A recent CNN article says:

Germany's President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has asked for Poland's forgiveness 80 years after the start of World War II. "I stand before you, those who have survived, before the descendants of the victims, the old and the young residents of Wielun, I am humbled and grateful," Steinmeier said during a ceremony in the Polish city of Wielun, the site of one of the first Nazi bombings in the country on September 1, 1939. "I bow to the victims of the attack in Wielun, I pay tribute to the Polish victims of German tyranny and I ask for forgiveness," he said.

1st Sep, 2019, in Wieluń (Poland): Polish President Andrzej Duda and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier commemorated the first victims of World War II

But if you travel to Germany, you will find monuments portraying German soldiers of WWII as heroes. Here is an example. The inscription on the monument says, "1939-1945. Sie gaben ihr alles ihr Leben ihr Blut sie gaben es hin mit heiligem Mut für uns." My translation: "1939-1945. They gave everything, their lives, their blood, they gave it for us with their divine courage." (To answer a question raised in the comments below, this particular monument is in Damp, Kreis Rendsburg-Eckenförde, and you can find this monument on this website.)

Here are some German monuments that contain a list of soldier names and dates of death: link1, link2, link3, link4, link5, link6, link7. If you pay attention to the dates of death in these pictures, you will easily find 1941, 1940, and even 1939. We all know that practically all German soldiers who died those years died as aggressors outside their home country. The last two links, namely link6 and link7, show monuments whose inscriptions explicitly refer to German soldiers of WWII as Helden (heroes): the inscription on the first of these two monuments says, "Unseren gefallenen Helden" (which translates as "to our fallen heroes"), and the inscription on the other monument is, "Dem Andenken Ihrer toten Helden aus Dankbarkeit" (which translates as "to the memory of your dead heroes out of gratitude).

My question: Should the apology statements like Steinmeier's be taken as truly representative of the views and feelings actually dominating in the population of Germany?

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    The question appears unanswerable because the "views of the people of Germany" can never be known.
    – Aaron F
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 11:03
  • 15
    @AaronF : >> the question appears unanswerable because the "views of the people of Germany" can never be known << There may be evidence in the form of surveys, polls, articles in local newspapers, statements by low-rank politicians, teaching materials, etc. After all, Germans who currently live in Germany can post answers here to share their own observations and impressions about the views of their compatriots.
    – Mitsuko
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 12:11
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    Only one of your links (the first one) remotely glorifies the soldiers of WW II. I have never seen glorification of WW II Wehrmacht except from neonazis. Your claim that "you will easily find many monuments portraying the soldiers as heroes" is incorrect.
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 22:28
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    Regardless of the right or wrong of a war, the individual soldiers were doing their duty to their homeland (often conscripted), so it is right to honor their heroism. Think about the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict. It was not up to the grunt in the trenches. Perhaps the conflict, and the way it may have been waged was controversial, but trying to hold the individual soldiers responsible for the conflict was wrong, and history is now reversing itself on that.
    – Ron Maupin
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 3:34
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    I don't see how being respectful towards the effort of those who fought and lost on the German side may be seen as in contrast with the respect and the apology for the victims on the other side. It is not like most simple soldiers wouldn't have preferred living a peaceful and safe life within their own country rather than dying for the gambles of its leaders in a terrifying war. Could you clarify the reason why you (seemingly) see the two things as incompatible with one another in the question? Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 12:36

8 Answers 8


Outside a small fringe group, there is a broad consensus in Germany that starting WW2 was wrong.

That is not incompatible with the idolization of German soldiers who fought in the war, though. For a long time (I would say roughly after the war until the 80s), many Germans blamed the political leadership (i.e. Hitler and the other Nazi leaders) essentially for both starting and for losing the war. War crimes and the holocaust were blamed almost exclusively on the SS. The Wehrmacht was assumed to have followed orders and "fought honorably". Once they started to be seen as heroes, the 20th July plotters were coopted into this picture, as they were Wehrmacht members. That this happened in 1944, and that many of those plotters actively contributed to the wars of aggression in 1939–1942, is pushed aside. This is the context of those monuments.

