The Multidimensional Remembrance Monitor (5): „We would have resisted!“ A sign for historical learning or an expression of careless arrogance?


Michael Papendick and Dr. Jonas Rees

The culture of remembrance in Germany, widely appreciated internationally, is grounded in numerous state-funded institutions and an extremely  vital civil society engagement. But what do we know about its impact on the attitudes of ordinary Germans?

MEMO covers a range of participants’ perspectives on the time of National Socialism. They report their knowledge about ancestors and in how far these were involved in the NS system as perpetrators, victims, helpers or bystanders. They also estimate the extent of the general population’s involvement in the system of National Socialism in Germany. Finally, they are asked to estimate the probability that they themselves would have become perpetrators, victims, helpers or would have resisted if they had lived in Germany during the time of National Socialism.

Comparing these numbers reveals significant differences depending on the specific perspectives participants take, which may appear little surprising from a social psychological point of view, but nevertheless raises important questions regarding the potential of “learning from history”.

Regarding the group of “perpetrators”, participants in MEMO estimate the proportion of Germans involved during the NS-time as significantly higher (34%) than participants’ knowledge about perpetration of their own ancestors (20%).

The proportion of participants who assume that they themselves would have become perpetrators, again, is significantly lower (10%).

In terms of “helpers”, the pattern we find in MEMO is reversed: while narrations of ancestors who have helped potential victims during National Socialism are relatively common in German families (29%), the estimation of helpers among the German population in general is considerably smaller (16%).

In sharp contrast, a large proportion of participants in MEMO thinks it is likely that they themselves would have helped those in need in the NS-time (65%). Even more, roughly one third (31%) respond that they would have actively resisted the National Socialist regime.

These results allow for different interpretations, the most optimistic of which would be that Germans have learned from a (self-)critical confrontation with their history and, due to this, are less susceptible to inhuman ideologies nowadays, assuming that many of them would resist fascist regimes and stand up for those who are persecuted or oppressed.

At the same time, the results may reflect an overestimation of participants’ own courage and self-efficacy and/or an underestimation of the subtlety and strength of social processes and the influences of these processes on one’s own behavior.

In this case a pessimistic reading of the results would be that respondents have not learned from an examination with history and still, despite what could have been learned, underestimate how quickly social norms can shift and inhuman ideologies can be established.

Of course, the results reflect well-known social psychological mechanisms of overconfidence and ingroup-favoritism, but especially in the context of Germany’s National Socialist past, one could assume that a critical confrontation with history counteracts these mechanisms. Therefore, future research might help to understand the challenges and mechanisms of historical political education.

About MEMO

The MEMO-project (Multidimensional Remembrance Monitor, “Multidimensionaler Erinnerungsmonitor” in German or MEMO for short) is led by the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence at Bielefeld University in collaboration with the foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future (Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft, EVZ).  Since 2017, MEMO observes the state of Germany’s culture of remembrance and its developments, using annual representative surveys conducted as Computer Assisted Telephone Interview (CATI), involving 1.000 randomly selected respondents. In the standardized survey, respondents answer questions both in open as well as in closed formats. Participation in the survey is voluntary and anonymous.

Results of the studies are made available online for the general public in the form of reports – accessible at the Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” website.

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Issue: Impact

Transitional Justice is value-oriented and aims to help build sustainably peaceful and just societies. What do we know about its real impacts?


Michael Papendick is a Psychologist and Psychotherapist, working as a Research Associate at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence since 2018.
Dr. Jonas Rees is a Psychologist, working as a Research Coordinator at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence since 2017