Below is a talk I gave in Lille last week, at a conference on the transnational representation of flight and expulsion. I am afraid I did not quite manage to focus on the transnational, but I thought the talk might be of interest anyway. This is a big post, so feel free to skip!!
Details of the conference at
Unreconcilable? Memory of the Holocaust and of Flight and Expulsion
In addressing the above question, I want to focus mainly on the 1979-1981 period, and on West Germany. Much of what I say about these years may also apply to earlier, or later moments in West German or united German history. Nevertheless, the paper does not represent an attempt to examine the whole post-1945 history of the relationship between memory of the Holocaust, and memory of flight and expulsion. And I don’t even mention the GDR. As will become clear, however, I do see the 1979-1981 period as a significant moment in this relationship, one in which, as it were, certain patterns crystallised clearly and gained traction in the public realm to an unprecedented degree. Towards the end of the paper, I will explore developments since 1981.
In January 1979, the American television series “Holocaust” was shown on West German television. Generally, very much in line with the presumption that all good things come from America, this series is credited with having triggered a more open confrontation with the Holocaust in West Germany than had hitherto been the case. Often overlooked in this narrative of US-fostered Vergangenheitsbewältigung is the fact that, in sections of the conservative and even liberal press, the TV series was sometimes criticised, for a variety of reasons. In the far-right wing press, voice was given to the suspicion that anti-German agendas were behind the series. On the one hand, the showing of Holocaust played a significant role in bringing about the West German parliament’s decision to lift the statute of limitations on murder. On the other, it led to anger that the Federal government continued to refuse to publish an official Federal Archive report on crimes committed against Germans during flight and expulsion. Even Nobel prize-winning Heinrich Böll weighed in on the side of those calling for its publication, “um”, so he said, “ohne Widerspruch zum Gedanken der Völkerverständigung endlich auch dieser Wahrheit Raum zu geben“. Without doubt, the airing of Holocaust led to soul-searching discussions about German guilt, in the media, universities and individual families. Yet within almost exactly two years of the airing of Holocaust, German television screened a three-part documentary on flight and expulsion, Flucht und Vertreibung, on ARD on 22 January 1981. The idea for the series predated the showing of Holocaust in Germany, but it was produced and made against the background of Holocaust, its makers were encouraged to proceed with it not least by expellee organisations such as the Sudeten German Homeland Society. I quote from the Sudetendeutsche Zeitung: “Wenn die deutschen Fernsehanstalten mit ‘Holocaust’ hinsichtlich der dem deutschen Volk angelasteten Verbrechen A gesagt habe, dann wäre es ihre Pflicht, mit der Darstellung von Verbrechen, die an Deutschen begangen wurden, auch B zu sagen”.
Do we need to readjust our understanding of the impact of Holocaust? And argue that it did not result in one-way memory traffic? It is not just that the Flucht und Vertreibung series emerged in its wake – being watched by some 10 million people. As in the case of the aftermath of the showing of Holocaust, the showing of Flucht und Vertreibung led to a whole array of newspaper articles and magazine features. Between 1982 and 1984, there was a marked increase in commercial popular histories of flight and expulsion, culminating in DTV’s reprint of the Schieder documentation in 1985, and intensified by the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in 1985 (e.g. a number of exhibitions). Those of you who have enjoyed Michael Rothberg’s influential Multidirectional Memories might recognise some of his ideas at work here: is this not a case of Holocaust memory invigorating memory of another traumatic set of events, in this case flight and expulsion? Certainly, reading through press reactions at the time – and by press reactions I do not just mean the expellee press, but mainstream German newspapers as well – one gains the impression commentators believed there to have been a taboo on the articulation of German suffering which had finally been broken. If we assume for the moment that there was one – a paper on this topic would take another 45 minutes, at least – in what relation does this taboo-breaking stand to the showing of Holocaust? The view of the expellee newspaper Sudetendeutsche Zeitung was clear enough: “erst der einseitige amerikanische Film ‘Holocaust’ über das Schicksal der Juden hat ein Aufbegehren in Deutschland gebracht und den deutschen Holocaust in den Blickwinkel zumindest der einheimischen Bevölkerung gerückt”. On this reading, the emerging interest in flight and expulsion was a justified counterreaction to the showing of Holocaust, an attempt to restore a more balanced view of the distribution of victimhood and