How well have the Germans dealt with their Nazi Past?


Torascheibe aus Zgierz


The Psychology of Complex Words

My German Jewish paternal grandfather was incarcerated in the Buchenwald death camp for twelve days after the infamous German Reichskristallnacht of 1938, leaving the camp broken in body and mind, after which he was forced to leave Germany for British-ruled Palestine with his wife. He died less than six years later. My Polish Jewish maternal grandfather died of starvation in the German-created “Litzmannstadt” ghetto in 1941. His wife and most of his ten children were murdered by the German occupiers of Poland in the Chelmno (Kulmhof) death camp in 1942.

Throughout my life I have had to deal with this family history, to become aware of my partial identification with my murdered grandfather, and to manage my own Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a long German word that means coping with the past, mastering the past, or dealing with the past. For some years now I have been attempting my Vergangenheitsbewältigung by writing a book about my maternal grandfather’s Torah Scroll, which he donated to the Zgierz synagogue in 1927, and a relic of which survived the Holocaust and wound up in the Tübingen city museum in Germany.

The words we use are intimately connected to our psychology and to our politics. Victor Klemperer (1881-1960) understood this (see, as did George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair, 1903-1950; see In his famous satire The Awful German Language, the American humorist Mark Twain (Samuel Langorne Clemens, 1835-1910) poked fun at the extremely-long concatenated German words such as Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän (captain of the Danube Steamship Travel Society). One such word in modern German is Vergangenheitsbewältigung (mastery of the past, or coping with the past). The past in this word is the Nazi rule of 1933-1945, arguably the worst period in German history, perhaps also in world history. This essay sets out to explore whether this uniquely German term denotes a psychological reality, a wishful fantasy, or a collective psychic defense.

The Turkish-Cypriot-born American psychoanalyst Vamık Djemal Volkan (born 1932) has studied the psychology of “large groups” such as nations or religions. The German psychoanalysts Alexander Mitscherlich (1908-1982), his wife Margarete Mitscherlich-Nielsen (1917-2012) and their disciple Tobias Freimüller (born 1973) have shown that it is not only hard for the Jews as a group to deal with their enormous collective trauma of the Holocaust, in which millions of Jews were mass-murdered by the Germans and their collaborators, it is also hard for the Germans as a group to deal with their painful collective memory of their Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945, which perpetrated crimes against humanity, genocide, and mass murder.

The Germans have other unique words for their collective efforts to deal with that terrible Nazi past, such as Auseinadersetzung (sorting out) and Wiedergutmachung (reparation), which literally means “making good again,” and which refers to the German government’s “reparations” payments to the Jews and to Israel, as well as to the personal contributions of individual German volunteers to the welfare of Holocaust victims and other people in need in Israel (see,_Unf%C3%A4higkeit_zu_trauern).

The perceptive German journalist Malte Herwig published an important book showing how the “flak helpers,” the youngest generation of German soldiers in the Second World War, who were drafted into Hitler’s Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe as Germany was losing the war, later concealed their Nazi past, convinced themselves that they had been forced to become Nazis, and went on to become prominent figures in post-war Germany (see


The Torah Ring from Zgierz

The story of the Torah Scroll began for me in the summer of 2010, when Hans-Joachim Lang, a Holocaust historian and journalist in the German university town of Tübingen, who is now a professor of history at the university of Tübingen, contacted me. He had found my name in the online archives of Yad Vashem (see, in a testimony page I had filled out for my Polish-Jewish maternal grandfather, Jozef Hersz Szpiro (1880-1941), who had died of hunger and disease in the Lodz ghetto. The Tübingen city government had just published the existence in its museum of a wooden Torah ring from Zgierz, my mother’s home town, which had been in its possession since 1994.

This Torah ring turned out to be one of the four wooden rings of the Jerusalem-made housing (etz khayim) of a Torah scroll that my maternal grandfather had donated to his Zgierz synagogue in 1927 in memory of his deceased parents, after visiting Palestine with his Hasidic rebbe and buying the housing for his Torah scroll in Jerusalem. The Zgierz synagogue was attacked several times and burned down in the fall of 1939 (see A German NCO had come to see the rabbi of Zgierz on September  8, 1939; he may have  been the same soldier who rescued the Torah Ring from the burning synagogue and later gave it to Prof. Otto Adam Michel (1903-1993), a German theologian and Evangelical pastor in Halle (Sachsen-Anhalt), a former Nazi and S.A. member, who moved to Tübingen in late 1940, who in 1957 founded the Institutum Judaicum in Tübingen, who kept my grandfather’s Torah ring in his private study for fifty-three years, until his death, and whose widow had given the Torah ring to the Tübingen city museum.

