Divided Memory


Herf, Jeffrey.  Divided Memory: the Nazi Past in the Two Germanys.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Herf has written an in interesting and important study of the formation of official memories of the National Socialist regime in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR).  Because it is a study of ‘official’ memory, Herf looks at letters, memos, and other documents written by political leaders in both West Germany (FRG) and East Germany (GDR).  In the fifteen years since this book’s publication, the two official memories adopted by the two nations have become well known to scholars: the East downplayed or completely ignored any non-Communist suffering, while politicians in the West debated the place for differing memories of Nazism in the new democracy.  I think that Herf’s greatest contribution is in showing why these “divided memories” emerged.

In order to demonstrate “the significance of political memories for the construction of democracy and dictatorship in post-1945 German history,” Herf brings politics back into the discussion of memory, a topic that is often studied at the individual or “grass roots” level (2).  That is why he seeks to “illustrate the importance of politics for shaping the way a society thinks about its past while at the same timed drawing attention to the autonomous weight that traditions and interpretive frameworks exert on political life” (9).

Herf demonstrates that in East Germany, the main interpretive framework that the reigning Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) offered to its citizens regarding its Nazi past was one in which communists and socialists had fought against the fascist dictatorship.  Communists were at the center of this narrative in every way: as the leaders of the resistance, as the main victims, and eventually as the liberators (via the Soviet Union).  That is why when Communist Party leader Paul Merker returned from exile in Mexico after the war and began speaking about the persecution of Europe’s Jews, it didn’t sit well with the SED leadership.  Merker’s alternative memory, as well as his assertions that the DDR should make restitution payments to victims of Nazi crimes, directly challenged the official memories that the SED offered to the East Germans.  To acknowledge Jews as the prime target of Hitler’s Holocaust would undermine the SED’s official memory, which was the basis for legitimating the SED’s authority.    By 1950, Merker was pushed out of the Party and later convicted and imprisoned, and this symbolizes the “ascendancy of the universalizing and monopolistic rationality over the particularism, in this instance, of stubborn Jewish otherness” (95).

In West Germany, on the other hand, “multiple restorations” of older German traditions of opposition to Nazism arose after 1945.  Allied pressure (via the Nuremberg trials and de-Nazification processes) allowed for the emergence of different ways of establishing memories of the Nazi past.  Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of the CDU, though he established the Restitution Treaty with Israel, saw the establishment of a stabile democracy as more important than hunting out every single ex-Nazi and establishing an official memory of the “Final Solution.”  Others, like the first President Theodor Heuss and SPD leader Kurt Schumacher, wanted to more directly confront the Holocaust and the “frightful tragedy of the Jews” (273).

Ultimately, Herf shows that while the German populace (at least in the West) didn’t begin a larger public discussion of their Nazi past until the 1960s and 1970s, German officials on both sides of the divide established official memories early on.  In fact, East and West German officials saw the establishment of an official memory of the Nazi era as vital to the foundation of their respective states.  Moreover, they didn’t start from scratch; they pulled from their older traditions to help establish these new memories.

For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews here. 

Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Divided Memory

  1. Robert

    OK, so I posed a “boorrrriiing” on your facebook post of this. I figured that’s pretty unintellectual so I decided to elaborate.

    As far as I can tell, this book is just an effort to criticize Adenauer and the emergence of Western conservatism. I can expand on that if needed, but he’s pretty caustic with Adenauer, laments the failures of Schumacher and Heuss, and practically lets the whole population of East Germany off the hook as subjects of dictatorship and thus incapable of confronting the past. I commend Herf for bridging East and West at a time when, historiographically, that hadn’t been done much. But it doesn’t take a whole lot of courage to argue that the West was a functioning democracy that as such allowed a changing and progressive engagement with the past and the East was a stagnant politico-ideologically fixed state in which there could be no revisions of the past. It’s a reproduction of the Cold War binary and doesn’t seem too useful to me as a means of interpretation.

    Second, Herf is an openly radical intellectual who I think tends to overstep the bounds of his evidence. What we get here is an analysis of elite political thought, but Herf makes claims about how the German people embraced official memory with no evidence except the absence of popular revolution. In the GDR, he exculpates the population with a sort of ‘what could they have done’ argument in the wake of a “purge of cosmopolitanism.” In the West, because the public stood behind Adenauer and not Schumacher, we see an apparent crystallization of “a political culture of downplaying and ignoring German perpetration,” especially in cases of Jewish suffering. Never mind all the other reasons Germans stood behind the Adenauer government, beyond his view on explicitly Jewish suffering.

    The assumption here, and this is my biggest gripe, is that Herf is far too concerned with what SHOULD have happened than what did. How do we imagine the Germans were SUPPOSED to make sense of their past? For Herf, they were supposed to see Jewish suffering. While I agree about the importance of that, it seems more important to look at what they actually did remember. This, it seems to me, is where the historiography has in fact gone (Frei, Moeller, Biess, Heinemann, etc and so on). Herf is right to suggest that forgetting and selective remembering were part of recovery but he doesn’t really show how other than suggesting that these are longer politico-ideological currents (conservatism, socialism, anti-Semitism) that trace back to Weimar at least. All in all, this is a historiographically important book but a somewhat unimpressive history.

    • Yeah, like you said, I think that it’s now important – historiographically – but now there are other works on national memory that are better. Event though it’s almost 20 years old, I only read it last year, and I at least liked him attempting to look at a more ‘official memory’ since many of the books I had read before were looking at popular memories. And I definitely agree with you about the exculpation of the East German population – I think that was a pretty standard interpretation before people like Mary Fulbrook started challenging it.

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