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From The House of the Dead: On Modern European Memory


The problem of evil will be the fundamental problem of postwar intellectual life in Europe—as death became the fundamental problem after the last war.”

—Hannah Arendt (1945)

Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation; thus the progress of historical studies is often a danger for national identity…. The essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that they have forgotten many things.”

—Ernest Renan

By the end of the twentieth century the centrality of the Holocaust in Western European identity and memory seemed secure. To be sure, there remained those occasional individuals and organizations—“revisionists”—who persisted in trying to show that the mass extermination of the Jews could not have taken place (though they were more active in North America than in Europe itself). But such people were confined to the extreme political margins—and their insistence upon the technical impossibility of the genocide paid unintended homage to the very enormity of the Nazi crime. However, the compensatory ubiquity with which Europeans now acknowledged, taught, and memorialized the loss of their Jews did carry other risks.

In the first place there was always the danger of a backlash. Occasionally even mainstream German politicians had been heard to vent frustration at the burden of national guilt—as early as 1969 the Bavarian Christian Social leader Franz-Josef Strauss relieved himself in public of the thought that “a people that has achieved such remarkable economic success has the right not to have to hear anymore about ‘Auschwitz.’” Politicians of course have their reasons.1 What was perhaps more indicative of a coming cultural shift was a widespread urge, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, to re-open the question of German suffering after years of public attention to Jewish victims.

Artists and critics—among them Martin Walser, Jürgen Habermas’s contemporary and an influential literary voice in the postwar Federal Republic—were now starting to discuss another “unmanaged past”: not the extermination of the Jews but the underacknowledged other side of recent German history. Why, they asked, after all these years should we not speak of the burning of Germany’s cities or even of the uncomfortable truth that life in Hitler’s Germany (for Germans) was far from unpleasant, at least until the last years of World War II? Because we should speak instead of what Germany did to the Jews? But we’ve spoken of this for decades; it has become a routine, a habit. The Federal Republic is one of the most avowedly philo-Semitic nations in the world; for how much longer must we (Germans) look over our shoulder? New books about “the crimes of the Allies”—the bombing of Dresden, the burning of Hamburg, and the wartime sinking of German refugee ships (the subject of Im Krebsgang, “Crabwise,” a 2002 novel by Günter Grass)—sold in huge numbers.

In the second place, the newfound salience of the Holocaust in official accounts of Europe’s past carried the danger of a different sort of distortion. For the really uncomfortable truth about World War II was that what happened to the Jews between 1939 and 1945 was not nearly as important to most of the protagonists as later sensibilities might wish. If many Europeans had managed to ignore for decades the fate of their Jewish neighbors, this was not because they were consumed with guilt and repressing unbearable memories, it was because—except in the minds of a handful of senior Nazis—World War II was not about the Jews. Even for Nazis the extermination of Jews was part of a more ambitious project of racial cleansing and resettlement.

The understandable temptation to read back into the 1940s the knowledge and emotions of half a century later thus invites a rewriting of the historical record: putting anti-Semitism at the center of European history. How else, after all, are we to account for what happened in Europe in those years? But that is too easy—and in a way too comforting. The reason Vichy was acceptable to most French people after the defeat of 1940, for example, was not that it pleased them to live under a regime that persecuted Jews, but because Pétainist rule allowed the French to continue leading their lives in an illusion of security and normality and with minimum disruption. How the regime treated Jews was a matter of indifference: the Jews just hadn’t mattered that much. And much the same was true in most other occupied lands.

Today we may find such indifference shocking—a symptom of something gravely amiss in the moral condition of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. And we are right to recall that there were also those in every European country who did see what was happening to Jews and did their best to overcome the indifference of their fellow citizens. But if we ignore that indifference and assume instead that most other Europeans experienced the Second World War the way Jews experienced it—as a Vernichtungskrieg, a war of extermination—then we shall furnish ourselves with a new layer of mis-memory. In retrospect, “Auschwitz” is the most important thing to know about World War II. But that is not how things seemed at the time.

It is also not how things seemed in Eastern Europe. To East Europeans, belatedly released after 1989 from the burden of officially mandated Communist interpretations of World War II, the fin-de-siècle Western preoccupation with the Holocaust of the Jews carries disruptive implications. On the one hand Eastern Europe after 1945 had much more than Western Europe to remember—and to forget. There were more Jews in the eastern half of Europe and more of them were killed; most of the killing took place in this region and many more locals took an active part in it. But on the other hand far greater care was taken by the postwar authorities in Eastern Europe to erase all public memory of the Holocaust. It is not that the horrors and crimes of the war in the East were played down—on the contrary, they were repeatedly rehearsed in official rhetoric and enshrined in memorials and textbooks everywhere. It is just that Jews were not part of the story.

