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Reforming German History

ISSUE:  Spring 1990
The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust and German National Identity.
By Charles S. Maier. Harvard. $22.50.
Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of
. By James E. Young. Indiana. $27.50.

Roughly speaking, the 1980’s marked the beginning of the end of the postwar era. In America, Britain, and West Germany conservatives came to power and set about revising the political and ultimately the cultural agendas of their respective countries. In particular Helmut Kohl’s rise to power was enabled by that segment of the German population which was weary of being tarred with the Nazi brush. Surely, it was argued, West Germany, with its thriving economy and stable parliamentary democracy, no longer deserved to be linked with the Nazizeit. It was time for Germans to shed the image of moral pariah and resume its rightful place among the Western nations.

Since the spring of 1986, professional historians and intellectuals in the Bundesrepublik have been engaged in a bitter controversy, the so-called Historikerstreit, about the status of its history. In some ways this should come as no surprise. Nineteenth-century Germany was the homeland of modern historiography, and the academic study of history is one of its genuine intellectual contributions to modern Western culture. Academic historians still ritualistically quote Leopold von Ranke’s injunction to “tell things as they really were (wie es eigentlich gewesen).” But not all Germans have considered this primacy of the “historical” as an unalloyed virtue. Near the end of the last century, Friedrich Nietzsche delivered himself of the opinion that Germans were slaves to historical consciousness and were thus rendered incapable of taking action in the present or future. Whatever the case, Germans take history—their own history and the writing of history in general—very seriously.

A valuable guide to this recent historiographical—and also political and cultural—controversy is Charles Maier’s The Unmasterable Past. In his well-written monograph Maier sets forth the opposing positions in the dispute, while trying to assess what is at issue not only for German history and culture but also for the theory and practice of history in the contemporary world. Though Maier stakes out a position of his own, his account is exemplary in its dispassionate attempt to be fair. Every page of the book drives home the point that the academic history is inseparable from political and cultural controversy.

The Historikerstreit runs roughly as follows. Historian of fascism Ernst Nolte touched off the controversy with an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (June 6, 1986). There Nolte called for the “normalization” of German history. National Socialism and the Holocaust, Nolte claimed, had precedents, specifically the Turkish massacre of the Armenians and especially post-revolutionary attempts in Russia to eradicate enemy classes and class enemies along with the institutionalization of the Gulag. As Nolte (tendentiously) asked:

Did the National Socialists carry out, did Hitler perhaps carry out an “Asiatic” deed only because they regarded themselves and their kind as the potential or real victims of an “Asiatic” deed? Wasn’t the Gulag Archipelago more original than Auschwitz?

It is important to note here that Nolte came nowhere near suggesting that the Holocaust was a fabrication or that it was somehow justifiable. But he and allies such as Andreas Hillgruber did want to establish that Germany’s was not the only record of collective crime in the annals of modern history; that the conventional wisdom concerning a German Sonderweg (special path) toward modernity was deeply flawed; and that the Nazis were an aberration from rather than a culmination of the course of German history. Overall Nolte and Hillgruber were concerned to “reform” German history so that Germans, that is West Germans, could arrive at a collective identity of which they could be proud.

Nolte’s widely disseminated article was quickly answered by philosopher Jurgen Habermas. The chief heir to the tradition of the Frankfurt School but unlike his precursors also committed to the liberal political culture of the West, Habermas contended that Nolte et al were calling for the revival of a quite traditional variety of German nationalism, one that had never comported very well with liberal-democratic values. By contextualizing the Nazi period and by normalizing the Holocaust, the danger was that a subtle process of exculpation would begin. Comparing the Holocaust with Stalin’s crimes, Turkish atrocities, or Pol Pot’s reign of terror diverted attention from a German national past that needed continuous “working through.”

Thus for Habermas the Holocaust stood at the center rather than on the margins of German history. At best German identity should be constituted by a combination of local loyalties and a “constitutional patriotism” rather than loyalty to NATO and a past experience. As Habermas expressed it:

The only patriotism that does not alienate us from the West is a patriotism of commitment to constitutionalism. Unfortunately, a loyalty to universalist principles of constitutionalism . . .could only be inculcated in the cultured German nation after—and by virtue of—Auschwitz. Whoever wants to suppress the blush of shame about this fact by resorting to slogans such as “obsession with guilt,” whoever wants to summon the Germans back to a conventional form of their national identity, destroys the only reliable basis of our Western loyalty.