The movement of 1968 in Germany was not just anti-capitalist, but also directed against what was perceived by the youth as an insufficient discontinuity to Nazi Germany. In the 90s, there was a somewhat controversial exhibition on war crimes committed by the Wehrmacht (the so-called Wehrmachtsausstellung). The understanding of "duty" changed. Some conservatives would still agree with plaques as the ones you mentioned, but it is almost unimaginable for sentiments like those to be uttered by a mainstream politician these days.

  • 27
    As a german I think that the finer points of this answer are pretty much unknown to anybody under the age of 60. Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 7:42
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    Just as an addition: These days there are often controversies about the older monuments. E.g. in Hamburg there is a war memorial called "Kriegsklotz" (war chunk) by the citizens of Hamburg. Because of constant disussions about removing it now there now also is a "memorial against the war" and a "deserter memorial" nearby. Source: de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dammtor#Kriegerdenkmal_und_Gegendenkmal (memorial part only available in german)
    – Ole Albers
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 11:15
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    @TheSexyMenhir This is part of modern high school education. Anyone who paid attention in school would know these things.
    – Cubic
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 11:19
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    @Cubic Might be that my teacher was just bad or I forgot, but as far as I remember the focus was much more the events leading up to WW2 than the aftermath. Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 11:52
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    +1. In addition, being listed on a "makeshift gravestone" type of list (often in the local graveyard or church) IMHO doesn't require idolization - for this it is sufficient to consider the dead still sufficiently human to get a gravestone (at home, so not where they actually lie) and that their relatives are allowed to have such a place of mourning. And a Mahnmal even less as explained by knallfrosch.
    – cbeleites
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 13:57

You are completely misjudging the intention of these memorials.

In one of the articles you linked, a politician talks about the placement of one of these memorials:

Es mache Sinn, dass Passanten das Denkmal sehen könnten. "Es soll ja ein Mahnmal sein, damit die Leute sich Gedanken machen."

Translates to (see PS notes about "Mahnmal".)

It makes sense that passers-by can see the monument. "It is supposed to be a memorial, so that people are made to think."

This clearly states the purpose of these memorials: To be a reminder of the past, so that people from today do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

This aligns with the general intention of german soldier monuments, which is to show where war always leads: To dead people.

You should also read up on the German War Graves Commission, which is "responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of German war graves." Its stated goal is:

To guard the memory of the victims of war and violence, to work for peace among all nations and to guarantee dignity of men

This, of course, includes soldiers. The Commission cares for "832 war cemeteries and graves in 46 countries", governed by bilateral treaties.

When you pass one of these monuments, you don't "Heil!" and salute, you wonder what kind of political system made your great-grandfather die at the battle of Stalingrad.

On a side note, most of them simply read "Im Gedenken an die gefallenen und vermissten", followed by the town name. This means nothing more than "in memory of the fallen and missing."

PS: The german language knows a special word for memorials whose purpose is to remind future generations of the mistakes of the past: "Mahnmal", where "mahnen" means, according to Wikitionary.org:

  1. to urge (someone) to do a specific, necessary task
  2. to beg fervidly
  3. to warn (someone) of (something) emphatically
  4. to remind pressingly, admonish

So the purpose of the memorials today is to remind us of the horrors of the past. This of course works better when you remind people that even their own ancestors suffered too, regardless of the "side" that they were on.

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    I don't think that "memorial" adequately captures the meaning of "Mahnmal" in the quote. I'm actually not aware of any good translation of "Mahnmal", but maybe adding an explanation of what word means would make this answer more accessible.
    – Arno
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 10:54
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    In my question, I just added two links (namely link6 and link7) to monuments in which German soldiers of WWII are explicitly referred to as Helden (heroes). I do not think that referring to them as heroes is any kind of Mahnung for the next generations. These monuments glorify German soldiers of WWII.
    – Mitsuko
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 16:37
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    @mitsuko You seem to have trouble understanding the difference between honoring and glorifying. These are not the same things. Human beings died. Telling their families that their deaths were meaningless and unnecessary, or that they were terrible people and deserved to die? That's cruel, stupid, and arrogant.
    – barbecue
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 22:39
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    @Mitsuko agreed that there are some memorials which (still) glorify Wehrmacht soldiers. I think most of these memorials were built many years ago, when people were not yet that critical of the Nazi atrocities (criticism mainly started with the 68ers). In my experience, nowadays few people are aware of the glorifications in those memorial texts (it seems to me that few people today actually look at the memorials or the inscriptions). So the glorification might just fly under the radar these days.
    – oliver
    Commented Nov 14, 2019 at 14:37
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    In 1943 when Germany was on the defensive, a "total mobilization" was ordered, essentially meaning all males between 16 and 60 regardless of health were drafted.
    – jim31415
    Commented Nov 14, 2019 at 19:36