perpetration. Karl-Heinz Janssen writing in Die Zeit, on the other hand, dismisses the idea that the Flucht und Vertreibung series was some kind of riposte to the Holocaust TV series – or an “anti-Holocaust” – arguing instead, simply, that the time was ripe for a focus on the expulsions; he points to generational changes, and literary confrontations with the theme in works from the 1970s by Horst Bienek and Arno Surminski, among others. That the time was ripe is a view echoed by Günther Rühle in the FAZ in January 1981, although Rühle clearly believes that the Holocaust series served to intensify a necessity: “spätestens Holocaust hat allen begreiflich gemacht, wie nötig, wie reinigend, die Anschauung und Auseinandersetzung mit den finsteren und schmerzhaften Geschehnissen der eigenen Geschichte ist”. Rühle perceived there to be parallels in patterns of memory between West German reactions to the history of the Holocaust on the one hand, and flight and expulsion on the other, with both subject to processes of suppression, even taboo, and subsequent reemergence. Processes, one might add, that were interdependent, as the dominance of one memory almost seemed to bring with it the occlusion of the other, as if, indeed, they could not coexist. That changed, we might say, with the showing of Holocaust and Flucht und Vertreibung within two years of each other.
One might argue, then, that it was not so much a question of one series triggering the other, as of West Germany being ready, for the first time in its history, to confront both of these events openly, and in relation to one another. One might argue, too, that there were plenty of other reasons why flight and expulsion should suddenly capture the imaginations of media and viewers: some critics in 1981 pointed to the Cambodian and Vietnamese refugee crises of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and to the ongoing influx of Spätaussiedler and Gastarbeiter into West Germany: to understand the global present, and its own present, West Germany needed to be sensitised to its own history of flight and expulsion – and this quite independent of arguments surrounding cause and responsibility. Similar arguments could be heard following the Kosovo crisis and the resulting refugee crisis in the 1990s, when flight and expulsion again emerged as a central focus for German memory. Yet I still think we need to be aware, to use Rothberg’s term, of multidirectional interactions between these memories at this time. These connections, though, cannot be reduced to one simple formula.
For the expellee press, the Flucht und Vertreibung series did indeed represent, if not an attempt to balance the books (Aufrechnung) – a term I will come back to later – then at least an attempt to highlight that there had been two Holocausts: one against Jews, and one against Germans. The expellee organisations struggled to accept the increasing focus on the Holocaust in West Germany. The reasons are not hard to fathom. If the history of the Second World War was reduced to one of German perpetration and victimisation by Germans, then acts of perpetration against Germans during flight and expulsion would vanish from view. Moreover, if Germans were perceived solely as perpetrators, and Jews, Poles, Czechs and others solely as their victims, then what earthly chance would there be of compensation for loss of homeland, or indeed for the admittedly ever-dwindling hopes of return? I do not want to claim that the expellee organisations ignored the Holocaust. Indeed they often drew attention to the sufferings of individual Jews under Nazism in the former eastern territories. Nevertheless, the expellee press reacted with undisguised anger at the Holocaust TV series, and interpreted the Flucht und Vertreibung series – even if they were not entirely happy with it – as a necessary reply. In expellee discourse, these different memories, here flight and expulsion, there the Holocaust, existed in an antagonistic relation to one another. They were competing memories, because the hegemony of one or the other had enormous implications for a range of important political, economic and cultural foreign policy issues. Vergangenheitspolitik was the key.
But, looking beyond the circle of expellee organisations, the relationship between memory of the Holocaust and of flight and expulsion was not only antagonistic, it was also cyclical. Similarly, after unification, German memory seemed almost obsessively focused on German crime and guilt, as the long-running Crimes of the Wehrmacht exhibition demonstrated. Then, perhaps with the publication of Günter Grass’s novella Im Krebsgang (2002), the pendulum seemed to swing the other way. Such swings can partly be explained by counterreactions of a psychological kind. It is not easy to be confronted, intensively, with one’s nation’s crimes. In Britain, we simply deny we ever committed any. Occupied Germany after 1945 did not have that luxury. Inevitably, any sustained focus on guilt is only bearable to a degree; every human being needs to be able to feel a righteous sense of pain at the slights he or she has endured. Psychological balance is otherwise impossible. The same goes for collectives.
