It was horrible, but we live now

The experience of young German adults in everyday encounters with the Holocaust

in Focaal
Author: Lisa J. Krieg1
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  • 1 Utrecht University L.J.Krieg@uu.nl

Abstract

Based on an ethnographic field study in a museum and an evening high school in Cologne, this paper discusses experiences of young German adults in everyday encounters with the Holocaust, which are often accompanied by feelings of discomfort. Considering the Holocaust as an uncanny, strange matter contributes to understanding that distance and proximity are key factors in creating uncomfortable encounters. Distance from the Holocaust reduces discomfort, but where distance cannot be created, other strategies have to be put to work. This article underlines the significance of experience in an individual’s personal relation to the past for gaining an improved understanding of Holocaust memorial culture in Germany.

It is summer. I am sitting in a beer garden in a park in Cologne, under green trees, surrounded by city houses, with one of my main informants, a museum tour guide. The noise of playing kids and people enjoying an after-work beer dominate the cheerful atmosphere. She says, “I enjoy the work. I really like guiding tours. But just recently, it hit me again. I said casually to my friends, like, yeah, later I’ll have to go to the El-De-Haus.1 And suddenly I thought like, oh my God, all the people that probably said the exact same sentence once, and what has happened to them?”

The heritage of the Holocaust in Germany today has been looked at from a variety of angles. Much research focuses on the dynamics and representations of Holocaust memorial culture. Particular emphasis has been put on public debates, political rhetoric, narrative, and identity discourse (Young 2000; Fulbrook 1999, 2011; Olick 2007; Maier 1998; LaCapra 1996; Pickford 2005; Harjes 2005; Moses 2007b; Meseth 2012; Rothberg and Yildiz 2011); on commemoration and memorials (Knischewski and Spittler 2005; Young 1992; Zimmermann 2007); on literature, the arts, and popular culture (Kligerman 2007; LaCapra 1998; Santner 1990; Wiedmer 1999); on cultural trauma and collective behavior (Giesen 2004; Mitscherlich and Mitscherlich 1967); and on racist continuities and transgenerational transmission (Linke 1999; Rosenthal 1997; Welzer et al. 2002). These studies have yielded important insights, but also created problems. Most notably, and here I agree with Carr (2009), they have established a gap between the past and the present, by favoring a focus on narrative over the consideration of individual experience. Often-times, the individual is depicted as being able to relate to the past, but only by turning away from the present (Carr 2009: 349).

Other research has tackled this issue by moving experience to the center of attention. Dekel (2009) has looked at people’s interaction with the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. The visitors’ experience of observing, taking photographs, and playing constitutes Dekel’s key category for analyzing how people renegotiate their relation to the past through the memorial. Till’s (2005) Berlin-based research emphasizes people’s experience of memory places. She claims ghosts are intentionally evoked in certain spaces: “Places of memory can create spaces for individuals to confront feelings of discomfort that accompany social hauntings” (Till 2005: 151). This ghostly experience presents a key to understanding how humans shape their memory environment. Gryglewski’s (2013) and Proske’s (2012) studies take a closer look at students’ experiences in learning about the Holocaust at school, at memorials and museums, and at the tension between narratives, social norms, and individual experience. Bar-On’s (1995, 1997, 2004) sociopsychological research investigates how young Germans and Israelis experience the entanglements of their national pasts and family histories, and Gampel (2000) has focused on how Holocaust child survivors experience encounters with remnants of past memories in the everyday as sudden encounters with the uncanny.

These authors contribute to establishing experience as a central analytical category for understanding the relationship between individuals and the past in the present. Focusing on experience establishes a historical subject that encounters “[e]ach object and event … with its past attached” (Carr 2009: 352). I agree with Carr (2009: 336, 337) that a focus on experience bridges the gap between past and present in pointing out the historicity of all human existence. Thus it becomes possible to look at relations of individuals with the past not only as engagement with narratives but as personal and potentially intimate encounters. This article intends to contribute to a better understanding of the significance of experience for a personal relation to the past. My research project explores how young adults in Germany experience encounters with the Holocaust in their daily lives by focusing on the experience of discomfort. Intensive public debates about the Holocaust and its memory shaped their upbringing. Understanding how they experience encounters with the Holocaust is a prerequisite for an improved understanding of Holocaust memorial culture, memory politics, opinion formation, and representations of the Holocaust in Germany.

Today’s young adults in Germany came of age during a period of recurrent debates over the legacy of the Holocaust in Germany. The historians’ debate in 1982/83 occupied journalists, philosophers, and historians alike in discussing whether the Holocaust can or cannot be compared to other genocides (cf. Maier 1998). Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor between 1982 and 1998, did his best to improve Germany’s international reputation through a policy of “normalization” and to reestablish Germany as a “normal” state (Geyer 1996: 189ff.). The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe has been the focal point of heated public debates since the suggestion to build it in 1988. Until its erection in Berlin in 2005, its necessity, its form, and its costs were a frequently discussed topic in the German media (Gay 2003; Knischewski and Spittler 2005).

This article is based on a field study conducted between April and December 2013 in Cologne. Data were collected in two educational contexts. The first case study was located at the Documentation Center for National Socialism.2 There I accompanied eight tour guides during several months through the museum and through Cologne. I interviewed them, participated in meetings, and engaged in conversations. The tour guides were university students or graduates, between twenty-five and thirty-two years of age. The second case study was located at two high schools for adult education in Cologne. I participated as unobtrusive observer in literature and history classes on National Socialism and the Holocaust, interviewed nine students, and engaged in many informal conversations. The students were between twenty-four and thirty years of age, one student was thirty-eight. Some came from the evening secondary school; many had jobs and wanted to improve their qualifications; others wanted to make a second attempt to graduate. About one-half of the students had immigrant backgrounds from Turkey, Tunisia, Iraq, Bosnia, and Poland.