Otto Michel had been a Nazi and SA member since 1933, even though he was also a member of the Bekennende Kirche. When that church had split into a pro-Nazi and an anti-Nazi faction, he stayed with the former. From 1943 to 1945, however, he had gone through a series of traumatic personal events, including the loss of his professorship, his humiliation as a simple Wehrmacht soldier who had to scrub barracks floors, and his arrest in 1944 on suspicion of being a member of the conspiracy to assassinate the Führer, that the British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion called a “catastrophic change.” He developed what another British psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, called a “false self.” After the Second World War, Otto Michel changed his middle name from Adam to Christoph, as part of his struggle to forge a new self. A similar transformation, as the German literary scholar Ottmar Ette has shown, took place with his famous colleague Hans Robert Jauss (1921-1977), who had been a captain in the Waffen-SS and had commanded military units that murdered hundreds of people, and was interned by the Allies at the end of the war, barely surviving execution. Jauss concealed his Nazi and SS past throughout his “second life” and, which is more important, the German society and his university collaborated with this incredible denial and gave him many honors.

Since 2010, then, I have been trying to find out when and how this relic of my grandfather’s Torah scroll came into Michel’s possession, why the former Nazi had become “a friend of the Jews,” why Michel himself had said nothing about his Nazi past in his autobiography of 1989, and why he had told no one about how he had come by the wooden Torah disc. It turned out that during the war, in 1943-1945, Michel had undergone a series of traumatic experiences that made him undergo a spiritual conversion and re-create a “false self” for himself as a “Hebrew.”

On November 24, 2011 I received this relic of my grandfather’s Torah scroll from the mayor of Tübingen, Boris Palmer, in a public ceremony in the Tübingen city hall, in the presence of my sister and her elder son, at which I delivered a German-language lecture on Otto Michel and the Torah scroll (see The story was published in several local newspapers and in a full page article in Die Zeit (see

Upon my return to Jerusalem, I took the Torah ring to a maker of wooden Torah-scroll housings in the ultra-orthodox quarter of Jerusalem, who at once identified its maker, the late Berysz Sztoker. I had the Torah ring, which was missing some mother-of-pearl decorations and flower-headed silver nails, restored by a local jeweler.

In June 2015 my grandfather’s five heirs (my sister, myself, our Israeli-born New York cousin and her late brother’s son and daughter) had an emotional family reunion in my Jerusalem home, at which we decided to donate the ring to the POLIN Jewish museum in Warsaw (see, which was eager to have it. In late November 2015, the son of my late cousin personally delivered the restored Torah ring to the Jewish museum in Warsaw.

This, however, is not the end of the affair; we still need to understand the individual and collective psychological processes involved in this drama. To that end, here is a brief summary of my frustrating five-year dealings with the German bureaucracy in my quest for the name of the German soldier who brought the Torah ring from Zgierz to Halle and gave it to Otto Michel.


The Deutsche Dienststelle (WASt)

From German military history books I learned that the Panzer-Abwehr-Abteilung 545, a battalion-size anti-tank unit of the Wehrmacht, occupied my grandfather’s home town of Zgierz on September 8, 1939, and fought the Poles during the Battle of the Bzura. The Zgierz Memorial Book tells of a junior German officer who visited the home of the rabbi of Zgierz that day and expressed an interest in Judaism (see I contacted the now-defunct Deutsche Dienststelle (WASt), which possessed all the personal files of all Wehrmacht soldiers and all the dog-tag indices of all Wehrmacht units, but which, for historical reasons, was an authority of the Land of Berlin rather than of the German federal government.

The now-dissolved Deutsche Dienststelle gave me some basic information but refused to give me the list of the soldiers of the Panzer-Abwehr-Abteilung 545. The governing mayor of Berlin, who is both the mayor of the city and the governor of the Land, refused to intervene, as did the German federal government. After a protracted and exhausting struggle, with the help of the Axel-Springer-Verlag and of its Berlin lawyer, the Deutsche Dienststelle sent me the list of names and birth dates of the members of the staff and of the three anti-tank companies of this battalion, but with all the other details blacked out, and without those of the members of the machine-gun company and of the battalion’s supply units, which the Deutsche Dienststelle claimed not to have. In August 2016 I received some additional names, but that was as far as the bureaucrats would go.

Fortunately, in 2019 the Deutsche Dienststelle was dissolved and all its files became part of the German federal archive. In early 2024 all its documents became available online on the latter’s website. These included the complete dog-tag index of the Panzer-Abwehr-Abteilung 545, including each soldier’s first name, middle names, last name, birth date and birth place.



The university of Halle

In 2012, after a prolonged foot dragging and a stubborn stonewalling, which necessitated a personal confrontation between the Israeli envoy in Berlin and the chancellor of that university, the Martin Luther university of Halle-Wittenberg sent the envoy the names of the students who registered to study theology at that university from 1935 to 1940. It refused to give out any further information on the students, especially their birth dates. Whenever I found an identical name in the Panzer-Abwehr-Abteilung 545‘s dog-tag index and in the university’s theology-student list, the university claimed that they  did not have the same birth date; there have been several such cases.

The breakthrough occurred more than ten years later, in 2023, after I visited Tübingen again and met with its mayor, Boris Palmer, whose intervention with the Halle university’s new chancellor, Alfred Funk, led the university to cooperate with me for the first time and to disclose the complete personal information on its theology students in 1935-1940.

