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Those Who Forget, published to international awards and acclaim, is journalist Géraldine Schwarz’s riveting account of her German and French grandparents’ lives during World War II, an in-depth history of Europe’s post-war reckoning with fascism, and an urgent appeal to remember as a defense against today’s rise of far-right nationalism.

During World War II, Géraldine Schwarz’s German grandparents were neither heroes nor villains; they were merely Mitlaüfer—those who followed the current. Once the war ended, they wanted to bury the past under the wreckage of the Third Reich.

Decades later, while delving through filing cabinets in the basement of their apartment building in Mannheim, Schwarz discovers that in 1938, her paternal grandfather Karl took advantage of Nazi policies to buy a business from a Jewish family for a low price. She finds letters from the only survivor of this family (all the others perished in Auschwitz), demanding reparations. But Karl Schwarz refused to acknowledge his responsibility. Géraldine starts to question the past: How guilty were her grandparents? What makes us complicit? On her mother’s side, she investigates the role of her French grandfather, a policeman in Vichy.

Weaving together the threads of three generations of her family story with Europe’s process of post-war reckoning, Schwarz explores how millions were seduced by ideology, overcome by a fog of denial after the war, and, in Germany at least, eventually managed to transform collective guilt into democratic responsibility. She asks: How can nations learn from history? And she observes that countries that avoid confronting the past are especially vulnerable to extremism. Searing and unforgettable, Those Who Forget is a riveting memoir, an illuminating history, and an urgent call for remembering.

This reading group guide for Those Who Forget includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

During World War II, Géraldine Schwarz’s German grandparents were neither heroes nor villains; they were merely Mitlaüfer—those who followed the current. Once the war ended, they wanted to bury the past under the wreckage of the Third Reich.

Decades later, while delving through filing cabinets in the basement of their apartment building in Mannheim, Schwarz discovers that in 1938, her paternal grandfather Karl took advantage of Nazi policies to buy a business from a Jewish family for a low price. She finds letters from the only survivor of this family (all the others perished in Auschwitz), demanding reparations. But Karl Schwarz refused to acknowledge his responsibility. Géraldine starts to question the past: How guilty were her grandparents? What makes us complicit? On her mother’s side, she investigates the role of her French grandfather, a policeman under the Vichy regime.

Weaving together the threads of three generations of her family story with Europe’s process of postwar reckoning, Schwarz explores how millions were seduced by ideology, overcome by a fog of denial after the war, and, in Germany at least, eventually managed to transform collective guilt into democratic responsibility. She asks: How can nations learn from history? And she observes that countries that avoid confronting the past are especially vulnerable to extremism. Searing and unforgettable, Those Who Forget is a riveting memoir, an illuminating history, and an urgent call for remembering.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

Nazi Germany

1. Schwarz defines her German grandparents as Mitläufer, ordinary people who, like the majority of the German population, “followed the current” (page 1) during World War II. She argues that without the cooperation of the Mitläufer, the Nazis could never have carried out the atrocities of the Holocaust. What does she mean by that?

2. How did Mannheim change during the 1930s and early 1940s, and how did this impact the city’s Jewish community day by day? How did it impact Schwarz’s grandparents?

3. How did opportunism motivate many Germans to support anti-Semitic measures? How did its citizens become accomplices in a criminal regime? What role did indifference, fear, and blindness, as well as the manipulative strategies of the Third Reich, play in society’s transformation?

4. What parts of Hitler’s regime were appealing to Lydia, Schwarz’s paternal grandmother? How does Schwarz use her grandmother’s example to convey a popular opinion of the time?

5. When did Schwarz herself become aware of the original owners of her grandfather’s company, the Mineralölgesellschaft? How did she go about learning more about the Löbmanns’ lives?

6. What did the first letter from Julius Löbmann ask for or demand? What did Schwarz’s grandfather think of Julius Löbmann’s lawsuit? Why? How did the Third Reich’s strategy of legalizing crime impact Karl Schwarz’s behavior?

