Collective Memory of the Nazi Past

By: Nadiya Alexandra

Germany’s past was brutal. Dealing with the memory of the past proved very difficult for victims and perpetrators alike. Keeping the memory alive seems both painful but crucial to ensure history does not repeat itself. Perhaps Germany’s evolution into a bulwark for democracy was a result of the collective memory and the guilt that came with it. Joachim C. Häberlen referenced “Hayden White’s terminology… a heroic story of overcoming evil for good.”

In her book Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice, Mary Fulbrook writes about the memories of survivors and perpetrators during the Nazi regime. What is surprising is the “bizarre reversal in the representation of power and agency.” Fulbrook classifies the victims as mainly feeling guilt, whether it was guilty of survival or for not helping others. In contrast, the perpetrators downplayed their agency and constructed a “good self.” Fulbrook’s discussion is fascinating because it shows a spectrum of manifestations of guilt and coping strategies. Additionally, it shows just how much people wanted to forget and move on from the past.

During the “era of the survivor,” it was curious that the term “survivor” was not universally accepted. Fulbrook acknowledges those that many (survivors) wanted to shed the past. Instead, they had to wear the classification of “survivor” like a “tiny new yellow star.” Similarly, the perpetrators wanted to shed the past as well. On one hand, public culture rejected the past, but accepted responsibility.

It probably did not help that West Germans were forced to address the past in the early post-war years. Werner Sollor’s article, “‘Everybody Gets Fragebogened Sooner or Late’: The Denazification Questionnaire as Cultural Text,” outlines the mandatory American questionnaire that was part of the de-Nazification process. However, the aversion to this questionnaire shows the discomfort and perhaps unwillingness to report on the memory of such a recent horrific past.

Self-defence strategies of perpetrators ranged from ignorance and self-distancing, to constructing different “selves.” From the opinion of someone who has only read about Nazi Germany, it is understandable that there was a desire to forget the traumatic past. I wonder if, or how, the collective memory of the past figured in what Häberlen called the “communicative culture” in Germany. How did the guilt from the memory of Nazi Germany shape a new democratic society and communicative culture?

It is important to note, as Fulbrook did, that not everyone’s stories and memory of war time was treated equally. There was a hierarchy within victims that dictated the degree of speaking or silence. Patterns of marginalization continued to exist.

With the global patterns of democratic backsliding, it may be more important than ever to keep such memories close. Angela Merkel was “presented as a last defender of Western liberalism,” was it because of Germany’s traumatic past? What is the link between the collective memory of WWII and today’s values?

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