Memory in the Postwar Era

Alison Miller

There were two things that stood out to me about the readings this week with regards to the question posed (that is, what did coming to terms with the past look like in postwar Germany). The first is how memory is narrated. How do we create a general memory of what occurred in history when memory itself is difficult to pin down and we often hesitate to interrogate those on the side of “wrong-doers.” Who is telling the story? For what purposes? In the Fullbrook article especially, she takes the time to interrogate how long it took after WWII before people felt comfortable with sharing their thoughts – what is the outcome in waiting so long to do so? How does memory change as we move further from events.

What I found even more interesting than that was this idea of memory being essentially “translated” by ghost writers, film-makers, the children of people who went through it, etc. What Fullbrook doesn’t touch on too much, but that I thought might be interesting, is what is lost when narratives are literally translated – what do we retain or lose when we translate peoples’ experiences from their original language into one we can understand? What cultural contexts do we miss by doing so? Sollors references the use of words like Gestapoherr, and the perceptions of the Americans.

We rely heavily on firsthand experience in order to help construct a more consistent narrative of what happened, but memory is so vulnerable to a variety of different elements that it seems impossible to rely on individual memories to answer the question of ‘what happened?’. I suppose in order to compensate, by accumulating multiple testimonies we can glean a more general idea, as long as there is consistency between testimonies (but even how those testimonies are put together can change the way that the narrative is presented).  

The second thing is the role that outsiders play in forcing forgetfulness of events or a changing of those events. Moeller’s article discusses the censorship of the word gas in a television production of Judgement at Nuremberg, a movie very much concerned with how the Jews were killed by this very thing. This censorship enforces, I would argue, a type of forgetfulness. It softens the seriousness of the acts that were committed, and in a way reworks the events.

There is also concern over Soviet encroachment into Czechoslovakia as being a driver of forgetfulness of Nazi atrocities, as well as Fullbrook’s discussions over who gets interviewed or spotlighted as changing the ‘narrative’. Fullbrook also considers the fact that during the War, people likely knew exactly what was going on with regards to the Jews, but outside the war, under the spotlight, they must come up with an excuse to make themselves seem less like villains because there are now outsiders looking in.

Memory is such an interesting topic when we look at how history is recorded, and how reliable it is and who can work to change/influence it can change how we understand events.

One Reply to “Memory in the Postwar Era”

  1. Alison,
    Great response.
    I agree how societal general (narrative) memory is constructed is so fascinating. The questions you ask about the persons motivation for conveying memory a certain way are spot on.
    I love the discussion about what is lost in translation – (From what I know of the history of translation more regarding manuscripts but still relevant to this topic, a lot is either lost or incorrect in translation).
    You’re absolutely right. The various commissions post-war definitely had many (thousand) testimonies for that exact issue: reliability and consistency.
    The points you make about outsiders and censorship are completely correct. It is also interesting to note one could argue that censorship was enforced by the West German government in different ways to help deal with Cold War realities, such as Nazis being freed to serve in the war effort.
    Fulbrock’s argument about changing the ‘narrative’ is intriguing as she gets into the ambiguity of collaboration and willful blindness. It’s impossible to judge many civilians as ‘villains’ who may have suspected but had no direct knowledge but doubly so for those who were coerced as one can’t say how they’d react in that situation with courage to resist or with acquiescence to ensure safety and survival. Thoughts?
    I agree historical memory is interesting and how power and those in power can influence it is very important.
    Wesley M.

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