In East Germany, where the burden of responsibility for Nazism was imputed uniquely to Hitler’s West German heirs, the new regime paid restitution not to Jews but to the Soviet Union. In GDR school texts Hitler was presented as a tool of monopoly capitalists who seized territory and started wars in pursuit of the interests of big business. The “Day of Remembrance” inaugurated by Walter Ulbricht in 1950 commemorated not Germany’s victims but eleven million dead “fighters against Hitler fascism.” Former concentration camps on East German soil—notably Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen—were converted for a while by the Communist regime into “special isolation camps” for political prisoners. Many years later, after Buchenwald had been transformed into a memorial site, its guidebook described the stated aims of “German fascism” as “destruction of Marxism, revenge for the lost war, and brutal terror against all resisters.” In the same booklet photos of the selection ramp at Auschwitz were captioned with a quote from the German Communist Ernst Thälmann: “The bourgeoisie is serious about its aim to annihilate the party and the entire avant-garde of the working class.”2 This text was not removed until after the fall of communism.

The same version of events could be found throughout Communist Europe. In Poland it was not possible to deny or minimize what had taken place in extermination camps at Treblinka or Majdanek or Sobibor. But these places no longer existed—the Germans had taken extraordinary pains to obliterate them from the landscape before fleeing before the advancing Red Army. And where the evidence did survive—as at Auschwitz, a few kilometers from Kraków, Poland’s second city—it was retrospectively assigned a different meaning. Although 93 percent of the estimated 1.5 million people murdered at Auschwitz were Jews, the museum established there under the postwar Communist regime listed the victims only by nationality: Polish, Hungarian, German, etc. Polish schoolchildren were indeed paraded past the shocking photos; they were shown the heaps of shoes, hair, and eyeglasses. But they were not told that most of what they saw belonged to Jews.

To be sure, there was the Warsaw Ghetto, whose life and death were indeed memorialized on the site where it had stood. But the Jewish revolt of 1943 was occluded in Polish memory by the Poles’ own Warsaw uprising a year later. In Communist Poland, while no one denied what Germans had done to Jews, the subject was not much discussed. Poland’s “reimprisonment” under the Soviets, together with the widespread belief that Jews had welcomed and even facilitated the Communist takeover, muddied popular recall of the German occupation. In any case, Poles’ own wartime suffering diluted local attention to the Jewish Holocaust and was in some measure competitive with it: this issue of “comparative victimhood” would poison Polish–Jewish relations for many decades. The juxtaposition was always inappropriate. Three million (non-Jewish) Poles died in World War II; proportionately lower than the death rate in parts of the Ukraine or among Jews, but a terrible figure notwithstanding. Yet there was a difference. For Poles, it was difficult to survive under German occupation but in principle you could. For Jews it was possible to survive under German occupation—but in principle you could not.

Where a local puppet regime had collaborated with its Nazi overlords its victims were duly memorialized. But scant attention was paid to the fact that they were disproportionately Jews. There were national categories (“Hungarians”) and above all social categories (“workers”), but ethnic and religious tags were studiously avoided. The Second World War was labeled and taught as an anti-fascist war; its racist dimension was ignored. In the 1970s the government of Czechoslovakia even took the trouble to paint over the inscriptions on the walls of Prague’s Altneuschul (Old-New Synagogue) which gave the names of Czech Jews killed in the Shoah.

When recasting recent history in this region, the postwar Communist authorities could certainly count on an enduring reservoir of anti-Jewish feeling—one reason they went to some trouble to suppress evidence of it even in retrospect (during the Seventies Polish censors consistently banned allusions to the country’s anti-Semitism during the years between the wars). But if East Europeans paid less attention in retrospect to the plight of the Jews it was not just because they were indifferent at the time or preoccupied with their own survival. It is because the Communists imposed enough suffering and injustice of their own to forge a whole new layer of resentments and memories.

Between 1945 and 1989 the accumulation of deportations, imprisonments, show trials, and “normalizations” made almost everyone in the Soviet bloc either a loser or else complicit in someone else’s loss. Apartments, shops, and other property that had been appropriated from dead Jews or expelled Germans were all too often reexpropriated a few years later in the name of socialism—with the result that after 1989 the question of compensation for past losses became hopelessly tangled in dates. Should people be recompensed for what they lost when the Communists seized power? And if such restitution were made, to whom should it go? To those who had come into possession of property after the war, in 1945, only to lose it a few years later? Or should restitution be made to the heirs of those from whom businesses and apartments had been seized or stolen at some point between 1938 and 1945? Which point? 1938? 1939? 1941? On each date there hung politically sensitive definitions of national or ethnic legitimacy as well as moral precedence.3

  1. 1

    When US President Ronald Reagan, on a visit to West Germany in 1985, was advised to avoid the military cemetery at Bitburg (site of a number of SS graves) and pay his respects to a concentration camp instead, Chancellor Kohl wrote to warn him that this “would have a serious psychological effect on the friendly sentiments of the German people for the United States of America.” The Americans duly capitulated; Reagan visited Belsen and Bitburg…

  2. 2

    Quoted by Ian Buruma in “Buchenwald,” Granta, No. 42 (Winter 1992).

  3. 3

    When the Czechoslovak parliament voted in 1991 to restitute property seized after the war it explicitly limited the benefits to those expropriated after 1948—so as to exclude Sudeten Germans expelled in 1945–1946, before the Communists seized power.

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