What does it mean to elaborate on the past?

Image: Kristvin Gudmundsson


Germany was unable to elaborate on its past. What we saw was an attempt to close the past, erasing it from memory

Germany was unable to elaborate on its past, reflecting on the causes that led six million Jews to the Holocaust (Shoah). When we analyze those post-war years (1945), what we saw was an attempt to close the past, erasing it from memory. What the Germans sought was to forget barbarism. The motto throughout Germany was: “The past must rest in peace.”

This is what the entire administration of the first chancellor Konrad Adenauer (1949-1963) thought. That time was marked by denazification, where it became taboo to talk about the past. What the State and “good citizens” wanted was to erase the ghosts from their memory, that is, all those killed in gas chambers, who haunted them every day. This forgetfulness had a reason for being. Behind it was a bad conscience, a feeling of guilt that should disappear.

As the philosopher Theodor Adorno (1995, p. 29) rightly pointed out: “The gesture of forgetting and forgiving everything, exclusive to those who suffered injustice, ends up coming from the supporters of those who committed injustice”. We must remember that, with the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in 1949, many officials from the Nazi regime were incorporated into the new Republic. As philosopher Hannah Arendt (1999) reported in her writings about the Eichmann trial, Konrad Adenauer was forced to clean up the judiciary, expelling more than 140 judges and prosecutors, as well as several police officers who had a direct role in the barbarity. Nazi. The most emblematic case was that of the chief prosecutor of the Federal Supreme Court, Wolfgang Immerwahr Fränkel, who tried to hide his past by changing his surname. It is estimated that of the 11.500 judges in Germany at that time, 500 were active in Hitler's regime.

Another study appeared in 2012 and lasted four years, called the Rosenburg Dossier. This study brought together a commission of independent historians to investigate the archives of the German Ministry of Justice. The team had access to all confidential files of the institution's employees between 1949 and 1973. The research found the unequivocal participation of personnel who worked in Nazi justice, in the new FRG justice body, created in 1949.

Historians have discovered that, of the 170 jurists in leadership positions in the ministry after the war, 90 had been formally associated with the Nazi party, 34 of them were members of the SA paramilitary storm troopers (Sturmabteilung). These ancient jurists used all means to prevent the pursuit of the murderers. What is most ironic in this whole story was the discovery that the justice system granted collective amnesty to criminals. There was even a department called the Legal Protection Center that warned Nazis abroad about threats of criminal persecution (FUCHS, 2016).

The Central Agency for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes only emerged in 1958, that is, 13 years after the end of the totalitarian regime. This late creation already demonstrated the authorities' total lack of interest in clarifying the facts. Prosecutor Erwin Schüle, who ran the agency at the time, had enormous difficulty in starting the investigations, firstly because the German witnesses were not willing to cooperate; second, because there was little willingness on the part of local courts to open cases based on material sent by the Central Agency (ARENDT, 1999).

According to Hannah Arendt (1999), it was only with the news of the sensational capture of Eichmann, in Argentina, by the Mossad (Israeli Secret Service), and his imminent trial, that there was enough impact to overcome the reluctance of the local courts and take into account prosecutor Schüle's findings. The result was immediate. A few months before Eichmann's trial, Richard Baer, ​​Rudolf Höss's successor in command of Auschwitz, was arrested. Several members linked to Eichmann were also arrested. It was relatively easy to capture them, as, in addition to there being overwhelming evidence published in magazines and newspapers about the criminals at the time, none of them found it necessary to adopt a false name, such was the freedom they enjoyed.

Another important fact was that only high-ranking criminals could be tried. All other crimes were time-barred according to current law, which was twenty years for murder. For this reason, most of the murderers, like the members of the Einsatzgruppen mobile troops, were not tried.

As Wojak (2015, p. 306) observes: “[…] in trials against storm troopers (Einsatzgruppen) and concentration camp murderers, they tended to apply the principle of 'helpers', which transformed mass murderers into mere executors of superior orders, as if they were easily manipulated puppets of a criminal regime, as if there were no Nazis, and worse, with a complete lack of empathy for victims and survivors.”

In addition to front-line killers not being tried, those who were tried received very lenient sentences; there was no national feeling of justice or revolt. As Hannah Arendt herself (1999, p. 27) reports: “The attitude of the German people towards their own past, which experts on the German question had pored over for fifteen years, could not have been demonstrated more clearly: people did not care about the turn of events and were not bothered by the presence of murderers on the loose in the country, since none of them would commit murder of their own free will, however, if global public opinion – or rather, that which the Germans called Ausland, bringing together all foreign countries in a single noun – was stubborn and demanded that those individuals be punished, they were entirely willing to act, at least to a certain extent.”

