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Towards the ‘Renationalization’ of Historical Memory? Tendencies of Commemoration Practices in Contemporary Germany


“The Second World War is finally over.”

- Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, in response to Jacques Chirac’s invitation to the 60th annual commemorative D-Day celebration 2004 


Since the late 1990s, Germany has witnessed a dramatic trend toward the historicization  of its National Socialist past. Yet, sixty years after the Second World War Germany’s relationship to its history confronts new challenges. The confluence of two societies with separate post-war experiences after the reunification of East and West Germany has resulted in a “crisis of historical commemoration,”  marked by an “uneven conflation of antagonistic memory regimes.”   With the effort towards integration of the GDR experience into German public consciousness, the National Socialist past is no longer the only historical point of reference for German self-identification. Victims of communist persecution are now clamouring for recognition and commemoration.

The evolving relationship between history and memory finds expression in a recent motion put forth by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) faction to the Bundestag, entitled “Funding of Memorials of the History of Dictatorships in Germany – A General Concept for a Dignified Commemoration of all Victims of the two German Dictatorships.”  This proposal was submitted on the symbolic date of June 17, 2004, just one year after the massive 50th anniversary commemoration of the ‘rebellion’ against SED authority.  Ostensibly intended to restructure the funding of memorials of both dictatorships, this demand calls for greater national attention to GDR victims.  Specifically, the authors of this demand request that GDR history be considered as part of a common German history as opposed to a regional East German one, and therefore that all the federal states share the burden of financing important memorial sites for GDR persecution and opposition-resistance (as is already the case for several important National Socialist history sites).  Günter Nooke, the initiator of this debate (and an East German activist in the former GDR’s movement for civil rights and democracy), insists that this motion is motivated by technical objectives.  Others interpret the motion as a sign of the renaissance of the totalitarian theory that inspired memorial-making in the 1950s and 60s and is epitomized in the Neue Wache, the federal memorial in Berlin to the “victims of war and tyranny” created by Chancellor Helmut Kohl (also CDU) in 1994. 

The memorial equalizes those killed in repressive totalitarian systems and those killed in war (even those who had been former perpetrators), abstracting the notion of commemoration and victimhood into meaninglessness. In the same spirit as the Neue Wache, the CDU demand, with its slippery, imprecise language, alludes to both victims of National Socialist and of communist regimes in the same breath, blurring the distinction between them.  For example, the CDU demand states, “the resistance against these dictatorships was marked by uncountable victims.”   Lumping all those who suffered and died into one category of “uncountable victims,” however, is misleading.  Historian Thomas Lindeberger explains, “We know the names and biographies of nearly all murdered GDR victims, but we do not know the individual histories of National Socialist victims due to its different dimensions.”

Such an abstract or generalized regard to  the “history of dictatorships”  is not representative of the scientific achievement attained over the course of three decades of intense preoccupation with the National Socialist past (and a whole decade of energetic work on the GDR past).  In fact, this demand may well be a step backwards, a regression in the level of precision and clarity.  It seems, however, that a main motivation for mixing both National Socialist and GDR histories in a provocative way is to demand societal recognition and to ameliorate the GDR victims’ perceived “second class victim” status.  While no victim group that has suffered human rights violations or political oppression should be denied the right to seek public recognition, it is evident that the commemoration should refer to the historical context of the persecution; an adequate contextualization renders comparison and hierarchization of victims useless.

Two Totalitarian Regimes

Politician Günter Nooke and historian Hubertus Knabe (Scientific Director of the Memorial Site of the former Stasi prison, Berlin Hohenschönhausen) assert that emphasizing the continuity of history and of dictatorship, especially at sites used initially as concentration camps and later as Soviet ‘special camps,’  calls into question the uniqueness or singularity of history and thus teaches us that repetition or recurrence is possible.  The CDU motion highlights the important lesson arising from the comparison of two totalitarian regimes: “The memory of both dictatorships, which has been linked by hostility against democracy and a constitutional state, sharpens the consciousness for the value of liberty, rights, and democracy.” 

At the same time, remembering the GDR as a continuation or an extension of Nazism would be a gross distortion, just as we risk relativizing the Nazi era into a less harmful or less racist period by equating it with the GDR period.  “A camp like Auschwitz has nothing to do with a prison like Hohenschönhausen,” Rikola-Gunnar Lüttgenau (Assistant Director of Buchenwald Memorial) told us.  “The history may be linked, in terms of the location of the concentration camp and [Soviet] special camp, as it is at Buchenwald, but this does not mean that the suffering is linked.”  Furthermore, to label both the Nazi and SED regimes ‘dictatorships’ and emphasize only the commonality of political oppression that occurred within each system obscures the fact that the ideologies propelling these two totalitarian systems were remarkably different.

