Posts Tagged With: post war

Divided Memory

Herf

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. 

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

Blog at WordPress.com.