One of the most important developments in the incipient Berlin Republic's memory regime has been the return of the memory of German suffering from the end and aftermath of World War II. Elite discourses about the bombing of German cities, the mass rape of German women by members of the Red Army, and, above all, the expulsion of Germans from then-Eastern Germany and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe have gained massive visibility in the last decade. Although many voices have lauded these developments as liberating, many others within Germany and especially in Poland—from where the vast majority of Germans were expelled—have reacted with fear. Yet, do these elite voices resonate with mass publics? Have these arguments had demonstrable effects on public opinion? This paper delves into these questions by looking at survey results from both countries. It finds that there has been a disjuncture between the criticisms of elites and average citizens, but that the barrage of elite criticisms leveled at German expellees and their initiatives now may be affecting mass attitudes in all cases.
The Federal Republic of Germany—both before and after 1989—has been influenced deeply by collective memories of the Nazi period and the Holocaust, a seemingly "unmasterable past." In a first phase after unification, memory trends, which had their origin in the mid 1980s, continued, but a second period, beginning around the 1999 move of the capital back to Berlin, however, witnessed the erosion of this older trend and the delayed rise of new memory dynamics. Substantively, there have been three vectors of memory concerning Nazi crimes, German suffering, and the period of division, especially regarding the German Democratic Republic. In this article, I outline the major collective memory dynamics and debates, first from a qualitative and then from a more quantitative perspective where I analyze the holdings of the German National Library. I conclude that an intense period of memory work characterized the postunification years, but the peak of concern was reached several years ago and the German future will be much less beholden to the past. Given inevitable normalizing trends and the unintended consequences of the hegemony of Holocaust memory, Germany's difficult historical legacy increasingly appears to be disappearing or even mastered.
I recall a conversation from a while back with a colleague. He was
disdainful of German politics, stating that they are ponderous, lackluster,
even boring. He prefers to follow Italian politics because of
the intrigue, emotion, and, most of all, the drama. Although forced
to agree at the time that the contrast between the two countries
could not be greater, I was also immediately reminded of the old
(apocryphal) Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times.”
Germany-watchers and many Germans have long been sour about the unified country. Often for well-founded reasons, there are few policy or cultural areas that have not been subjected to withering criticism: failed integration of immigrants, an antiquated political economy, insufficient coming-to-terms with the past, atrophied parties, or lackluster foreign policy. Nevertheless, the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall and unification is an appropriate moment to pause and reflect on the accomplishments of contemporary Germany—export champion, environmental pioneer, cultural leader, and staunch multilateral European. Despite all of the problems of the last twenty years and the daunting challenges ahead, perhaps Germans can dare some cautious optimism and even a sense of pride.
Robert Gellately and Ben Kiernan, eds., The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003)
Jan-Werner Müller, ed., Memory and Power in Post-War Europe: Studies in the Presence of the Past (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002)
Micha Brumlik, Hajo Funke and Lars Rensmann, Umkämpftes Vergessen: Walser-Debatte, Holocaust-Mahnmal und neuere deutsche Geschichtspolitik (Berlin: Verlag Das Arabische Buch, 2000)
Robert G. Moeller, War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001)
Klaus Naumann, Der Krieg als Text: Das Jahr 1945 im kulturellen Gedächtnis der Presse (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 1998) Klaus Neumann, Shifting Memories: The Nazi Past in the New Germany (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000)
Jörg Friedrich, Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkreig 1940-1945 (Munich: Propyläen Verlag, 2002)
Günther Grass, Crabwalk (Orlando: Harcourt, 2002)
W. G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction (New York: Random House, 2003)
Are collective memories currently changing in the land where the
“past won’t go away?” Long dominated by memory of the Holocaust
and other Nazi-era crimes, Germany recently witnessed the emergence
of another memory based on the same period of history, but
emphasizing German suffering. Most commentators stress the novelty
and catharsis of these discussions of supposedly long-repressed
and unworked-through collective traumas and offer predominantly
psychoanalytic explanations regarding why these memories only
now have surfaced. However, thanks to “presentist” myopia, ideological
blinders, and the theoretical/political effects of Holocaust
memory, much of this discourse is misplaced because these Germancentered
memories are emphatically not new. A reexamination of
the evolution of dominant memories over the postwar period in the
Federal Republic of Germany is necessary in order to understand
and contextualize more fully these current debates and the changes
in dominant memories that may be occurring—tasks this article takes
up by utilizing the memory regime framework.
Over the six decades since the demise of the Nazi regime, thousands of pages have been written about the genocide of European Jews in almost every genre and intellectual forum. Eva Hoffman even concludes that "the Holocaust is the most documented event in history" (192). Nevertheless, the magnitude and complexity of the trauma and its aftereffects—on survivors, their descendents and the political cultures of many countries—left numerous lacunae and taboos that surrounded discourse and scholarship. Only relatively recently have more unconstrained questions been possible and various silences exposed. The three books examined in this review essay all contribute to the ongoing quest for comprehension, delving expertly into previously unexamined issues, while revealing how much still remains to work through the defining event of the 20th century.
Before the series of 60th anniversary commemorations of the end of the Holocaust, Nazism and World War II in 2005, the big development regarding German collective memories and political culture was the resurgence of memories of German suffering. Contrary to the opinions of prominent observers like W.G. Sebald, this memory, linked to events from the end and immediate aftermath of World War II, is not a repressed or only recently discovered trauma. Rather, the current discussions signal the return of a memory that was culturally hegemonic in the early postwar decades. Nevertheless, the circumstances surrounding this return differ significantly from the postwar situation in which this memory first flourished in three main ways. The altered environment greatly affects both the reception and potential institutionalization of such memory, which could lead to deep political cultural changes.