In the summer of 1984, at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, after the welcoming speeches had been delivered and the Olympic flame lighted, the floor of the stadium was suddenly filled with hundreds of dancers, who formed a gigantic outline of the United States of America, after which others, dressed as cowboys and farmers, advanced across it in covered wagons and, when they had reached its western limits, proceeded to build a church and a town hall and other buildings representing the coming of civilization to the wilderness and, this work being accomplished, held a shivaree and danced a hoedown. A German guest leaving the the stadium after this extravaganza was heard to murmur, “Only the Americans could do something like that.” He may have been referring to the combination of kitsch and grandiosity he had just witnessed, but it is possible that he was thinking also of what it told him of the American connection with history and how different it was from that of his own country. This is one of the themes that are suggested in Jane Kramer’s collection The Politics of Memory.

It is often said that Americans don’t know or think much about their history. But, as the stage managers of that Olympic show knew perfectly well, they do respond positively to some historical memories. A good many of them, at least, are proud of the fact that their forefathers brought forth upon the American continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, and that that nation survived the trials of a wearing civil war and then went on to conquer the continent and to unite it from coast to coast. Without much understanding of the philosophical principles that animated the Founding Fathers, they have a curiously intimate relationship with them, especially with Washington and Franklin and Jefferson, as they do with the two great antagonists of the Civil War and that greater man, the emancipator and reconciler, and as they do with the pioneers who won the West.

One need only watch the hordes of schoolchildren who swarm down the steps of the Capitol in Washington and stream past the equestrian statue of Grant, sitting calm and indomitable at the head of the Mall, on their way to the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial, to have a sense of the strength and essentially uncomplicated nature of the American relationship with the past, a historical consciousness that has, incidentally, often been able to reconcile and transcend the divisions and defeats and injustices and cruelties that can be found on the darker pages of our history.

The British attitude to the past is less simple than the American but certainly no more troubled. The Englishman’s greatest pride is that his country was the first to establish the rule of law on the basis of representative government but many British take an unbridled delight in their whole history, and in celebrating their greatest achievement they place it, by means of ceremonial and pageantry, within a broad historical frame (although the recent revival of Scotch and Welsh nationalism may bring about some changes). The Queen, in her royal coach, escorted by the Yeomen of the Guard in their sixteenth-century uniforms, proceeds to Westminster, where from a throne in the House of Lords she reveals her desires for the new year to her Commoners, standing before her. The fact that her words have been written for her by a committee of the Commons and that neither she nor her Lords have any power to affect the disposition of their recommendations is passed over in silence, for the fictional aspects of the ceremony make it more effective as spectacle and, indeed, invest the occasion with a heightened sense of legitimacy and continuity.

The British are skilled in using the rich habiliments of their past to clothe the often uncomfortable outlines of their present, and they take such pleasure in this that there seem no impassable barriers for them between present and past. They live easily in their history and take sustenance from it. Thus, when the former trade union leader Ernest Bevin became Foreign Secretary in the Labour Government of 1945, he had no difficulty in adjusting to the traditions of that office. He read the papers of Castlereagh and Palmerston with interest and pleasure and once said to Dean Acheson, “Old Salisbury. Y’know, ‘e had a lot of sense.” He talked about them, Acheson commented, “as slightly older people whom he knew with affectionate respect. In listening to him, one felt strongly the continuity and integrity of English history.”1

Even the French, despite the divisiveness that has marked their past, find in their history commonality and inspiration. Charles de Gaulle, to whom France was “both a fact, a product of history, and a value, derived from and embodied in her culture,” was able to communicate this feeling to his countrymen, who responded eagerly to his insistence that there was only one history of France and that therefore there was no need to define French identity but only the necessity of saving it and proclaiming it. He wrote of “Old France, burdened by history, bruised by wars and revolutions, relentlessly going back and forth from grandeur to decline, but straightened, century after century, by the genius of renovation,…made for example, enterprise, combat, always the star of History.”2 What some of us are inclined to describe as the arrogance of the French may really be the assurance that comes from this kind of historical consciousness.


