Posts Tagged With: the nazi past

Perspectives on the West German Historikerstreit

"The Past that Doesn't Want to Pass Away."

“The Past that Doesn’t Want to Pass Away.”

Evans, Richard J. “The New Nationalism and the Old History: Perspectives on the West German Historikerstreit,” in The Journal of Modern History. Vol. 59, No. 4 (Dec. 1987): 761:797.

In this article, Richard Evans weighs in on the debate among historians in West Germany over the path of modern German history. Evans begins by showing that this isn’t the first time that historians have quarreled over interpretations of the past, but he reveals that the Historikerstreit (“historians’ quarrel”) of the mid-to-late 1980s spilled over from academia into the public realm as well. The controversy was sparked by historian Ernst Nolte’s article “The Past That Will Not Pass Away” that appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemine Zeitung in June 1986. In his article, Nolte argued that it was time to quit viewing Germany’s history in absolute, black-and-white terms, and start painting in shades of grey. By this, Nolte specifically meant that people should not view the Holocaust as a unique atrocity in history, instead arguing that the Soviets had actually done this all before in their Gulags (even if they didn’t use the same method of gas chambers). Similarly, in an earlier book, Nolte argued that Auschwitz could be seen as an attempt to solve problems connected with industrialization (underemployment, racial tensions, etc.) by means of disposing of large numbers of people (767). Evans dismisses both of these arguments (Soviet Gulag as model for the Nazi Final Solution, and Auschwitz as outcome of the problems of industrialization) as a “generalization so extreme as to be virtually meaningless” (768).

Nolte is not the only target of Evans’ critique, though. He then turns to a recent book written by historian Andreas Hillgruber, in which Hillgruber argues that the German catastrophe (the complete and utter destruction of Germany in 1945) belongs alongside the Jewish catastrophe of the Holocaust. Both of these together constitute a “European catastrophe” and an example of a larger resettlement of European populations. “Thus the destruction of Prussian and the German Reich really does appear in Hillgruber’s book as comparable to the destruction of the European Jews” (777). Evans points out that comparing Germany’s military loss at the hands of the Allies with the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis is again a gross oversimplification that does not take motivation into account. Moreover, Evans and others (including Jürgen Habermas) even criticized Hillgruber’s language in his book; Hillgruber speaks of the destruction of Germany, “a violent process enforced against active opposition,” but only of the end of European Jewry, “a term that suggested an almost spontaneous process neither actively willed nor actively resisted” (774).

The last part of Evans’ article deals with why the Historikerstreit of the 1980s resounded so powerfully in German society. He reminds us that history is often not only about the past, but is about the present and future, as well. After German politics and the German historical profession took a conservative turn in the 1980s (CDU Helmut Kohl elected Chancellor in 1982), it’s no wonder that we see historians trying to write a more agreeable national history for Germany, Evans posits. If these conservative historians can downplay the unique nature of the Holocaust by comparing it to other atrocities performed by other nations, West Germany could potentially step out from Hitler’s long shadow (783). Evans then spends pages showing how the Kohl administration, through media campaigns and tours, sought to craft a national history that Germans could be proud of, one in which the role of the Third Reich was not forgotten, certainly, but downplayed (786-792).

Concluding, Evans states, “Unproductive though the Historikerstreit may be in terms of its contribution to historical knowledge, it does provide a stimulus toward reflection on the nature of German historical scholarship, the historian’s role in society, and Germany’s place in the world” (792). Nearly thirty decades after Evans is writing, today we can see the Historikerstreit as an important development in the West German Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

For more works on the history of modern Germany, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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

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. 

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

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