Commemoration and contextualization come to a head in the CDU’s request for recognition of “victims of war and expulsion, civil victims of allied air raids during the Second World War, and peaceful revolution and establishment of German unity,” and in the controversial initiative (mentioned indirectly in the recent motion) by CDU parliamentarian Erika Steinbach to create a memorial museum of 20th century expulsions focused on Germans expelled from Central and Eastern Europe after the Second World War.  While Steinbach likens her initiative to the “missing piece of the puzzle of history,” international criticism for this commemoration (especially from Poles) has arisen, ironically, from fear that the memorial will not adequately address the historical context of the expulsions but will focus primarily on the theme of individual suffering.  Public debate over this memorial revolves around the perspective from which the expulsions will be depicted-- either in a European way, through a German-Polish cooperation, or from a uniquely German standpoint.  Particularly in Poland and the Czech Republic, this initiative for commemorating German expellees, like the question of commemorating German victims of allied bombing, has been viewed as proof of a nationalistic “tendency toward retrospective self-victimization.” 

The CDU’s demand for inclusion of commemoration plans for German expellees and German civilian bombing victims is indicative of what Thomas Lutz (Head of  Memorial Department at the Topography of Terror Foundation) dubs the ‘renationalization’ of German memory.  The first version of this CDU demand mentioned the word ‘national’ or ‘national history’ thirteen times.  In our interview, Günter Nooke  did not understand why we asked him questions about Europeanization and creating a more common European memory.  For him, this proposal is about the national parliament dealing with the national issue of national memorials.  At no point does the CDU motion call for a more global interpretation of National Socialist and Communist history; in fact there seems to be a blatant disregard of the international context of both dictatorships.  Although National Socialism was a German regime, it obviously did not affect only Germans.  It started in Germany but spread oppressively into Europe.  Similarly, the communist GDR was a satellite of an international system constructed by the Soviet Union.  Germany’s experience of two dictatorships offers a unique capacity to serve as a bridge between several European countries, but the insistence on a more or less nationalistic conception of German history seems to be part of a conservative desire for the Berlin Republic to stimulate a positive German national identity, to become a more ‘normal’ nation with a more ‘normal’ national consciousness.

In the past decade, the German Bundestag has attempted to come to a common consensus regarding memorial policy, through conversations among the various parties (except the PDS, successor to the former ruling state party in East Germany, the SED) about a particular demand before its official submission.  As the recent motion was brought in without prior discussion and coordination, it seems that the integration of GDR experience into common commemorative culture has separated the parties further along conservative and liberal, left-wing lines.   With all the challenges ahead for creating a unified memorial culture, this recent motion may be a bad omen (even if this commemorative culture is usually upheld by civil society not by politicians).

Broadening Knowledge of GDR History

In order to transcend the division of German memory, a broader discussion of GDR history must be initiated, a discussion not just of dates and political systems and memorial museums, but one which offers a more general understanding of daily GDR life.  In West Germany, the children of the World War II generation broke the ‘wall of silence’ following 1968, confronting their parents with their ugly past and demanding appropriate public commemoration of the National Socialist victims.  Thomas Lutz actually attributes the success of democracy in West Germany to the liveliness and openness of the subsequent public debate. An open discussion about GDR history and the different potential relationships (participation, distance, resistance) to SED authority could also function in a similar way for the “new Länder”, though admittedly the recentness of the GDR past and personal complicity may prove to be psychological obstacles.

In terms of physical challenges, there is particular concern with the conservation of communist buildings as political and educational institutions. Whereas the places of Nazi dictatorship have been mostly destroyed, much communist architecture remains intact and may very well serve as authentic space for commemoration and education.   GDR history has received significant institutional attention, for example from the foundation “Aufarbeitung,” from the office of the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former GDR, and also from the criminal juridical investigations in the 90’s.  It is perhaps important to note that persons working in memorial sites for National Socialist persecution view the GDR memorials as better equipped than their own institutions, while proponents of the CDU motion (who tend to be affiliated with GDR remembrance) emphasize the paucity of funds and poor conditions of GDR commemorative sites.  Nevertheless, both sides agree on the need to professionalize the GDR memorials, with pedagogical departments staffed by academics and experts.  Knabe, speaking on behalf of Hohenschönhausen and other GDR memorial sites, told us quite explicitly, “We would like to attain the same professional level as the National Socialist memorials and former concentrations camps have.”