Somewhere around a 70/30 split, I would say. The exact numbers depend on just what sentiments are classed as not feeling sorry.

  • I think a majority is truly sorry.
  • There is a minority who is only sorry that Germany lost WWII, not that they started it.
  • Others admit that starting WWII was wrong, but either blame the Versailles treaty or the Nazis in particular, trying to deflect blame from the Wehrmacht or the German people in general. (After WWII, it was politically expedient to blame the SS and exculpate the Wehrmacht. The debate about Wehrmacht crimes was late and acrimonious.)
  • Others admit that starting WWII was wrong, but that previous generations have apologized enough and that it is time to let the matter rest.

A survey by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung found that 17.8% agreed or were ambivalent about the statement "Die Verbrechen des Nationalsozialismus sind in der Geschichtsschreibung weit übertrieben worden." ("Crimes of the nazi regime were widely exaggerated by historians.") You will find much higher numbers who refuse to consider Polish or Greek reparation demands. Is the latter enough to be classed as non-apologetic? The FES finds people to be right-wing if several opinions come together. For my answer I'm counting those which give just one opinion like the one cited in my last comment, so one would have to go into the tables rather than the summary.

There is the debate if one can respect the heroism of individual soldiers who fought for a criminal regime, or if their heroism is tainted because they neither deserted nor mutinied. Or the other way around, if people like the 20th July assassins and Wehrmacht deserters were the true heroes. Some conservatives are uneasy with this concept.

PS - I've been wondering if I should make that 80/20 rather than 70/30, but the last bullet point covers a wide spectrum.

  • 21
    While I don't think that these numbers are that far off, this answer could be improved a lot by actually citing some survey to prove these numbers.
    – Philipp
    Commented Nov 11, 2019 at 20:41
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    @Philipp, very much dependent on the questions you ask. A survey by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung found that 17.8% agreed or were ambivalent about the statement "Die Verbrechen des Nationalsozialismus sind in der Geschichtsschreibung weit übertrieben worden." ("Crimes of the nazi regime were widely exaggerated by historians.") You will find much higher numbers who refuse to consider Polish or Greek reparation demands, Is the latter enough to be classed as non-apologetic?
    – o.m.
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 5:15
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    That is at least a little bit of data to back up the claims made in this answer. I would add it.
    – Philipp
    Commented Nov 12, 2019 at 22:11
  • @Philipp, Zick, Küpper, Berghan, Verlorene Mitte – Feindselige Zustände, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung 2019. The FES finds people to be right-wing if several opinions come together. For my answer I'm counting those which give just one opinion like the one cited in my last comment, so one would have to go into the tables rather than the summary.
    – o.m.
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 5:40
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    Viewpoints #1, #3, #4 don't appear to be mutually exclusive at all, if tested on a person born after the war who might find it ridiculous that they could be held personally guilty of starting it. Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 9:01

This answer has 3 parts, the first two answering the question in the title, the 3rd tackling the issue of glorification/(in)compatibility of memorials.

Steinmeier as president represents the Federal Republic of Germany. From a legal point of view, Germany is an international legal person (Völkerrechtssubjekt) and this international legal person is still the same as the Third Reich.

From this perspective, Steinmeier's position is like a convicted murderer who after some decades of reformed life asks their victims and their victims' families for forgiveness.
And is thus distinct from the position of any German below the age of approximately 90 who cannot have been involved in the 3rd Reich.
Note that holding descendants/relatives responsible for crimes of their forefathers/relatives is called Sippenhaft in German and was done during National Socialism.

