German Vergangenheitsbewältigung, 1961 - 1999 : selected historiographic controversies and their impact on national identity

WCU Author/Contributor (non-WCU co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Christine Richert Nugent (Creator)
Western Carolina University (WCU )
Web Site:
David Dorondo

Abstract: Focusing on Germany, this study addresses the question how a national community can go about incorporating its crimes against others into its ‘national memorial landscape,’ a term coined by James E. Young. After the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany at the end of WWII, Germany had to redefine its national identity, in light of its National Socialist past, in order to rejoin the community of democratic nations. This study focuses on that process, which in the Federal Republic of Germany has taken place largely by working through competing interpretations of the National Socialist legacy; a process also known as ‘reckoning with the Nazi past’ or Vergangenheitsbewältigung. The process involves complex relationships between public and private representations and interpretations of the past, scholarly and lay perspectives, academic and popular approaches, political and personal motivations, and individual and collective memories. The resulting ‘memory contests’ are by definition pluralistic and generally contentious. They deal with competing interpretations of the past, interpretations that are of critical importance to the self understanding of individuals, groups, and nations. This study focuses on five controversies that not only served as catalysts for reckoning with the recent past, but also significantly shaped German national self-consciousness. They are the Fischer Controversy (1961-64), the Historikerstreit (1986/87), the Goldhagen Affair (1995), the controversy over the Wehrmachtsausstellung (1995-99), and the Walser- Bubis-Debate (1998/99). Together, these debates about the legacy of National Socialism shaped what has become known as the ‘history culture’ of the Federal Republic of Germany, with implications for the political culture of the country as well. This study argues that the first and the last contests were bracketing events. They signified a beginning and an end to a particular way of reckoning with the Nazi past. The major themes, namely the role of the past in the present, the role of professional historians in constructing the past, the interplay between public and private memory, and the impact of (competing) conceptions of the past on national identity, were present in all five, but the study demonstrates that they played out differently in each one. The study further argues that while the historicization of National Socialism has probably become inevitable by the end of the twentieth century, it took the process of working through the five catalytic events in order to get to that point. Yet the process traced here does not demonstrate progress nor was it inevitable in the way that it played out; rather, it was complex and ‘messy’ and is unlikely to be over any time soon, even though the generation that has witnessed WWII first-hand is about to leave the scene. The study concludes that the past, regardless of how riddled with traumatic or criminal events, will remain important as individuals, groups, and nations discover and rediscover their historical roots and negotiate who they are in the world. The focus here is on post-war Germany, yet the issues connected with forging memorial landscapes that incorporate proud as well as burdening aspects of a national past are applicable beyond the German context.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2010
Controversy over the 'Wehrmachtsausstellung', Fischer Controversy, Goldhagen Affair, Historikerstreit, Reckoning with the National Socialist Past, Walser-Bubis-Debate
Germany -- Historiography -- 20th century
Germany -- History -- 20th century -- Historiography
National socialism and historiography

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