The ideal prototypes for modernizing commemoration and negotiating the rivalry between different memories and different victim groups are currently Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen, where multiple layers of history are commemorated in one place.  Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen first served as Nazi concentration camps and later as Soviet internment camps or ‘special camps’ (to imprison mainly members of the National Socialist party from 1945 to 1950).  During the discussions after German reunification about how to transform the Buchenwald memorial with its antifascist museology (that originated during GDR times) to a more contemporary and appropriate memorial site,  survivors of Nazi persecution protested any sort of commemoration of their torturers.  A survivor of Buchenwald concentration camp even accused the memorial-makers of building a “Nazi memorial,”  but the controversy subsided after the change in the museology and with the inauguration of three new permanent exhibitions, on the history of the concentration camp (1995), on the history of the special camp (1997), and on the history of the memorial (1999).  Next to these exhibitions which represented the different phases of this site in great detail, two separate advisory boards composed of former inmates from each period were created.

The debate surrounding the CDU proposal portrays the National Socialist and GDR histories in a competitive light.  It is true that competition exists regarding money and victims (who are instrumentalized also for political aims), but simply put, the memories of each time period are in different stages of development.  National Socialist history has matured with an abundance of research and documentation.  It is also quite visible, referenced constantly in the media and in political speeches.  Historicization has now become inevitable, as eyewitnesses and survivors pass away and the personal or emotional connection to history diminishes.  Historicization is also required for a greater possible degree of objective reflection.  The task now is to avoid relativization of the National Socialist past by maintaining a precise and detailed historical regard (in the framework of a pluralistic memory culture based on democracy and concern for human rights). 

Another challenge for German commemorative culture arises from the changing demographics and the absorption of immigrants into German society.  The ethnocentric approach to history, especially in education, is evidence of the fact that Germany has not come to grips with its status as an immigrant society.  Schools should move towards teaching a more open and accessible European history that emphasizes the links between national histories and incorporates a plurality of perspectives.  ‘How do we make our (German) history accessible to them [foreigners or German citizens with various ethnic backgrounds]?’ may just be the wrong question.  No national history is constructed in a vacuum, isolated from the world.  The stories of Turkish Jews in Berlin deported to Auschwitz or the German sympathy for Turkish perpetrators of the Armenian genocide after the First World War serve as examples of transnational historical connections that could be incorporated into German history curricula.

There also exists the problem of collective awareness.  The general consensus among our interviewees was that Germany should give more attention to its GDR history in the public sphere as well as in schools and universities.   No one can force people to learn or remember or pay attention.  Next to the question of conceptualizing a history that is accessible to various groups then is the question of transporting remembrance through an innovative mix of media and pedagogical instruments that resonate in people’s heads.  

Physical Memorials

Physical memorials are, of course, also instrumental in constructing public awareness.  Memorials serve as expressions of the intersection of complicated historical, political, and aesthetic axes.  They represent the relationship between history, (collected or collective) memory, trauma, and identity- a relationship that is translated spatially and through metaphor.  As objects of engagement, memorials should be interactive, dialectic, and dialogical.

Historian Annegret Ehmann argues that with the creation of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the more remote memorials (or those commemorating victim groups other than the Jews) embedded in the landscape of Berlin will be neglected.  “People will hit the Jewish Museum, the Topography of Terror, and the Holocaust Memorial for a ‘horror quickie,’ and that will be it,” she said.  Her cynical comment exposes the ironic danger of memorializing: once a memorial is constructed, people start historicizing, distancing themselves, or even worse, forgetting.  

Commemorative culture is to a large extent commercialized and driven by politics; remembrance is often a matter of the force of certain lobby groups.  The Neue Wache, for example, was the result of game of quid pro quo—the central German memorial commemorating victims of war and tyranny in exchange for the Holocaust memorial.    (To be more precise, support for the Holocaust memorial was contingent upon the participation of the President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Ignatz Bubis, in the inaugural ceremony for the Neue Wache.)

