Remembering Ambivalent Pasts:


Think piece on: M.A     Berg, Commemoration versus Vergangenheitsbewältigung: Contextualizing Austria’s Gedenkjahr 2005” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); R. G. Moeller, “War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany,” in American Historical Review,101/4 (October 1996), 1008-1048; R. Schulze, “The Politics of Memory: Flight and Expulsion of German Populations after the Second World War and German Collective Memory,” in National Identities, December 2006), 367-382.


World War II in Memory –Selectivity, Accountability and Functionality

A great thinker once remarked: “the human mind is the most deceitful and twisted of all things. It is incurable. It cannot be understood!” That is the way it is with human memory –most of us tend to remember things that are comfortable to revisit and shun others that may cause pain or open a flood of bitterness thus reopening old hostilities. At the same time, past mistakes are readily buried and glossed over. This is an all too basic human inclination. It gets even more complex when it involves collective memories pitted against other group counter-memories on which high stakes ride –for example, claims to geographical regions or conceding atrocious behavior especially when it involves the massive slaughter visited upon European Jews during World War II. Needless to say, the truth is elusive as such counter-pasts and uneasy memories are plied to make them comfortable, palatable and useable. This then, is what these three essays deal with –that is, the reconstruction, modification, instrumentalization, manipulation, ritualization or exploitation of various memories of the Second World War.

The Berg and Moeller articles are closely related as they both deal, respectively, with the difficult process in Austria and Germany, of coming to terms with World War II experiences. In the Berg article, Austrians of the war generation, especially operating within the opfermythos or opferdoktrin encouraged in the Moscow Declaration of 1943, see themselves as victims of the Hitler regime as opposed to being co-perpetrators of war crimes. Yet, while this is the dominant narrative after the end of the war, Berg argues that a cultural shift starts to take place first in gedenkjahr 1988 but, more so, the fiftieth war anniversary in 2005. The source of this unsparing confrontation with the past is attributed to a younger generation that did not participate in the war.[1] Specifically, the Social Democratic Party’s preoccupation with “braune Flecken –former Nazis integrated into the party after its reconstitution in the spring of 1945-” is what inspires a nationwide critical self-scrutiny.[2] The details of this intraparty “exorcism” in two different commissioned studies –which came concurrently or close at the heels of critical appraisals of party figures’ role by scholars and the media- is what this article is about. Putting these two studies in perspective, then, becomes Berg’s critical contribution to the historiography on Austrian memory. He demonstrates how they removed the deadlock represented by Gerhard Botz (1987) –who was willing to risk a critical confrontation with Austria’s past- and Heidemarie Uhl (1992) –who was apprehensive about the difficulties arising in such an undertaking.

The first limited study was undertaken by historians such as Maria Mesner, Margit Reiter and Theo Venus under the auspices of the University of Vienna’s Institut für Zeitgeschichte and the Karl Renner Institut, the Social Democratic Party think tank (p.57). As the first seed in an honest process to deal with the past, however, it exhibited double standards since it focused more on post-1945 restitution of social democratic property. As such, the party’s own losses “remained a far more pressing concern than (its concern) for Jewish victims” and “the SPÖ hesitated in adjustment of restitution for Jewish victims when it saw its own claims threatened.” The other groundbreaking contribution to Austrian historiography on war memory came when Bund Sozialistischer Akademiker, Intellektueller und Künstler (BSA) commissioned a comprehensive examination of braune Flecken within the SPÖ. This included historians such as Wolfgang Neugebauer and Peter Schwarz –“their conclusion was a scathing indictment: wholesale courtship of hardly repentant ex-Nazis into the BSA had taken place ….” (p.58). The third study went beyond creating the shockwaves of the second: coordinated by Maria Mesner,” it “created a benchmark for broader critical self-study with implications for the Volkspartei and the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ. Berg was a member of this study that made unfettered use of the party’s executive board minutes thus making public material that had hitherto been closely guarded secret in the report –Entnazifizierung (2005).[3] The author ends the summary of what this study entailed with remarks fending off criticism from Eva Blimlinger that the revelations it offered were too little, too late. He argues that social-cultural processes that catalyze transitions from accepted communicative memory to forms of cultural memory capable of challenging communicated assumptions are not exactly, tractable (p.64). Which is true as that is a long-drawn process that needs time. What he does not say, however, is that new information furnished by these three studies will in the future continue to inform future generation’s cultural memory vis-à-vis passed-down memory. As such, while the opfermythos or opferdoktrin are somewhat rigidly entrenched in Austrian World War II memory, they are not entirely beyond informed revision. As Berg notes, the SPÖ party leader’s braune Flecken challenge was a significant turning point in macro-level Vergangenheitsbewältigung, with the potential of informing cultural memory along the lines of the admission of responsibility made by Vranitzky and Klestil. While the opfermythos has not been entirely jettisoned, following various studies, a form of cultural memory –since the vicious Gedenkjahr debates- has been embraced that actively encourages critical examination of the past (p.69).

