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Breaking with Nazism: National Identity and Memory in West Germany after the Second World War

Publié le 1 octobre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires

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What are the effects of the Nazi legacy on the Federal Republic of Germany? What effects did it have on German national identity and collective memory in the decades following WWII? A connection exists between the shifting conceptions of collective memory/identity and the new wave of Nazism witnessed today. West German attempts to construct a new identity based on the recognition and acceptance of the past, and the search for positive memories and a new positive identity may all, in a sense, be at fault for the re-emergence of this dangerous ideology.

A Syn, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

At the end of WWII Germany was divided into two states that opposed each other ideologically and politically. While West Germany was linked to postwar economic growth and to its rapprochement with the West, East German identity was influenced by Soviet socialism and antifascism. The two states took divergent approaches with regard to their common past and constructed new identities from their collective memory. East Germany denied its Nazi past and hence its responsibility for the war crimes. In contrast, West Germany accepted the burdens of Nazi crimes and identified itself as the successor of the Third Reich.

Recognition and acceptance of the past were necessary for the political and economic reincorporation of West Germany to the Western community. But not knowing exactly who they were after Hitler left West Germans in an unpleasant situation. Their national identity, in contrast to other nations’ histories of heroes and martyrs, was invariably connected to the monstrosity of the Nazi legacy. Trauma effected by this negative identity and burdened memory marked the first postwar generation in West Germany and instilled a generalized feeling of guilt. The people were afraid to know the truth about their past (1).

The question of guilt was central to discussions that took place in the state during the first years following the war. Historians and thinkers debated whether the country should bear the burden of guilt, linking the present with the past, or whether the state could continue without the past and just forget it. To what extent were the German people responsible for the crimes? Were citizens also victims of the Nazi regime? Many have also asked what kind of guilt Germans should bear. Furthermore, discussions also focused strongly on the will of West Germans to begin anew and rebuild their state. The chief question was, however: should they forget (2)?

During the 1960s and 70s, West Germany focused on mourning and acceptance of guilt. Various intellectuals and historians, like the Mitscherlichs, stressed the importance of remembering the past. They rejected the convenience of people identifying themselves as victims and not participants in the Third Reich. They reasoned that only through mourning and acceptance of guilt could Germans overcome and master their past.

Antifascism and the “marginalization” of the Holocaust became major trends during the 1970s, while criminal processes against perpetrators of Nazi crimes mostly took place in the 1960s. Antifascism identified Germans with the Western World and pushed the Holocaust to the fringes of memory. Yet, even when German Chancellor Willy Brandt, kneeling before the monument of victims in the Warsaw ghetto in 1972, demonstrated that the past had been accepted, lingering feelings of guilt remained (3).

The 1980s brought about a major shift to the processes shaping collective memory and national identity in West Germany. The focus of cultural tensions in the state no longer lingered on the question of whether the past should be forgotten. Normalization and a search for positive national identity coincided with growing interest in the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes. The interest resulted not only in public speeches by leading West German intellectuals and politicians, who strived for Germany to become normal again, but also in the creation of movies like Heimat, which demonstrated a desire to detach national identity from the burdened past (4).

Interest in the Nazi past is visible in various commemorative occasions, monuments, and museums from the 80s. Chancellor Kohl’s decision to build two museums, one in Berlin and one in Bonn, to narrate German history, is a prime example. However, the museum in Bonn was planned to show only the last forty years of German history, virtually dividing Germany’s post-war period from the Third Reich’s. The museum in Berlin was designed to narrate the complete history of Germany, but in a way that didn’t distinguish Nazism from other periods in national history (5). The flurry of debate surrounding the construction of the two museums made palpable the anxiety that still troubled West Germany.

Other significant confrontations with the past occurred during the 1980s. Namely, President Reagan’s visit to the city of Bitburg and the debate between historians that took place in West Germany around 1986 and 87. Bitburg was chosen as the location where Reagan and chancellor Kohl would meet, but neither noted that it was a military cemetery containing the graves of not only German soldiers, but members of the SS. The choice of venue resulted in public debate about the morality of the meeting place and the role of the soldiers; were they also victims of the Nazis similar to victims in the concentration camps (6)? According to Anson Rabinbach, a specialist in modern European history, Bitburg represented the end of the singularity of the Holocaust in German national identity and made it relative in relation to other sufferings inflicted by the war (7).

West German struggle with the past in the 80s signaled a new tendency toward normalization and the unlinking of German national identity from Nazism. The time represents an intentional attempt to shift collective West German memory. A shift which provoked heated public discussion amongst intellectuals and historians who addressed issues on the meaning and understanding of history, not only in West Germany but in a more universal sense. Questions dealt with were:

  • Should history provide meaning, and be a bearer of national identity, and, if so, how?
  • Is history being misused as an instrument for political debate?
  • What kind of self-awareness and historical perspective should West Germany have?
  • Are the crimes of the Nazi period unique, or are they comparable to others mass annihilations in history, like those in the Soviet Union?
  • Should the discipline of history “historicize” or “moralize”(8)?