Undoubtedly, antagonistic and cyclical memory are linked, but cyclical memory is not necessarily driven by denial or resentment. Indeed, whether we are talking about antagonistic or cyclical memory can often be distinguished by the way the term “Tabu” is used. As I said earlier, when the Flucht und Vertreibung television series was shown, many newspapers from the mainstream broadsheets through to the expellee press wrote of the breaking of a taboo. In expellee newspapers, the term “Tabu” or “Tabuisierung” had an indignant, angry, accusatory ring to it, with the Social Democrats the main target of the accusation. But in the regular German press, that was not really the case, any more than it was in 2002, when Günter Grass’s Im Krebsgang was greeted with assertions of the overcoming of a taboo. Here, the sense was one of relief, and it was simultaneously apologetic. Rather than simply asking whether a topic was or was not taboo, we also need to ask why people thought it was taboo when it might not have been, and we need to ask what the psychological or ethical function is of a taboo claim. In 1981, so it seems to me, many commentators felt they could only talk about German suffering by first making an excuse for doing so, and that excuse was the existence of a long-standing taboo. The shadow of the Holocaust looms over the word “taboo”, not just because it possibly led to one on German suffering – although that is debatable – and not just because it was blamed for having done so, but also because many Germans felt they could only talk about their own suffering by first giving themselves permission: “we were not allowed to talk about it until now”. For many of those who watched Flucht und Vertreibung in 1981, though, it really was as if a silence had been ended, a silence that might have resulted from any number of factors, possibly in combination: such factors might have included personal reluctance to talk about the past, family disinterest, social hostility to the topic, or fear of being tarred with the brush of revisionism – for while the expellee organisations accused the West German government of imposing a taboo on flight and expulsion, there is also reason to believe they themselves were in part responsible for creating the taboo they so vehemently condemned. Their instrumentalisation of flight and expulsion for political purposes, namely to underpin the right of return, created a climate in which the mere mention of the experience could be misinterpreted as motivated by revisionist ends.
Let me mention a personal memory here. When I lived in Munich, I used to attend, every Thursday evening, a reading club run by the Volkshochschule. I was the only male. I got to know the other participants quite well, all of whom were considerably older than me. Years later, I revisited Munich with my wife, and we were invited to a reunion of the reading club. I was asked what I was researching currently. Flight and expulsion, I replied. Immediately, these women whom I thought I knew well began to talk about their own flight and expulsion, or that of their parents. Why did you never talk to me about this before, I asked? Because you never asked, was the answer. Did you talk about it at all, I asked further. No, was the answer. Noone was interested. Noone wanted to hear. And we were afraid of being associated with the expellee organisations. “Wir wollten nichts ins rechte Eck gestellt werden”, was the phrase I remembered, though I may have got that wrong. When the women began to talk, they kept saying to me, “wir wollen nicht aufrechnen”. I had read that phrase so often in the expellee press, often in articles which simultaneously inflated the number of Sudeten Germans that fell victim to Czech brutality. In that context, “wir wollen nicht aufrechnen” really meant “wir wollen doch aufrechnen”. But when these women said “wir wollen nicht aufrechnen”, they meant it, and simultaneously they were saying “WIR wollen nicht aufrechnen”. For them, by saying this, they were dissociating themselves sincerely from what they perceived as the insincere protestations of the expellee press.