In contrast to their Western neighbors, the Germans never seem to have had an easy relationship with their history. Until late in the nineteenth century, the memory of a remote past of unity and strength combined with a present condition of divisiveness and relative impotence to keep the present permanently out of joint. Wagner once said, “In his longing for German glory the German can usually dream of nothing else but something similar to the restoration of the Roman Empire,”3 and Heine commented in 1837 on the difficulty foreigners must have in understanding a people “that has only a Yesterday and a Tomorrow but no Today, that is forever remembering the past or presaging the future but never knows how to take advantage of the present, either in love or in politics.”4

Even when political unity was attained in 1871, it was not greeted with universal approbation. Because the Bismarck Reich seemed to repudiate much of Germany’s past, it caused difficult problems of identification for significant parts of the population, especially for conservatives and Roman Catholics, a large portion of the liberal community, and minorities and intellectuals.5 In the new Reich, the ruling establishment (Prussian bureaucracy, army, and Junker landowners from east of the Elbe) had a different historical perspective from the Reichstag and the South German states and the economic centers of the country; and against them all was a rapidly growing industrial proletariat that had no tradition at all. The result, as Helmuth Plessner once wrote, was “a competition of perspectives, an inner particularism.”6 This was always a debilitating element in German society before 1914, and in the end it could only be overcome by the state’s plunging into frenetic but ill-considered competition with other Great Powers, with ultimately disastrous results.

In the brief existence of the Weimar Republic, which was founded after the military collapse of 1918, the gap between idea and reality became wider and the relationship between past and present more difficult. The Bismarck Reich, challenged in its own time by backward-looking historical projections, now appeared in idealized form as the embodiment of all the virtues that the republic seemed to its enemies to lack. In making this comparison, the historians led the way, for most of them regarded the republic’s coming as an event without historical legitimacy. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Bismarck Reich, the historian Erich Marcks apostrophized the past in fulsome tones, declaring that it was “our only secure possession, and we will not allow ourselves to be robbed of it.”7 A rash prophecy! The same historians who favored a return to the Bismarck past were soon calling for a future that would be dominated by Adolf Hitler, and once that wish came true the dictator, while not exactly robbing them of their past, made the problem of identifying with it infinitely harder by burdening it with Auschwitz.

During the long divided years of the cold war, the Germans had little time to think of history. But in October 1990, they became one Volk again, in Jane Kramer’s words,

became, again, the real country that had started two world wars and caused the death of nearly fifty million people, the country with a history that was specifically Germany’s, and not the East’s history or the West’s history. After forty-four years of distraction, Germans began the excruciating process of connecting the kind of people they thought they were to the people they had been and the people they wanted to be. They discovered that it was hard to be ordinary folks—ordinary European folks—when you had a Holocaust in your history.


The six essays that make up Jane Kramer’s book about the new Germany, all written for The New Yorker since 1988, have diverse themes—the activities of the squatters in the Kreuzberg section of Berlin, the life of an East German refugee to the West, the 1992 debate over the new national capital, the Stasi, the appearance of neo-Nazism in the early Nineties, and the heated discussion about a Holocaust memorial in Berlin. The connections between them are not immediately apparent. But all of these marvelously perceptive pieces have to do, one way or another, with the search for integration and identity in post-1990 Germany and with the obstacles to that process left behind by four and a half decades of division into two German states.


Not the least important of these were the different conclusions drawn about the Nazi experience. As Konrad Adenauer ingratiated his way into the Western alliance by proclaiming that it was necessary to escape from the narrowness of national existence into the wholeness of European consciousness, most West Germans found it convenient to forget the crimes of National Socialism, while giving themselves over to an obsessive concentration upon the tasks of reconstruction and economic growth. It was this silence about the past and not just what Ulrike Meinhof called Konsumterrorismus (the terror wrought by consumerism) that drove the generation of ’68 into revolt against their fathers in an attempt to make them admit their responsibility for what had happened to the country.

No such attempt to recover memory was made in the DDR. East Germans grew up, Kramer writes,

to an official history that described Nazism as a capitalist’s adventure, something that the “other side” invented…. They inherited a topsy-turvy war in which East Germans were the liberators and West Germans—and, by extension, the West itself—were the fascists. To the extent that East Germans believed this about their country, the regime claimed what shallow legitimacy it had. To the extent that East Germans believed it about themselves, they lost their bearings in history and claimed, at most, a kind of unremembered collective memory that the state persuaded them was theirs.