The debate was chiefly carried on between two camps. On one side were conservative historians like Ernst Nolte, Andreas Hillgruber, and Michael Stürmer, who argued that the memory of National Socialism and the trauma caused by the burdened past “were blocking historical analysis.(9)” Nolte voiced belief in the need for historical comparison between the Holocaust and other mass killings, rejecting its uniqueness from those in the Soviet Union, Vietnam and Afghanistan. Both Hillgruber and Stürmer stressed the political importance of national identity and viewed historians as identity builders who could provide positive memories of the past (10).

On the other side was the left-liberal Jürgen Habermas, who criticized the attempt of these three historians to relieve German national identity of its past. He claimed the Holocaust was unique and that its “relativization” in the name of positive identity was unjustifiable (11).

This debate was followed by another between the German historian Martin Broszat and the Israeli historian Saul Friedlander. Broszat argued against the perception of the Third Reich as something special, something beyond the reach of historical methods and understanding. He emphasized the necessity for Nazism to be subjected to historical examination, because, in his opinion, it would neutralize the blockage negative myths and memory had built around the period. He believed Wartime Germany should be open to all kinds of historical analysis, such as examinations of everyday life under the Nazi regime (12).

Broszat’s ideas were attacked by Saul Friedlander, who argued against “employing the history of everyday life as a methodology for historicizing National Socialism.(13)” According to him, this period was not normal and could not be treated as just another historical period. He stated: “writing about Nazism is not like writing about sixteen century France(14)”. Moreover, Friedlander outlined the chief objectives of the “historicization“ of Nazism in four points:

  • The methodology used in examining National Socialism should be the same as any other historical phenomenon;
  • The black and white perception of this period should be exchanged for a more complex study;
  • The Nazi era should be reinserted into the trends of historical evolution;
  • Lifting the moral blockade around the Nazi past should be replaced by a moral “sensitization” of history (15).

The questions addressed in the scholarly debates mentioned earlier were not just about the uniqueness and comparability of the Holocaust or about the “historicization“ of the Nazi era. They raised broader theoretical questions about the use of history and memory in the construction of national identity and the very comprehension of history as science with its tasks and methods of analysis.

Bitburg and the historians’ debates, as well as other events during the 1980s, in which Germans confronted their Nazi past, marked a shift from negative national identity towards a positive one. That new identity was meant to transform West Germany into a normal European state promoting national pride instead of a feeling of guilt. In response, having been witness to the gradual revival of Nazism in Germany since the early 1990s, we cannot help but wonder if the break from the past, implying the abandonment of guilt and the promotion of national pride, was not achieved too soon and too easily. On the contrary though, German society lived for several decades under the pressures of guilt and the shame for Nazi crimes, and it can be asked whether these awoke an instinct for self-defense in marginal groups and set-off a new wave of extreme nationalism. Both perspectives demonstrate current Neo-Nazi activity in Germany is connected more or less to the country’s past. The crucial question becomes whether or not a reconsideration of Germany’s past could help solve the country’s problems with Neo-Nazism and reverse the rising popularity of this dangerous ideology.


(1) Kattago, Siobhan. Ambiguous Memory: The Nazi Past and German National Identity. Westport: Praeger, 2001. 39 – 41.
(2) Kattago, 39 – 41.
(3) Kattago, 42 – 44.
(4) Kattago, 45 – 46.
(5) Kattago, 52.
(6) Fulbrook, Mary. German National Identity after the Holocaust. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999. 95–102.
(7) Rabinbach, Anson. “The Jewish Question in the German Question.” Reworking the Past: Hitler, the Holocaust, and the Historians’ Debate. Ed. Peter Baldwin. Boston: Beacon Press, 1990. 59–61.
(8) Piper, Ernst, ed. Forever In The Shadow of Hitler? : Original Documents Of The Historikerstreit, The Controversy Concerning The Singularity of the Holocaust. Trans. James Knowlton and Truett Cates. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1993. 274.
(9) Kattago, 62.
(10) Fulbrook, 125–127.
(11) Fulbrook, 126 – 127.
(12) Fulbrook, 127 – 128.
(13) Kattago, 67.
(14) Friedlander, Saul. “History, Memory, and the Historian: Dilemmas and Responsibilities.” New German Critique Special Issue on the HolocaustSpring-Summer 2000: 90.
(15) Friedlander, 90 – 91.

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