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?

To Forgive a Nazi

by: PSjoberg

Of all human history’s movements, Nazism is the one most unanimously synonymous with evil. Hitler’s Nazi regime appears the one thing in Western cultural consciousness that will be always unworthy of any sort of ‘historical fairness.’ Unlike with most other atrocious episodes throughout history, Nazism alone seems to be universally agreed to have been objectively horrible on all accounts – there is no such thing as an ‘anti-Nazi bias’; the anti-Nazi sentiment is widely regarded to be a sign of common sense and basic human decency.

Werner Sollors’ article, “‘Everybody Gets Fragebogened Sooner or Late’: The Denazification Questionnaire as Cultural Text,” identifies a less straight-forward conceptualization of the Nazi ideology. Sollors discusses West Germans’ mass aversion to an American-administered questionnaire which was mandatory for all West Germans to complete in the immediate post-war years. That many West Germans equated this questionnaire with a ‘Nazi-esque’ purge initially calls into question the degree to which Germans wished to address their Nazi past. However, my view of Nazism as inherently evil (and thus my view of denazification as an inherently positive process) possesses me to receive this so-called ‘purge’ of West German society in the most positive light. This stirs the question in me: is it wrong to think a purge can be a positive thing?

Robert Moeller’s article, “How to Judge Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg,” creates further questions about the legacy of Nazism in post-war West Germany. The fact that Konrad Adenauer “pushed hard to forgive and quickly forget the Nazi war crimes,” and the proclamation that, to West Germans, “Kramer and Mann’s errors seemed to be more numerous than the crimes of the judges on trial” both suggest an widespread cultural dismissal of Nazi war crimes. Moreover, Mary Fulbrook describes in her book, Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice, a man named Rudi Zimmermann who carried out heinous crimes under the Nazi regime, but then became a well-integrated citizen of East Germany and had even joined the bureaucracy of the ruling Communist Party. This theme seems to permeate throughout all this week’s readings: a criticism of the treatment of Nazism by Germans in the post-war period.

Do these apparent dismissals of the long-lasting effects of Nazism in Germany demonstrate a more widespread guilt, and therefore blame, for Nazi war crimes across German society in the 1950s and 1960s? Or, do these readings simply paint Nazism in a more complex light than it is usually treated in Western culture? After all, the atrocities committed by Genghis Khan, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and numerous other communist autocrats during the Cold War are often addressed with a more balanced approach than Hitler and his Nazi regime.

Do these readings demand a less black-and-white view of Nazism and its legacies? Or do they demonstrate that Nazism is more representative of widespread sentiments in early-20th century German society (and Western metropolitan society as a whole) than is commonly believed?


Mary Fulbrook, “Discomfort Zones” and “Voices of the Victims” in Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice (Oxford University Press, 2018), pp: 314- 336, 361-377.

W. Sollors, “Everybody Gets Fragebogened Sooner or Later’: The Denazification Questionnaire as Cultural Text.” German Life & Letters. Vol 71, Issue 2 (2018): 139-153.

Robert Moeller, “How to Judge Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg” German History Vol. 31, Issue 4 (December 2013): 497-522.

Judging Judgement at Nuremberg

By Alex Wittmann 

Judgement at Nuremberg is an important film when you consider the context of the time when it was released in 1961. The reception the film received at the Box office is very much indicative of how Nazi crimes were percieved in East Germany, West Germany, the United States, and how each side percived the way the allied judicary handled the crimes commited by Nazis at Nuremberg. The overarching point of the film was to show how screenwriter Abby Mann thought the trials should have played out for ex Nazis on trial. To show that perhaps a recognition of guilt could have allowed the possibility for forgiveness. The point of the movie was to show that there were West Germans who felt guilt. As we know from reading Diffraction of Guilt it is clear that the way former Nazis were punished in East Germany was very different. For example Zimmerman who had became a member of the Communist party in East Germany and had exhibited “model citizenry” he was still thrown in prison for life, compared to his boss in the West, a former SS officer, who only got 8 years in prison. Critical reception of the film Judgement at Nuremberg in East Germany said that with the movie’s admission of guilt in exchange for the possibility of forgiveness showed in their view that the US was complicit in abandoning the pursuit of Nazi criminals or at the very least, they were weak when it came to indicting former Nazis. The East Germans also argued that because of this, fascism was still ingrained in the west. Based on the fact that in reality, of the 39 Nazis put on trial, only around 9 were found guilty. This hints at some element of truth in the East German argument. The West German response to the film in a government perspective was critical. They lobbied against it being shown at the Cannes film festival in 1961. The concept of guilt was clearly not a reality the West Germans were willing to deal with in around that time. Even though the film suggested forgiveness could be achieved through admission of guilt on the part of the Nazis, this did not resonate well with theWest Germans. The reception of the film on West Germany’s end showed that the audience was clearly not willing to come to terms with thier Nazi past. There are questions asked by the reader after reading the article. How does the West German government reaction to the film highlight the hypocrisies that they held towards their own former Nazis as opposed to how they viewed  Former Nazis from the East? Does the film fit a narrative of who tried Nazis better, the East or the West.

Source Cited:

Mary Fulbrook, “Discomfort Zones” and “Voices of the Victims” in Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice (Oxford University Press, 2018) pp: 314- 336, 361-377.

Robert Moeller, “How to Judge Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg” German History Vol. 31, Issue 4 (December 2013): 497-522.