It is embarrassing to remember today how respectfully the East German state was viewed by the West only a few years ago, how many prestigious German experts and economists assured us that it was the soundest and most productive of the members of the Eastern bloc, and how many arguments were advanced in support of lavishing vast sums upon its government in the name of Ostpolitik. It was only after the Wall had come down that it was discovered that the DDR was like a concern whose board of directors had been systematically pillaging it at the expense of the shareholders, that the economy had been in decline ever since the oil shock of 1973, and that since the 1980s the regime had retreated, in the words of Peter Merkl,

[into] a shell of autarky and self-delusion, blissfully ignoring its economic problems and squeezing the last ounce from shrinking natural resources such as lignite, regardless of the environmental and other costs.8

Hardly anything worked in the DDR; all of its major industries were far below Western standards (later, when the government-sponsored Treuhand organization undertook the task of privatizing plants and mills, it discovered that no one wanted them). The transportation network was badly in need of modernization; and the poisoning of air and water by effluents posed a major threat to the public health.

But the damage inflicted by the regime upon the minds of its citizens was far more serious even than these material ones, and Ms. Kramer shows us why in a troubling article that begins:

Peter Schmidt always wanted to leave East Germany. He did not so much want to go to West Germany as he wanted to get away from East Germany and from his angry father and his anxious mother and from all the policemen and plant managers and Party proselytizers whose job it was to undermine a dreamy teenage boy with a box of Jefferson Airplane tapes under the bed and a third-hand motorcycle chained to the banister. He wanted to be free, although he didn’t really know what “freedom” meant besides freedom to stop school and never to have to apprentice in a people’s factory or play war games in the rain for the draft army of the German Democratic Republic.

Peter attained his desire, although not through any initiative of his own, for after a halfhearted attempt to cross the border had earned him a jail sentence as a political prisoner, he was bought out by the West German Ministry for Inner-German relations and given a living allowance and sent to Hamburg. All things considered, he liked the prison experience better than Hamburg, because the other prisoners were friendly and talked about East Germany and philosophy and history—things that fascinated him and about which he might have learned more had there been any books about them in the prison library—and because the prison regime left no opportunity for initiative on his own. In Hamburg people were always asking him what he wanted to do, a question he couldn’t answer. He enrolled for a time in a vocational school, but soon did what he called “the East German thing,” refusing to study, and resigning before the end of the semester because everyone knew more than he did. He preferred to sit in his room drinking coffee and listening to his tapes, because he didn’t like the West Germany that was outside, noisy and confident and doing things.

West Germans who have lost their initial enthusiasm for unification will describe Peter Schmidt as the typical East German—passive, incompetent, and without initiative. Jane Kramer’s description is more satisfactory, or at least more comprehensive, for she insists that East Germans are what they are because of the system in which they grew up. Most of them, she feels, are edgy, acquiescent, and bewildered people, their education distorted, their “history” an invention. They have no way to evaluate what being German means or could mean, “no parallel truth about themselves with which to exorcise or investigate, or even balance, the official truths—none of the stubborn, sustaining identity of the Czechs or the Poles or the Hungarians.” They have no great supply of assurance, or even sense of self. Even those among them who feel now that they are being “colonized” by the West seem to feel that this is only natural, since they have done nothing on their own to show that they don’t deserve it. “They concede to West Germans,” Kramer writes, “a kind of entitlement.”

Is it this passivity that explains the Stasi experience? Surely it is an astonishing circumstance that, by present estimates, as many as three hundred thousand East German citizens served as secret police informers on their fellows, which means that every university department meeting or friendly Skat game at the local pub or practice section of a men’s glee club probably included at least one—to use the Scottish expression—chiel amang them taken notes. Kramer’s lively chapter on the Stasi informers centers on the career of Sascha Anderson, a poet and publisher who was very active in the Prenzlauer Berg literary scene and helpful in establishing literary connections in the West for aspiring intellectuals. That is, he was until the refugee folk singer Wolf Biermann, accepting the Büchner Prize in the Rathaus in Darmstadt in the spring of 1991, revealed that Anderson had been a paid informer for the Stasi for the last eleven years.