The Holocaust appears in Germany in various shapes, at school, in the media, in politics, museums, books, and movies (Harjes 2005; Kattago 2001; Moses 2007a; Proske 2012). My research shows that frequently, the presence of the Holocaust provokes discomfort. The Holocaust is perceived as a powerful and strange matter that can affect political debates, social interaction, and emotions. The claim of this paper is that the charge of encounters with the Holocaust and the coping strategies employed to deal with them are elucidated by analyzing encounters with the Holocaust as a dynamic relation between distance and proximity, framing it in terms of Douglas’s disorder, Freud’s uncanny, and Ahmed’s strangeness (Ahmed 2000; Douglas 1966; Freud 1919).

First, I outline my theoretical understanding of experience, which is mainly based on David Carr, emphasize the historicity of experience, and discuss how it relates to narrative. Second, I explore the framework of disorder and strangeness by combining Freud’s concept of the uncanny, Mary Douglas’s theory of danger, power, and disorder, and Sara Ahmed’s concept of the stranger. Last, I offer a deeper analysis of the empirical data on encounters with the Holocaust and of the reactions and coping strategies they entail.

Talking about the Holocaust

Carr considers experience as made up of two intertwined types of experience: (1) lived experience as “impression” of the senses: direct, immediate, as in “this was an incredible experience!” and (2) life experience as an accumulation of knowledge, implying a relation to the past, as in “she has so much experience” (Carr 2009: 344).3 Lived experiences are the fundamental elements that make up the life experience, similar to an always implicit knowledge like habits or habitus (Hume 1977; Bourdieu 1990; Carr 2009: 345). Life experience renders lived experience intelligible in connecting the present to the past, enabling us to understand complex contexts. The two types of experience cannot be thought one without the other, as “[e]ach object and event … comes to us with its past attached. Without this past it would not only be meaningless, it could not even be an item in our experience” (Carr 2009: 352). This clarifies the inherent historicity of human existence. Past and present are closely intertwined on the level of experience. Every encounter, every lived experience is historical.

The connection between the individual and society is further explicated by the notion of narrative. Narratives are generalized, often traditional stories that recount a similar, temporally sequenced composition of elements, containing cultural values and norms (Bruner 1991; Ochs and Capps 1996; Carr 1986; Ricoeur 1984). Narratives are an integral part of everyday life, and their connection to experience works in two directions (Carr 1986: 16). Narratives are a way to express individual experience and transport it to the social level where it can be communicated, but they can also structure experience into temporal sequence and plots (Ricoeur 1984: 3; Ochs and Capps 1996: 26). The relation between them accounts for the social and the historical dimension of both the story and the experience (Carr 1986: 5; Ochs and Capps 1996: 31). For this article it is important to consider the connection of narrative to normativity and cultural legitimacy (Bruner 1991: 15; Ochs and Capps 1996: 32f.). Socially dominant narratives favor specific interpretations and negate others (Ochs and Capps 1996: 32, 35). They offer (over) simplifying interpretations for a potentially confusing reality. Dominant narratives can be community-building but also lead to tension due to “irreconcilable discrepancies between the story one has inculcated and one’s encounters in the world” (Ochs and Capps 1996: 32). In such cases, counternarratives, which challenge the dominant narratives, can emerge (Ochs and Capps 1996: 35, 37).

Talking about the Holocaust, the research participants addressed a variety of different dimensions simultaneously. Listening to my research participants, it was evident that different levels of meaning of the Holocaust are closely intertwined. Olick (1999: 382) explains that “images of the past depend not only on the relationship between past and present but also on the accumulation of previous such relationships and their ongoing constitution and reconstitution”: they are path-dependent. Thus encounters with the Holocaust are always historical experiences for individuals, as they are built on many other experiences and encounters before them, which form an implicit part of every new encounter. Student Peter said about the role of the Holocaust for him:

In secondary school I found it really annoying. We were drowned with it, always the same approach. But now, with more distance and life experience I find it really interesting. I think that our generation is not connected with it as perpetrators, which is often said, that we are still guilty and have to pay. But I think it must not be forgotten. I am very much in favor of continuing to talk about it, media, TV, radio, politics. That we pay attention to certain regulations. Data protection and so on, that we don’t want to be wiretapped, because we have this past.

Tour guide Deniz states:

[t]he topic has always been there for me. My grandma told stories about the war and her childhood, but back then, I did not have the need to dig deeper. Now it’s a historical topic with which I’m involved, not only through my PhD.

Peter and Deniz consistently talk about an “it,” which is not clearly defined, but seems to refer to a variety of different aspects connected to the Holocaust: family stories about the war, PhD research, annoyances at school, narratives about national guilt, recompensation payments, and so on. Lived experience and life experience cannot be told apart; different aspects, experiences, and narratives are mingled together into one multivocal complex and feature as “it.” This multidimensionality contributes to the Holocaust’s ambiguity and strange power, as we will see in the next section.

Disorder, the uncanny, and strangeness

The incomprehensible, the disorderly, and the ambiguous raise anxieties in people because they challenge the social order to which they are accustomed and patterns on which people rely. An anomalous event is a threat to the system, because it does not fit. It is “a residual category, rejected from our normal scheme of classifications” (Douglas 1966: 36). Whatever is between the categories, or beyond the border of the known, is a source of both danger and power. The imagination of mixing categories of human and animal leads to horrible visions of monstrosity where categories of identity and difference get lost (Foucault 1989: 26). A human being that is deviant from the standard is stigmatized, a social outcast, excluded from normal social interaction (Goffman 1963).