Unlike Berg who attributes the opening up of debate over the opfermythos to various political events such as the controversy accompanying Kurt Waldheim’s election as federal president; the emergence of Jörg Haider as leader of the FPÖ and the regeneration of the far-right among others, Moeller does not make any attempts to find similar explanations occasioning the scrutiny of memories of German victimization (p.1034). His article describes “how in the first postwar decade the stories of expellees from eastern Germany and Eastern Europe and German prisoners of war imprisoned in the Soviet Union were crafted into rhetorics of victimization in the arena of public policy and in the writing of contemporary history’” (p.1013). But perhaps the most important point that he makes, which is not entirely unique, however, is the manner in which focus on German suffering at the end of the Third Reich was done without assessing responsibility for its origins. What emerges then is an abbreviated story of National Socialism in which all Germans were ultimately victims of a war that Hitler started but everyone lost (pp.1013, 1018, 1019, & 1026).[4] This had the effect of obliterating the hierarchy between German and non-German victims.[5] And, like in the case of cultural memory in Austria, while the German narrative of victimization in the hands of the allies has been challenged by a focus on Nazi crimes and victimization of others by Germans, it has not been jettisoned. It is this contested memory –featuring the juxtaposition of Nazi crimes and the holocaust with German victimization- that Moeller takes issue with. It begins with the manner in which (in the 1950s) citizens of the Federal Republic avoided all memories of the years of Nazi rule or their unwillingness to confront German accountability for the National Socialist past –the work of the Mitscherlichs (1967) was the first to challenge this state of affairs prodding Germans to own up this uncomfortable past. Moeller observes that the challenge posed by the Mitscherlichs for Germans to pay the high psychic costs did not mean that a selective recall translated to collective amnesia (pp.1012, 1013).

In essence, the Mitscherlins were attempting to counter various group narratives of victimhood that had been sanctioned by the West German state at the end of the war –for example, the 11, 000 accounts of expellees in the Theodor Schieder project (pp.1023-1025). This eight-volume work documents the expulsion of Germans from East-Central Europe and elaborates the experiences of Germans as they fled before the Red Army leaving their homes in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia and parts of eastern Germany that became Poland (p.1023). This constitutes a massive historiographical obstacle standing in the way of critical self-scrutiny with regard to World War II. To make it even more daunting to would be challengers of this “myth” the federal government followed this up with another extensive collection of testimonies from prisoners of war –the Erich Manschke project, which involved 45, 000 accounts (p.1024).[6] These two projects were challenged by studies that were thoroughgoing in their examination of German culpability. In the case of West Germany, the source of critical histories was the mountain of evidence of German atrocities generated by the Nuremberg Tribunal. The leading exponent of German accountability was the project undertaken by the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, which drew on this documentation and other sources. Moeller regrets, however, that no attempt was made to elicit first hand narratives to be a record of Jewish voices similar to the descriptions of expellees in the Schieder project.

Moeller notes that in the 1960s and 1970s, West Germans insisted on providing a more complex account of the National Socialist regime and the war. At this time, he says, the past in which Germans were victims receded, displaced by a history of the Third Reich in which Nazi atrocities took center stage. Like Berg, he attributes this to the “coming of age of a group of scholars more likely to have experienced Nazism as adolescents than as young adults and largely trained after 1945” (p. 1034). It is this group of young scholars who turned the older, conservative Sonderweg on its head –explaining, not the triumph of Germany as a major power and a preeminent Kulturstaat in Europe- but the peculiar route from an authoritarian Kaiserreich to an authoritarian Third Reich (p.1034).[7] Further, this honest account analyzed popular bases of Nazi support and the successes of the state’s efforts to invade and transform German society; emphasized the virtual absence of German resistance to Nazi racialism, terrorism and charted the history of German anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jews (p.1034). It is rather unfortunate that Moller does not, however, dwell much on this significant shift as Berg does in his article. Instead he turns to examine sources cultural memory of the war in West Germany in popular culture –films, plays, novels etc. He nevertheless points to the Wende, which was an unfortunate lease of life to the old immediate post-World War II myths of victimhood lent credence by the Cold War atmosphere. For example, it is difficult to read without some measure of disgust what President Reagan had to say when honouring the German dead at Bitburg (p.1041). Towards the end of the article he does turn his attention to Historkerstreit which featured senior male historians in the Federal Republic. This refers to a scholarly controversy over the place and significance of National Socialism and the Holocaust in the narrative of modern German history (p.1041). Underlining this massive production of knowledge was the search for an alternative contemporary German identity –nevertheless, the old myth of German victimhood, once again, was given a lease of life by historians such as Hillgruber. At the same time, however, in this paper wars, this narrative had entered its last phase as Hillgruber was chastised by scholars such as Saul Friedlander for equating the Holocaust and the expulsion. Others like Fest lamented that the public sphere had not yet emerged from the shadow cast by Hitler and the crimes committed under him. It is Habermas who perhaps makes the single most important contribution: he questioned the motives of “‘whoever insists on mourning collective fates, without distinguishing between culprits and victims’” (p.1044). This, then, according to Moeller is what cleared the way for the emergence of critical observers such as Karl Jaspers and Eugen Kogon among others. Suffice it to say that Moeller’s article is a detailed catalogue of the milestones of a nation caught in the throes of a difficult past bargaining how to deal with it. Both Berg and Moeller make a significant contribution tracing the evolution of World War II memory in Austria and Germany in respective historiographies –Schulze, not so much.