What Biermann actually said was “the untalented bullshitter, Sascha-Asshole, a Stasi spy, who is still playing the son of the Muse hoping that his files will never appear.” The burschikos tone appeared to cause more outrage than the revelation. The writer Stefan Hermlin, a Jew himself, said that Biermann’s denunciation of Anderson was “only comparable to the denunciation of the Jews during Nazism,” a statement that reveals either a startling ignorance of history or an attempt to give the willing servants of the system the status of victims. Ms. Kramer writes that no one can say why people like Sascha Anderson informed, whether it was from

weakness, pressure, pathology, adventurism, blackmail, or a very German game of “identity,” or admiration for the system, or even contempt for the system…. No one really knows, any more than anyone knows whether exposing the Stasi now is going to help Germans think seriously about their past or help them ignore the fact that they are not thinking about their past.

What is clear enough is that the revelations will further complicate the task of welding the two old Germanies into one new one. They have built a new Wall between German writers and intellectuals—witness the vicious Western attacks upon Christa Wolf for having, in the view of West German critics, withheld a book from publication until after the danger of possible Stasi action against her had passed. They have also destroyed the reputations of any number of East German politicians who might have performed useful service in the integration process.

But not all of the obstacles to the process of unification can be attributed to the East Germans. The fact is that the West Germans, during the years after 1949, had gradually lost their belief that unification would ever come and then, when it descended upon them unexpectedly, had quickly lost their enthusiasm for it. As one of the many Germans whom Kramer has interviewed told her, Germany never had to pay for anything until the Wall came down. “Democracy didn’t cost so much,” he said. “It was a present from the Allies, a box of candy, and there was always a honeymoon feeling about it.” As long as this condition prevailed, most Germans felt they were good democrats. As soon as they were on their own, and particularly after the costs of reconstructing the East became clear, that became more doubtful. For one thing they were not emotionally prepared for being on their own and acting the way great nations were supposed to act. Faced with the necessity of making decisions, they were affected by fear and uncertainty, particularly when issues arose that caused deep and sometimes ugly divisions in the electorate and awakened echoes of the bad old past.

It was then that the word Angst entered into the popular consciousness, and became the subject of discussion in the newspapers and in public forums, like the one at the Evangelical Academy in Tutzing in Bavaria, where in March 1993 academicians debated on the theme Dämon Deutschland?Versuche zur Anatomie einer Angst9 and complained about the waning of public confidence in the new order of things. There was Angst about the future of Germany’s tie to the European Community. There was Angst about the possible involvement of the German army in foreign quarrels, and the constitutional court was asked to decide whether it was proper for the army to serve outside the NATO region. And there was a good deal of Angst, which has still by no means subsided, about where the national capital should be located.

Ms. Kramer has a very good discussion of the tangled debate over this question. Strictly speaking, of course, there was no need for a debate, for Bonn had from the beginning been only a provisional capital, chosen to suit Konrad Adenauer’s convenience, and it was understood that when the country was united again the government would move to Berlin. But this prospect greatly agitated many liberals when the appropriate moment came, not only because they had become used to the comfortable small town on the Rhine, but because they believed that it was a symbol for Germany’s tie with the West, whereas Berlin pointed in the wrong direction and reminded one of Prussia and William II and of events that were far worse. The proponents of Bonn as national capital were unmoved by Willy Brandt’s gibe that “it would never have occurred to anyone in France to remain in relatively idyllic Vichy once foreign power no longer prevented a return to the Seine.” They retorted that there were already dangerous nationalistic tendencies in the country—had not Helmut Kohl shown up at Hohenzollern family ceremonies in Potsdam on the occasion of the return of Frederick II’s bones to the palace at Sans Souci?—and that these might be encouraged by a move to Berlin and might assume dangerous forms that would alarm Germany’s neighbors.

When the votes were counted, Berlin won by a narrow margin. This was bound to be true, Kramer writes,

for the simple reason that Berlin was pretty much all East Germany had to offer, economically and psychologically, to the new Germany, and that without the government here to draw investment eastward, East Germany would very likely become a kind of German Mezzogiorno, and everybody would leave.

