The Politics of Memory: Looking for Germany in the New Germany
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.