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…

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