Not surprisingly, Habermas stressed the political and cultural dimensions of what might have remained a conflict of historiographies. The historians’ controversy was thus not just about history but about culture, not primarily about facts but about values, and not just about the past but also about the future of Germany.

Significantly the 1980’s have also seen a vast revival of concern with the Holocaust in the West as well as in Israel, a country which has also seen conservatives replace socialists in power. Why the renewed interest in the Holocaust is difficult to answer. One short answer would call attention to the role such films as Holocaust, Heimat, and Shoah have had in producing this renewed concern. But such a response begs the question, which neither Maier nor James Young in Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust has addressed, of why it is just now that such films have appeared and why their impact has been so great.

Still, Young’s work provides an interesting counterpoint to Maier’s. Where Maier is an intellectual and cultural historian tracking the historiographical battles in West Germany, Young is a literary theorist concerned with the way the Holocaust has been “narrated” in the accounts of survivors, in novels and poetry, on film and video, and through public monuments and memorials. Moreover, his often compelling discussion shows what recent literary theory, influenced primarily by French and American post-structuralists, can contribute to an understanding of how the past is preserved and history is written. Young’s book is rarely polemical nor is he interested in exposing the conflicts among accounts of the Holocaust as such. While this does lessen power in places, a point to which I will return, his desire to understand before condemning or praising is generally well-judged.

In some ways Young’s thesis—or better his focus—in Writing and Rewriting is quite simple, though its implications can be unsettling at times. Though he is not interested in denying the factuality of the Holocaust—and it should be said that he is convincing that post-structuralists generally do not deny the existence or importance of facts—he does insist that there is a tension in works dealing with the Holocaust between “the need for unmediated facts . . .and the simultaneous incapacity of narrative to document these facts.” In particular the diaries and memoirs of survivors strive to bear witness to what happened by presenting works/words intended to be “traces of the experiences” and not just accounts of them. As a result, there is a great temptation in all this to confuse “a text’s authenticity and its authority as “fact.”” Indeed this tension between factuality and authenticity, between evidence and meaning, is a leitmotif running throughout Young’s book.

What should most interest us about accounts of the Holocaust, claims Young, is how the particular text or film or memorial in question “figures,” i.e., represents via narrative structure and dominant rhetoric, the personal or collective experience of the Holocaust. Indeed, one of the most important sections of his book deals with the use of the term “Holocaust” itself. Young asks what historical, traditional, and Biblical traditions are implied by its use. Does it detract from or augment the meaning of what happened to European Jewry in this century? Thus, like Maier, Young constantly asks what is involved in comparing the fate of the Jews in the 20th century with earlier horrors in Jewish and/or Western history. Beyond that, and more importantly perhaps, Young illuminates the way the 20th-century Holocaust has become a foundational “figure,” against which past and future experiences of collective pain and suffering will be measured.

More generally Young insists that because language is inevitably public and embeds historical experience, we cannot escape the figurative nature of all articulations of experiences. It’s not that there are no facts, only opinions, in some glib sense; there is, however, a deep and inevitable sense in which there is no wie es eigentlich gewesen. Facts are always already part of an explicit or implicit, full or fragmentary narrative. By extension the Holocaust experience was not one but many things. Rather than denying the validity of that experience or impoverishing it by chatter about signifiers, something post-structuralism has sometimes fallen prey to, Young shows that recent theoretical perspectives can enrich our sense of what was—and still is—at issue in accounts of the Holocaust.

If we step back and think about these books together, several issues emerge as important. First Maier and Young revitalize an issue which is both narrowly disciplinary and broadly metahistorical—what does it mean to assert uniqueness or, conversely, to try to compare one historical phenomenon with another? Opponents of Nolte and Hillgruber claim that to compare the Holocaust is to trivialize it, to deal with it as though it were just another aspect of “our” historical story. And this is true to an extent. As Hayden White has pointed out, to turn “memory” into “history” is to blunt the power and force of memory; it normalizes the abnormal and standardizes that which is unique. At the same time to refuse to contextualize the Holocaust runs the risk of mystifying or theologizing it. It comes close to taking on the fascination of the negative sublime or sacred. Moreover, as Young notes, too great a preoccupation with the Holocaust makes it the central event in the history of the Jews and thus turns that history into a history of victimization.

