Leidkultur or Leitverantwortung? The legacy of the Third Reich in the national memory narratives of the 'Berlin Republic'

Gay, Caroline (2002) Leidkultur or Leitverantwortung? The legacy of the Third Reich in the national memory narratives of the 'Berlin Republic'. In: UNSPECIFIED UNSPECIFIED. (Unpublished)

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'Was die Menschheitsverbrechen des 21. Jahrhunderts sein werden, wissen wir nicht, aber es ist gut möglich, daß sie Auschwitz gar nicht ähnlich sehen und daß wir sie nicht bemerken, wenn wir wie gebannt nur auf Auschwitz starren.' (Jan Ross, Die Zeit, November 1998)

The events of 11 September 2001 and Germany's reaction to them were further indication that recollection of Auschwitz is inevitably losing its force in political decision-making as the country assumes European and global responsibilities in the present. This does not mean that national memory of the Holocaust is fading in Germany. On the contrary, media attention together with ritual commemoration and educational initiatives keep it very much alive.

This paper will examine continuity and change in the national memory narratives of the so-called Berlin Republic relating to Germany's National Socialist past. After a brief assessment of various theories of memory (e.g. Halbwachs, Nora, Assmann and Welzer) it will first draw up a typology of memory that can be applied to post-war Germany. Memory will be considered as a narrative in that is it always selective and manipulated to reveal an interpretation rather than a mirror image of the past. Memory narratives can be individual, collective or national.

National memory narratives will be defined as an officially promoted version of events which can inform the identity of younger generations in particular. They are also used for the purposes of Geschichtspolitik. The national memory narratives of the Bundesrepublik have changed in accordance with political and societal circumstances and developments.

The paper will present a short overview of the changing national memory narratives in the post-war period up to when the Schröder government assumed power in autumn 1998. For some commentators, this marked a seachange in terms of attitudes to the National Socialist past. This is the first post-war government whose members have no direct memory of the Third Reich. As such it is also representative of the shift, to use Jan Assmann's terms, from communicative to cultural memory of the period. The subsequent national memory narratives represent an interpretation of what is for most no longer direct experience. Another aspect to consider is the increasing number of memory narratives on the period despite the growing chronological distance from it. These result in many layers of memory: one page of a newspaper may for example contain articles about payments to former forced labourers, the Holocaust monument, some new historical research into the Holocaust and a political debate on national pride.

The number of memory narratives on the National Socialist period has not only increased in Germany. The paper will go on to consider Germany's national memory narratives in the context of a larger international narrative, or as one national narrative amongst many. In recent years, the revelation of the sometimes murky past of countries that formerly proclaimed themselves victim or victorious has led to a gradual change in the respective national narratives. At the same time, the internationalisation and medialisation of memory of the Third Reich or, more specifically, the Holocaust, has made it into 'everyone's history'. A universal interpretation can be productive, for example in begging common solutions to human rights violations. However, to use Peter Novick's argument, it can also be instrumentalised as the 'absolute evil' in order to paper over a nation's own shortcomings.

The paper will argue that although bound into the 'international' Holocaust narrative, German national memory remains influenced by the country's ethnic ties to the perpetrator regime of National Socialism and the continuing need to reconcile present identity with past guilt. In the post-war period, the country has been faced with the problem of creating a positive national narrative - up to now this could be done with relation to politics but not history. Two instances of how this difficult legacy has been incorporated into the national memory of the Berlin Republic will be considered here. First, national memory of the Third Reich past has developed into a framework for what could be termed German Leitverantwortung, that is open contrition for National Socialist atrocities but with an emphasis on present responsibility for maintaining human rights and democracy rather than past guilt. This tendency will be illustrated with reference to political speeches and developments as well as policy debates. Examples will include the question of intervention in Kosovo, Fischer's diplomacy in the Middle East and the response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2000. The tendency will also be examined in terms of cultural developments. Up to now any cultural representation featuring the Holocaust had negative reverberations in Germany. 2001 saw the opening of the Jewish museum in Berlin, which was heralded as a reflection of the new German responsibility. Michael Blumenthal, Director of the museum, deemed it a sign that Germany had acquired the moral right to be a leader in the global campaign against racism and for human rights.

Despite the notion of Leitverantwortung there does however remain a strong emphasis on the Nazi past as a negative legacy, especially in the media. This uneasy juxtaposition was illustrated by the debate surrounding Martin Walser's 'Friedenspreisrede' of October 1998, which indicated that Schröder had been too hasty in declaring a 'neue Unbefangenheit' with regard to the National Socialist past. Excessive reference to the Holocaust and German guilt in events and debates has been described as a kind of Leidkultur by, amongst others, the critic Henryk Broder. With this in mind, the paper will go on to discuss whether, to use Walser's term, the 'Moralkeule' of Auschwitz is barring Germany from being a 'normal' nation able to assert its own interests. The so-called Leitkultur and Nationalstolz debates on German identity and patriotism will be considered in this context. The fear of an intellectual - and political - shift to the right will also be covered here using the example of the debate surrounding the publication of Norman Finkelstein's Holocaust Industry and, to a lesser extent, Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life. In a comparison with the 'Vergangenheitsbewältigung' debates in the post-war period, these newer debates will be shown as having less to do with the direct memory of the National Socialist period than with its legacy in the present-day political culture of the Bundesrepublik.

The final section of the paper will examine a shift in the nature of national memory narratives from a passive to an active use of the National Socialist legacy. On the one hand, the ritualised form of cultural memory through speeches, commemorations and so on remains necessary for formal remembrance as well as to show respect for the victims. Running parallel to - and sometimes crossing over with - this is a kind of 'active' memory focusing on political and democratic education, applying - indirectly or directly - the 'lessons' of this Holocaust to challenges in the present. Though the two sides run parallel, the 'active' uses of the past would seem to be increasingly dominant. One major indication of this was the demonstration 'Für Menschlichkeit und Toleranz' on 9 November 2000, which brought some 200,000 people onto the streets of Berlin to demonstrate against (contemporary) racism and intolerance on the same day that commemorates the Reichskristallnacht of 1938 (and, of course, the fall of the Berlin Wall). This development is also reflected in the work of a growing number of organisations campaigning against racism and for tolerance. Moreover, those organisations that aim to keep memory of the National Socialist past alive now frequently place this past into the context of the present as well as providing historical information. This can be seen, for example, in the education programmes of the Haus der Wannsee Konferenz, which invite participants to consider issues relating to the Holocaust through the perspective of their own occupation.

Such 'active memory' of the National Socialist past perhaps raises more attention than 'passive' memory and can thus be a positive way of generating historical consciousness and awareness of its application in the present. There is of course the risk of the past being relativised or distorted by aligning it too much with the present: the debates on the far right and National Socialism should not be fused into one. The paper will conclude that this is however to a certain extent inevitable, particularly with generational change and increased distance from the past. In this respect, national memory narratives will continue to have a role and responsibility in providing a connecting thread to place the increasing layers of memory into their correct historical context.

Item Type: Book Section
Uncontrolled Keywords: Erinnerungskultur, Erinnerungspolitik, Berlin Republic, remembering the National Socialist past, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, Vergangenheitspolitik, Leitkultur, memory narratives
Subjects: Kulturwissenschaften, cultural studies > Graduiertenkonferenz: Narrationen im medialen Wandel
Depositing User: sandra subito
Date Deposited: 06 Dec 2020 12:02
Last Modified: 06 Dec 2020 12:02
URI: http://sammelpunkt.philo.at/id/eprint/1923

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