The competitive arithmetics of mass death and mass population movements was one aspect of what I called the antagonistic relationship between memory of the Holocaust and of flight and expulsion. The aim of revisionist thinkers in the 1970s and 1980s and even after 1990 was to create a balanced ledger, an economic approach to ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ that involved a fair deal of fiddling the books. But was memory of the Holocaust and flight and expulsion only competitive? Was this the case, to stay with the period I am looking at, between 1979 and 1981? In the multi-authored Opa war kein Nazi, there is a passage which suggests that an expellee who remembered being expelled in a freight or cattle wagon had somehow got this notion from watching TV programs about the Holocaust. The editors of that volume might have considered that many expellees were indeed expelled in cattle wagons, and that seeing images of Jews being deported might indeed have evoked memories of their own removal. It is, quite frankly, not fair to accuse expellees who saw echoes of their own experiences in images of Jewish deportation or even of concentration camps of trying, as it were parasitically, to adopt the victim status reserved for Jews – what the editors call “Wechselrahmung”. My father was among those who liberated Japanese camps where British POWs had been held, under appalling conditions. In the 1980s, he began to buy books about the Holocaust. Images of the Nazi camps he had seen on television reminded him of the Japanese camps he had helped to liberate. Noone would think of accusing my father of confusing his experience with that of the liberators of Bergen-Belsen, because there is no earthly reason why he should do so. But because German expellees were part of the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft before they became expellees, we assume that any reference on their part to similarities between images of Jewish deportation and their own images of their expulsion are necessarily part of an attempt to deny their guilt and line themselves up on the side of the victims. That assumption needs questioning. I wonder how many expellees, in 1979, watched Holocaust with a sense of experiential déjà vu. Imagine the situation that some of them, at least, might have watched it with double memories – of seeing Jews or Poles being deported, and of being expelled themselves. In other words, the relationship between memory of the Holocaust and memory of flight and expulsion cannot always be understood merely in terms of post hoc discursive strategies of guilt avoidance or revisionism. We can argue all we like about the incomparability of the Holocaust and flight and expulsion, but links between images happen much more spontaneously, even instinctively. “That happened to me too” does not always mean “I am also a victim” or “we were also victims”. Prima facie at least it means exactly what it says.
In addition, then, to antagonistic and cyclical memory there is an almost instinctive associative response binding images of the Holocaust and of flight and expulsion which needs to be taken seriously. The relationship between this more visceral kind of memory, and the multitude of discursive factors which influence how we imagine these two sets of events – historiographical, ethical, political – is underresearched, but probably hard to determine. I would venture to suggest that associative memory also plays its part in the cycles I described above. Images of the Holocaust trigger other memories, which call for representation. But the association between the Holocaust and flight and expulsion runs deeper than this. This, of course, begs another, particularly complicated question which was addressed in 1981, not for the first time, and certainly not for the last. How do we understand the historical relationship between the Holocaust and the flight and expulsion of Germans? Clearly, this is not merely a historical question, because upon the answer to it depends our memory of these events, and our evaluation of the fate that befell the Germans. In addition, then, to the memory frames I identified above, there is something we might call historical memory. In the course of the discussions which followed the showing of Flucht und Vertreibung in 1981, articles on the topic were often prefaced with the claims I referred to above: namely that there had been a taboo, and that remembering flight and expulsion does not mean “Aufrechnung”. The third qualification was this: flight and expulsion were the direct consequence of the German war of aggression, an aggression which had led to the Holocaust. That is to say, the historical relationship between the Second World War, including the Holocaust, and flight and expulsion was one of cause and effect. Writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in January 1981, Günther Rühle wrote: “wie nur selten in der Geschichte tritt hier der Zusammenhang von Ursache und Wirkung, Tat und Vergeltung in Erscheinung”. Rarely reflected on at the time was how significant a link in that chain of cause and effect the Holocaust had actually been, although some commentators pointed to the liberation of Nazi camps by the Soviets as an experience which had unleashed waves of anger among Red Army soldiers. By cause, generally, commentators meant the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Poland and Czechoslovakia. Yet the history of the Holocaust was nevertheless drawn into this understanding of cause and effect by the very proximity of the two television series. The American TV series Holocaust was understood as providing the background, the essential preknowledge, to the series Flucht und Vertreibung – especially in answer to the occasional criticism that the series Flucht und Vertreibung had not focused enough on Nazi atrocities. We can, I think, be brutally honest: the flight and expulsion of Germans was not in any major sense caused by reactions to the Holocaust. Certainly in the post-war months and years, the atrocities against the Jews played a relatively minor role in the anger felt by Soviets, Poles and Czechs towards Germans. Underlying the claim that you can’t talk about flight and expulsion without first mentioning the Holocaust was and is an almost metaphysical concept of causality, as well as a sense of ethical propriety. The idea that incurring guilt leads to just punishment is born of the conviction that history operates according to a moral-legal determinism: “Wer Sturm sät, wird Sturm ernten”. But this quickly gets confused with actual historical causality.
