The Journey is the Destination: German Politics of Remembrance and Their Contradictions


German remembrance culture can be criticized with good arguments. But we should recognize its complex and contradictory antecedents and origins.

Ronald Reagan's visit to the Bitburg Military Cemetery in Germany
Teaser Image Caption
Ronald Reagan's visit to Bitburg military cemetery represented the "clean break" efforts of segments of German society in the 80s

This article was first published in German at Geschichte der Gegenwart. It was translated into English by Kerstin Trimble.

In his essay “The Germans’ Catechism”, Dirk Moses has distilled an analysis of current debates on how Germans cope with their past, for example German colonial crimes, as well as current political controversies, such as how to deal with the BDS Movement, into a comprehensive attack on German Holocaust remembrance more generally. Moses believes there is a German “catechism” at work in the actions of state representatives and other elites: They use the paradigm of the “uniqueness of the Holocaust” as a pretext to obstruct open debate and discourse on Holocaust remembrance and its implications in Germany. Instead, they dutifully and largely mindlessly reel off rituals, rehash empty phrases, and stubbornly rely on obsolete insights, thereby avoiding to acknowledge other victims of German history as well as of human rights violations more generally in the present day.

Dirk Moses’ claims as well as his pseudo-religious language have sparked an intense debate, which has also reached the German mainstream media. In the meantime, Moses has responded to his critics, clarifying some misunderstandings, but primarily doubling down on his theses. I find the motivations behind his arguments plausible, and I share his criticism that Germany does not grapple enough with present-day racism, that we have failed to come to terms with our history of colonial crimes, and that the German discourse exhibits a lack of empathy towards the plight of the Palestinian civilian population in the Middle East conflict. Moses’ sweeping and ahistorical approach, however, makes his polemic far less compelling. Moreover, he fails to offer any convincing suggestion on how to tackle the problems he has identified.

German politics of remembrance and their contexts

Hardly anyone who has observed or experienced state actors operating in this complex field will deny that official German politics of remembrance has been fraught with problems, awkwardness, superficiality, and sometimes even embarrassment. But today’s institutions and their personnel can only be understood if we take the history of German politics of remembrance into account. Judging these politics as well as their proponents only based on current events or one’s own political standpoint does not do justice to the complexity of subject matter as well as the field in which they operate. In contrast to Moses’ claim, however, their actions do not follow a “catechism”, but are to a large part the result of the Federal Republic’s difficult and contradictory confrontation with National Socialism and the Holocaust. In order to offer any precise or plausible criticism of the current state of remembrance politics, one must acknowledge the complexity of these processes.

The fact that the German government and administrative apparatus employ experts dedicated to address issues of remembrance, anti-Semitism, and “Jewish life” (as it is officially called today) is neither an invention of the Merkel era nor a result of the centralization of Holocaust remembrance in the reunited Federal Republic, epitomized by the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, which was inaugurated in 2005. However, we do not need to go back too far time to see that the Bonn-based officials in the “old” West Germany pursued entirely different goals when compared with their contemporary counterparts in present-day Berlin. Perhaps this is best illustrated by a look at the Kohl era, in which many of the debates about remembrance and commemoration that still concern us today originated. Of course, Kohl and his government spoke with great empathy about the suffering of the Jews during the Third Reich and clearly distanced themselves from the criminal Nazi regime. Efforts to make the Holocaust the central reference point of German remembrance culture, however, were considered a threat to the national self-image of that very Federal Republic, which never tired of reiterating that it had already learned enough from the engagement with its past.

Even back in the 1980s, this debate about German history was not confined to the Federal Republic. Higher officials of German ministerial bureaucracy, especially in the context of the Cold War, felt particularly threatened when Holocaust remembrance became an integral part of the self-image of the US, as exemplified by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which had been planned since 1978 and opened in 1993. (West) German officials and diplomats vehemently opposed this museum, claiming it reduced German history to the Third Reich and the Holocaust, fearing that this posed a threat to the Federal Republic’s reputation abroad as well as to German-American relations more generally.

In this and similar contexts, the Federal Republic and its representatives saw themselves as victims of an intensifying confrontation with the Holocaust around the world. And it was not uncommon in government or diplomatic circles to accuse American Jews (at times resorting to anti-Semitic stereotypes) of exploiting Holocaust commemoration to the detriment of the Federal Republic for political or financial benefit. German attempts to intervene directly in American Holocaust remembrance or debates about the Holocaust in the United States, however, were doomed to fail. Instead, German government representatives had to learn that American debates about Holocaust remembrance were not really about postwar Germany or its reputation abroad. Instead, this was a struggle over the significance of the Holocaust in American life – a context in which the sensitivities and interests of German diplomats or politicians, but also Germany’s general efforts to come to terms with its past, were mostly irrelevant.

These experiences had a decisive impact on the further evolution of German politics of remembrance. While German politicians could do little to shape or even prevent the advancing of the “universalization” of the Holocaust abroad, they could much to influence the debates and the developments in the Federal Republic. In the 1970s, younger activists in Germany had already begun to bring National Socialism back into the public consciousness “from below”, as Neil Gregor already reminded us in his response to Moses. In the 1980s, many Germans therefore fiercely opposed efforts to “make a clean break” with the past, exemplified by Kohl’s reconciliation ceremony with Ronald Reagan at the military cemetery in Bitburg or his plans for a Central Memorial in Bonn, which was to make no clear distinction between victims of the Germans and German victims. Despite such efforts in the 1980s, however, Kohl spoke very self-evidently of the Holocaust as the “core of our nation’s identity” towards the end of his tenure as chancellor in the late 1990s. There is no doubt that political calculation played a role here, but that does not mean that there had not also been a genuine change of heart and a long-term learning process.

