Divisive past, divided present

Divided Memory
April 17, 1998

The importance of the past in the changing politics of the postwar present has been highlighted by several recent studies of the memory of Nazism in West Germany in particular. In this innovative and stimulating study, Jeffrey Herf offers a comparative analysis of the development of official discourses on the past in the two German states that sheds much light on the ways in which postwar politicians sought to shape the memory of the National Socialist era in a manner that made sense to their own political outlooks and traditions. In doing so, he argues, they resorted to explanatory frameworks shaped to no small extent by prewar political and ideological traditions, so that the multiple narratives constructed about the past after 1945 reflected a process of "multiple restorations" of pre-1933 positions, adapted to the new climate created by the experience of defeat and the cold war.

In the East, the Stalinisation of the Socialist Unity Party after 1949 and the enforcement of strict ideological orthodoxy led to a swift marginalisation of the Holocaust in official East German memory. Whereas during the 1930s and 1940s German communists exiled in the West or in Mexico could reflect upon the tactical errors of the left in the Weimar era or place due emphasis on the significance of Nazi racial ideology and persecution, such ideas quickly attained the status of heresy in the German Democratic Republic. The reification of the communist resistance and solidarity with the Soviet Union after 1945 - represented as Nazi Germany's prime victim and celebrated as Gemany's sole liberator - led to the swift construction of a hierarchy of commemoration in which "anti-fascist resistance" was celebrated above the suffering of the unspecified "victims of fascism". Meanwhile, the representation of fascism as the creation of reactionary monopoly capitalism legitimated widespread expropriation of property and nationalisation (and put an end to any hopes of restitution of Jewish property in the East); at the same time, emphasis on the mass support enjoyed by the Nazi regime enabled the communists to say that Germans were not to be trusted with democratic institutions and thus to impose a dictatorship. Those such as Paul Merker who continued to argue for the centrality of the Holocaust to Nazi policy soon found themselves being denounced as agents of American and Zionist imperialism; many were forced into exile or stripped of their party positions.

Compared to his justly damning critique of East German memory formation, Herf offers, on balance, a generous assessment of the relationship of the early federal republic to its Nazi past. While memory of the Holocaust had been pushed to the margins, if not totally suppressed, in East Germany by 1953, Herf argues - not entirely convincingly - that Jewish concerns gained a sympathetic and largely adequate response from the West German government. As evidence of this Herf cites the restitution payments which the federal republic agreed to pay Israel, and ceremonies such as that held at Bergen-Belsen in 1952.

As Herf's own evidence suggests, however, Konrad Adenauer was as capable as any East German politician of privileging nebulous formulations such as "past crimes" or "evil acts" over specific references to Jewish suffering or to the Holocaust; he was also just as capable of engaging in mythmaking over the nature and prevalence of resistance to Nazism or over the supposed non-complicity of the conservative elites in the crimes of the Nazi regime. While Herf is content to put Adenauer's assertion of April 1951 that the Wehrmacht had survived the war with its honour intact down to naivety and blindness, there was undoubtedly a large element of expediency and cynicism behind it too - after all, Adenauer wanted to be re-elected, and disaffected former Nazis formed a major constituency. The need to appeal to them led to the passage of the 1949 amnesty law, to the rapid winding down of denazification - a process that had led many former Nazis to regard themselves as "victims" - and to the widespread rehabilitation of those affected by paragraph 131 of the basic law. The notion that Adenauer succeeded in placing the Jewish catastrophe at the centre of West German memory in the 1950s is also questionable when one contrasts the mass of memorials to civilian victims of bombing, missing prisoners of war or refugees with the absence of local memorials to Jewish suffering - in West Germany, too, the Jews were often subsumed within generalising formulations such as the "victims of fascism". West German memory had its share of silences. Those on the left such as Kurt Schumacher who wished to breach those silences did not win elections.

Whether one ultimately accepts Herf's critiques of the multiple narratives invented after 1945 depends, of course, very much on one's own relationship to the political traditions which Herf sees them as serving. To give one example, Herf's critique of the failure of left-wing narratives to give due regard to the divisions of the pre-1933 left as a cause of Weimar's failure depends on whether one is inclined oneself to attibute primary causal significance to this factor. If, like this reviewer, one sees any failings of the left before 1933 as very much secondary compared with the onslaught of the conservative and fascist right, Herf's critique loses much of its force. To put it another way: to criticise one set of narratives is simultaneously to privilege another.

For all its differentiation, for all his partial endorsement of Adenauer's achievements and for all his evident sympathy for Schumacher, Herf's narrative of recent German history is essentially a conservative one. This, of course, leads us back to a by-now-familiar problem. Once we start treating historical writing as merely a set of fictional narratives legitimating agendas centred on the present, our own writing becomes just another fictional narrative legitimating such an agenda. The question becomes, whose politics is Herf's narrative serving? In a political culture in which denial of any positive achievements on the part of the GDR is so central to post-reunification identity building, this question is not without import.

Neil Gregor is lecturer in modern European history, University of Southampton.

Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys

Author - Jeffrey Herf
ISBN - 0 674 21303 3
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 5

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