Labelled in error

May 15, 1998

IN A generally thoughtful and well-informed review of my book, Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (THES, April 17), Neil Gregor takes me to task for sins I have not committed.

First, nowhere do I claim that "Adenauer succeeded in placing the Jewish catastrophe at the centre of West German memory in the 1950s". To the contrary, I point to his public reticence about the Holocaust as part of an appeal for electoral support, a strategy illustrating tension between early democratisation and memory and justice.

To the extent to which the memory of the Holocaust entered West German official political memory in the 1950s, it did so first as a consequence of the efforts of President Theodor Heuss and of leading Social Democratic politicians beginning with Kurt Schumacher.

Hence I was surprised to see Divided Memory described as "essentially a conservative" narrative of postwar German history. Ordinarily I would not quibble over words but the cold war is over and it is time to have fresh air blowing through debates.

In fact, the book draws attention to the too long forgotten or neglected contributions by dissident communists in East Germany and to Social Democrats and liberals in West Germany.

I do not know to whom Professor Gregor is referring when he writes: "Once we start treating historical writing as merely a set of fictional narratives legitimating agendas centred on the present, our own historical writing becomes just another fictional narrative legitimating such an agenda." While this may be his view, it is certainly not mine. Divided Memory offers a critique of such an instrumentalist and reductionist view of how postwar German leaders discussed the past. Gregor then asks "whose politics is Herf 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".

I assume that Professor Gregor is referring to the manner in which Divided Memory may influence contemporary German discussions rather than to a conscious effort on my part to place scholarship in the service of politics.

Whether and how it does so remains to be seen.

Yet looking at the truth of the impact of anti-Jewish prejudices in the history of official East German anti-fascism and the resultant marginalisation and suppression of the memory of the Holocaust, and decades of hostility to Israel belongs to any serious history of East Germany.

As the remarkable first declaration of the first democratically elected parliament of the short-lived post-communist East Germany unanimously indicated in April 1990, this history was a source of shame and regret rather than a "positive achievement".

I hope that the German edition of the book published this autumn will foster a memory that breaks with the divisions of the cold war era and connects memory of the Holocaust to the memory of Nazism's non-Jewish victims.

In today's Germany, aside from those who see any serious criticism of communist governments as a monopoly of "the right", there are politicians, scholars, journalists and intellectuals both right and left of centre who support this view and would find it as strange as I do to be told that such as effort is essentially conservative. We are unrepentant liberals.

Jeffrey Herf, Department of history, Ohio University

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