If German politicians today have internalized and defend this “core” as well as the “lessons of the past”, they are defending the results of a long and difficult process, which was largely steered by German politicians themselves. Those who think that this is simply a canned, parroted creed, fail to understand the tense dialectic relationship between the refusal to remember and its failure as well as the overall insights gained from the controversies and debates about National Socialism, which current German politics of remembrance continue to convey.

Context and motives beyond big politics

The statement that colonial crimes and racism have not been dealt with sufficiently in the past decades is certainly true. Who would seriously want to deny that today? But Dirk Moses passes over the question of why German society in the 1990s, the time when the supposed “catechism” became anchored in society, was so unreceptive to these issues – and how all of this relates to the motives of the actors of remembrance beyond big politics, who, of course, have always been part of the German discourse on remembrance.

For example, we are quite aware, not only from recent scholarship, of the deeply rooted racism and hostility towards people labelled as “foreign” in early reunified Germany. Just think of the lack of empathy and the inadequate government response to hate crimes like the murder of people of Turkish origin in Mölln or Solingen. Or remember how mainstream politicians leveraged racist and xenophobic sentiments by warning of “masses of refugees” and “asylum abuse” to restrict the constitutional right to asylum since the 1980s. This context and its implications, as well as other factors, such as the large societal challenge of coming to terms with the East German Communist dictatorship, could explain certain patterns in remembrance (politics) and blind spots in the German discourses of these years. Yet applying today’s standards to the behavior of Germans from two or three decades ago and then wondering why they did not draw the same conclusions back then that we would expect today is a rather futile approach.

On the other hand, it seems almost cynical to accuse the (young) Germans of that era who – under the impression of the debates about Schindler’s List, Daniel Goldhagen, or the “Wehrmacht Exhibition” – called for a new form of politics of remembrance of having been “conditioned” to follow a “catechism”. The conclusions and “lessons” of this generation may seem short-sighted or parochial under today’s global paradigm. Back then, however, the German public at large was just beginning to overcome its narrow focus on the German context and to learn about and discuss the effects of Nazi persecution and extermination in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Also in this decade, empirical Holocaust research, not only by German historians, was only just gaining momentum.

Those who back then vehemently opposed the German deflection of guilt, a fixation on the German victims of World War II, the concealing the true extent of support for the Nazi regime among the German population, the myth of the “clean” Wehrmacht, or an enduring Anti-Semitism in Germany after 1945, hardly intended to obscure the suffering or fate of other victims of the Germans. On the contrary, the xenophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic violence of the early 1990s evoked countless comparisons and references to National Socialism. In this respect, the fact that National Socialism and its victims loomed larger on their minds than German colonial crimes was not a question of “doctrine” or “conditioning”, but a logical consequence of a preoccupation with National Socialism in light of new insights and controversies. For many Germans, it was also a matter of direct and immediate personal and family involvement with National Socialism.

Finally, I should also mention in this context that even today, we are still far from reaching a broad social consensus about how to commemorate National Socialism and the Holocaust or how to place it within the longer continuities of German history. One does not even have to think of the by now infamous utterances of the Alternative for Germany’s leadership on this subject matter. Instead, one should take a look at the villages and towns on the German countryside. Beyond the country’s metropoles and their culture of remembrance, we can find countless examples of officials, local elites, and citizens who do not show any signs of being beholden to the “catechism”. Instead they exhibit ignorance about Nazi crimes committed during the final phase of the war or concentration camps in their own neighborhood, deny the cruel exploitation of forced laborers in German factories and cities, and practice a cult for the fallen heroes of the Wehrmacht. A good example is the dispute between the Bergen-Belsen Memorial Site and the Bergen City Council over a joint declaration on the crimes committed by “SS and Wehrmacht on our very doorsteps”, which received some attention last autumn as local politicians of mainstream parties refused to endorse the statement.

Pathways towards a new politics of remembrance

As noted at the outset, I share Dirk Moses’ view that Germany’s politics of remembrance has glaring weaknesses, which entails problems and consequences today that get in the way of a fair and honest confrontation with German history. But, to a considerable extent, these failures and blind spots are unintended consequences of a larger social process whose intention was precisely not to make Germans feel better about “being German”, to immunize them against only one form of prejudice and racism while at the same time opening up new avenues to think and act in prejudiced and racist ways. The objective was exactly the opposite.

Therefore, as we criticize and rethink German remembrance politics today, we must consider its complex history as well as its many facets and contradictory nature. This is the only avenue towards an honest debate about the political and normative issues at stake. To those who would now delegitimize and condemn German politics of memory, whose achievements include, among other things, the still direly necessary fight against Anti-Semitism, one could also respond: The confrontation with the Nazi past in a way created the essential political, scientific, and remembrance-cultural foundations and “tools” which now form the basis for research, exploration, and discussion of other histories of suffering. Pragmatically speaking, the way the remembrance of the victims of Nazism has become integrated into German political culture and historical consciousness also offers avenues and suggestions on how to raise more awareness for other stories today, and how to communicate these to a broader public.

There is no question that since the 1990s or 2000s, the social and cultural realities in Germany have changed in ways that also require a shift in the way Germany deals with the Holocaust. This is, of course, not a new insight, but has been the subject of intensive discussion and research for years – regardless of whether we call it the globalization of remembrance, remembrance culture in an immigrant society, multidirectional memory, or something else. Much more important than buzzwords and the choice of a theoretical approach, however, would be forums and formats that allow for a discussion of contradictory and seemingly mutually exclusive views, narratives, and experiences. It is precisely in this process that hitherto unheard voices in the debate about German politics of remembrance must be given more weight. Yet a productive way forward will require historically informed explanations as well as an earnest desire to truly understand conflicting and contradictory perspectives.