Overall both Maier and Young cautiously approve of the attempt to understand the Holocaust in relation to similar phenomena. For Young this is inevitable due to the shared nature of language. For Maier, who is concerned with the self-conscious, comparative effort of professional historians, the real question is not whether comparisons should be made but what the point or purpose of comparison is. What he calls Nolte’s “pseudo-interrogrative” rhetoric is highly suspect, since, as the above quoted material by Nolte illustrates, Nolte answers the question in asking it. Ultimately Maier assumes that comparison will lead us to notice differences more than identities.

More generally, both men raise the question of to what extent history can or should provide the basis for a collective identity. In the context of German history, grounding identity in history has been a conservative—sometimes even sinister—impulse. As Maier notes

memory itself becomes not a simple act of recall but a socially constitutive act. The German version of these trends is the invocation of “history,” less as a record than as a problematic constituent of identity.

Yet Young’s book reminds us that Jews as well as other oppressed or mariginalized groups—in America racial and ethnic minorities along with women—have also made the rediscovery of their history a central constituent of identity.

But is this an unqualifiedly “good” thing? Here Habermas’s warnings seem particularly worth heeding, not just by Germans (or American patriots) but also by oppressed groups trying to recover an historical identity. The crucial point he made in the Historikerstreit was that any notion of collective (German) identity worth entertaining must contain a self-critical element that is not coincident with the group experience itself. Such a standard is necessary since there is no normative dimension, no automatic commitment to tolerance, individual rights, freedom, equality, or any other political good, necessarily built into the historical experience of any group. Indeed the German—and the white Southern— cases should be carefully studied by those who want to ground identity in group experience. They serve as powerful reminders that there are dangerous as well as valuable aspects of national identity formation. Indeed in a recent New Left Review Edward Said offered a pertinent caution in this area, one directed not only to Israel but also to the Palestinian cause he has so forcefully supported:

Thus the triumph of identity by one culture or state almost always is implicated directly or indirectly in the denial, or the suppression of equal identity for other groups, states or cultures.”

Furthermore, professional historians can learn much from both books about the possibilities and perils of the contemporary writing of history. As mentioned earlier, the past is not just a matter for professionals to adjudicate. It is no good to say, as did Richard Evans, a British historian of modern Germany, recently that the “whole debate ultimately has little to offer anyone with a serious scholarly interest in the German past.” Indeed in a valuable overview of the controversy in The Journal of Modern History (December 1987), Evans went on to allow that the controversy “has obvious implications for the way in which history is written.” Still, Evans’ two statements imply too rigid a separation of the historian’s role in general from the German historian’s role in particular. Ultimately such a view will lead to a narrowing of the scope and purpose of history and sever its connections with the nonacademic world.

In addition Young and Maier advert to what both label as “post-modern” history. For Maier the term seems to refer to the renewed emphasis upon “historicization,” the view that the historian’s task seems increasingly to be that of “understanding” rather than judging. What results is a kind of “aestheticization” of history: “History must be the story of what people thought and felt. For Nolte what Hitler did matters less than how he envisaged the world.” But Maier emphasizes that this tendency can be found on the Left as well as the Right. For Young the use of video documentaries raises new issues for historians: “The viewer tends to ride the movement of the tape, to become absorbed in the medium and the picture, without opportunity to stop and reflect on what is being said. There is an accumulation of impressions, unfinished thoughts, responses, and emotions running together in the video stream, which don’t allow for pauses and reflection.” And yet Young is also suspicious of the conventional historian’s preference for “objective” or “hard” evidence—photos, train timetables and the like— since use of such materials lulls them into forgetting “the constructed nature of all evidence.”

But perhaps Young’s last reminder may help remedy what disturbs Maier. What seems to disturb Maier is the power of historical writing, i.e., narrative, to seduce us into suspending judgment and accepting it as inevitable. This has always been the danger of the (conservative) historicism endemic in German historiography and helps explain why Habermas is so disturbed generally by the abandonment of Enlightenment universalism. Young suggests that one antidote to the suspension of judgment in the face of the inevitable is precisely to remember that all views in and of the past are constructs rather than inevitabilities. They are “our” narratives, not history’s.

