November 9: A day of infamy or a day of celebration?

“If there is such a thing as collective memory,” wrote social anthropologist Paul Connerton, “we are likely to find it in commemorations.” Anniversaries and commemorations declare certain events in history to be worth remembering. They enable states to shape a particular self-image and convey a sense of shared identity among the population.

Piece of Berlin Wall near Hitler’s Bunker and Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin by J. Elowitz

This past weekend, Germany launched three days of celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, which led eventually to a reunified German state. The bright lights of the jubilee, however, may cast a shadow on other important events in German history that also took place on November 9, events to which the German post-war division can be traced back. On November 9, 1923, Adolf Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch marked the emergence of the Nazi Party as an important player in Germany’s political landscape. On the night of November 9, 1938, Nazis set hundreds of synagogues on fire throughout Germany and annexed Austria, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses and killed close to 100 Jews in what became known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass.

 What history should inhabit Germany’s collective memory?  Five years ago, during the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was teaching at a German university. When I confronted my students with the less-jubilant occurrences of November 9, several expressed a sense of Holocaust fatigue and asserted their right not to be constantly reminded of the Nazis’ evil deeds. They also said that they were entitled to a positive identification with their history, as were people of any other nation.

We know that too much remembering can create a threat of exhaustion. But replacing shameful pasts with selectively adapted histories that are consistent with an affirmative collective memory can have adverse consequences. In this case, it clearly imperils the important self-reflective and anti-nationalistic culture of remembrance that emerged in German society as it sought to come to terms with its Nazi past.

Both pasts, the Nazi crimes and the partition of Germany, are connected. This twofold remembrance on November 9 may serve Germans as a counterbalance to the flood of self-congratulation that is engulfing the country during these days of celebration.

Alejandro Baer is the Stephen Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He joined the University of Minnesota in 2012 and is an Associate Professor of Sociology.

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