Is this official line representative for the public opinion? YES:

A recent (2019) phone survey MEMO Multidimensionaler Erinnerungsmonitor was published that gives relevant insight. Participation was voluntary and anonymous [though of course anonymity in a phone survey is a matter of trust by the participant – after all, the phone number is known at some point], 1000 participants were chosen randomly and representatively. All questions had a non-answer option (I don't know/I don't want to answer). One of the interesting features for me is that they had rather a lot of open questions, that is question with free text answers – which means the answer is not prompted by hearing choices. (Questions and answers are my translation.)

  • The open question We'd like to know: in your opinion, which event of German history should be remembered most [am ehesten] by future generations?. The answers were afterwards grouped into (mutually exclusive) categories.

    • 42.7% of the answers fell into the context of National Socialism (with 28.8 % having an explicit link to WWII),
    • Reunification[/Separation] context was substantially lower with 35.4 %
    • 7.9 % both World Wars was the 3rd most common answer category.
  • The open question Many people* and groups of people were killed or murdered during National Socialism. In your opinion, which of these people or groups should we remember? * I translate the German "Menschen" here with "people", but one may also use "humans".

    • 95.8 % of the participants did answer this question, implying that remembering victims does have a substantial majority (even if you discount that a phone survey may have some bias towards politically correct answers, I don't expect such a bias to be of the extent of making such a vast majority if only a minority would like to remember).
    • Answers were grouped afterwards, but one answer could comprise multiple groups.
    • 49.4 % said all victims/groups of victims
      Tom Uhlig (Bildungsstätte Anne Frank, Frankfurt a. M.) comments this as a tendency to lose concreteness [literally de-concretion] of victim groups.
      personal comment: I'd maybe have answered with "all victims independent of which group they belong to" because to me it is important that humans were murdered, and no victim should be remembered less because of "wrong" ethnicity/religion/philosophy/ideology/sexual orientation or gender/whatever, even though concrete groups come immediately to my mind.
    • Relevant for this question, 6.6 % are group "soldiers killed in action/German victims" and one example listed for this group are "soldiers and their mothers and families". It is not clear to me whether this group comprises explicitly or to which extent implicitly only German soldiers as opposed to all soldiers – my guess is that it was not possible to clearly separate the answers according to this.
  • Multiple choice question: In your opintion, should these people [victims] be remembered in Germany ...

    • far more seldom => 0.8 %
    • more seldom => 7.5 %
    • as much as => 45.4 %
    • more often => 35.1 %
    • far more often => 7.1 %

    ... than it is currently done?

    I.e. > 90 % of the participants think the victims should be remembered at least as often as it is done.

The following table gives the percentage of agree or agree strongly to several questions (my numbers for easier reference):

Question                                               Percent (strong) agreement 
--------                                               --------------------------
1. I think people today could commit similar acts to 
those during National Socialist times.                                     65.6 %

2. I see parallels between current political developments 
in Germany and the times of National Socialism.                            35.9 %

3. National Socialist times are part of the German identity.               71.1 %

4. For social affiliation to Germany, knowledge about the 
history of National Socialism is a must*.                                  87.2 %

5. I'm annoyed that Germans today are still reproached with 
the crimes against Jews.                                                   33.9 %

6. Jews have too much influence in Germany.                                 5.6 %

7. It's time to rule off National Socialist German history.                32.6 % 

8. As Germans, we can be proud of how we deal with our history.            31.7 %

9. Germany is a nation/country that has learned from the 
mistakes of its past.                                                      61.7 % 

10.Germany may be a role model for other countries in how to 
successfully [aufarbeiten]** one's history.                                49.6 %

* Zur Zugehörigkeit zu Deutschland gehört das Wissen über die Geschichte des Nationalsozialismus.
** aufarbeiten: "doesn't mean to reconcile oneself with the [unpleasant] past, but to analyse events, identify responsibilities, and disclose unknown facts in order to establish what really happened and to reach general agreement on who is guilty and to what extent." (Andy AT at dict.leo.org forum)

As you can see there is a broad consensus that as a German one has to know about National Socialism (3+4), and there is also a broad awareness that the future or present may hold similar trouble again (1+2), but also confidence that we did learn from those past mistakes (9 – which does not necessarily mean they agree in their view of the current political situation).