If politics of memory reflect more about policymakers and the present state of affairs than about the historical realities their policies profess to commemorate, then we can read the actual debate surrounding the CDU motion as evidence of a potential paradigmatic shift in German commemorative culture.  Could it also perhaps foreshadow an official memorial policy of a conservative government if the CDU takes the majority in the federal Bundestag elections of 2006?  Nooke expressed to us his desire to place the traditional wreath not only on the synagogue this November 9, to commemorate the victims of the so-called “Reichskristallnacht,” but to place another new wreath also on the Berlin Wall memorial, to honour the peaceful revolution that precipitated the end of the GDR.  Yes, we agree, but please, a smaller wreath.




Personal Interviews

Annegret Ehmann, Historian and Pedagogical Expert, Facing History and Ourselves, Berlin, June 22, 2004

Lore Kleiber, Pedagogical Staff, House of the Wannsee Conference, Berlin, June 23, 2004

Günter Nooke, Member of Parliament, CDU Party, Berlin, June 24, 2004

Thomas Lutz, Head of Memorial Department of Topography of Terror Foundation, Berlin, June 25, 2004

Dr. Tobias Brinkmann, Simon-Dubnow-Institute for Jewish History and Culture at the University of Leipzig, Berlin, June 25, 2004

Ulla Kux, Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, Berlin, June 25, 2004

Rikola-Gunnar Lüttgenau, Assistant Director of the Memorials of Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora, Weimar, June 28, 2004 

Dr. Andreas Eberhardt, ‘Gegen Vergessen für Demokratie e.V.,’ Berlin, June 29, 2004 

Dr. Ronald Hirschfeld, The Federal Agency for Civic Education, Berlin, June 29, 2004 

Dr. Pertti Ahonen, Lecturer in Modern History, University of Sheffield, Berlin, June 29, 2004 

Erika Steinbach, Member of Parliament, CDU Party, Berlin, June 30, 2004 

Dr. Hubertus Knabe, Scientific Director of the Memorial Berlin - Hohenschönhausen, Berlin, June 30, 2004 

Dr. Thomas Lindenberger, Center for Contemporary Historical Research, Potsdam, July 5, 2004

Dr. Gabriele Camphausen, Head of the Office for Educational and Research Affairs at the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic, Berlin, July 6, 2004

Written Sources

Buchstab, Günter, Zur Gedenkstättenproblematik, Dokumentation der Veranstaltung vom 30. Januar 2004, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Sankt Augustin, 2004. 

Deutscher Bundestag, Drucksache 15/1874: Motion of the CDU/CSU, “Funding of Memorials of the History of Dictatorships in Germany – A General Concept for a Dignified Commemoration of all Victims of the two German Dictatorships,” Nov. 4, 2003.

Deutscher Bundestag, Drucksache 15/3048: Motion of the CDU/CSU, “Funding of Memorials of the History of Dictatorships in Germany – A General Concept for a Dignified Commemoration of all Victims of the two German Dictatorships,” May 5, 2004.

Englehardt, Isabelle, A Topography of Memory: Representations of the Holocaust at Dachau and Buchenwald in Comparison with Auschwitz, Yad Vashem and Washington, DC, P.I.E.- Peter Lang: Brussels, 2002.

Hofmann, Gunter, “Sehnsucht nach Anerkennung,” Die Zeit, June 24, 2004, p. 33. 

Jarausch, Konrad H., “Normalisierung oder Re-Nationalisierung?, Zur Umdeutung der deutschen Vergangenheit,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 21, 1995, p. 571-584.

Jarausch, Konrad H. and Michael Geyer, Shattered Past: Reconstructing German Histories, Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2003.

Kaminsky, Annette, Orte des Erinnerns: Gedenkzeichen, Gedenkstätten und Museen zur Diktatur in SBZ und DDR, Leipzig, 2004.

Knabe, Hubertus, “Die Osteuropäer und ihre Geschichte,” Die Welt, May 6, 2004. 

Lau, Jörg, “Fatales Abwägen. Das Holocaust-Gedenken gerät in Konkurrenz zur Aufarbeitung des Stalinismus,” Die Zeit, Feb. 5, 2004.  

Meckel, Markus and Rainer Eppelmann, “Die Auseinandersetzung mit den Diktaturen Deutschlands darf nicht Gegenstand des politischen Tageskampfes werden,” Press Release 

from the foundation “Aufarbeitung,” Jan. 30, 2003.

Reichel, Peter, Politik mit der Erinnerung: Gedächtnisorte im Streit um die nationalsozialistische Vergangenheit, Frankfurt a. M. 1999.  

Swiebocka, Teresa, Chair of the Memorials Working Group, “Letter to the party leaders in the German Parliament,” June 9, 2004.


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