Shattering the continuum of history: mastering which past?

Geoff Eley


During the last third of the 20th century, German society developed notable capacity for a strikingly robust memorial politics, a collectively pursued and doggedly defended exercise in critical remembering, through which a shameful and destructive history could be faced. In its public and intellectual culture, with consequences reaching far into the common-sense thinking and ordinary transactions of the citizenry, contemporary Germany has not shied away from talking about Nazism. We may ponder the purposes and effectiveness of that effort, to be sure: while such a past may be disarmed and defused, confronted or repressed, examined and mindfully worked through, it can never finally be overcome. But all skepticism notwithstanding, this German conversation remains singular. German distinctiveness in dealing with the Nazi past comes through wherever we look for comparison, whether to the histories of violence in a Europe of national states or other societies shaped by a genocide, or to imperial nations with histories of colonizing and enslavement, or simply to the wrongs and atrocities perpetrated inside particular countries at various times over the years. The merest of glances elsewhere, whether to the histories of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial injustice in the United States, for example, or to the continuing silences around legacies of slavery and colonialism in Britain and France, will make this point compellingly enough. Monuments and museums, commemorative practices, exhibitions and other forms of public history, local schemes and grassroots activism, history workshops and Stolpersteine, schooling and pedagogy, initiatives in the arts, academic debates, recurring scandals, and repeated public controversy – all of these compose unusually solid ground for critical memorial practice. They make for a distinctively German memory formation or memory regime. In contrast, most public opinion in Britain or the United States seems persistently unknowing and unformed. Present disputes over white supremacy and the associated conflicts over statuary, ceremonial, official naming, and other forms of public memorializing stay shockingly short of what in Germany has long been publicly acknowledged.[1]

This capacity did not come easily. It emerged from the public contentions of the 1960s, accelerating through 1968 into the next decade, reaching some settled reliability by the denouement of the old Federal Republic. A sequence of major public discussions, sometimes angrily adversarial in character, ran from the reception of the TV drama Holocaust in 1979 and the schools-based competitions for the President’s Prize in History, through the museum and memorial controversies of the early-1980s and the activism of history workshops, to the Bitburg scandal and Historikerstreit in 1985-87.[2] Then, from the 1990s, a further sequence actively secured that new ground, again via vigorously conducted public disputation: 50th anniversary of the Second World War; 1993 dedication of the Berlin Memorial for the Victims of War and Dictatorship; controversy over the Berlin Holocaust Memorial (not finally resolved until May 2005); Schindler’s List (1994); Wehrmacht Exhibition (1995-99); Victor Klemperer’s diaries (1995); Goldhagen affair (1996); Germans as victims in the works of W. G. Sebald (1999), Günter Grass (2002), and Jörg Friedrich (2002); and much, much more.

As the last item suggests, this was never a monochrome story of straightforward accounting. It was never without trouble. If by the end of his long reign Helmut Kohl was finally able to see how “Holocaust memory” had become lodged at the “core” of the Federal Republic’s “self-concept as a nation,” then others could still register their impatience or complaint. Nazism was wielded like a “moral cudgel . . . to bully Germans into accepting a politically correct version of their past,” Martin Walser grouched when accepting the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1998.[3] The tones and idioms also shifted around. On the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the camps, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer could scarcely have been clearer: “For my country [Auschwitz] signifies the absolute moral abomination, a denial of all things civilized without precedent or parallel. The new democratic Germany has drawn its conclusions. The historic and moral responsibility for Auschwitz has left an indelible mark on us.”[4] Yet, twenty years earlier, he had been blunter: “even in rebellion, one could not wipe the filth of the Fatherland from one’s boots. One would always be caught in a web called Germany, and so the basic political feeling of my generation, the 68ers, could be summed up as: vomiting with indignation [zum Kotzen].”[5] So across the decades, it behoves us to remember, the particular rhythms and temporalities have been complicated, as have the resistances, silences, and impediments.

The call for historical accounting – coming to terms with Nazism – has never not been hotly contested. German collective memory has never not been divided. In common speech the dividedness and pluralities are flattened frequently enough into abstractions – into “Germany,” “the Germans,” “the German people,” the “German nation,” “German society,” and so forth. But of course, there are no “Germans” in that conflationary singular sense: only multiple and diverse categories of people who live inside the contemporary German national state or choose in other ways to affiliate there; and these are categories defined with and against each other along all sorts of dimensions, including gender, class, work, religion, sexuality, sport, music, culture more capaciously, region, patriotism, politics, and the contemporary notations of “race” and racialized cultural difference.