I think questions 6 and 5 are interesting for this question. 6 is a plain National Socialist or Neo-Nazi statement. Whereas question 5 may get agreement from someone who is too young to personally have been involved in any way in the Third Reich – but feels personally accused (see also in particular Jay's answer).

What about glorification?

(1) I do see how the first link (Damp) may be seen as glorifying. And personally, I would not have expected to see such an inscription in a memorial stone exclusively for WWII soldiers.
But after WWII, the Wehrmacht had a comparatively good reputation (as opposed to SD, SS, SA, ...) until the Wehrmachtsausstellung (see Arno's answer). So I do see how such an inscription may have been put up shortly after the war was over.

For the usual memorials with soldier lists, I'd like to distinguish two different functions/purposes of these memorials that are both far from glorifying (and which are non-exclusive):

  • (2) Mahnmal, see knallfrosch's answer and
  • (3) "makeshift gravestone": these soldiers usually died or went missing far from home/their families, and these lists of soldiers serve in lieu of a grave stone and give/gave their bereaved a place for their mourning.

In addition, as @gerrit pointed out, there are a lot of these lists which are (4) add-ons to WWI memorials (and I've seen WWI being an add-on to the 1870/71 war).

This leaves us with the question how to deal with these memorials now.

Rewriting history whenever convenient is highly regarded in all kinds of totalitarian systems. Which makes us very cautious also in this particular question of dealing with war memorials that we judge to be inappropriate now.
Thus, you'll probably see rather that more is added to make clear the memorial is a Mahnmal (2) than taking off parts of the memorial.
Ole Albers' comment gives a prime example with a war memorial in Hamburg: Originally a war glorifying memorial, it was not removed (but there were discussions whether it should be removed; or that the inscription and relief should be removed). In the end, it became far less glorifying by adding lists of dead directly caused by this glorification. Later two more memorials, memorial against war and memorial for WWII deserters, were added. The war memorial is still sufficiently controversial to be frequently target for graffiti etc.

For the Damp memorial (1), the web site you linked gives an explanation of its historical context (it's not an add-on right on a WWI memorial stone, but it is inside a WWI memorial area) and then a critical discussion of the text which makes clear that nowadays militarism, nationalism and heroification are seen crititally but were rather normal at the time the memorial was built:

My translation of the 1st and 3rd paragraph on the web site linked by OP:

 The discussion of the memorials is part of our culture of remembering. With this, it becomes apparent that also we as church learn to critically highlight our own involvement with the history of war and violence. Remembrance is needed to live reconciliation now and also serve peace in future.


In particular the many public [honoring] memorials for the first World War show the then characteristic influence of national and also national socialistic ideology. [Honoring] memorials for the second world war are not infrequently still under the influence of the forms [lit. language of forms] of that time.

The same applies to the WWI memorials that do list the fallen or missed soldiers as heroes. After WWI, Germany (and its allies) legally accepted guilt for the whole war, and they had made the "mistake" of losing it. But there was no blanco suspicion of war crimes standing against the soldiers. Thus, describing them as heroes was pretty much undisputed standard. And, with the still comparably good reputation of at least the lower ranks of the Wehrmacht directly after WWII, adding WWII soldiers listed alongside/near WWI soldiers who are called heroes was considered OK.

Similar to the approach used in Damp, nowadays rather than changing (or dismantling) the memorial it is pointed out what glorifying soldiers leads to. I think we quite got there, seeing that marines having a training march through Rostock are sufficiently worrying to the inhabitants that they call the police.

And I think this reserve wrt changing memorial inscriptions is also due to function (3) as gravestone replacement: you'd need extremely good reasons to change the inscription of a gravestone, however appalling that inscription is from today's point of view.

From your comments I suspect that in this respect you are very far from the prevailing view in Germany:

I find it inconsistent even to maintain monuments listing names of German soldiers and at the same time apologize to their victims.