And yet Young’s post-structuralist position runs into problems of its own which arise by virtue of his emphasis upon the “figurative” or “fictional,” i.e., constructed, nature of the narratives of the Holocaust. This leads in Young’s case to a certain diffidence in deciding among the various interpretations of the Holocaust and their uses. Thus Young sometimes seems excessively latitudinarian—or perhaps theoretically unable—to make judgments. He is too easy, for instance, on Sylvia Plath’s appropriation of the Holocaust as a trope for her own personal sufferings: she doesn’t “exploit” it so much as “merely draw upon a public pool of language. . . .” Perhaps so, but there is a failure of moral and emotional tact, some lack of proportion at work in Plath’s appropriation which is certainly disturbing. And there is also a half-suggested inevitability at work as well: if the Holocaust is publicly available for narrative deployment it will be used in all sorts of ways, and we should try to understand rather than condemn those various uses.

The closest Young comes to strong condemnatory judgment is in his analysis of Peter Weiss’s play The Investigation, a docudrama based on the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt in the mid-1960’s. To Young, Weiss’s play is interesting, first, because Weiss was so aware of the pseudo self-effacing quality of bourgeois realism; yet then he turned around and offered the same thing in the name of a kind of neosocialist realism which relied on what Young calls the “rhetoric of fact” to efface its own constructed nature. In other words, Weiss presented facts as though they were “givens, unmediated by his own aesthetic and ideological vantage point.” That is, he presented a narrative masquerading as just the facts and nothing else.

What this led to specifically was a massive distortion of the reality of Auschwitz. As Young says, Weiss’s play is

as Judenreln as most of post-Holocaust
Europe. That is, Weiss refers neither
to Juden in his play nor hardly
to Opfer (victim) but uses
instead the expression Verfolgten,
a legal term for “those under persectution.

The point of all these incredible elisions was to lay the blame for Auschwitz at the feet of capitalism, while “whiting out” the racist motivation for extermination.

But though Young is clearly disturbed by Weiss’s distortions, he tends to see them as aesthetic and rhetorical problems rather than ones having to do with the distortion and falsification of evidence. But it could be asserted that Weiss’s narrative of Auschwitz is not just a “misreading” of that phenomenon; indeed it distorts not so much what happened as why it happened. That is, Young has difficulty dealing with interpretations, all questions of figuration aside, of which it can be asserted that they are wrong or right. For interpretations can be judged on their truth value to the extent that they depend on the existence of some non-controversial shared evidence which is available for interpretation or narration. In the case at hand, there was no dispute that extermination had gone on at Auschwitz; what was in dispute was the motivation and responsibility for it. And my contention would be that any interpretation that failed to mention, much less account for, the anti-Semitic dimension of genocide is, again, not an alternative account. It is wrong. The problem is not primarily Weiss’s mystification of his aesthetic choices; it is his suppression of evidence.

Young’s difficulties on this issue reveal that when contemporary theorists talk of “deconstructing” the divisions between fact and fiction or between history and the novel, they usually mean that everything becomes a fiction, i.e., it is constructed. But it is just as crucial to remember that deconstruction works both ways. Neither fiction nor interpretation is privileged per se, since all fiction and interpretation depend on the existence of shared facts and events. In logical terms, fact and fiction are internally related; neither term makes sense without the other.

Finally, are there criteria by which we judge the validity of narratives? Leaving aside the case I have just discussed where it is possible, I think, to talk of false interpretations, this is a difficult issue, of which recent critical theory has forced us to be aware. Young is certainly aware of it, and at the end of his book he asks:

[E]ven if we recognize the shapes we have conferred on worldly phenomena, what then determines the “appropriateness” or “inappropriateness” of a given interpretation? After Nietzsche, we might regard as one criterion the extent to which our interpretations are “life-providing, life-preserving, and perhaps even species-cultivating.”

The problem here is that Nietzsche’s criteria beg all the crucial questions—what is life-preserving? Whose life? And even if we knew the answers to such questions, how would we then deal with the distressing number of suicides by those who have dared look too long into the abyss of the Holocaust—from Sylvia Plath and John Berryman to Paul Celan, Tadeusz Borowski and of course Primo Levi? Were their narratives of the Holocaust flawed, somehow not life providing? Or can, as A. Alvarez has suggested, an interpretation be “inappropriate” for the author but “appropriate” for us the readers? “The answer to obsession is not forgetting, but overcoming” writes Maier near the end of his book. How and whether we can manage that is the question to which there is still no guaranteed answer.


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