Germany, the Holocaust, and the post-colonial challenge

by Norbert Frei

Illustration by Jens Bonnke

On this year's Holocaust Memorial Day, Norbert Frei, Chair of the foundation's Academic Council was invited to deliver the Alfred Landecker Memorial Lecture, describing the complex history of Germany’s handling of the Nazi past as a project of societal self-enlightenment.

It is an honor for me to deliver the Alfred Landecker Memorial Lecture, marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It just so happens that two important historical anniversaries overlap this year. Both are determined by societal reflection and political decision.

One is the 27th of January, when in 1945 the advancing Red Army entered the gates of Auschwitz. Auschwitz was not the first of the German death camps to be liberated. But it was the largest, and since 1996 its liberation officially marks Germany’s “Day of Remembrance of the Victims of National Socialism.” And in 2005, the United Nations declared this date to be an “International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust.”

The other important anniversary we mark this month is that of the Wannsee Conference. It is now 80 years since that infamous meeting took place on January 20th in a villa on the Wannsee Lake in Berlin. Top SS leaders and Nazi bureaucrats deliberated about the so-called “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” which was already under way in the occupied parts of the Soviet Union and in Poland. But there was still some need to coordinate further steps, particularly regarding the German Jews. With respect to them, the Wannsee Conference stood for a change of policy: from expulsion to deportation and ghettoization and finally annihilation. Adolf Eichmann’s minutes of the meeting, rediscovered only in 1946/47, are the monstrous document of a genocide in the making – a genocide which few people immediately grasped and which we call – if only since the late 1970s – the Holocaust.

Maybe you can already see where I am going here: I would like to argue that historical events, but certainly historical commemorations, are not simply “there.” In that sense, nothing is fixed forever, and everything is subject to interpretation in a rather dynamic process. In other words: Society’s readiness to commemorate comes and goes, and changes. The meaning of events can be disputed; memory can even be erased.

Today, however, I am not concerned with abstract concepts of memory and commemoration. Rather, I am interested in concrete remembrance of the Holocaust – and with how German society has dealt with its Nazi past since 1945.

Over decades, while not with enthusiasm at first, Germans have been facing this history. And I believe there will not be, nor should there be, an end to this discussion which in the beginning was called the “Vergangenheitsbewältigung,” literally “Coming to terms with the past.” Nowadays, the usual term is Erinnerungskultur, culture of remembrance. Whatever one calls it, this German grappling with the Nazi past has come under new criticism. Not, that it had been ever uncontested. But this time, the opposition not only comes from old Nazis or neo-rightwing apologists. It comes from a certain leftist strand.

Interestingly, this new criticism first took shape on another symbolic date: May 23 last year, the 72nd anniversary of the enactment of West Germany’s Constitution. On that day, Australian historian Dirk Moses announced on an Internet portal that it was high time that Germans be done with what he called their historical “catechism.” He was referring to a supposed dogma of remembrance imposed on the Germans in the late 1980s. During these years, left-leaning West German intellectuals allegedly had tossed out traditional ideas of national honor and replaced them with a doctrine that saw the Holocaust as a “breach of civilization” and a “sacred trauma.” According to Moses, these new intellectual “high priests” strived for the recognition of “American, British and Israeli elites.” Allegedly, these intellectuals wanted to secure the reputation of a united Germany in the family of nations. As a result of this, Moses claims, it has become a heresy in Germany to draw comparisons between the Holocaust and other genocides, forms of racism and colonial crimes.

Moses’ scornful tone has earned him some critique, in particular his frequent use of religious metaphors – like “priestly censors,” “salvation history,” “resurrection” and a “Christianized narrative of redemption” to which he said an entire generation of Germans had been subjected. But quite a few historians and cultural studies scholars ignored his language and praised his argument. As a professor of global history and human rights history at Chapel Hill, Moses has been recognized as an activist with a post-colonial agenda.

I.

I would like to rebut Moses’ claim that so-called “German elites” instrumentalize the Holocaust in order to “hide” other historical crimes. His account of how the supposed “catechism” arose is full of short cuts and distortions. So allow me to sketch the long history of how Germany has dealt with its Nazi past. This journey began in the final weeks of the war, when Allied troops confronted Germans with the criminal reality of the concentration camps in their own backyards, and it has continued ever since.

“We knew about these things”: This was the key sentence in a speech delivered in November 1952 by German Federal President Theodor Heuss. Heuss was trying, once again, to counter the tendency in post-Nazi German society to ignore or forget. He was speaking at the dedication of a memorial in Bergen-Belsen, which had been established not on German initiative but at the behest of an international commission which included survivors and had been organized by the British Land Commissioner in Lower Saxony. Like many Germans, Heuss argued, he had “first heard the name Belsen in the spring of 1945, on the BBC.” But even if he hadn’t known that name before, he knew that as a German he must be able to throw off the chains of Nazi ideology and “recognize the full atrocity of the crimes committed here by Germans. (...) Nobody, but nobody can take away” the resulting shame, he said.