For those lists that serve as makeshift gravestone, removing them to me amounts to basically denying that they were human: Terrorists and murderers can have gravestones in Germany, e.g. Baader, Ensslin and Raspe grave stone for a prominent example. Even though that question does trigger controversial discussions. Sentences in that context are e.g. "At death, all enmity has to end." or "Human dignity is inviolable, regardless of what they did. A human does have a right to be buried." (my translations) According to that newspaper article, such graves are often anonymous or at unknown locations but the reason given is fear of desecration of the grave.

After all, there are no graves or monuments of Hitler, Eichmann, Mengele, Göring, etc.

Relatively short Google search found, however, that e.g. Heß did have a grave and that that town had to cope with Neo-Nazis (and counter demonstrants) while the lease ran.

BTW, you'll not see that many graves in Germany that are more than ≈30 years old: many (Christian/communal) graveyards run out of space and the lease usually runs out after about 30 years - unless they are war graves (WWI and WWII, military and civil dead), or the graves of victims of National Socialist violence or measures violating rule of law by communist regimes, etc..

Just imagine how a descendant of those who were murdered or raped by German soldiers will feel seeing such monuments.

Possibly similar to the bereaved of said terrorists' victims who have to live with the murderer's gravestone as well.

Nowadays, it is established that the Wehrmacht as an institution was deeply involved in all kinds of atrocities and war crimes during WWII. Still, estimates of what percentage of soldiers was actually involved in crimes of war or crimes against humanity are hard to get. This newspaper article says estimates range from 60-80 % (Heer, leader of the first version of Wehrmachtsausstellung. This version was withdrawn after international criticism of being inaccurate.) at the high end down to single digit percentages according to a revisionist "calculation" by Post. The article goes on citing Hartmann who gives more insight, but no point estimate. He does sum up as "Many are responsible for few and few are responsible for a lot" and that the fraction of privates who were personally guilty of war crimes is low. This still translates to numbers in the hundreds of thousands as approximately half of all male Germans were member of the Wehrmacht at some point during WWII (conscription). This newspaper article states ≈3 % of privates being involved in war crimes or crimes against humanity as estimate, also based on Hartmann.

Still, while "low" isn't a number, even the high estimates mean that for any given name on such a memorial the chance that they are not guilty of a war crime is non-negligible (sorry for the double negative, but that is intended here). I don't think these lists on memorials have the same protection the real war graves have, but I think this blanco suspicion is not seen as sufficient to warrant the removal of a memorial or names from these memorials.

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    >> Which makes us very cautious also in this particular question of dealing with war memorials that we judge to be inappropriate now << Are monuments of Lenin still cared of in Germany, just like the memorial of German soldiers of WWII in Damp?
    – Mitsuko
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 14:53
  • @Mitsuko: Some are (but I am wary of comparing these cases). There is a list on Wikipedia of existing and former monuments for Lenin; generally speaking, smaller monuments and plaques are more likely than giant statues to have remained.
    – chirlu
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 15:59

As the other answers already say - yes the majority of germans are truly sorry about what Germany caused by starting WW2 - Of course there are some people still claiming the war was inevitable due to Versailles treaty - and that Germany was given full guilt for WW1 even though Austria was the one that initiated/ orchestrated it.

The view on these events - and glorifying fallen soldiers - WAS divided due to political agenda of the 2 german states in the years following WW2 - in Eastern Germany as to my knowledge the Wehrmacht and SS were seen as collaborating together in war-crimes, so no official monuments were built - If .. it were some pillars or metal plates containing the list of fallen young men from the town / village. This was more a memento as some of the bodies were never found / identified - and most of them died all over europe.

As already mentioned in my comment above - in many places those memorial places were build after the political turn over and re-uniting the 2 geman states.

In Western Germany there was a strong sense that SS and Wehrmacht were 2 entirely different entities - and the war crimes were done by SS - and the Wehrmacht followed orders mostly as the other answers already tell.

  • Of course there are some people still claiming the war was inevitable due to Versailles treaty There's also the 1929 crash who played as much, if not even more, a role.
    – Bregalad
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 7:56

There is indeed a disconnect between these monuments honoring German soldiers and Steinmeier's apology to the victims of German tyranny, and that disconnect is very much a representation of how Germans have dealt and continue to deal with the German past.