That being so, we need hardly be surprised by the present signs of a radical-nationalist recrudescence, one that stakes its self-understanding and claims to legitimacy on earlier 20th century referents, from the defensively patriotic and stealthfully apologetic to the aggressively recuperative, ethnocentrically exclusionary, and openly neo-Nazi. From Pegida to AfD and the post-Merkel flux of the CDU-CSU, these new streams of historically inflected nationalist reassertiveness are finding organized and agitational voice, with worrisomely widening resonance and ever-more vociferous tone. Since 2008-15, in an overdetermined political conjuncture, “crisis” now supplies the grammar of everyday political awareness, while our novel media environment enables the politics of radical-nationalist resentment to circulate very differently than before. This changes the stakes for performing, speaking, and imagining what the German nation might be.

If the earlier protocols of West and all-German publicness in the 80s and 90s had authorized the verdicts and commentaries of Jürgen Habermas and other high-cultural custodians of national memory, that image of the national past is now very differently distributed, subject to a much changed discursive economy. If previously a critical democratic public could be assembled with impressive consistency, it has since been discernibly slipping away, loosened from the firm and reassuring locations where the political ethics of Vergangenheitsbewältigung had anchored it. A less predictable, market-driven, and entertainment-oriented world of commodified cuture and new electronic communication has significantly dislodged the default cultural authority of those academic intellectuals and their journalist allies. Idealized commitment to reasoned exchange in a public sphere has been subsiding before the rapid-fire sensationalism of an entertainment and information society that seems ever-more bluntly indifferent to those ethico-political protocols so arduously fashioned into place. As in other seemingly dependable liberal democracies, including Britain and the United States, the freshly untrammeled circulation of ultra-nationalist, xenophobic, anti-Islamic, and violently stigmatizing anti-democratic rhetoric dismantles many earlier inhibitions, while shifting the overall political climate inexorably rightwards. This redraws the boundaries of the permissable. It changes what it seems legitimate to say and do.

Contests over Nazi legacies always took history as their ground, not by ritually invoking a consensually acknowledged official story, but by forcefully arguing the need for shaping an awareness that was new – on one side for a “post-Nazi” reclaiming of earlier pre-1914 pasts whose “healthy” meanings could finally free Germans from the Nazi-bequeathed moral millstone, on the other side for the civil courage precisely to own up to that burden.[6] If Michael Stürmer and other voices in Kohl’s chorus of national rehabilitation wanted an end to what they scornfully called the “guilt-obsession,” by returning Germans to the “normal” historical consciousness of a proudly owned earlier past, then their opponents insisted fervently on the foundational necessity of openly naming the break, of defining one’s future specifically against any of those older German patriotisms. Yet in each case “history” as such supplied the common ethico-philosophical field.

“In a land without history,” Stürmer portentously intoned, “whoever fills the memory, defines the concepts, and interprets the past, wins the future.”[7] About that underlying moral imperative and its pedagogies, Habermas certainly agreed. In his celebrated rejoinder, however, he righteously rejected any appeal to a pre-Nazi past, because an “unconditional opening” to democratic values had occurred only after 1945, comprising “the great intellectual achievement of our postwar era, of which precisely my own generation may be proud.” That could happen only through honestly renouncing the past: “The only patriotism that will not alienate us from the West is constitutional patriotism. Yet a commitment to universal constitutional principles anchored in conviction has only been possible in German national culture since – and because of – Auschwitz. Anyone who wishes to expunge the shame of this fact with facile talk of ‘guilt-obsession,’ anyone who wants to recall the Germans to a more conventional form of national identity, destroys the only reliable basis of our tie to the West.”[8]

This was a highly classical binary opposition: on the one side, an appeal to the emotional bonds of a deep cultural belonging, a virtuous national identity that was now finally recuperable by the labors of post-Nazi patriots like Stürmer; on the other side, Habermas’s civic conception of collective affiliation, one based not on ethno-cultural or linguistic identity, but around the newly acquired goods of constitutionalism, citizenship, and political reason. By the mid-1980s, after some years of open debate over the terms of German nationhood in the past, prominent pro-Kohl historians like Stürmer were advancing pointedly partisan claims for German identity in the present: while strictly freeing West Germany’s legitimacy from the odium of 1933-45, they urgently pressed an earlier pre-1914 heritage – contained not necessarily in the Kaiserreich as such, but in the deeper traditions, virtues, and accomplishments of the 19th century, including those specifically from Prussia, in avowed continuity with the deeper German histories that came before. In a time of “unrest, anxiety, identity crisis, and loss of direction,” they insisted, pride in the past could help hold West German society together, by supplying the much-needed cultural glue, what Stürmer called “moorings in the rapids of progress.”[9] Common to these arguments, no less than to those of their left-liberal and Social Democratic opponents, was the substrate of moral-political understanding. Here is Hagen Schulze, an impeccably conservative historian and general intellectual:

