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Germans and the Nazi past.

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Thursday 13 December 2007

Dirk Moses, senior lecturer, Department of History, University of Sydney


Germans and the Nazi past

The proposition that the Federal Republic has developed a healthy democratic culture at whose centre lies memory of the Holocaust has almost become a platitude. Symbolizing the relationship between its liberal political culture and honest reckoning with the past, the Berlin Republic unveiled an enormous memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe adjacent to the Bundestag and Brandenburg Gate in the national capital in 2005. States usually erect monuments to their fallen soldiers, after all, not to the victims of these soldiers. Germany now seemed no different from the rest of Europe, or indeed from the west generally. Jews from Eastern Europe are as happy to settle there as they are to emigrate to Israel, the United States, or Australia.

Yet there are good reasons to regard the narrative in which Germany was redeemed by the memory of murdered Jews with some suspicion. Many Germans opposed the new memory politics, which they felt was imposed upon them by distant leaders attuned to the expectations of Atlantic political and cultural elites. Indeed, had not the writer Martin Walser complained infamously in 1998 that Holocaust memory was wielded like a "moral cudgel" to bully Germans into accepting a politically-correct version of their past? Neither was the decision to construct the memorial in Berlin uncontroversial; it was highly divisive.

It is striking for how long the debate has been framed by stark polarities: remembering or forgetting, too much memory or too little, its cynical instrumentalization or redeeming quality, capitulation in 1945 or liberation? All evidence points to the fact that the meaning of memory is actually indeterminate, controversial, and will not be tamed by political elites.

There is an alternative way of thinking about the past sixty years of German history debates. Rather than posit a linear narrative of progress, one can explain the controversies about the national past between 1945 and 2005 as struggles over the question of German stigma . Most West Germans resented having to endure a stigmatized collective identity, while a growing minority - that is, intellectuals and, more recently, the political class - took this stigmatized identity and national tradition, which they distrusted, as an occasion to invent a post-national German identity. They see themselves as European first and German second.

Germans indicate that they feel stigmatized when they say that their identity has been "soiled," "contaminated," "polluted," or "stained," even "tainted" by the Nazi crimes. More directly, some right wing commentators signalled it when they call the Berlin memorial a Kainsmal , that is, a mark of Cain. The biblical reference is significant. Many Germans felt they were pariah people, cursed and outcast like Cain after his murder of Abel.

Will the stigma endure? By the first decade of the twenty-first century, the fourth generation since 1945 has grown up in families without a living member who experienced the Nazi regime. The intense feelings of pollution that came with contact between grandparents from the Nazi years and their children and grandchildren is diminishing with the appearance of this fourth generation that does not learn about the Nazi years directly those who experienced it. Sure enough, we know that three to four generations are needed for communicative memory to become cultural memory : when the oral transmission of experience is superseded by institutionalized memory. Perhaps it is no surprise that our biblical reference reflects this social fact. God says of Cain that he will visit "the iniquities of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me" (Exodus 20:5, 34:6-7, and Deuteronomy 5:9). Inherited collective guilt - stigma - begins to fade when the intergenerational transmission of traumatic or shameful experiences ceases.

The signs are that this fourth generation of Germans after the Holocaust are beginning to place trust in the country's institutions. This newly-won basic trust is the basis of a new republican consensus on the country's political culture. Because such a new patriotism-evident in the 2006 soccer world cup- was not based on continuities with the generations that experienced the Second World War but rather on the achievements and culture of the Federal Republic, it is possible for younger Germans to feel good about their nationality - their "we-ness" - as well as acknowledge the memory of the Holocaust. The tension between German identity and Holocaust memory is being resolved because responsibility for the evil past is laid at the door of a former Germany, a Germany of existential significance to older Germans but not for young ones.


Dirk Moses  

Senior lecturer 

Department of History 

University of Sydney