Notably, there was a speaker who preceded Heuss – Nahum Goldmann, representing the World Jewish Congress. Goldmann was probably the first in postwar Germany to focus on the central role of Eastern European killing sites. Heuss picked up on Goldmann, describing the situation in Bergen-Belsen just before liberation, where “those Jews who were somehow still alive” were meant to be “starved to death or allowed to succumb to disease.” Heuss concluded that there “something new had happened” – which was actually quite close to Hannah Arendt’s famous later words “This should not have happened.”

In Germany, and in the entire non-Jewish world for that matter, what Winston Churchill in 1941 had called a “crime without a name” remained so until the early 1960s. It was only then that the term “Auschwitz” was introduced as a metaphor for the genocide, replacing the terms of the perpetrators, like “Final Solution”. In other words, Heuss’ confession in Bergen-Belsen stood in direct contrast to the popular mood: In the early 1950s, most Germans wanted to see themselves as victims, whether of Hitler, of the Allied bombings, of flight and expulsion, of de-nazification or of a “victor’s justice.” If there was a phase for which the “catechism” argument seems halfway plausible, it was those years: years, in which critical reflection of the past came from above and the unwillingness to do so came from below.

This changed toward the end of the 1950s. Fifteen years after the end of the Third Reich, there was a growing movement toward research and education about its crimes. In universities and in public discourse, this project of enlightenment directly challenged many of the apologetic excuses printed in popular memoirs by Wehrmacht generals and Hitler loyalists. The critical voices of intellectuals like Adorno, writers like Grass or Böll and young historians from the generation of the so-called Flakhelfer, the former anti-aircraft workers born around 1930, grew louder.

The “hushing up” of personal history was challenged at the very latest with the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial (1963-1965). The social philosopher Hermann Lübbe, born in 1926, described this silence - and also justified it - two decades later as essential to the functioning of West German post-war society. Since the mid-1960s, when the generation born around 1945 (later called the 68ers) followed the Flakhelfer onto the public stage, one could no longer refer to a “top down” control over the confrontation with history. Particularly within the protest movement, there was a growing conviction that the unresolved past was poisoning West German democracy.

In general, however, history was not such a big issue in the 70s. But the topic came back with full force in January 1979, with the West German broadcast of the American TV series “Holocaust.” The subtitle of the book produced in its wake was “A nation in shame” – and ashamed it was. This broadcast triggered a research boom in regional and everyday Nazi history and, even more important, a grassroots history workshop movement. This was largely driven by the 68ers, whose attention to “forgotten victims” and “authentic sites” of Nazi crimes laid the foundations for today's memorial landscape in Germany.

In the 1980s and 90s, Germany’s confrontation with Nazi history was led from below. When the state stepped in – for example on major anniversaries – there would usually be conflicts and public opposition, particularly because of the conservative remembrance politics of chancellor Helmut Kohl – who by the way held a PhD in history. By contrast, Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker earned the highest recognition, at home and abroad, for his speech on May 8, 1985, marking the 50th anniversary of the end of War in Europe. No one seemed to care that Weizsäcker at some important points just followed his predecessors, for example when he adopted Heuss’ “knowing” about the persecution of the Jews, or Walter Scheel’s use of the term “liberation.”

The years after 1989, when Germans were supposedly prescribed a national “catechism,” were in fact a period marked by the liveliest public debates. We need only consider the decade’s most important events and controversies in the politics of remembrance: from Parliament President Philipp Jenninger’s historically correct but rhetorically unfortunate speech in 1988 marking the 50th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom, to the release in Germany of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1994); from the exhibition about the Wehrmacht crimes and the debate about Daniel Goldhagen’s book on “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” up to and including Martin Walser’s 1998 Frankfurt Book Fair Peace Prize speech, in which he referred to Auschwitz as a “moral cudgel” held against Germany.

None of these confrontations with history were imposed by an ominous “elite.” Rather, they expressed Germany’s search for self in an age of still growing global Holocaust awareness.

At just about the same time, the German government introduced a federal “memorials concept.” Over the past two decades, this framework has provided support not only for the major concentration camp memorials (and sites related to the East German communist dictatorship) but also for many smaller sites of Nazi history that had been identified and preserved by activists. These institutions have come to rely on state financial support for their educational offerings. But that does not mean that they are beholden to government directives. Nor does it mean that they can succeed without ongoing support from civil society.

