Germans and Democracy deals with three themes:

  • How Germany was reconstructed as a democracy after the Third Reich
  • How Germans try to come to terms with their history
  • To what extent democratic norms have become internalized

On the surface, Germany has made progress towards democracy, but is it real or is it superficial?

Television, in both non-fiction and dramatic form, has provided us with continual evidence of the crimes and the criminals of more than half a century ago. And books about the War, the Holocaust and the principals continue to roll out from publishers around the world. Far less is told about Germany's public culture in the decades since.

The significant offering of this documentary is a truly remarkable series of conversations, heart to heart talks and interviews with Germans in many areas of life, of different political views, and of many ages, including interviews with Germans who took part in the War and now have a 50-to-60 year perspective.

More than eighty persons have already been interviewed and the identities of some are startling: Martin Bormann Jr., son of Hitler's trusted confidante; Manfred Rommel, son of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel; Franz von Hammerstein, son of a former Chief of the German General Staff and a survivor of Dachau and Buchenwald; Isa Walter, granddaughter of the SS general in command of the massacre at Babi Yar; former SS soldier Ernst Otto Duschenleit, now an activist against neo-Nazism; and many others.

The documentary Germans and Democracy has really just begun its work. People are now coming forward, volunteering to talk frankly and openly. And others who have avoided the subject, or have never been asked about it, are, it turns out, anxious to discuss what has happened to them and to Germany (both West and East) since the end of the War.

It appears that democracy could only take root to the degree that the horrendous crimes committed under Nazism were collectively remembered by Germans in public. A measure of post-war Germans' democratic feeling is their readiness to recognize their collective responsibility --not guilt -- as a people, and so take ownership of their history and their future. That process took more than twenty years to begin.

That is the impact of all of the documentary's contacts and interviews and observations -- to determine if Germans have developed a civic culture that is viscerally democratic -- or if they are just living within a structure that looks like democracy in good times, but might revert to authoritarianism in hard times.

What they are telling us -- and continue to tell us -- provides some strong clues. Democracy in Germany certainly looks solid. But the same issues challenging all European democracies -- notably immigration and race relations -- have a special resonance against the backdrop of Germany's past. Dozens of citizens' initiatives, and widespread democratic activism, became mobilized only in the wake of persistent assaults on "non-Germans" by a highly visible radical right. Some say German society willfully closed its eyes to radical right-wing manifestations for years, even decades. And that there is no difference between the "new" right and the old right.

The reality is complex, and the documentary presents this complexity without ignoring anything, but with a definite viewpoint. In essence, it is this: the main reason the Weimar Republic failed is that it was fundamentally a "democracy without democrats." The idea of Democracy itself had pitifully few defenders. Germans and Democracy shows that the second German Republic, now half a century old, includes among its people untold thousands of "ordinary Germans" prepared to act together in collective defense of the right of "different" people to be different. And that, arguably, is the most important indicator of any people's democratic spirit.