Memories of Universal Victimhood: The Case of Ethnic German Expellees

in German Politics and Society
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Images of German victims have become a ubiquitous feature of political debates and mass-mediated cultural events in recent years. This paper argues that changing representations of the Holocaust have served as a political cultural prism through which histories of German victimhood can be renegotiated. More specifically, we explore how the centrality of the Holocaust in Germany informs how the postwar expulsion of twelve million ethnic Germans has been remembered during the last sixty years. Most interpretations of the destruction of European Jewry and the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia and their corresponding memory cultures treat these memories as mutually exclusive manifestations of competing perceptions of national self understanding. We suggest that memories of both the Holocaust and expulsions are entwined. The Holocaust remains a specific event but also spans a universalizing human rights discourse that conceals the magnitude of the Holocaust as a particular historical occurrence; at the same time, the expulsion stops being a particular event and is being reframed as a universal evil called "ethnic cleansing." Examining recent political and public debates about how the expulsions of ethnic Germans are politicized and remembered reveals how comparisons to other incidents of state sanctioned violence and claims of singularity shape the balance of universal and particular modes of commemoration.

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