To state the obvious: The Wehrmacht was intrinsic to the Holocaust and committed systematic war crimes. German soldiers were not heroes, but war criminals.

On the other hand, the Wehrmacht comprised millions of Germans. Most Germans were either a member or related to one.

The way post-war Germany dealt with this was denial. While it was generally accepted that the Holocaust happened and that it was a bad thing, the Wehrmacht was seen as a normal army that should be honored for their service. In the same manner, most Nazis were reintegrated into all parts of society (they became high-ranking politicians, judges, civil servants, etc.). German soldiers were portrayed as fair, friendly, and dutiful in German literature and movies. The Holocaust was seen as negative, but disassociated from the people who were responsible for it, and other atrocities committed by Germany were downplayed.

This view of the people of Germany can for example be seen in their reaction to historic events. When German chancellor Willy Brandt bent the knee at Warsaw in the 70s, 48% of Germans thought that the gesture was excessive.

In the 80s, when president Weizsäcker said that the end of WW2 was a liberation, he was severely criticized by his party, who viewed the end of WW2 not as a liberation, but as a defeat.

Also in the 80s, a significant percentage of Germans (41%) were of the opinion that Germany shouldn't have to be bothered with the atrocities committed under national socialism anymore.

In the 90s, some views changed. 80% saw the end of WW2 as liberation, but still 63% of those over 65 and 29% of young people thought that the Wehrmacht was not involved in genocide. 20% of those from higher education and over 50% of those with lower education thought that national socialism also had good sides.

This denial of responsibility is still part of German remembrance today. A survey in 2018 showed that contrary to historical facts, 18% of Germans think that their ancestors helped victims during WW2, while only 18% think that their ancestors were perpetrators of WW2.

Another important aspect of German remembrance is that acts such as those by Steinmeier are merely symbolic, but are accompanied by strong rejection of reparations. Steinmeier did so in 2019 right after his speech asking for forgiveness.

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    the Wehrmacht comprised millions of Germans: It should be noted that this was (in part) due to conscription. A volunteer military would have been much smaller, though probably still sizable.
    – chirlu
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 22:15
  • 5
    @chirlu THIS. And generalizing a partially conscripted army as war criminals might be taking things a bit too far. Commented Nov 14, 2019 at 20:47
  • 3
    @rackandboneman the monuments could say something like "these people were used for an unnecessary war by a criminal regime" or "they were sacrificed by the criminals for criminal aims". In other words portray them as victims rather than heroes.
    – Anixx
    Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 18:02
  • 1
    If you mention a rejection of reparations you should note that the decision that no reparations were to be paid after world war II was made by the winners of the war, most strongly by the US. Of course the Germans neither back then nor today mind this decision but they didn't make it. It was made for them.
    – quarague
    Commented May 1, 2022 at 17:07
  • @quarague It's not like Germany was a passive party in that decision though. Reparations were tabled because of the cold war & until a final peace treaty could be signed. Which happened in '90 with the 2+2 agreement, in which Germany pushed heavily against reparations (their argument against reparation before '90 was that they can't happen without a peace treaty, which can't happen with a divided Germany; their argument after '90 was that now it's too late).
    – tim
    Commented May 3, 2022 at 13:06

Speaking as an American whose only connection to Germany is that I had a great-grandfather who was German ...

One can respect the courage of a soldier and honor his sacrifice without approving of his nation's goals in the war. I recall about 30 years ago a movie came out called "Das Boot" that was about a German U-Boat crew during World War 2. As an American, I respected the courage and sacrifice of these men, even though they were my nation's enemies. I read some reviews of the movie that blasted it for "glorifying Nazis", but no one I know who saw the movie took it that way. Probably at least some of these men approved of Nazi policies. But probably many did not. Most were fighting for their country, not for a political party. Just like, when discussing our own Civil War, many Americans respect the courage and sacrifice of Confederate soldiers, without for a moment supporting slavery.