This notion of disorder focuses on society’s coping with ambiguity, but the ambiguous also causes fear in the individual’s psyche. The combination of familiarity and difference can be very unsettling, or, in Freud’s words, uncanny, that which “evokes fear and dread” (Freud 2003: 123). Freud (2003: 148) describes the uncanny as “actually nothing new or strange, but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only by being repressed.” Royle (2003: 1) summarizes it as “a sense of homeliness uprooted, the revelation of something unhomely at the heart of hearth and home.”

The uncanny concerns the individual’s psyche, and the concept of disorder considers society as the element of analysis. The two overlap, as individual uncanny experiences can be guided by social norms, and what society condemns as disorder can be grounded in individual experience. Both concepts connect through the notion of strangeness/stranger, adding a dimension of negotiated distance. The stranger, in postcolonial theory, is described as the person who is to be kept at a distance because they are both uncanny and do not belong (cf. Ahmed 2000). Strangers in a familiar environment are “not simply those who are not known …, but those who are, in their very proximity, already recognised as not belonging, as being out of place” (Ahmed 2000: 21); they have “already come too close” (Ahmed 2000: 22). Proximity to the strange is uncomfortable. Koefoed and Simonsen state that the strange(r) exists in an ambivalent continuum of “proximity and distance” (2012: 625), close and far, simultaneously inside and outside.

Let us assume that the strange(r) can not only be a person but also a matter—that is, a memory, a word, a thought. It is instructive to consider the Holocaust as such a strange matter. A strange matter is something we know and recognize as out of place; it is experienced as uncanny in its combination of familiar and unfamiliar, and its appropriate distance to us is socially mediated. We do not want it to be associated with the place “where ‘we’ dwell” (Ahmed 2000: 22).

Student Fatma and I meet at the evening school an hour before classes start. Fatma is interested in history, and she enjoys the lessons on World War II. She speaks freely to me about her thoughts and opinions throughout the interview. Toward the end, we get into a discussion about politics, about the European financial crisis, and Germany’s international relations. I ask Fatma what she thinks happens when the Holocaust is mentioned in political debates. She says: “It can easily get out of control. It’s a topic where you have to be careful, emotions can boil up, wrong things can be said. If the Holocaust comes up it becomes more difficult to find a solution. Everything becomes bloated and complicated.” I ask her if she finds that natural or rather exaggerated. She replies: “I don’t know. It depends. Why throw the Holocaust in, if the topic is something completely different?”

Consider a different example:

In our last interview, tour guide Karina said she thinks the Holocaust should not be used in discussions where it does not belong. I want to find out more about her views, and I ask her what she means by that. She struggles to find the right words: “If you put something in continuity with the Holocaust, or you compare it, that’s not rational … The danger is that it becomes a provocation. That people refuse dealing with it. That it’s instrumentalized.” I try to dig deeper and ask: “So what happens if the Holocaust appears?” Karina replies: “All those identity issues are connected to that. Every time when it’s about the Holocaust, it’s like the most important topic for German society … And I think it’s dangerous to bring it up in the wrong places.”

Fatma and Karina criticize the presence of the Holocaust in certain contexts as out of place. If it appears in the wrong place, it is dangerous. What kind of danger is meant? Fatma and Karina both have answers to that. It can have unwanted impacts; it can become a provocation, boil up, and get out of control. It does not fit. While they criticize the action of “bringing it up,” the danger seems to lie in triggering a chain reaction that transcends the control of the one who brought it up. It confuses the structure of the world, or of a given context, and poses a disturbance to one’s sense of order. The existence of the Holocaust as a strange matter is conceived as unproblematic as long as it is far away. But like the stranger, its proximity is problematic. It is, as Fatma and Karina phrase it, “thrown in” or “in the wrong places.” It does not remain where it supposedly belongs. It moves in an ambivalent continuum of “proximity and distance.” Every once in a while, it does approximate, and it does not stay in its place: this is why it is known and feared.

Encounters with the Holocaust

In this section, we will look at the different kinds of encounters with the Holocaust as a strange matter, divided into (1) encounters with horrors, violence, and crimes committed during the Holocaust, and (2) encounters with narratives on German-ness and guilt. In reality, both of these aspects are often closely intertwined, as could be seen in Peter’s statement above. People’s reactions to these encounters are diverse and not triggered only by what is explicit. Thus Proske (2012) observed how students in the classroom reacted to narratives of German guilt, even if no one mentioned them. But the horrors of the Holocaust and narratives of German-ness can also become distinguishable in encounters and move a bit farther apart. The more these contexts are separated, the more the reactions are distinct. Eventually, the distinction remains analytical. In this article, its purpose is to structure my observations and present my findings in an understandable manner.

Encounters with horrors, violence, and crimes

Encounters with the terrible crimes committed during Nazi rule and the Holocaust are often facilitated through visual representations of history, such as Holocaust movies, documentaries, or photographs. Horror, sadness, sympathy, and anger describe the research participants’ experience of these encounters. Even though these situations might be highly mediated, such as in movies or memorials, they are nevertheless experienced as direct and intimate and often make deep and lasting impressions. Student Sandra’s recapitulation of a childhood visit to a concentration camp is a typical example of this:

When I was younger, around eleven years old, I visited a concentration camp. I don’t remember where. But that moved me incredibly. There were piled up towers of shoes and stuff, horrible. And the spaces, if you saw that, so many people sat in these tiny spaces. It moved me a lot. This day, I was quieter than usual. Usually I’m such a chatterbox, so my dad said, now what’s that all about. The day after I was alright again. I didn’t forget it though, not until today. That very day, it really knocked me out. That was really something.

