Out of the Darkness: The Germans, 1942-2022

  • By Frank Trentmann
  • Knopf
  • 816 pp.
  • Reviewed by William Rice
  • April 30, 2024

How does a nation overcome its barbaric past?

Out of the Darkness: The Germans, 1942-2022

Are Germans dangerously different? After Germany precipitated two world wars and carried out the most widespread and systematic destruction of human life in history, many academics writing in the mid-20th century thought so. The German sonderweg (“different path”) of development — delayed coalescence as a single nation combined with economic and technological change untethered from political and social maturation, resulting in pronounced authoritarian and militaristic tendencies — was a popular explanation for all the horrors.

Frank Trentmann grapples with a related but different question in Out of the Darkness: The Germans, 1942-2022. He’s asking how, after a country has temporarily and for whatever reason turned homicidally insane, it accounts and atones for its sins. His answer, in essence, is: incompletely.  

The forthright and vigorous way in which Germany has engaged with its Nazi past in recent decades has been held up as an example for other societies with a dark history, including the American South. Trentmann tarnishes that reputation, first by noting that acknowledgement of and attempts at atonement for the Holocaust didn’t start in earnest until 20 years after World War II ended. Then he chronicles the sometimes overt, often subtle ways Germans have evaded a genuine sense of guilt at the premeditated slaughter of millions.

He draws a distinction between guilt and shame, two words many readers (including this one) view as synonyms. For him and other thinkers on this topic, shame is embarrassment — looking bad to others — while guilt is sorrow at one’s own transgressions. Trentmann recounts how, especially in the early postwar years, Germans bemoaned the loss of “national honor.” They ascribed the massive evils of the Nazi era to any number of causes besides their own complicity: a “universal crisis of modernity,” a seeking after false idols, satanism. One Protestant leader rejected collective guilt for the German people but accepted “collective liability.”

It was with the rise of the first postwar generation in the late 1960s — Germans who could not be personally blamed for the nightmare because they weren’t born yet — that the nation as a whole began to seriously grapple with its communal crimes. Reparations were paid to some victims, and Germany became a big supporter and benefactor of Israel.

Trentmann points out that reconciling the atrocities of Nazi Germany was hampered in part by the nation’s 40-year split into capitalist West and communist East. The full purging of Nazis from government on both sides of the border was sacrificed to the cause of retaining experienced soldiers and bureaucrats to fight the new Cold War.

It’s unclear whether Trentmann is a German citizen or even identifies as German. The book’s dust jacket says only that he “grew up in Hamburg and lives in London,” and none of his prestigious university postings listed are in Germany. The author offers no personal anecdotes of German life. Online résumés are no more helpful, though a video interview reveals a German-influenced British accent.

His nationality is only of interest because of the tone of the book, which is very much that of an insider who knows too much to fall for surface virtues or accept phony excuses. And it is a deeply researched book. Primary sources include letters, petitions, and survey responses of ordinary Germans, offering an “on the ground” perspective unmediated by official opinion.

The book’s serious and intriguing topic deserves its 800-page treatment, but the text could have been shorter if the author engaged in less “on the one hand, on the other” analysis. After a long section refuting Germany’s modern reputation as a haven for refugees, in which Trentmann documents anti-immigrant rhetoric and violence, he allows that, nevertheless, “Germans stood out” from almost all other Europeans in that only one in 10 opposed offering support to the newcomers, whereas elsewhere across the continent, the share was one in three. Why not just leave us with our initial impression that Germany was a relatively welcoming refuge?

The subject matter does not of course lend itself to hilarity, but there are examples of black humor. After reporting that, at the end of WWII, Germans were among the loudest antimilitarists, Trentmann comments acidly:

“It did not help that the nation now calling for peace and forgiveness had been the one that started the war and murdered millions of innocent people.” 

In a similar vein, he indirectly quotes the response of German novelist Erich Maria Remarque to his countrymen’s criticism of his novel depicting Nazi atrocities. “Germans could be extremely generous,” Trentmann writes, “especially when it came to forgetting their own crimes.”

Despite delays and omissions, Germans have by now largely faced up to their terrible history. But Trentmann worries about how they’ve done it. Near the start of the book, he argues that no nation has “turned past sins into a source of civic pride like Germany”; toward the end, he modifies the diagnosis as a “pride in not being proud, [which] at times turn[s] into self-satisfaction.” In other words, just as they excel at auto engineering, Germans have tried to become the best penitents in the world. The author is concerned that they’re missing the point.

William Rice is a writer for political and policy-advocacy organizations.

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