Remembrance as Legitimation Problem: A Review of Jeffrey Olick’s The Sins of the Fathers: Germany, Memory, Method

9780226386492.jpgThere is no state that has been and continues to be as haunted by the specters of a criminal past as is Germany. What happens when State leaders cannot tell a positive story about the nation’s past? A damaged national identity is, of course, not unique to Germany. For German leaders, however, the task at hand was, and continues to be, the mastering of a past that has become the symbol of ultimate evil. Jeffrey Olick’s The sins of the fathers: Germany, memory, method examines, with an impressive wealth of documentation and meticulous attention to detail, the process by which the Federal Republic of Germany (1949–1990) confronted the burden of the Nazi crimes and dealt with its political costs.

Germany’s ‘legitimation profiles’

Jeffrey Olick argues that ‘much of the state-sponsored memory in the Federal Republic of Germany has been organized as an effort to deny collective guilt’ (p. 29). The book is structured around the presentation of three succeeding ‘legitimation profiles’ – each confronting the problem of collective guilt in singular ways.

The first one, the ‘reliable nation’, which was centered on institutional reform, rather than symbolic gesture, aimed to prove that the newfound German state was a trustworthy and responsible member of the international community. During this time, the country’ s leaders draw a clear line separating the criminal Nazi leadership from the general German population. The Nazis had committed crimes ‘in the name of the German people’, as chancellor Adenauer put it in the1950s.

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“Der Kult mit der Schuld” – Collective Memory Following the 2017 German Federal Elections

For the first time since 1933, an extreme-right party has been voted into German parliament. Going by the name of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), this newcomer made substantial gains from the last federal election (+7.9%) while centrist parties were dealt (to use a German soccer colloquialism) a massive “Klatsche.” Now Germany must ponder its political future. But what does this mean about the country’s collective memory? Continue reading ““Der Kult mit der Schuld” – Collective Memory Following the 2017 German Federal Elections”

Genocide in South West Africa: German Leaders Agree with the Historians—Finally

Genocide is a familiar topic to Germans. Today, it is almost impossible to visit Germany and not confront remnants of the darker chapters of the country’s history. Germans interact with and recognize a variety of tangible reminders of the crimes committed by the Third Reich. Countless memorials stand as physical evidence of a violent “past that will not go away”—a past that a majority of Germans publically acknowledge should not go away.[1]

But what about Germany’s other genocide? What place does its memory have in German society today? Between 1904 and 1908, German colonial soldiers carried out the first genocide of the twentieth century in what is now the present-day African state of Namibia (German Southwest Africa).[2] This systematic campaign against Herero and Namaqua peoples—regarded by some scholars as the “Kaiser’s Holocaust”—claimed the lives of over 100,000 men, women, and children through starvation, imprisonment, exile, and murder. German colonial leaders’ impetus for the genocide arose during the so-called Herero-Namaqua Aufstand (Herero-Namaqua Uprising), which began in January 1904 when Herero leaders revolted against the German administration in Southwest Africa. The Namaqua joined the campaign several months later.

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Berlin’s Message to Ankara: Learn From Us

On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II, on May 8th 1985, German President Richard von Weiszäcker addressed the country’s parliament with the following words: “All of us, whether guilty or not, whether young or old, must accept the past. We are all affected by the consequences and liable for it. We Germans must look truth straight in the eye – without embellishment and without distortion.”

Weiszäcker’s speech became a milestone in  the distinctively German process known as Vergangenheitsbewältigung (a composite German word which can be best rendered in English as the struggle to overcome or confront the [criminal] past.) Acknowledging the Holocaust and other atrocities committed by Germany during WWII was not an easy process. Weizäcker’s speech challenged persisting idealized or self-victimized national narratives, and it undermined citizens’ identification with their history.

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