The strange Holocaust is so different from the everyday, that even eleven-year-old chatterbox Sandra turns silent and is not her usual self. This encounter was of such a different kind that Sandra today still remembers the strong impact of the situation.

In their workplace, the tour guides are surrounded by an environment likely to invoke these kinds of experiences. Unsurprisingly, maybe, they are not deeply and emotionally moved on a daily basis. Confrontations with Holocaust representations in their daily work require the tour guides to manage the impact of the Holocaust on them. On a different level of frequency, encounters at school or in the media demand the same from the students. If they know what to expect, tour guides and students know how to deal with these situations. But when the distance to the Holocaust shrinks suddenly and drastically, if a close encounter happens surprisingly, or if a situation is created that one cannot escape—in short, when there is no way to evade the power of the Holocaust—tour guides and students experience strong discomfort.

Discomfort and coping strategies: Attempts to create distance

Both students and tour guides managed these powerful encounters with a set of coping strategies. Coping strategies, the “cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage specific external and/ or internal demands that are appraised as taxing” (Lazarus and Folkman 1984: 141), are mainly cognitive and passive in encounters with the horrors of the Holocaust. The research participants expressed their coping strategies as “creating distance.” This distance creation is a combination of emotion-focused and problem-focused efforts (cf. Folkman and Moskowitz 2004). It is a two-pronged strategy aimed at regulating emotions and cognitively trying to tackle the problem.

The tour guides need reliable coping strategies, as their work confronts them with the Holocaust daily, while the students encounter such situations less regularly. “Distance” can describe different cognitive strategies: establishing a boundary between history in the museum/ school and family history, spatial boundaries for defining a place as professional (museum) or not associated with the Holocaust (outside the classroom), and emphasizing boundaries between past and present, thus creating different kinds of spaces distant from intense, uncomfortable confrontations. The coping strategies explored here are not foolproof. They managed to reduce the impact of the Holocaust partly, but not conclusively.

Tour guide Nele reported her reactions to a story in the museum:

I try to separate work better from my family history. If I bring both together and think about where all my relatives were, then it’s too much for me. The story of Marinette in the basement moved me a lot.4 Some time ago, I would then have tried directly to build connections to my own family history.

Separation, the creation of distance between work and family, is described by Nele as helpful. The opposite, a lack of distance when the two are brought together, creates discomfort for Nele. This discomfort remains vague, described as “too much.” Mixing the strange matter Holocaust with her own family history presents for Nele something dangerous, with unbearable consequences which she intends to avoid. Many tour guides cope similarly. Sometimes, however, they get caught off guard:

I know this, when I’m guiding a tour. That I almost start crying during the tour when I say something I said a hundred times, because it moves me … I’ve experienced that, that it just comes over me in unexpected situations, and then I need strength to control myself, in order to suppress it (Martin, tour guide).

Note how Martin describes this encounter: “it” comes over him. The Holocaust is not clearly named; it remains vague what exactly comes over him. But clearly, something comes too close too quickly and causes him to lose control. Being overwhelmed emotionally is not deemed professional for tour guides and is thus highly uncomfortable.
Watching a documentary in class about the persecution of the Jews in Cologne was an unsettling experience for most students of the evening school. Even so, they found it mostly easy to cope.

I had to think about it the whole evening. Not during the next day, because the job distracted me … When you leave the classroom, I can switch it off, err … distance myself from it. Sure, it’s terrible, of course, but then I can deal with it (Sandra, student).

Also Sandra mentioned “it” in a vague way that can refer to the movie, the Holocaust, and to feelings of discomfort. “It” is something she thinks about, that somehow removes her from the everyday. But when the everyday, her job, catches up, “it” moves into the background. The classroom’s perimeter represents a cognitive border for Sandra, where creating distance and “switching ‘it’ off” are conjoined.

The students Emre and Natalya experienced the history of the Holocaust as connected to their own biographies, which made encounters with its powers difficult. Emre said: “I experience a deep sadness, and the more information I get, the more this sadness grows, and the more I have to think about this poem of Paul Celan.”5 His discomfort during history lessons was high, and it was hard for him to cope. According to Mario, who was sitting next to Emre in class, Emre should get some distance and not let these things get to him. Apparently, the closeness that Emre experienced to the Holocaust as a strange matter seemed unhealthy to Mario, disturbing Emre’s functioning in daily life. Natalya, another student with immigrant background, told me: “I don’t dare to really delve into the topic (…), I think this would hit me too hard. Even though it also moves me now. I always connect these things to our country’s history. That’s why I feel very connected to it.” Delving into the topic would mean to immerse yourself in it, give up all distance. Natalya is afraid of this, because she feels the strong impact of “it” through the personal connection she draws. She does not spell out what exactly is going to happen when the Holocaust comes too close, but it is clear that she fears it. When connections to one’s personal life are drawn, the distance to the Holocaust shrinks, its power can unfold its full impact, and levels of discomfort rise.

Encounters with narratives on German-ness and guilt

In encounters with the Holocaust, narratives concerning German-ness and guilt can be more or less prevalent. They were frequently perceived as highly uncomfortable by the research participants, as moral messages so powerful and often irritating that they can also be understood as an aspect of the Holocaust as a strange matter.

Adrian and I are sitting in a small room in the big ugly building of the evening high school in Cologne. Adrian is warming up. Also in class he is never one to hold back. I ask him: “Which role did the Holocaust play for you during your life?” He thinks about it a bit and replies:

As a kid it was less important. At school, it was blown up pretty big. In middle school it annoyed the crap out of me after two years. They forced it on us, that was really annoying. Sure, it’s an important part of German history, you have to know it. But they talked us into this war guilt, I didn’t like that. ‘Cause I don’t have anything to do with it, I didn’t do anything, and what my ancestors did I can’t change. So yeah, that’s how it often felt.