In 1963 the Auschwitz trial took place, which brought twenty two men to court. This judgment only occurred by chance. The fact is that there were never efforts by the authorities to investigate and convict the criminals. It was by chance that a journalist, Thomas Gnielka, on a routine research assignment in 1959, met a former Auschwitz prisoner named Emil Wulkan, who handed him a small package of documents carefully tied with a red ribbon.

This package had been rescued in Breslau (formerly Wroclaw), in the last months of the war, in the rubble of an old SS police building (Schutzstaffel), which had caught fire. The documents contained records of executions in Auschwitz. There were both the names of the dead, the names of their killers, as well as the reason for the executions. There was also the signature of the camp commander: Hudolf Höss and the signature of his assistant, Robert Mulka, who became one of the main defendants in the trial.

The documents were handed over to the journalist who, in turn, contacted the then Hessen attorney general, Fritz Bauer, who saw compelling evidence there to convict the murderers (Fritz Bauer Institute). These facts were portrayed in the film Im Labyrinth des Schweigens (Maze of lies) by Giulio Ricciarelli. The film shows how twenty years after the Nazi regime, a new generation of individuals ignored the crimes. They were unaware that their parents, teachers and old acquaintances were part of something monstrous. These murderers lived peacefully as respectable citizens, in professions such as doctors, lawyers, bakers, businessmen and many other occupations.

It was thanks to the efforts of Attorney General Fritz Bauer that the Auschwitz trial was possible. Fritz Bauer came from a Jewish family and was expelled from the judiciary by the Nazis in his youth, imprisoned in a concentration camp. But as luck would have it, at the end of 1935, at the age of 32, he managed to escape and flee to Copenhagen. It was only in 1949, with the founding of the German Federal Republic (FRG), that he returned to Germany. Upon returning, Fritz Bauer obstinately dedicated himself to investigating and bringing to trial the criminals of Auschwitz (WOJAK, 2015).

His story was told in the award-winning film Der Staat Gegen Fritz Bauer (The State against Fritz Bauer), by Lars Kraume, who sought to rescue the life of an almost forgotten hero. The film tells the story of a Jewish and homosexual attorney general, a state employee, who challenged the institutions to try war criminals. Upon returning from exile, Fritz Bauer stated: “I returned because I believe I can bring with me something of optimism and the faith of the young democrats of the Weimar Republic, contributing with the spirit and will of resistance of the emigration to fight against the injustice of the State. I want to be a jurist who not only serves law and justice, but who defends humanity and peace to the teeth” (Bauer apud Wojac, 2015, p. 304-5).

Fritz Bauer's greatest difficulty was facing the former Nazis incorporated into the New Republic. They had a network of influences in politics, justice, the secret service and the economy. During his investigations, Bauer received several death threats. However, he was not intimidated and fought against the institutions to bring the Auschwitz murderers to trial. According to the account of Wojac (2015), who knew him in life, Fritz Bauer was a radical who sought to clarify Nazi crimes, while at the same time giving uncomfortable warnings to his enemies.

He was considered an outcast who permanently held a mirror in front of his contemporaries, a mirror they did not want to look into. He was an obstinate man who would not leave the past alone, and who was able to provoke the bad conscience of those who were part of the Nazi regime, confronting them with all the details of the crimes of the so-called “Final Solution”. Fritz Bauer's merit was also in being able to locate in Argentina one of the greatest minds of the Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann, responsible for the transport logistics that took millions of Jews to concentration camps. Unable to trust German institutions, Bauer entrusted his investigations into the Nazi to the State of Israel, which captured him and put him on trial in 1962 (WOJACK, 2015).

The philosopher Theodor Adorno (2008), in one of his classes at the University of Frankfurt, even paid tribute to Fritz Bauer, at the time of his death. For him, Bauer was an extraordinary man, with great moral strength, who strove to make the Germans account for their past: “I know of very few people who made such a passionate and energetic effort so that evil would not really spread. repeat in Germany and may fascism be fought in all its threatening forms. He pursued this in an extraordinarily coherent way and endowed with unparalleled moral courage” (ADORNO, 2008, p. 275).

For Adorno (2008), Fritz Bauer's premature death, due to a heart attack, was due to the despair resulting from the fact that everything he placed his hope in, everything he intended to change and improve in Germany seemed to be threatened. The amnesty of criminals by the State, the refusal of institutions to criminalize murderers, the adoption of laws that impeded investigations and political persecution may have contributed to the prosecutor's psychological exhaustion: “I am forced to say that there are developments in Germany, such as the adoption of emergency laws[I] and a whole series of other things, which make it conceivable to me that Bauer, victim of a heart problem, suffered so much because of these things that they ended up interrupting his life” (ADORNO, 2008, p. 276).