To the levels of antagonistic, cyclical, and visceral memory which emerged particularly sharply between 1979 and 1981 must, then, be added causal memory. But this had two dimensions. They are both visible in a Theodor Schieder article from December 1980, which appeared shortly before Flucht und Vertreibung was shown on West German television. Published in the Rheinischer Merkur, it bears the title “Das Jahrhundert der Vertreibungen”. Theodor Schieder was a leading German historian who, in the 1950s, had headed up the team of German historians which collated the multivolume documentation on the flight and expulsion of Germans. Schieder stresses that the expulsion of the Germans was the “schreckliche Antwort auf das Zwangs- und Terrorsystems des Nationalsozialismus”, and he places emphasis on the annihilation of the Jews as the highpoint of this system. But Schieder sees another link between the experience of the Jews and that of the expelled Germans: that of deportation in the name of processes of ethnic homogenisation. Indeed, Schieder sees the whole 20th century as marked by such processes. They became thinkable with the emergence of 19th century nationalism, which grew into a particularly potent force in the new lands that emerged from the rubble of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires after 1918. And they were officially sanctioned by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which regulated the exchange of Greeks and Turks. This is a different causal link. In this scenario, the expulsion of Germans is not, or not merely a reaction to German crime generally or the Holocaust specifically. Rather the expulsion of Germans and the deportation of Jews, culminating in the Holocaust, are symptoms of the same 20th century malaise that affected many nations, not just Germany. This malaise of ethnic nationalism was compounded, in Schieder’s view, by the aggressive socioeconomic and political exclusion and persecution of groups under Stalinism and National Socialism. Schieder’s views in this article were common currency in expellee newspapers. In 1980 and 1981, I can see evidence that they began to find their way into mainstream discourse.
A few years later, in 1986, Andreas Hillgruber published his enormously influential Zweierlei Untergang: Die Zerschlagung des Deutschen Reichs und das Ende des des europäischen Judentums. Here, he wrote of the two national catastrophes which had befallen Europe during the Second World War: the murder of the Jews within the areas controlled by the National Socialists between 1941 and 1944, and, immediately subsequent to this, the expulsion of Germans from Eastern Central Europe and the destruction of the Prussian-German Empire in 1944 and 1945. Hillgruber attempts here to create an image of two distinct, but related events, comparably tragic, comparably vast, and comparably significant in their long-term effects for the history of the Jews on the one hand, and the Germans on the other. In the course of the small book, he suggests that because the Allies had agreed to more or less dismember Germany following German defeat, the German army was motivated to fight all the more vigorously to protect the eastern territories and their populations; tragically, this allowed the Nazis to kill more Jews. In the case of Schieder’s article and Hillgruber’s book we can detect certain shifts of interpretative emphasis. The Holocaust begins to lose its uniqueness, figuring as one, admittedly major tragedy among others, including, notably, the expulsion of Germans. Events imagined as linked by a reactive chain – the brutal Nazi war triggers anger which triggers the expulsions – are reconceptualised as linked by a common cause, ethnonationalism, bringing them into a parallel relation. Specific understandings of causality give way to broader ones, leading to diffusion of responsibility. We could put this crudely. If the Treaty of Lausanne, by sanctioning the exchange of Turks and Greeks, paved the way for subsequent acts of ethnic cleansing, then perhaps the British should shoulder some of the blame for creating a cultural climate in which Hitler’s racial reorganisation of eastern Europe, including the deportation and murder of Poles and Jews, became thinkable. And if the Germans went on fighting determinedly in 1944 and 1945 because of Allied plans to chop up Germany, and if this fierce resistance delayed the inevitable and allowed more Jews to be killed, then perhaps the Allies are partly to blame for prolonging the Nazi regime and thereby for the death of Jews in 1944 and 1945. Comparable diffusions are evident in the work of Ernst Nolte, when he suggested that the Gulags provided the inspiration for the Nazi concentration camps, an argument which played a part in triggering the Historikerstreit in the mid-1980s.