Being brought into connection with German war guilt is uncomfortable for Adrian and made him weary of the Holocaust. It created tension with his everyday reality, in which he has not done anything wrong. This discomfort becomes for him an attribute of the Holocaust and the first thing he mentioned when asked about the role of the Holocaust in his life. Shrinking distance creates more discomfort for him: the more it was “forced” on him, the more he became annoyed.

Discomfort and coping: Resistance and resilience

In confrontations with Holocaust narratives based on German-ness, attributes of “German guilt” can turn into a stigma, a “deeply discrediting” (Goffman 1963: 3, 5) “undesired differentness.” Discomfort is experienced in a typical way for encounters with the Holocaust as a strange matter: when one cannot escape these encounters, when personal control over the situation is low, and distance cannot be created. This discomfort is often described only vaguely and in general terms, as strong, irritating, interfering with situations of daily life, and hard to ignore. The student Fatma described the feeling of discomfort facing the Holocaust: “I am not a native-born German. But sometimes I try to put myself in the body of a German … They are always confronted with it! You automatically feel uncomfortable!”

These narratives entail expectations toward Germans to feel or express guilt, shame, sadness, or consternation. In such situations, research participants feel overwhelmed and manipulated emotionally. Tour guide Thomas quoted an acquaintance who said that “generally all Germans still have this responsibility or guilt.” He criticized this statement because he does not want to be associated with war guilt. Student Sandra told me that in the intercultural setting at school, she is careful what to say “about foreigners and other cultures …, because you quickly get strange looks.” In her experience, she, as a German, has to prove herself not racist. While almost no one was actually told that they are personally guilty for the German past, many people assume this happens or is intended (cf. Proske 2012), due to the path-dependency of former encounters. Tour guides report that they frequently meet teachers who try frantically to make their pupils feel something, making this the only condition for a successful lesson about the Holocaust. History lessons, school excursions to memorials, movies watched in class—all these can be accompanied by the uncomfortable experience of being emotionally manipulated in situations that one cannot escape. Similarly to other studies (Riessman 2000: 122), my research found that participants actively fought stigmatizing normative narratives or tried to establish a resilient self. Strategies of resistance entail anger and rejection, delegitimization, and demands placed on others. Resilience strategies include modifying one’s national identification, creating alternative narratives, historical integration, and inspiration.

Resistance

Strategies of resistance actively counter normative Holocaust narratives. While they often remain cognitive as “resistant thinking” (Riessman 2000: 123), strategies can become behavioral once thoughts are voiced. Frequently, normative narratives trigger anger and rejection. Student Laura stated that most Germans “don’t want to be patronized any more” by other countries. Anger is directed against the alleged source of discomfort—that is, the Holocaust itself, the media, politicians and foreign countries (especially Israel and the United States), and a supposed “silent majority.” Uncomfortable narratives concerning one’s German-ness are also resisted by delegitimizing them. Thus research participants declared that being called a Nazi by someone was stupid, and using the Holocaust in debates due to people running out of real arguments and being called anti-Semitic when criticizing Israel were illegitimate. Making demands on others is a strategy to fight stigmatizing narratives. Regularly expressed are demands to keep the Holocaust limited to certain contexts. Karina, a tour guide, referred to the circumcision debate in Germany in 2012: “I thought it was unfortunate that the debate was, again, associated with the Holocaust … It doesn’t, or shouldn’t play a role here.” Student Laura noted, “[p]eople have to get it out of their heads.” These demands both imply creating distance: in one case the Holocaust should not appear in conjunction with a certain debate, and Laura’s demand to “get it out of their heads” implies that the Holocaust is inappropriately close and should instead be farther away.

Creating resilience toward the strange matter

As opposed to resistance strategies, which actively counter narratives that evoke discomfort, other strategies are aimed at establishing a resilient self. Resilience has been described as the ability to “maintain a stable equilibrium” (Bonanno 2004: 20) and as “functioning effectively at or near normal levels” (Bonanno 2005: 136). These strategies focus on the self and oppose the power of the strange matter by deflecting it, “refusing to yield to [its] penetration” (Thoits 2011: 11).

One strategy of deflection is adapting one’s national identification. Thus tour guide Martin chose to diminish his national identification: “I mean I did experience stuff, like, you are somewhere and then being German is associated with all kinds of ascriptions. But that doesn’t touch me. Because I don’t feel like a part of this German collective.” Not identifying as German, he is not “touched,” not affected by the proximity of the strange matter and the uncomfortable narratives associated with it. Another modification is increased national identification. Emphasizing positive aspects of German-ness and national history can become a vehicle of strength. Sandra said that “Germany is leading in all fields, I guess, when it’s about guidelines, financial or stuff, because we just have a good standing. So why not also in other areas?” Identifying with positive national traits such as economic power increases resilience.

Uncomfortable narratives can be replaced by creating alternative, less stigmatizing narratives one can adhere to. The focus on memory generations is one such frequent narrative, which has been described by Proske (2012). Statements like “I wasn’t there, I can’t change it” limit war guilt to past generations of Germans who lived under Nazi rule. Another frequent narrative is victimization, a pattern which has also been documented by other researchers (Welzer et al. 2002: 87ff.; Olick 1999: 386–388). In Welzer’s (2002: 82) study, younger generations are shown to emphasize the hardships of their grandparents, even in cases where they were rather followers or perpetrators. My research participants went farther in focusing on their own distress, presenting themselves as victims, such as student Sandra, who said that “it’s a pity that we still have to struggle with this all the time.” In universalizing narratives the specifics of the Holocaust are neglected in favor of universal, abstract messages, such as “the Holocaust is a human tragedy.” The pattern of attributing causes of the Holocaust to human nature was already observed in the 1950s by Hannah Arendt (1986: 26f.) on her postwar visit to Germany, and by Welzer and Lenz’s (2007: 32) recent European study on war memory. I observed even more alternative narratives, such as relativization (“each nation has committed crimes”), disconnecting the Holocaust from the national (“Anti-Semitism was a global phenomenon”), and conspiracy theories (“the media and politics keep the topic alive for their own interests”).

