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The Rise and Fall of National Stigmas

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How do nations grapple with a history of past atrocities? Does recognition of historical crimes in public discourse lead citizens to embrace a past that may devalue their national identity, or does it foster backlash and illiberal nationalism? Perhaps no better example of a paradigm of confronting the past exists than the case of post-war Germany, a country marked by the legacy of the Nazi atrocities in World War II.

More than half a century later, we ask how public recognition of collective culpability in public discourse, education, and culture, has affected German national identity and attitudes towards the country's history. We conducted a nationwide representative survey of German-born adults and relied on an experimental treatment to distinguish between private preferences and their public expression. Our findings suggest that the low levels of national pride and muted emotional connection to German history that are expressed by the German public have been internalized and are not the result of social desirability concerns. Yet a stigma surrounds the public expression of a desire to move on from the historical narrative that emphasizes Germany's role as a perpetrator of atrocities. Our study highlights both the potential for success and the costs of public recognition of a nation's historical sins.


Vasiliki Fouka is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, a Faculty Research Fellow at NBER, and a Research Affiliate at CEPR. Her research interests include historical political economy, political behavior, and cultural economics, with a main focus on immigrant assimilation, the determinants of prejudice against ethnic and racial minorities, and the long-run effects of history for inter-group relations. 

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