Another answer mentions that many Germans feel that past generations have apologized enough. Again, speaking as a non-German, I can understand such a position. No German living today had anything to do with the decision-making leading up to the war or the conduct of the war. How can they be blamed for it or asked to apologize for what other people did? If my brother harmed you, you might reasonably ask my brother to apologize. But what good does it do for me to apologize? I didn't do it. When someone sincerely apologizes for something he did, that means something. He is admitting fault and humbling himself. To apologize for something that someone else did is neither admitting fault nor being humble. You're admitting nothing: you're blaming someone else. And you're not being humble. Quite the opposite, you're preening in your own moral superiority over the people who would do such things.

  • 1
    "many Americans respect the courage and sacrifice of Confederate soldiers" - correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't the entire point of the Civil War the fact that the Confederates didn't want to be Americans anymore? I'm not saying you're wrong, just.... it feels like a weird thing to respect.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 15:48
  • 3
    @F1Krazy Well, as my Canadian friends would say, if the Confederacy had succeeded, they would still have been AMERICANS, they wouldn't be US citizens. But to the substantive point: So what? I don't suppose that those German U-Boat sailors wanted to be Americans. Someone doesn't have to be a citizen of my country or want to be a citizen of my country for me to respect him. There are lots of foreigners that I respect.
    – Jay
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 18:11
  • 4
    @Mitsuko Well, I don't know that I'd call it "hypocrisy" for the president of a country to say something that conflicts with what the majority of the citizens want or believe, I don't think that's the right word. It is arguably inappropriate in a democracy. But leaders go against the will of the majority all the time. When you agree with the leader, that's "courage" and "bold leadership". When you disagree, it's "flouting the will of the people".
    – Jay
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 18:13
  • 7
    Regarding the last paragraph: Many patriotic people praise “our great writers, composers, politicians, scientists”, even though those, too, lived before their time. If they do that, it is contradictory to separate themselves from the not-so-great people in the same tradition. – But for the president, the situation is different anyway, as he doesn’t speak for himself, but represents the country. And the country certainly did commit the crimes he apologizes for.
    – chirlu
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 22:31
  • 3
    @gnasher729: Nevertheless, representation according to international law is one of the duties of the president of Germany. And I'd say that he said what he thought needs to be said in that role in Wielun.
    – cbeleites
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 3:16

Worth noting, and while not a complete answer it's an important distinction to make and relates to a point of contention of the OP in their original post and in later comments:

The word "hero", or "Helden" in German, has linguistic and social connotations that are not the same across languages and cultures. An interesting paper that only really touches on the cultural aspects can be read here. An interesting graphic noting the "hero/villain" scale for forty well-known persons as queried across 37 countries can be seen here (from the paper noted above). Of course Adolf Hitler being in position 40 isn't shocking to most. Albert Einstein being in position 1, even above Mother Theresa, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesus Christ may be a bit more surprising.

In English, "hero" is defined(1) as "a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities."

The German "Held" is defined(1a) as "durch große und kühne Taten besonders in Kampf und Krieg sich auszeichnender Mann edler Abkunft (um den Mythen und Sagen entstanden sind)." Translated: A man who distinguishes himself as of noble origin (around which myths and legends arise) most often in war or combat. Also worth noting that "of noble origin" does not have precisely the same implications in German as it does in English.

Linguistically, hero in contemporary English has a connotation of virtue that is lacking in many other languages and lacking from its own roots in Middle English, Old French, Latin, and Greek. In most languages, the meaning has more to do with physical courage and strength than virtue. The original Greek, ἥρως (hērōs), is often thought to mean protector or defender, though even that doesn't inherently infer virtue, and even still was used primarily to describe demi-gods and those of superhuman feat.

The importance of the linguistic and cultural point is that both the virtuous and the unrighteous can be "heroes" in most languages and cultures, including German.

  • 1
    The mythological meaning (1a in Duden) is irrelevant here. This is about 1b and 1c.
    – chirlu
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 16:12
  • @chirlu - it's not, honestly. 1a is the most commonly used definition of the word. But 1b is roughly "someone who earns admiration through acts of boldness and courage" which is still virtue-neutral, and 1c is "someone characterized by extraordinary bravery in war", which is virtue-neutral. And both 1b and 1c are much closer to 1a than to the English definition 1. Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 16:29

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