“The flight from history has come to an end . . . The more uncertain the present and the darker the future, the stronger the need for direction from the past. The light that brightens the jungle of the present, reveals the path markings, and permits orientation shines from the past, because there the experiences are rooted that make action possible today. For individuals, just as for peoples, there can be no future without history; and what is not worked through in the memory will reemerge as neurosis or hysteria.”[10]

Despite the polemical overheatedness of public memorial controversies down the years, including the frequent descent into incendiary apologetics and the rhetorical violence of so much radical-nationalist opinion, this ethico-political gravitas has been key to the cumulative common ground. In that light, the most notable feature of the current Hohenzollern controversy is its retreat onto far narrower legalistic terrain. Rather than grandiloquent claims about the centrality for political culture of a well-educated historical consciousness and responsibly conducted public pedagogy, we now see a very different kind of move: the doggedly litigious avarice of the already privileged and wealthy seeking restitution for historically squandered luxury goods – not only the treasure trove of artworks, furniture, rare books, and other antiquities, but even the royal residences where once upon a time they were housed. Aside from the tawdry comic-opera aspects of this episode – the curious spectacle of discredited dynasties and tin-pot aristocrats wanting to take up residence in long-lost and repurposed palaces – several points can be made.

First, the formal basis for adjudicating restitution claims under the 1994 law – whether or not the claimants or their families had lent the Nazi regime “substantial support” – remains both incredibly vague and narrowly drawn. However it might play in a court of law, for the historian it is neither appropriate nor remotely sufficient. Using that formula alone, no major analysis of political agency, influence, and causality in the Nazi ascent to power would ever be adequately conducted. Neither of the Hohenzollerns’ chosen experts can demonstrate otherwise. Measured by the highest standards of the historian’s evidentiary and contextualizing protocols, not much remains of Wolfgang Pyta’s speciously convoluted apologetics, as others have decisively shown. In comparison, Christopher Clark’s willingness to proceed on the basis of the assigned criterion (“substantial support” for Nazism) seems more surprising. Given all we now know about the wider field of political manuever and efficacy involved during 1932-33, let alone the intensively orchestrated political symbolics of the Day of Potsdam and other key moments of the process, Clark’s narrowly framed conclusion that the Crown Prince was a marginal and unsuccessful figure seems at best naïve. Even if construed minimally as the factional politics of coalition-building inside the broader Right, the wider responsibility for the political dynamics that maneuvered the Nazis into power was immeasurably more complicated and elaborate, as Clark surely knows. Choosing a legalistic ground of significance does our understanding of those events serious damage.

But second, that legalism marks a sad and sordid departure from the higher ground of ethico-philosophical argument and historical accounting that Vergangenheitsbewältigung so impressively maintained. It translates the latter into crass materialist terms, implying a reduction of politics to property rights and accumulation, to the getting and keeping of wealth. Consistent with this translation, the Hohenzollern claims were filed beneath the radar and behind the scenes, far from the scrutiny of any critical memorial public. This retreat behind doors conjures up another recent case, where the claims for restitution ran in a contrasting direction: namely, the scandal of Hildebrand Gurlitt’s clandestine stash of looted “degenerate art,” whose legal review and adjudication were likewise kept initially from the public eye. If by now familiar, these asymmetries remain nonetheless shocking: principled public accounting on the one side, hidden judicial proceedings on the other; but the brazen pursuit of royal and aristocratic restitution as against the bad-faith wrangling and legalistic foot-dragging that invariably accompany any case of reparations for Nazi crimes against property and persons. Indeed, broadening the discourse of restitution toward a bold and honorable politics of reparations would be no bad thing, given how keenly the ever-widening circles of German property-owners took advantage of Nazi plundering of the occupied European territories during 1939-45. Confining discussion around the 1994 restitution law purposefully limits the possible range of political questioning and ethical accounting.