The different levels of what I have called causal memory entered the public realm most forcefully after the 1979-1981 juncture I have discussed above. As is clear from what I have said, there are stark contrasts between them, and they have quite different implications for how the relationship between flight and expulsion and the Holocaust is imagined. I am fast running out of time today, but I would like to conclude by considering what, I think, has changed since the late 1970s and 1980s.
In the 1980s, and before this, it was usually conservative historians, politicians and expellee representatives who spoke and wrote of “Das Jahrhundert der Vertreibungen”. Causal explanations of flight and expulsion and the Holocaust which emphasised the common ground of ethnonationalism were often informed by antagonistic memory and agendas of revisionism; left-liberal commentators and historians, for the most part anyway, steered away from such understandings not least because they were often deployed to reduce the burden of German guilt for the Holocaust. Strikingly, though, when non-German nationals such as the Cuban-American historian Alfred de Zayas wrote or spoke in the 1970s and 1980s of the need to acknowledge the trauma of flight and expulsion as well as that of the Holocaust, their views also found expression in more left-liberal press media: noone could accuse de Zayas of revisionist or relavitising motives. Recent years have seen a surge in genocide studies and, accompanying this, in studies of ethnic cleansing. The arguments that have been unfolding are too complex to describe here, but I think one can safely say there are a number of American and British scholars among those who argue for the need to see parallel motives and processes at work in the Holocaust and in the flight and expulsion of Germans. Martin Shaw, for instance, has pleaded for a widening of the concept of genocide to include ethnic cleansing, and in his recent book on genocide, he provocatively juxtaposes an account of the expulsion of Germans with an account of the expulsion of Palestinians during the 1948 Palestinian exodus. If Shaw in essence argues that both the Jews and the Germans were subjected to a genocide, Norman Naimark in his study Fires of Hatred, clearly suggests that the Nazi attack on the Jews and the expulsion of Germans were both forms of ethnic cleansing. Gradually, German scholars, too – one of whom is sitting over there!: Michael Schwartz – are exploring general patterns at work behind expulsions in the 19th and 20th century. They do so in a changed climate. When the historian Gotthold Rhode published his Völker auf dem Wege in 1952, he did so against a background of collaboration with National Socialism, and in a spirit of barely concealed resentment – Rhode hailed from Posen – at Poles and Soviets. Antagonistic memory, invigorated by revisionism and exculpation, at least in part informed attempts to interpret the expulsion of Germans as the symptom of a European illness – ethnonationalism. But today, the interpretations of Rhode, Lemberg and others are enjoying a renaissance in international scholarship – without the same politicising agendas. So were they right, but for the wrong reasons? And am I perhaps being too hasty in dismissing the idea that there might be politicising agendas behind the new passion for comparative genocide and ethnic cleansing studies?
Leaving that question to one side for one moment, it does seem clear that the long-standing tension between the two forms of causal memory – one emphasising German guilt, the other wider processes of ethnonationalism – is no longer as severe. It can still be severe, though, as the debate surrounding the planned exhibition on flight and expulsion in Berlin surely makes clear. That debate has been marked by German-Polish and German-Czech tensions, as well as tensions within German memory. But in a sense things are now “out in the open”. The collapse of the eastern bloc has aided in the evolution of a transnational memory linking west and east, even if eastern Europe still insists on the primacy of memory of Stalinism. Cross-border memorial and exhibition initiatives link Germany with Poland and the Czech Republic, running counter to tensions at the centre. We are moving, slowly, towards a kind of conciliatory memory, according to the terms of which we can all agree that everyone was a victim. As I speak, Brits are still flooding into the cinemas to watch a film based on a novel by an Australian of German background – The Book Thief – in which good Germans rescue the daughter of a communist and a Jew only for almost everyone to be killed by a stray Allied bomb or two. Things get a little problematic in a series like Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter, when anti-Semitism, on the view of some commentators at least, gets dumped into the laps of the Poles, but it is all part of the same equalisation of burdens, a kind of memory Lastenausgleich, in which everyone gets their fair share of blame as well as victimhood. I am sounding cynical the more I go an talking, so I will stop. Conciliatory memory is an ideal, a sense of historical commonalities and shared responsibilities a basis for the realisation of that ideal. I think it a good ideal, but one that is open to abuse.