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Historisk tidskrift 125:4 • 2005

Innehåll (Contents) 2005:4

Uppsatser (Articles)

Förintelsemonumentet som slutpunkt. Tysk historiepolitik från Kohl till Schröder

Jan Selling

Fulltext (pdf)


The Holocaust Memorial as Terminal Point. The Politics of History from Kohl to Schröder

This article discusses the meaning of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which was inaugurated in Berlin on the 10th of May as the terminus of the 60th anniversary of the fall of the Third Reich. It begins in Norbert Frei’s claim that generational experience is the main determinant of German discourse on Nazism but develops it further by adapting Jan Assmann’s theory of cultural memory. According to Assmann, history is part of cultural memory, which in turn is a framework for the construction of experienced and communicated notions of ”living history”. From this perspective, the intense German historical discourse of the last decade might be understood as a hegemonic conflict about the selection and rearrangement of public recollections in order to establish a new equilibrium in the cultural memory of German society; A necessary condition has been the decline of the communicative memory due to generation change, which in turn has increased the ideological role of elite discourse. Central to this transition was the collapse of the German Democratic Republic in 1989 and the reestablishment of a nation-state in 1990, which ”normalised” the discourse on German national identity. This development has been favourable to the political efforts to ”normalise” Germany, not only in the sense of re-establishing a positive national identity, but also in the sense of ”normalising” Germany’s new position of power. In contrast, the presentist use of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (working through, or mastering the past) by the left-liberal ”constitutional patriots” has lost much of its relevance.

The third part of the article discusses some discursive events related to the 60th anniversary that indicate the nature of the new consensus being established at the turn of the last century. First, the notion of the 8th of May as day of liberation is no longer, as in 1995, an issue of political conflict. Second, the Holocaust is now indisputably part of the cultural memory and indeed the core of national identity politics. Third, the expiration of living memory is often being understood as the end of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which in turn is being seen as an argument for further ”normalisation”. In the ”normalised” discourse on Germanness and history, the increasing metaphorical use of the Holocaust as moral argument without specific meaning is evident. Hence, the Holocaust could be used by the Catholic Church in its campaign against the right of abortion as well as by the Schröder government to justify German military engagement against potential genocides. Finally, the contradictory genesis of the Holcoaust memorial is analysed in relationship to the national monument created by the government of Helmut Kohl in 1993: ”Neue Wache Unter den Linden.” Whereas ”Neue Wache” must be seen in the tradition of anti-totalitarianism and national self pity, the Holocaust memorial was clearly a product of the left-liberal Vergangenheitsbewältigung of the 1980s. Hence, the latter monument can be seen as a counter-monument to the former and necessary for its acceptance. However, the acceptance of the Holocaust memorial by conservatives as well as by the left is mainly due to its functionality for national identity politics and its claim to responsibility for the past without constraints or obligations for the present: built by the Germans of today for the Jewish victims of the past. The two voices expressed in those two monuments of the reconstructed German capital may be understood as a dialectic answer of the normalisation dilemma at the end of Vergangenheitsbewältigung.