it's tiring if the default meme for Germans is one from 80 years ago, like it would be nice if people memed something more recent. Which of course isn't meant to downplay what happened or meant to silence anybody asking good faith questions.

And with respect to national pride. To some extend Germans take pride in an anti-pride. Like Schopenhauer put it nicely essentially saying national pride is for people who have nothing else to be proud of, if you'd be good at anything or actually involved in something you'd realize how much potential for improvement there is and would work towards that, while if you're really that miserable that pride in your country is all that makes your life, then you end up defending even it's most egregious flaws with vigor. So there a sense of pride in not having a national pride. Germans still love it when their soccer team occasionally remembers how to play well or wins a world cup or how Made in Germany signals quality (at least it used to). So there's plenty of subtle pride without having a flag at every house.

So with regards to "shame and guilt" the position is usually not one of personal shame or guilt for the actions itself, but seeing it more as a task to do your best to never repeat that, because that's something the current and future generations are able to do, without a time machine.

PPS: Also this rejection of national pride can actually also be quite liberating. Like in many cultures there's a cultural burden on people's shoulders. Where the ancient generation is presented as "the golden generation", like the U.S. literally named people born at the start of the last century The Greatest Generation. Like that is a comparison you can only fail to. Like how can you improve upon such a superlative? Like sure it might serve to some as an inspiration to be better, but then again, they were the greatest... Also if you look too close you might find out that not all they did was great either. So if in comparison your ancestors fucked up beyond repair, you kinda have a clean slate in terms of "make your parents proud" and "you are the last in a long standing history of success, don't you dare to fail". Instead whatever you do, at least you didn't commit the holocaust, which is a bar that shouldn't be too high... And if grumpy old people complain about the good for nothing millennials you could just subtly drop eh "Well let's talk about what you did when you were my age..." or "Who again did you had as your mentors?"?

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I am a foreigner living in Germany since some years. Thus, I can see them with an external eye.

I am watching them, because I am curious. Not for this Hitler-thing. I am only curious, what are they thinking.

I explain, what I've found.

There is a multi-layer nothing in the heads.

Taboos.

The first layer of the nothing in their minds are the taboos. Not only Hitler & WW2 topic is a total taboo, also all political matter. And anything what even neighbours politics. Everything. The main stand of the today's Germans, that they don't talk about politics. They don't talk about the economics of their countries. They don't talk about that the traffic control lamps are badly organized in their home city.

It is also strongly advicable to avoid these topics with them, because as a foreigner I have to follow their ways and not they mine.

However, sometimes they talk, but they do only rarely. It can also happen, that on some indirect way, sometimes, becomes clear what are they thinking. These are rare opportunities, as we can get a simple moment, what is in their minds in the rare moments, which is something.

Fear.

The second layer of the nothing is the fear. It is not a visible, direct fear, for that they have the custom defense mechanism (the taboos). It is visible only in indirect ways or in some extraordinary cases. It has mainly two reasons:

  1. Also Germany has lost 5-6 million lives in the war. It means, that most currently living German has family members, who actually, really, died. This topic also I avoid. Other ww2 topics I avoid only because it is here the custom.
  2. There is also an existential fear. They fear that if they say something badly, they may be stigmatized, even if they didn't think so. And stigmatization leads to social marginalization, and to the loss of his/her well-paying job. Having seen the late, softening communism with my own eyes, I think I can compare the two. Our fear, from the commies, was lighter, as the existential fear of the Germans today. (Btw: consolidated dictatorships work mainly by simple existential threat in the all-days, they pull out the police baton only in extraordinary situations.)

Simple ideas. Too simple ones.

In average, yearly 1-2 times I have the opportunity that I can talk with a real German with real politics. We, middle/east Europeans, are probably extremists in their eyes. They are soft, unmotivated in my eyes. They know a lot more, as they say, but nothing really serious. For example, Merkel's popularity index sunk from 40% to 35% after she (maybe intentionally) catastrophically botched the handling of the so-named "migrant crysis". This was their collective reaction. And now Merkel will likely win again. In my home country, the government had collapsed for far less and that minister-president, who botched it, never had been elected again.

Their ideas are simple. A good measurement of the complexity of the political views, if you see, how long are the causility chains in it. Their are short and naive.

Practically all of them refuses the nazi past.

They really refuse, not only say. Nobody wants war, dictatorship and similar bad things. They want peace, calmness, prosperity. They focus much more on economical things (= money, tax, etc). Politics stinks here, money and job is what is important (what is also taboo, but on a different reason).

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    Living in Germany all my life I made the complete opposite experience in every single one of your main points.
    – Philipp
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 15:05
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    I'm really curious in what alternative version of Germany you are living.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Sep 22, 2017 at 19:31
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    There is indeed a multi-layered nothing. This answer has nothing to do with German reality on any of the layers you bring up.
    – Jan
    Commented Sep 22, 2021 at 12:14
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    Holy shit what kind of a weird view do you have of the world as a whole? Anyway. The correct use of air quotes there is refugee "crisis". That's about all I still have to say.
    – Jan
    Commented Sep 27, 2021 at 13:54
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    Did you honestly just now present a socialdarwinistic, fascist thought as something that be genuinely important? Right when I thought your warped view of reality couldn't get any worse but it seems like the pieces are all falling into place. Maybe I'm actually beginning to understand where you get your first two nothings from and let me assure you that many others, foreigner or German, would have extremely different experiences. Which also explains why Gnasher, Philipp and I don't understand which Germany you were talking about.
    – Jan
    Commented Oct 11, 2021 at 8:41

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