The Schulze article deals with the way in which the unique of special memories of expellees from the east were conveniently submerged within overarching German Democratic Republic’s political aims as well as an outright attempt to deny whatever claims that made upon it. This article complements Moeller’s since, this group is treated differently in the German Federal Republic –there, expellee narratives are accommodated in general German narratives of victimhood in public memory.[8] To be sure, and in the interest of concision, what happens in the GDR is the exact opposite. Schulze’s article is important because it deals with the difficult question of how the memories of expellees who have until now been able to visit but not resettle in their former homes in the east can be validated without it being seen as revanchist. Of course, this evokes the similar impasse in Austria as discussed by Berg –featuring Botz and Uhl. The key to this as all these three authors agree is developing a critical, complex and comprehensive rendition that validates the experiences of all groups of society (p.380). Schulze’s work is based on interviews with 60 refugees and expellees, which raises questions about the methodology used by the writer in view of the fact that there were in their millions –how representative is his sample of interviewees? Schulze also uses expellee biographies and popular works such as novels prominently citing the work of Grass who deals with this central question of linking German victimhood to the beginning of tyranny in Germany in the early 1930s. Suffice it to say that these three articles drive home the fact that history-writing is not a value-free exercise or risk-free: historians have a pivotal role to play in eliminating antagonizing myths that only forebode ill. For that reason, they need to walk the moral high road and play their role as objective healers of utterly deceptive and “sick” human minds that are prone to distorting facts.

[1] The new generation felt confident in the fact that they could focus their critical gaze upon their (grand)parent’s generation without the burden of being directly complicit M.A Berg, “Commemoration versus Vergangenheitsbewältigung: Contextualizing Austria’s Gedenkjahr 2005” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) p.57. The second generation of Austrians, since the end of the war, was also unwilling to accept as unquestionable received communicative memory from the first (p.59).

[2] There are other significant ice-breaking moves towards an eventual admission of responsibility inherent in the remarks of German leaders Chancellors Franz Vranitzky and Viktor Klima and President Thomas Klestil, Ibid., p.53.

[3] This report details the party leadership’s tactical and organizational perspectives on the “Nazi question” after 1945 with an eye to Cold War developments …” (p.62) among other enquiries of equal import.

[4] “The history of National Socialism and the what that both expellees and POWs told began only at the moment when the Red Army appeared …,” R. G. Moeller, “War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany,” in American Historical Review,101/4 (October 1996), p.1026.

[5] Here it is important to note that in most cases, individual stories from the eastern front by German POWs and expellee’s claims that the suffering suffered under Communists was comparable in its horror only to what Jews had suffered under Nazis –that is, alluding to a moral equivalence of suffering, Moeller, (pp. 1009, 1019, 1027 and 1028).

[6] This project resulted in at least twenty-two books on the experiences of Prisoners of War (p.1025).

[7] It is important, once again, to note that Moeller attributes this shift in cultural memory to what he refers to as “a generation of radical students, children of the rubble who had little or no direct experience of National Socialism…” (p.1034).

[8] According to R. Schulze, “The Politics of Memory: Flight and Expulsion of German Populations after the Second World War and German Collective Memory,” in National Identities, December 2006) p.371, personal and group histories in the GDR were widely disregarded –they had, after all, to integrate into the postwar polity, economy and society without their memories and experiences getting a proper place in a common narrative of the area that received them. Validation and accommodation of expellee narratives in West Germany translated to a revanchist agenda as illustrated by the use in schools, of maps that continued to show Germany with the borders of 31st December 1937 and labeling the territories east of the Oder-Neisse line as temporarily under Polish administration (p.370).

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Nicholas Githuku

Assistant Professor, African History at York College, CUNY
Nicholas Githuku is a Ph.D. holder in African Studies. His research interests include: War & Peace Studies in general; Conflict and Security and mediation in general and trends in the Great Lakes the Horn Regions of Africa; Memorialization of War; Development studies (Sub-Saharan Africa): Postcolonial/Contemporary Kenyan Politics; European History (1648 to 1900); First and Second World Wars; and Post-1989 Eastern Europe (Balkans) History.