But the opponents of the move are still basically unreconciled, and unpersuaded by the argument that the new nation needs in its capital the energy, the creativity, and the openness to new ideas that have been historically characteristic of Berlin, and the differences of view, which are also differences of principle, are not likely to go away soon.

More disturbing, and equally divisive, have been the issues raised by neo-Nazi attacks on foreigners. The first of these, on Vietnamese and Mozambican workers in a housing project in Hoyerswerda in the fall of 1991 and against Gypsy and Vietnamese refugees in the town of Rostock in the summer of 1992, were not taken very seriously in the West, where they were attributed to police inefficiency and the fact that East Germans had no experience with foreigners or indeed with democratic procedures. Even when these outrages were repeated in the West German village of Hünxe, where Molotov cocktails were thrown into the home of a Lebanese family that had been living there for two years, there was no great alarm, although it was discovered later that the father of one of the young men arrested collected Nazi memorabilia and had a big party every year on the Führer’s birthday. It was only when skinheads bombed the home of a Turkish family in Mölln, near Hamburg, late in 1992, killing a grandmother who had lived thirty years in Germany, her niece, and a granddaughter who had been born there, and when another Turkish family that had been in Germany for twenty-three years were bombed in Solingen months later and five women and children killed, that people began to be seriously concerned.

Sociologists and psychoanalysts had many and diverse theories to account for the skins’ behavior, and Kramer gives a good account of these, as she does of the culture of the skinheads themselves. But she inclines to the belief that the theories were not very helpful and that the reaction of the average concerned citizen was one of Ratlosigkeit, a useful German word meaning helplessness or bewilderment. Liberals organized candle vigils, presumably to appeal to the conscience of those Germans who had cheered on the skins as they beat up their helpless victims. Kramer quotes a West German description of the candle-bearers as “middle-aged Christians saying to God, ‘Look at us! We’re the good Germans, out for a head-count.”‘ Conservatives tended to blame everything on the foreigners, although, to be sure, this was hardly an accurate description of Turks who were long-term Gastarbeiter. Because of rightist pressure, the guaranteed right of asylum to “any politically persecuted person” was deleted from the constitution, and Germany can no longer claim to have the most liberal asylum laws in Europe. Prejudice against foreigners is now so strong that the country cannot soon expect a rational immigration policy, which it sorely needs. The national political discourse, moreover, has begun once more to be infected by terms like “German values” and “German identity.”

Meanwhile, Germans have continued to try to come to terms with the Nazi past, an agonizing task, particularly for Germans of the post-1933 generations, who bear no direct responsibility for the atrocities of that time and yet, as the historian Christian Meier once said, must continue to suffer from “this wound that festers and aches and demands our attention and absorbs much of our being.”10 Kramer sometimes seems insensitive to this dilemma, as when she writes that for the past fifty years “Germans have been trying to talk their way out of an unutterable past and back into what they like to call History.” But after one has read her impressive essay about the project for a Holocaust memorial in Berlin, it is hard to deny that a lot of Germans seem to “have lost patience with the painful plain truths of recapitulation” and come to prefer “the symbolic simplicities of objectification.” These include the Chancellor, an early supporter of the memorial idea, although, as Kramer writes sardonically, he wanted “something discreet, something to show the world that whatever anyone said about Jews and Germans, their relations were tranquil,” and “they had all been liberated on May 8, 1945,” and hence were all victims.This was not enough for Lea Rosh, the TV talk show hostess, who had from the beginning been the memorial’s most dedicated promoter. She wanted a monument that was “big like the crime” and the design she chose was grandiose in the extreme, calling for the erection of a hundred-and-eight-thousand-square-foot tilted concrete slab—a “tombstone bigger than a football field,” as someone remarked—in which the names of four million two hundred thousand Jewish victims of the Holocaust would be engraved.