Integrating uncomfortable narratives into a historical context relieves stress and contributes to a resilient self. Tour guide Tina explained how she dealt with an uncomfortable incident on a school trip. An old Englishman told her class that he would shoot them all if he had a weapon. She says about this:

I find it stupid, but I can understand it … I don’t know what this man experienced … Maybe he was there when they freed a concentration camp. Of course he was being unfair to us, but I don’t know how I would have reacted had I seen what he maybe saw.

While Tina obviously did not like his behavior, she integrated it in a historical context. She still did not appreciate it, but she could deal with it.

Turning the stigma around and using it as a source of inspiration can increase resilience. Emre emphasizes the historical significance of the Holocaust and its inspirational role for him: “For me, the Holocaust is a mirror for humanity, a reference point, with which you can measure everything.” He is not surprised that the topic is still relevant and does not feel threatened by its associated narratives about German-ness.

Strategies of resistance and resilience do not lead to ultimate resolutions of uncomfortable engagements with normative Holocaust narratives. These situations happen time and again, and the success of these strategies is limited. They do provide the research participants with tools to reduce discomfort but offer no conclusive solutions.

Coping with the strange matter

The respective coping strategies can be understood better in the light of considering the Holocaust as an uncanny and strange matter. A strange matter is known and recognized as out of place; it is perceived as uncanny in its combination of familiar and unfamiliar traits, and its appropriate distance is socially mediated. It unites psychological and social dimensions. The closer it gets, the more it is perceived as a threat, and the more discomfort it provokes. In some situations, when visiting a museum or watching a movie, one can control the distance to the strange matter. It is possible to avoid these situations, leave them, or create emotional and cognitive distance. Creating distance is thus one of the first coping strategies employed by the research participants. In other situations distance cannot be created, as individual control over the situation is limited. If, under external influence (as may be the case in the classroom or the museum), a person cannot avoid close proximity to the strange matter, resistance or resilience strategies are the likely choice.

The kind of threat the Holocaust poses when approximating can differ. There is a difference between “it would hit me too hard, I can’t deal with it,” and “I find this inappropriate and annoying.” While those are typical reactions when confronted with the horrors of the Holocaust, as opposed to moral claims about German-ness, both of these are closely intertwined and entangled with the strange matter Holocaust. When I asked student Laura if the Holocaust is an emotional topic for her, she said: “I find it terrible, but with time you get numb towards it. The first time maybe it was like that, but the more you are confronted with the topic, and the more it is used in politics in order to legitimize something, the more numb you become.” For Laura, as for many other people with whom I engaged in my research, the horrors of the Holocaust, and the narratives surrounding it that are connected to German-ness and to political implications become closely entangled into one multivocal, uncanny, and powerful complex.

Conclusion

In this article I have argued that the young German adults I engaged with in my research shared the experience of the Holocaust as a strange matter that can cause discomfort. This has been explained with a perspective on the Holocaust as a strange matter that poses a threat depending on its distance, combining the concepts of Freud’s uncanny, Douglas’s disorder, and Ahmed’s strangeness. Research results showed that encounters with the Holocaust can be overwhelming, creating a need for protection. Tour guides and students responded by creating distance through various cognitive coping strategies. The power of the Holocaust in narratives concerning German-ness can turn into a stigma of German guilt and create discomfort. Coping strategies aim at actively resisting narratives or at establishing a resilient self.

My research has tried to show that contemporary experience is a key category in understanding an individual’s relationship to the past. We have seen that in depicting encounters with the past in terms of path-dependent intertwinements of experience and narrative, it is not necessary to “turn away from the present” (Carr 2009: 349), as past and present are closely intertwined in the human experience. Future research on Holocaust memory should take the experience of discomfort in encountering the Holocaust into account and foster the development of a Holocaust education that does not intentionally introduce discomfort into experiences with the Holocaust.

Acknowledgments

I want to thank the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation for generously funding my research project; Ton Robben and Martijn Oosterbaan for their continuous support, feedback, and invaluable criticism; and my husband, Omri Har Shemesh, for his insightful comments on this text.

Notes

1

The El-De-Haus is the location of the museum and at the same time the former Gestapo headquarters where people were interviewed, forced to spy on their neighbours, imprisoned because others spied or informed on them, tortured, and executed during the 1930s and 1940s.

2

Located in the El-De-Haus, funded by the city of Cologne, and supported by the public organization Friends of the El-De-Haus. See http://www.museenkoeln.de/ns-dok/.

3

Corresponding to the uses of experience by Locke, impressions by Hume, and Husserl’s and Dilthey’s Erlebnis (Dilthey 1979; Hume 1977; Husserl 1968; Locke 1979).

4

The inscriptions of the French prisoner Marinette, a young mother, are shown in the basement of the exhibition. She wrote about how she was imprisoned and how painful it was for her being separated from her baby.

5

He refers to the poem “Todesfuge” written in 1944/45 by Paul Celan.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bar-On, Dan. 2004. Die Last des Schweigens: Gespräche mit Kindern von NS-Tätern. Hamburg: edition Körber Stift ung.