Third, what does it mean at the start of this third decade of the 21st century that the Hohenzollerns’ rehabilitation becomes thinkable? Part of the answer must be distance and time: as 1933-45 recedes, the ground of remembering shifts accordingly, as do the cultural and political means of appropriation. As cultural critics have long observed, we inhabit a media environment where all kinds of public memory work, remembrance, and commemoration have become an inescapable feature of contemporary publicness and mass mediation, all the more so in our endlessly unfolding and ramped-up electronic age. Hyper-commodification in the consumer economies of entertainment, celebrity, and stylistic excess feeds a postmodern economy of signs in which the mobile arbitrariness of historical imagery and citation grows entirely promiscuous. Repurposing the past – by memes, pastiche, parody, and invention – is only ever a few clicks away.[11] Passage of generations also plays its part: by the 2010s, young adults no longer directly recalled any of those controversies of the 1980s and 90s, let alone the events of the Third Reich, World War II, and their aftermaths. With that distance, too, goes a drastically diminishing connection to anyone who directly lived through the Nazi years per se. So, in that case, how can Germany’s “ ‘normalization’ as a European nation in a global political economy” now be reconciled “with the preservation of memory”?

“Will it be possible, in the next decades, to incorporate into a sense of normality a sense of responsibility and ownership for the devastation that Germany produced in the years 1933 to 1945? Will it be possible to reconcile in some new concept of German citizenship both the specific memory of extermination committed by German Nazis with the always present collective memory of German suffering during the Second World War; to incorporate both the already built Neue Wache with its national memorial to all the victims of the war, and . . . the collective memorial (or memorials) to the specifically Jewish or non-‘Aryan’ victims of the Holocaust?”[12]

Under present political circumstances, these questions – what has been successfully worked through, what is being denied, how are the political languages being shaped – remain urgent as ever. The rise of far-Right political formations – first AfD (April 2013), then Pegida (October 2014) – regalvanized attention to Nazi legacies. The rising incidence of violence, in both language and physical attacks against Moslems, migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, Jews, and people of color, has decisively coarsened political life: if attacks on asylum centers spiked in 2015-16, far-Right violence continues finding other explosive forms, from the Walter Lübcke assassination (June 2019), through the Halle synagogue attack (October 2019), to the very recent killings in Hanau (February 2020).[13] Moreover, the boundary between mainstream conservatives and the far Right becomes disturbingly porous. In the wake of Merkel’s decision to step down, CDU prospects seem suddenly anything but clear; rudderless as ever, the SPD lacks any visionary and distinct ground of principle. The center manifestly ceases to hold. Forming a governing coalition with the CDU and FDP in Thuringia (February 2020), the AfD has now breached for the first time the barrier keeping it from legitimacy, opening the prospects for the CDU’s generalized cooperation with an overtly racialist and neo-fascist partner.[14]

The return of and to “history” in the redemptive sense intended by Hagen Schulze presumes exactly this political elision: earlier German histories may not only to be rendered harmless, but should come back into contemporary alignment, keyed affirmatively to the present, even directly reharmonized. But rather than welcoming them back to the fold, we need to continue interrogating the Hohenzollerns, honestly and exactingly, as before. The democratic breadth and self-confidence of the critical memorial consciousness impressively realized during the final third of the 20th century remains as vital as ever. The Hohenzollern imbroglio brings together the familiar chorus of principled and combatively critical historians in the pages of the same organs of opinion (Zeit, FAZ, Spiegel, Süddeutsche). Adjusting for generations, this is recognizably the constellation of 1985-86. But the public sphere is much different than before. Conversation also happens elsewhere. Where are the younger voices? Still more to the point, where are the women? Last but not least, where are the Turkish-Germans and other minority standpoints? How would the Historikerstreit be fought today? What are the analogous grounds of disputation? Who should be the leading voices? What should be the preferred outcome?