A lot of people had objected from the beginning that there was no need for a memorial, since the concentration camps themselves were the proper places of memory, and they were appalled by the design. So were some distinguished members of the Jewish community, who made incisive and telling criticisms, pointing out, for example, that it would take thirty years to carve the names and that in the end you would have a thousand Moses Rabbinowitsches whom no one could tell apart. This annoyed Lea Rosh, who made the mistake of saying that she didn’t think that the Jews had any right to complain, since “it’s the successors of the perpetrators who are building this memorial, not the Jews.” (Rosh, incidentally, is partly Jewish herself, her mother’s father having been a Berlin Jew, and she changed her first name from Edith to Lea, presumably as an act of identification with the Jews.) A major crisis threatened to erupt, which led the Chancellor to veto the tombstone and call for a period of reconsideration.

Kramer is not very fond of Helmut Kohl; she suggests more than once in her book that he contributed to the strained relationship between East and West Germans by “buying” East Germany from Gorbachev, surely a reductionist view of the complicated diplomatic campaign that led to unification, and one that gives little credit to those East Germans whose agitations in the streets of Leipzig and Dresden helped force the Honecker regime from power; but she does not deny that he showed good sense in blowing the whistle on Lea Rosh. But this, of course, left the Germans with the problem of their Nazi past, and this could not be solved by the Chancellor’s other favorite project, the German Historical Museum in the old armory on Unter den Linden, whose balanced and essentially noncommittal displays were powerless either to explain or exculpate.


It remains, after Kramer’s fascinating exploration of the German psyche and of the strains between the two halves of the country, to ask how well the unification process is working. The New York Times posed this question not so long ago and came to the conclusion that it was working relatively well and seemed to be meeting everyone’s expectations except the Germans’.11 In view of the fact that the Germans are the strongest believers in Murphy’s Law in Europe, this was perhaps to be expected. But when we recall the dark fears expressed in 1989, when unification first became a possibility (like Conor Cruise O’Brien’s warning in The Times of London that if it were allowed to go forward, a wave of nationalism would sweep over Germany, and there would be a statue of Hitler in every town), 12 the situation thus far is nevertheless reassuring. There have been no signs of military adventurism in the new Germany, and if its allies have on occasion been fretful, it has been because of what they consider an excess of German caution in the support of joint enterprises. In a recent interview with a German critic, the French politician and former defense minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement expressed concern lest Germany become too much the Statthalter—or proxy—for the United States in Europe, using its growing economic strength to follow a policy of market economy and competition raised to the highest degree in order to plunder the European poor and the countries to the south.13 But there is not much evidence of that so far, and Germany’s present internal economic troubles are too great to permit so ambitious a policy.

The economic problems currently plaguing Germany, particularly an unemployment rate that is over 15 percent in the east and over 9 percent in the west, are partly the result of government miscalculations of the costs of unification and partly of structural problems that are affecting the economies of all European countries. There is no reason to suppose that they will be permanent. (And meanwhile the unemployed workers in the east, according to The New York Times’s calculations, make more than they did holding jobs under Communism.) By 1995 growth figures in both parts of Germany were up (8.5 percent in the east); investment in East Germany was increasing significantly; the national balance of trade was healthy; and the public opinion surveys of the Allensbach Institute recorded the highest jump in optimism in thirty-five years.

Although there was much criticism of politicians (Politikverdrossenheit is almost as popular in Germany as Angst) and there were significant defections from the parties of the middle, the parties of the extreme right did not profit from this and, in the October elections of 1994, the Kohl coalition won a narrow but working majority, a reassuring sign of continuity. As David Schoenbaum and Elizabeth Pond have written in an interesting new book,

Imperceptibly the apprehension lifted, and the old consensus reasserted itself, in steady, unspectacular adaptation to the new cosmos…. All told, the united Germans could look back at their first five years and say, with the famous gibe about Wagner, that the music hadn’t been as bad as it sounded.14

To be sure, the problem of dealing with the Nazi past remained. But in a time when people were beginning to say that Germany was becoming a normal nation again—stinknormal in the Berlin term15—more and more Germans were beginning to realize what normality requires. As the American historian James Sheehan wrote recently, “It is worth remembering that normal nations are confronted with domestic conflicts, social divisions, and political dilemmas and that in addition they are nations with histories, often complicated, painful and difficult histories, with which they must learn to live.”16 The best way of mastering the past is not to forget it.

This Issue

October 31, 1996