In your article, What does it mean to elaborate on the past, Adorno sought to understand the reasons for the Germans' inability to judge Nazi criminals. He saw in this refusal a neurotic inability to face the past: “We all know the current willingness to deny or minimize what happened — however difficult it may be to understand that there are people who are not ashamed to use an argument such as that they would have been murdered just five million Jews, not six” (ADORNO, 1995, p. 31). These rationalizations and euphemisms used to minimize past events, such as, for example, “night of the crystals”, were, for Adorno, symptoms of something that was not worked on psychically.

The fact is that the Germans were unable to look at themselves in the mirror. Like good realists, they preferred to worry about the present and their daily affairs. For the philosopher, this phenomenon resulted from the objective conditions of capitalist society. In production, circulation, and material exchange between men, there is no temporal moment. Time and memory are liquidated in capitalist society. A realistic and healthy man is concerned with the present and his practical goals (ADORNO, 1995). With the economic miracle under Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's government, institutions were not worried about their barbaric past.

They were more interested in preserving Germany's image abroad. As Theodor Adorno himself assessed (1995, p. 33): “The forgetfulness of Nazism can be explained much more from the general social situation than from psychopathology. Even the psychological mechanisms that operate in the denial of unpleasant and unscrupulous memories serve extremely realistic goals. The agents of refusal themselves end up revealing the same, when, armed with practical sense, they state that an overly concrete and incisive reminder of the past could harm Germany's image abroad”.

Theodor Adorno's studies showed that one of the reasons for the population to support the Nazi regime was a lack of historical awareness. At Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer had already diagnosed the social weakness of the self. The disappearance of historical consciousness in Germany would be a symptom of this weakness. In their alienation, the German people did not realize that economic growth in the Nazi era resulted from investments in military power, which would lead Germany to a time of violence and catastrophes (ADORNO, 1995).

This lack of memory prevented the average German from seeing reality objectively, making him unable to perceive the barbarity that was to come. The lack of historical understanding “obstinately distorted the Nazi era, in which the collective fantasies of power of those who, as individuals, were powerless and only imagined themselves being something while constituting such collective power were realized” (ADORNO, 1995, p. 39).

As Zamora (2018) rightly observes, it is a fact that when faced with some crimes, especially those committed against humanity, nothing seems as natural as the desire to forget, to change the course of things. Since the past cannot be undone, there is nothing smarter than leaving no trace of the crimes committed. This is not just physical elimination, but the elimination of the Jewish people from the culture and history of Europe. In this sense, there is an intrinsic relationship between extermination, oblivion and physical annihilation. Forgetting, therefore, is a second injustice committed against the Jews and which brought more sadness and pain.

The Germans' refusal to face the past also has, for Theodor Adorno, a component of collective narcissism. With Germany's defeat in World War I, German national pride was shaken. The Treaty of Versailles imposed large territorial losses, as well as large monetary fines to compensate for the damage. It was a time of hunger, misery and economic instability. With Hitler's rise to power, the Nazis were able to achieve economic flourishing and regain national pride.

It was this narcissistic satisfaction that survived in the consciousness of the German people. It was she who contributed to a certain resistance in condemning Nazi criminals: “No analysis, however evident, can eliminate the reality of this satisfaction, as well as the energy of instinctive impulses that was invested in it” (ADORNO, 1995, p 39). The fact is that there was sympathy among the German people for the Hitler regime: “Nazism inflated collective narcissism to an immense extent, or, to put it simply: national pride” (ADORNO, 1995, p. 39).

It was due to this national pride, this feeling of nostalgia, that the Germans were not able to elaborate on the past, were not able to psychically work through Nazi barbarity. In other words, they were unable to free themselves from their identifications with Hitler and their national pride. When paying attention to the Freudian theory of collective identifications, in Mass psychology and analysis of the ego, Theodor Adorno concluded that “those identifications and collective narcissism were not destroyed, but continue to exist” (ADORNO, 1995, p. 40).

With the end of the Nazi regime, it would be an obligation for Germans not only to judge the criminals, but to enlighten and raise awareness among new generations about the barbarity of the Holocaust (Shoah). It would be necessary to elaborate on the past so that Nazism would never happen again. For Theodor Adorno, elaborating on the past does not mean creating commemorative dates about what happened, remembering the barbarity. Nor is it a question of remembering the facts through dramatizations, films or religious services.