7. To what extent are Schwarz’s grandparents victims and perpetrators at the same time?

8. What’s the story behind Oma’s dining room furniture? Describe its provenance, and the likely fate of the people who originally owned it. When did Schwarz discover its origins? Why does she argue that popular attitudes about the looting and auctions of Jewish property are even more revealing than apathy about the deportations?

Germany after the War

9. What did Schwarz’s father, Volker, learn in primary school about the Nazi regime? What does this say about where postwar Germany was in acknowledging its culpability?

10. Describe the antimilitary, antinuclear, and antifascist movement that sprung up in Germany in the 1960s. What changes did that movement bring? How did this lead to the transformation in attitudes around who was responsible for the Nazis’ crimes against humanity?

11. Schwarz describes a “normalization” (page 222) process in Germany’s participation in international politics in the early 2000s. What did this process look like?

12. Why do Schwarz’s father and her aunt Ingrid have differing understandings of the past? What does this tell us about the reliability of memory and the need to confront memory with historical fact? How does Schwarz solve the problem in her book?

13. Schwarz quotes the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who says: “To make memory an imperative is the beginning of an abuse . . . I’m cautious about the expression ‘duty to remember’ . . . I prefer ‘the work of memory’” (page 247). How would Schwarz describe “the work of memory” in Germany? How did the reflection about the responsibility of the Mitläufer help Germany build its democracy? How did Germany build something positive from a terribly destructive legacy?

France

14. What was the political situation in France after its defeat by Nazi Germany in 1940? How did life change for French citizens? How far did the collaboration of France with Nazi Germany go?

15. What was Schwarz’s maternal grandfather’s role during the occupation? How does Schwarz define the scope of his responsibility compared to that of her German grandfather?

16. What was the official story after the war of how French people resisted occupation, as told, for instance, to Schwarz’s mother? What were the myths of “resistant France” and “victorious France” (page 162)? How does this encourage or prevent what Schwarz defines as “memory work”?

17. What difference does Schwarz sees between France’s and Germany’s democracies and how does she relate it to the way each country confronted its past?

Learning from History

18. What does Schwarz observe about the lack of memory work in many European countries? What connection does she make between memory work and far-right nationalism? What parallels does she see between today’s demagogues and those of the 1930s?

19. Compare the experience of Jewish refugees on the Saint Louis being turned away by Cuba, the United States, and Canada with Angela Merkel’s welcoming thousands of refugees to Germany in the 2010s.

20. Schwarz suggest that we can best learn from history by reflecting on the role of the people, not just focusing on the responsibility of the leaders. How can the question What would I have done? remind us of our present-day responsibilities and help us to protect democracy?

Europe after 1989

21. How did the fall of the Berlin Wall play into the political conversation around Germany’s past? How did Eastern Europe confront their own fascist past under the domination of the Soviet Union during the Cold War?

22. Schwarz writes that “Europe was brought back to life twice—in 1945 and 1989” (page 282). She argues for the importance of a transnational European memory, one that would build bridges between countries and communities through the work of remembering the trauma of the Holocaust, crimes committed under Soviet domination, and the criminal colonial past. Describe what she means by this.

Enhance Your Book Club

1. How has the United States reckoned with or failed to reckon with the massive injustices of our past? How are we as ordinary citizens complicit now? Discuss.

2. How would you describe the current role of Germany in international politics? How do you think this change has been accomplished?

3. Read Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum and compare Oskar’s experiences in Danzig to Schwarz’s family’s experiences in Mannheim.
Photograph by Mathias Bothor/Photoselection

Géraldine Schwarz is a German-French journalist, author, and documentary filmmaker based in Berlin. Those Who Forget is her first book. It won the European Book Prize, Germany’s Winfried Peace Prize, and Italy’s NordSud International Prize for Literature and Science and is currently being translated into eight languages.

More books from this reader: Kathe Mazur