An undergraduate student at the university of Halle was tasked by the Tübingen city administration with carrying out the vital reconciliation of the list of the Halle theology students in 1935-1940 with the list of the soldiers who occupied Zgierz in 1939, namely the members of the Panzer-Abwehr-Abte3ilung 545. The student could thus compile a list of all the theology students, including their middle names, birth dates, and birth places, and reconcile that list with the dog-tag index of the Panzer-Abwehr-Abteilung 545. If he found one identical name, including his middle names, birth date and birth place, he would be our man.


The City of Halle

After an initial resistance, the Evangelical Church in Halle gracefully sent me a list of eight Wehrmacht soldiers, five of whose children Otto Michel baptized, and three of whom he personally married, in 1939-1940, in Halle, where he was a military chaplain as well as a theology professor before moving to Tübingen in late 1940. There is one soldier in this small list whose name stands out. He is an anti-tank NCO named Otto Will Hans Hartung (born 1915), who served in several Wehrmacht anti-tank units in 1939, (but not in the Panzer-Abwehr-Abteilung 545) and who was married by Otto Michel in Halle in 1940; but the city of Halle, where he was born and married, has consistently ignored my requests for  information on his descendants, whom I wish to ask whether they know about this story, and if they do, and if he is my man, to thank them for his having saved my grandfather’s Torah ring from the flames of the Zgierz synagogue. Personal appeals to the mayor of Halle have remained unanswered. The matter remains unresolved.


The Government of Sachsen-Anhalt

After years of resistance, the government of the German Land of Sachsen-Anhalt, in which Halle is located, has tracked down a descendant of Otto Willi Hans Hartung, the soldier who may have rescued the Torah ring and brought it to Germany. It contacted him, asking him whether he would agree to my contacting him. He has refused my request. I have asked the government to make it clear to him  that I wish to thank his ancestor and to find out what he may know about this. The matter remains open.


The Psychology of Bureaucratic Resistance

“Bureaucracy is the art of making the possible impossible” (see The ostensible reason given by the German bureaucrats for this stiff resistance to my research is the very stringent German personal-data-protection laws, which were probably enacted as an extreme reaction to the complete absence of personal-data protection during Hitler’s Nazi regime, when the Gestapo knew everything about everyone in Germany. On the other hand, however, there are the German freedom-of-information laws, which stand in stark contrast to the data-protection laws, as well as the Washington and Terezin declarations, which Germany has signed, and under which all its institutions must collaborate fully with scholars like myself.

Are there also unconscious reasons for this intractable German resistance to my attempts to identify the Wehrmacht soldier who brought my grandfather’s Torah Ring from Poland? Is it really possible to master such a terrible past as that of Germany under Hitler’s murderous regime from 1933 to 1945? Are the German deluding themselves? Are they denying their past rather than mastering it? What brought about the German Historikerstreit (historians’ quarrel) of the 1980s, when the right-wing German historian Ernst Nolte (1923-2016) attempted to rewrite the history of the Nazis, of the Second World War, and of the Holocaust in a subtle way that concealed guilt feelings and Holocaust denial, and when he was supported by many other German historians, while left-wing German historians, like Jürgen Habermas (born 1929), bitterly opposed him? (see And do we, the Israeli Jews, cope well with our own traumatic past? (see

The Torah Ring is now exhibited in the POLIN museum of Polish Jewish history in Warsaw, to which my family has donated it,  but, as Wilhelm Triebold of the Schwäbisches Tagblatt has written, much still remains to explain (see, above all how the Ring made its way from the burning synagogue in Zgierz to Otto Michel in Halle. This not an accident. I would call it the collective inability to mourn and to master the past.


4 thoughts on “Vergangenheitsbewältigung

  1. ich schäme mich, dass sie so viele hinternisse in den weg gelegt bekommen

  2. Avner Shalom Rav,
    Regretfully there is no wonder that the German authorities and many German people are doing all in their possibilities to refrain from cooperating in the struggle to reveal the truth of the past Nazi regime. This still 69 years after the end of the second world war. Today there are many–many German people who present themselves as matured in the “68 generation”. Some of them still say today that the vast majority of the population in Germany didn’t know anything about the scale of the war crimes/atrocities. This argument I heard personally recently from a person who was a professor at the TU in Munich (now retired). I wish to admit that I was nearly shocked to hear this argument 69 years after the war. I heard it before several times, but I thought maybe no one thinks this way today in 2014, and from a person who present himself belonging to the 68 generation. When I tried to bring up many arguments proving from documents / historical researches /films (including Leni Riefenstahl’s), this person still argued very seriously, holding strongly to the basic convictions / arguments. What amazed me during the discussions that most of the other persons present remained “neutral,” namely did not take part in the discussion, in which case maybe they were agreeable to the said argument; surely I did not receive their support to my arguments. The same Person is very very critical towards Israel saying that Israel should consider more and more concessions, etc. But this issue belongs to a total different “disk.”
    I wish you Avner full success in all your undertakings.

  3. Good luck with your quest Avner. I wish you every success and I look forward to reading your book when you get the information you need to write it.

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