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    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Giesen, Bernhard. 2004. The trauma of perpetrators: The Holocaust as the traumatic reference of German national identity. In Jeffrey C. Alexander, Ron Eyerman, Bernard Giesen, Neil J. Smelser, and Piotr Sztompka, eds., Cultural trauma and collective identity, pp. 112154. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Harjes, Kirsten. 2005. Stumbling stones: Holocaust memorials, national identity, and democratic inclusion in Berlin. German Politics and Society 23(74): 138151.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Moses, A. Dirk. 2007a. Stigma and sacrifice in the Federal Republic of Germany. History and Memory 19(2): 139180.

  • Moses, A. Dirk. 2007b. The non-German German and the German German: Dilemmas of identity aft er the Holocaust. New German Critique 34(2101): 4594.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ochs, Elinor, and Lisa Capps. 1996. Narrating the self. Annual Review of Anthropology 25: 1943.

  • Olick, Jeffrey K. 1999. Genre memories and memory genres: A dialogical analysis of May 8, 1945, commemorations in the Federal Republic of Germany. American Sociological Review 64(3): 381402.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Olick, Jeffrey K. 2007. The politics of regret: On collective memory and historical responsibility. New York: Routledge.

  • Pickford, Henry W. 2005. Conflict and commemoration: Two Berlin memorials. Modernism/ modernity 12(1): 133173.

  • Proske, Matthias. 2012. Why do we always have to say we’re sorry? European Education 44(3): 3966.

  • Ricoeur, Paul. 1984. Time and narrative. Volume 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Riessman, Catherine. K. 2000. Stigma and everyday resistance practices: Childless women in South India. Gender and Society 14(1): 111135.

  • Rosenthal, Gabriele. 1997. Der Holocaust im Leben von drei Generationen: Familien von Überlebenden der Shoah und von Nazi-Tätern. Gießen: Psychosozial-Verlag.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rothberg, Michael, and Yasemin Yildiz. 2011. Memory citizenship: Migrant archives of Holocaust remembrance in contemporary Germany. Parallax 17(4): 3248.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Royle, Nicholas. 2003. The uncanny. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

  • Santner, Eric L. 1990. Stranded objects. Mourning, memory, and film in postwar Germany. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

  • Thoits, Peggy A. 2011. Resisting the stigma of mental illness. Social Psychology Quarterly 4(1): 628.

  • Till, Karen E. 2005. The new Berlin: Memory, politics, place. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Welzer, Harald, Sabine Moller, Karoline Tschuggnall, Olaf Jensen, and Torsten Koch. 2002. Opa war kein Nazi: Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im Familiengedächtnis. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wiedmer, Caroline. 1999. The claims of memory: Representations of the Holocaust in contemporary Germany and France. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Young, James. E. 1992. The counter-monument: Memory against itself in Germany today. Critical Inquiry 18(2): 267296.

  • Young, James E. 2000. Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin: The uncanny arts of memorial architecture. Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, and Society 6(2): 123.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zimmermann, Michael. 2007. The Berlin Memorial for the murdered Sinti and Roma: Problems and points for discussion. Romani Studies 17(1): 130.

Contributor Notes

Lisa J. Krieg has studied cultural anthropology at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, and was a visiting scholar at the New School for Social Research in New York City. She currently conducts her PhD research on relationships of young German adults to the Holocaust at the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Her research interests include ritual studies, memory, human-environment relations, and digital anthropology. E-mail: L.J.Krieg@uu.nl

Focaal

Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology

  • Ahmed, Sara. 2000. Strange encounters: Embodied others in post-coloniality. New York: Routledge.

  • Arendt, Hannah. 1986. Besuch in Deutschland. Berlin: Rotbuch Verlag.

  • Bar-On, Dan. 1995. Fear and hope: Three generations of the Holocaust. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  • Bar-On, Dan. 1997. “Da ist etwas kaputtgegangen an den Wurzeln.…” Identitätsformation deutscher und israelischer Jugendlicher im Schatten des Holocaust. Frankfurt am Main: Campus.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bar-On, Dan. 2004. Die Last des Schweigens: Gespräche mit Kindern von NS-Tätern. Hamburg: edition Körber Stift ung.

  • Bonanno, George. A. 2004. Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive aft er extremely aversive events? American Psychologist 59(1): 2028.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bonanno, Gorge. A. 2005. Resilience in the face of potential trauma. Current Directions in Psychological Science 14(3): 135138.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. The logic of practice. Cam-bridge: Polity.

  • Bruner, Jerome. 1991. The narrative construction of reality. Critical Inquiry 18(1): 121.

  • Carr, David. 1986. Time, narrative, and history. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

  • Carr, David. 2009. Experience, temporality, and history. Journal of the Philosophy of History 3(4): 335354.

  • Dekel, Irit. 2009. Ways of looking: Observation and transformation at the Holocaust Memorial, Berlin. Memory Studies 2(1): 7186.

  • Dilthey, Wilhelm. 1979. Der Aufb au der geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaft en. Stuttgart: Teubner Verlag.

  • Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger. New York: Praeger.

  • Folkman, Susan, and Judith T. Moskowitz. 2004. Coping: Pitfalls and promise. Annual Review of Psychology 55: 745774.

  • Foucault, Michel. 1989. The order of things: An archeology of the human sciences. New York: Routledge.

  • Freud, Sigmund. 1919. Das Unheimliche. Imago: Zeitschrift für Anwendung der Psychoanalyse auf die Geisteswissenschaft en 5: 297324.

  • Freud, Sigmund. 2003. The uncanny. London: Penguin.

  • Fulbrook, Mary. 1999. German national identity aft er the Holocaust. Cambridge: Polity.