Much less is it about remembering the historical persecutions of the Jewish people. As Jeanne-Marie Gagnebin (2006, p. 100-1) states: “Adorno does not claim that we should always remember Auschwitz; that is, he does not advocate incessant celebrations. I do not consider it a derisory nuance of vocabulary that Adorno, in other articles already cited, talks much more about a fight against oblivion than about commemorative, solemn, restorative activities, of “rescue”, as is said so much today. If this struggle is necessary, it is because not only is the tendency to forget strong, but also the will, the desire to forget.”

For Theodor Adorno, the elaboration of the past means, above all, the pedagogical process of clarification, understanding and awareness of the barbarism that was perpetrated in a cruel and senseless way. The causes of Nazi barbarity should be discussed in all German educational establishments. The elaboration of the past is the awareness and the effort to understand why men lost their humanity. It is about clearly understanding the process that led ordinary people, many Christians, to eliminate other individuals gratuitously, senselessly and out of mere racial prejudice.

What are the historical and social conditions that fostered authoritarian regimes? What political and economic conditions were necessary to produce barbarism? What are the psychological mechanisms that led individuals to commit acts of atrocity? What are the unconscious processes behind violence? These are questions that should have been answered by the German educational system, but were not.

When commenting on the essay “What does it mean to elaborate on the past” Jeanne-Marie Gagnebin (2006, p.101) explains to us what Adorno understands by this: “Even when Adorno speaks in this essay of the 'destruction of memory' (Zerstõrung de Erinnerung) and the necessary resistance to this destruction, we must emphasize again that, here, the key word is not memory or remembrance, but Enlightenment, clarification. I remember that this word is also used in the everyday, common sense of explanation, explanation, clarification or rational pedagogical activity of clearly posing a problem […]. Anyway, Enlightenment designates what speaks clearly to rational consciousness, what helps clear and rational understanding – against magic, superstition, denial, repression, violence. In other words: there is, on Adorno’s part, no sacralization of memory, but an insistence on rational clarification.”

If Nazi-fascism is still present today, this is because education failed in its primary objective, it was not able to elaborate on the past, it was not able to fulfill its mission, which is to clarify and raise awareness. As Adorno himself (1995, p. 123) teaches us: “When I talk about education after Auschwitz, I am referring to two issues: first, early childhood education, especially in early childhood; and, in addition, to general enlightenment, which produces an intellectual, cultural and social climate that does not allow such repetition, therefore, a climate in which the reasons that led to horror become in some way conscious”.

*Michel Aires de Souza Dias He holds a PhD in Education from the University of São Paulo (USP).


ADORNO, Theodor. Introduction to Sociology. São Paulo: Editora UNESP, 2008.

ADORNO, Theodor. Education and Emancipation. Rio de Janeiro: Peace and Land, 1995.

ADORNO, Theodor; HORKHEIMER, Max. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Rio de Janeiro:

Jorge Zahar, 1985.

ARENDT, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil. Translated by José Rubens Siqueira. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1999.

FRITZ BAUER INSTITUT: Geschichte und Wirkung des Holocaust. Tonbandmitschnitte des Auschwitz-Prozesses (1963–1965). Frankfurt, 1964. Available at https://www-auschwitz–prozess-de.translate.goog/?_x_tr_sl=de&_x_tr_tl=pt&_x_tr_hl=pt-BR&_x_tr_pto=sc>

FUCHS, Richard. Dossier exposes the presence of Nazis in German justice after 1945. DW Brazil, 2016. Available https://www.dw.com/pt-br/dossi%C3%AA-exp%C3%B5e-presen%C3%A7a-de-nazistas-na-justi%C3%A7a-alem%C3%A3-do-p%C3%B3s-guerra/a-36015630>

GAGNEBIN, Jeanne Marie. What does it mean to elaborate on the past? In: Gagnebin, Jeanne Marie. Remember, write, forget. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2006.

WOJAC, Irmtrud. Fritz Bauer (1903-1968). Jurist for the sense of freedom. Jewish Notebooks. Chile, no. 32, December, 2015, p. 302-318. Available inhttps://doi.org/10.5354/0718-8749.2015.38101>

ZAMORA, José Antônio. Memory and history in the face of Auschwitz. Insurgency Magazine. Brasilia, year 4, v.4, nº1, 2018, p. 109-143.


[I] Law approved on May 30, 1968, that in cases of internal or external emergency, of force majeure, the government could temporarily restrict or completely nullify the basic rights of citizens.

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