Book Review: Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanies
American University, Bulgaria.
Herf, Jeffrey. Divided Memory: the Nazi Past in the Two Germanies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Divided Memory investigates the ways that the Third Reich was remembered in East and West Germany. Its central questions include why memories of the Nazi experience came to assume a prominent place in the two countries' mainstream political rhetoric in the first place; what led to the vastly dissimilar directions whereby the GDR and FRG came to terms with the past; and in what ways and to what extent it is possible to deal with a problematic past (genocide) in both democratic regimes and dictatorships. (373-374).
Herf's multiple restorations thesis questions the argument that Germany's approach to justice and national memory was exclusively the result of Allied occupation and importation of . . . foreign ideas about liberal democracy and communism(4). Herf argues that the direction of both states' post-1945 debates confronting the past stemmed from pre-1933 political traditions. In that context, though Allied occupation (and the Cold War) were of immense significance, domestic political and ideological trends were decisive in creating post-WWII historical narratives (5-8).
Accordingly, the East German political establishment's reluctance to accept the centrality of anti-Semitism to the Nazi worldview stemmed from their Marxist perspective. Understanding Nazism as capitalism's final degeneration, seeing it predominantly in terms of economic forces, they interpreted the persecution of Jews as a theoretically and ideologically side issue. This allowed the marginalization, even repression, of the memory of the Holocaust in East Germany (157-161). West Germany's greater willingness to nourish remembrance of the Holocaust was the result of key political leaders' deep anti-Nazi convictions, their own wartime sufferings and consequent emotional solidarity with Jewish suffering. The CDU limited de-Nazification to preserve a fragile democracy, but Herf argues that restitution payments and political support for Israel were limited but still significant expressions of the Adenauer regime's willingness to condemn anti-Semitism in its essence (267-268; 280-300).
Herf investigates the relationships between public narratives and historical memory on one side, and political stability on the other. In the German experience, Herf identifies crucial requirements that had to be satisfied to convince the public of the breadth and depth of past crimes and the nation's collective responsibility. The first is general acceptance of the absolute unambiguity of defeat, the complete discrediting of the former regime and ideology, precluding any revival under the auspices of a stab-in-the-back legend. The second is authenticating the nature and extent of crimes committed. In both Germanys, the post-war trials organized by the occupying forces did exactly this (206-207). The fact that both factors were satisfied only as a result of postwar occupation is highly indicative. This seems to contradict Herf's conclusions concerning a mutually beneficial relationship between democracy and de-Nazification.
Herf's final judgment is that the ethical failure of East German policy concerning historical memory and West Germany's relative success proves that honest effort to face the Nazi past was inseparable from the development of democracy in Germany. Adenauer refused to undertake serious de-Nazification, but political pluralism enabled minority voices to remain influential. Those voices led to the subsequent revisiting of the Third Reich's crimes, and the West German public's greater willingness to face these dilemmas in the late 1950s and 1960s (390). In East Germany, the suppression of political alternatives froze official rhetoric regarding German responsibility for WWII and the Holocaust.
Throughout his study, Herf convincingly demonstrates that the West German public in the immediate postwar years was highly reluctant to accept a public memory policy even slightly less conservative than Adenauer's. Yet Herf condemns the Adenauer government for failing to confront more strongly the Nazi past and not demand greater public recognition and justice along with democracy (379). But West Germany's choice of democracy over dictatorship inherently implied limitations on the extent of de-Nazification. In the context of democratic elections and freedom of speech in the late 1940s and early 1950s, an insistence on justice and memory almost certainly would have lead to political destabilization and radicalization. Only after the first shocks of the postwar era passed was it realistic to expect an increased public willingness to seriously discuss collective responsibility. Herf denounces dictatorship as an option for governing a dangerous people, but perhaps overestimates the ability of fragile democracies to confront the past.
The cornerstones of successful de-Nazification were achieved under the less-than-democratic conditions of the Allied occupation of Germany. Accordingly, Herf's work encourages reconsideration of the feasibility of enlightened dictatorship through international protectorate as the most appropriate system of governance immediately following genocide. In such a political setting, memory and justice can be shaped without delays or denials, as neither are restricted by considerations of democratic political stability. The democratization process is gradual, following the pace of the public's increasing awareness of and willingness to honestly confront the past. But the possibility of political and moral degeneration along the lines of the East German experience remains the ever-present risk of such experiments.
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