  • Fulbrook, Mary. 2011. Dissonant lives: Generations and violence through the German dictatorships. New York: Oxford University Press.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gampel, Yolanda. 2000. Reflection on the prevalence of the uncanny in social violence. In Antonius C. G. M. Robben and Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco, eds., Cultures under siege: Collective violence and trauma, pp. 4869. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gay, Caroline. 2003. The politics of cultural remembrance: The Holocaust monument in Berlin. International Journal of Cultural Policy 9(2): 153166.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Geyer, Michael. 1996. The politics of memory in contemporary Germany. In Joan Copjec, ed., Radical evil, pp. 169200. New York: Verso.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Giesen, Bernhard. 2004. The trauma of perpetrators: The Holocaust as the traumatic reference of German national identity. In Jeffrey C. Alexander, Ron Eyerman, Bernard Giesen, Neil J. Smelser, and Piotr Sztompka, eds., Cultural trauma and collective identity, pp. 112154. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

  • Gryglewski, Elke. 2013. Anerkennung und Erinnerung: Zugänge arabisch-palästinensischer und türkischer Berliner Jugendlicher zum Holocaust. Berlin: Metropol Verlag.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Harjes, Kirsten. 2005. Stumbling stones: Holocaust memorials, national identity, and democratic inclusion in Berlin. German Politics and Society 23(74): 138151.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hume, David. 1977. An inquiry concerning human understanding. Indianapolis: Hackett.

  • Husserl, Edmund. 1968. Logische Untersuchungen. Volume 2. Part 1. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.

  • Kattago, Siobhan. 2001. Ambiguous memory: The Nazi past and German national identity. West-port: Praeger.

  • Kligerman, Eric. 2007. Sites of the uncanny: Paul Celan, specularity, and the visual arts. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

  • Knischewski, Gerd, and Ulla Spittler. 2005. Remembering in the Berlin Republic: The debate about the central Holocaust memorial in Berlin. Debatte 13(1): 2542.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Koefoed, Lasse, and Kirsten Simonsen. 2012. (Re) scaling identities: Embodied others and alternative spaces of identification. Ethnicities 12(5): 623642.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LaCapra, Dominick. 1996. Representing the Holocaust: History, theory, trauma. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

  • LaCapra, Dominick. 1998. History and memory aft er Auschwitz. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

  • Lazarus, Richard S., and Susan Folkman. 1984. Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer.

  • Linke, Uli. 1999. German bodies: Race and representation aft er Hitler. New York: Routledge.

  • Locke, John. 1979. An essay concerning human understanding. Oxford: Clarendon.

  • Maier, Charles S. 1998. The unmasterable past: History, holocaust, and German national identity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  • Meseth, Wolfgang. 2012. Education aft er Auschwitz in a united Germany. European Education 44(3): 1338.

  • Mitscherlich, Alexander, and Margarete Mitscherlich. 1967. Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern: Grundlagen kollektiven Verhaltens. Munich: Piper Verlag.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Moses, A. Dirk. 2007a. Stigma and sacrifice in the Federal Republic of Germany. History and Memory 19(2): 139180.

  • Moses, A. Dirk. 2007b. The non-German German and the German German: Dilemmas of identity aft er the Holocaust. New German Critique 34(2101): 4594.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ochs, Elinor, and Lisa Capps. 1996. Narrating the self. Annual Review of Anthropology 25: 1943.

  • Olick, Jeffrey K. 1999. Genre memories and memory genres: A dialogical analysis of May 8, 1945, commemorations in the Federal Republic of Germany. American Sociological Review 64(3): 381402.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Olick, Jeffrey K. 2007. The politics of regret: On collective memory and historical responsibility. New York: Routledge.

  • Pickford, Henry W. 2005. Conflict and commemoration: Two Berlin memorials. Modernism/ modernity 12(1): 133173.

  • Proske, Matthias. 2012. Why do we always have to say we’re sorry? European Education 44(3): 3966.

  • Ricoeur, Paul. 1984. Time and narrative. Volume 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Riessman, Catherine. K. 2000. Stigma and everyday resistance practices: Childless women in South India. Gender and Society 14(1): 111135.

  • Rosenthal, Gabriele. 1997. Der Holocaust im Leben von drei Generationen: Familien von Überlebenden der Shoah und von Nazi-Tätern. Gießen: Psychosozial-Verlag.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rothberg, Michael, and Yasemin Yildiz. 2011. Memory citizenship: Migrant archives of Holocaust remembrance in contemporary Germany. Parallax 17(4): 3248.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Royle, Nicholas. 2003. The uncanny. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

  • Santner, Eric L. 1990. Stranded objects. Mourning, memory, and film in postwar Germany. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

  • Thoits, Peggy A. 2011. Resisting the stigma of mental illness. Social Psychology Quarterly 4(1): 628.

  • Till, Karen E. 2005. The new Berlin: Memory, politics, place. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Welzer, Harald, and Claudia Lenz. 2007. Opa in Europa. In Harald Welzer, ed., Der Krieg der Erinnerungen: Holocaust, Kollaboration und Widerstand im europäischen Gedächtnis, pp. 740. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Welzer, Harald, Sabine Moller, Karoline Tschuggnall, Olaf Jensen, and Torsten Koch. 2002. Opa war kein Nazi: Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im Familiengedächtnis. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wiedmer, Caroline. 1999. The claims of memory: Representations of the Holocaust in contemporary Germany and France. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Young, James. E. 1992. The counter-monument: Memory against itself in Germany today. Critical Inquiry 18(2): 267296.

  • Young, James E. 2000. Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin: The uncanny arts of memorial architecture. Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, and Society 6(2): 123.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zimmermann, Michael. 2007. The Berlin Memorial for the murdered Sinti and Roma: Problems and points for discussion. Romani Studies 17(1): 130.

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