First published in: Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft 68 (2020), 4. S. 348–355

Geoffrey Howard Eley is a historian of Germany. He received his PhD from the University of Sussex in 1974. He has taught at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor since 1979. He now serves as the Karl Pohrt Distinguished University Professor of Contemporary History at Michigan and is member of the scientific committee of „Lernort Garnisonkirche“

[1] See Zadie Smith’s eloquent reflections on this theme, “What Do We Want History To Do For Us?” New York Review of Books, 27 February 2020, 10-14. The astonishingly obtuse response of French and British politicians and pundits regarding legacies of colonialism whenever racial violence disturbs the contemporary public sphere painfully confirms Smith’s critique. See Geoff Eley, “The Trouble with ‘Race’: Migrancy, Cultural Difference, and the Remaking of Europe,” in Rita Chin, Heide Fehrenbach, Geoff Eley and Atina Grossmann, After the Nazi Racial State: Difference and Democracy in Germany and Europe (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009), 137-81.
[2] This a highly truncated list. For the inception in 1978, for example, we might easily add the Filbinger affair and the scandal surrounding Hellmut Diwald’s Geschichte der Deutschen (Frankfurt: Ullstein, 1978). For full detail, see Geoff Eley, “Nazism, Politics, and the Image of the Past: Thoughts on the West German Historikerstreit, 1986-1987,” Past and Present, 121 (1988), 171-208.
[3] See Jacob S. Eder, Holocaust Angst: The Federal Republic of Germany and American Holocaust Memory since the 1970s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 208; Martin Walser, Erfahrungen beim Verfassen einer Sonntagsrede: Friedenspreis der Deutschen Buchhandels 1998 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998), 17-18.
[4] Dirk Moses, German Intellectuals and the Nazi Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 24.
[5] Joschka Fischer, “Identität in Gefahr!” in Thomas Kluge (ed.), Grüne Politik: Eine Standortbestimmung (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1984), 28-29.
[6] During the 1987 elections, the stakes were made abundantly clear. “It’s high time that we emerged from the shadow of the Third Reich, “ Franz-Josef Strauss complained in one of his standard stump speeches: “German history can’t be reduced to the 12 years of Adolf Hitler or at the most to the years 1914-1945. German history can’t be presented as an endless chain of mistakes and crimes, and our youth thereby robbed of the chance to recover some genuine backbone among our people and to the outside world.” Franz-Josef Strauss, “Mehr aufrechten Gang,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 14 January 1987.
[7] Gordon A. Craig, “The War of the German Historians,” New York Review of Books, 15 January 1987, 17. In his own speeches of the time, Kohl echoed Stürmer exactly: “Whoever steals the younger generation’s historical understanding also steals the future.” See “Lust und Leid an der Geschichte: Vom Untergang mit der Vergangenheit: Meinungen, Tendenzen, Analysen,” Das Parlament, 20-21 (17-24 May 1986), 13.
[8] Jürgen Habermas, “Eine Art Schadensabwicklung: Die apologetischen Tendenzen in der deutschen Zeitgeschichtsshcreibung,” Die Zeit, 11 July 1986.
[9] Michael Stürmer, Dissonanzen des Fortschritts: Essays über Geschichte und Politik in Deutschland (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1986), 276. The first quotation is from Hagen Schulze’s submission for the hearings concerning the creation of the Museum for German History in West Berlin. See note 10 below.
[10] See Manfred Asendorf, “Wie man dem Geschichtsbewußtsein der Bundesbürger auf die Sprünge helfen will,” in Die Grünen (ed.), Wider die Entsorgung der deutschen Geschichte: Streitschrift gegen die geplanten Museen in Berlin (W) und Bonn (Bonn, 1986), 23.
[11] See here Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, Hi Hitler! How the Nazi Past Is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015). The so-called “Hitler Rants” – thousands of parodies using a pivotal scene from the film Der Untergang (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004) – have been one now-classic illustration.
[12] Atina Grossmann, “The ‘Goldhagen Effect’: Memory, Reception, and Responsibility in the New Germany,” in Geoff Eley (ed.), The “Goldhagen Effect”: History, Memory, Nazism – Facing the German Past (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), 128-29. Of course, two further decades have elapsed since Grossmann posed those questions.
[13] Recorded attacks on asylum centers spiked in 2015-16, rising from 69 in 2013 through 199 in 2014, to over a thousand in 2015, and even more the following year. They then dipped to a high plateau during the intervening years, while far-Right political violence diversified. See Ben Mauk, “Diary,” London Review of Books, 22 September 2016, 42-43; Joshua Hammer, “Can Germany Cope with the Refugees,” New York Review of Books, 18 August 2016.
[14] This ground of potential coalitioning, which under exceptional conditions of political emergency can bring mainstream conservatives, radical-nationalists, and far-Right extremists together, is the likeliest scenario for the far Right’s entry into government, rather than the latter’s winning of a direct electoral majority. U.S. Republican endorsement of the Trump administration signifies one convergence of this type, the Brexiteers’ capture of the British Conservative Party another.

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