Responding to Dirk Moses, German historian Jacob Eder (born in 1979) described how profoundly his generation was influenced by the memory debates of the 1990s. And he called it “almost cynical” to suggest that he had been urged “to follow a 'catechism'” at the time. As Eder put it, “[T]he wider German public was just beginning … to break free of that narrow focus on the German context, and to [look at] the impacts of Nazi persecution and extermination policies in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.” The same was true, as Eder correctly notes, for archive-based regional Holocaust research, which really took off in Germany and around the world only in the 1990s.

II.

According to the post-colonial critique, all of this should now come to an end. The attention given to the Holocaust in the past three decades in Germany and the western world should make “room” for other, neglected genocides.

Now, it is true that the Germans (like most Europeans) are only just becoming interested in the crimes of their colonial past. It is also true that the recurrent debates about looted art of the colonial era are gaining much public resonance. The debates about the Benin Bronzes or about the furnishings of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin point to a new direction. The same goes for Germany’s recent recognition of its genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples in what today is part of Namibia. While earlier German governments had refused to use the term genocide, this changed last summer.

So there is definitely change afoot in the culture and policy of remembrance. This is another reason why Moses’ charges ring so false. If one takes a closer look at his objections against the alleged “German Catechism,” it becomes clear that he is not interested at all, for example, in improving educational work in a post-migrant society. No: His goal is rather to establish new rules. He wants to place the Holocaust in its “historical context,” that is, to relativize it in relation to other genocides. At the same time, he wants antisemitism to be understood as a mere sub-category of an omnipresent racism. And under no circumstances can he accept that antisemitism might disguise itself as anti-Zionism. (Here one needs to know that the argument that some anti-Zionism is antisemitic was one of the reasons for the resolution with which the German Bundestag opposed the BDS movement and its boycott of Israel in May 2019.)

As already indicated, Moses’s mix of crude arguments and activism is applauded by advocates of left-wing identity politics, but also by the identitarian New Right. His piece had barely gone online when Martin Sellner posted a triumphant headline on the homepage of the right-wing magazine Sezession: “Post-colonial attacks on the ‘Myth of Auschwitz.’” Borrowing from Sigmund Freud, Sellner diagnosed a “narcissism of small differences” within what he called the “ethnomasochistic” camp. According to Sellner, the infighting between proponents of “the German religion of guilt” creates a nice foundation for the “right-wing task” of “overcoming the cult of guilt.”

While Moses doesn’t seem to be bothered much by this applause from the right, some of his supporters felt annoyed. They complain that certain critics of the Catechism argument, reflecting a “white majority society,” “risk” putting Moses “into the neighborhood of the intellectual discourse of Germany’s extreme right.” As if it’s the fault of the critics, and not Moses’ own doing.

Unlike Germany, where the buzz about Moses’ “catechism” quickly spilled over into mainstream media, in the US the discussion played out on specialist portals and on Twitter. On the anti-New Right website The New Fascism Syllabus the American historian Helmut Walser Smith identified parallels between the “cult of guilt” theory of the radical right and Moses’ claim of a national “redemptive philosemitism.” Walser Smith: “To narrate Germany’s turn to its past as an expectation of national salvation … dramatically foreshortens two aspects of that turn: how it happened on the ground, and the complexity of the historical landscape. It also makes national memory into a kind of religious war, which it is not.”

According to Moses, it is now getting harder for what he calls the “religious guardians” of German remembrance politics to “discipline the population,” given the passage of time and demographic changes. To me, this supports not only the most perfidious claims of the New Right. It also is astonishingly malicious toward all those who have been striving for decades for historical-critical enlightenment, be it on former concentration camp sites, in schools or universities. And by the way, it is quite far from the academic reality: For example, in 2018 a study showed that there is definitely not an excess of Holocaust-related courses at German universities.

One doesn’t have to study history to understand that every age has its "blind spots." Anyone who understands this and is not caught up in prejudices can have no problem giving a greater place to the memory of colonial crimes in German, European or "Western" memory. Rather, this can also be an enrichment, as Jürgen Habermas recently stated: Namely, by changing and expanding our political culture in such a way that those who have newly arrived as immigrants during the last decades also can recognize themselves as citizens, accepted with their heritage, be it a history of colonial suffering or not. However, there is a precondition – Habermas: “With the acquisition of citizenship, the new citizens accept the political culture and the historical heritage of our country; of this, the outlawing of anti-Semitism is an indispensable core.”

I would add that it is precisely for this reason that the confrontation with the Holocaust, as well as the critical examination of its aftermath, cannot be finalized. It must remain in principle an open field – of research, of education and of public debate.

This lecture is based on my essay Deutsche Vergangenheit und postkoloniale Katechese, in: Saul Friedländer / Norbert Frei / Sybille Steinbacher/ Dan Diner: Ein Verbrechen ohne Namen. Anmerkungen zum Neuen Streit über den Holocaust. C.H.Beck München 2022, S. 33-51.

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