• Wolfgang Pyta: Hitler as Artist

    Just reading this new book:

    Wolfram Pyta: "Hitler. Der Künstler als Politiker und Feldherr. Eine Herrschaftsanalyse", Siedler, 848 Seiten, 39,99 Euro.

    Can't say much yet, except I am wondering why the author has not mentioned in his bibliography much of the secondary literature on Hitler's artistic leanings available in English - such as Frederic Spotts' "Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics". I hope he has something to say about modernism and fascism, and the aestheticisation of politics which (the by now voluminous) literature on this subject has identified and analysed not just in the case of Germany. But I will withhold judgment until I have finished reading, and would be interested to know what others think.

  • The Truth about Veit Harlan and 'The Merchant of Venice'

    Veit Harlan, the German film director who made 'Jud Suess', claimed after the war that he had been put under pressure by Goebbels to make a film of Shakespeare's 'Merchant of Venice', and that he had successfully resisted this pressure. The truth is somewhat different. I stumbled across a note from one of Goebbels' subordinates, Frowein, which makes quite clear that it was Harlan's idea to film 'The Merchant of Venice':

    "Veit Harlans Plan, den 'Kaufmann von Venedig' zu verfilmen, ist von dem Herrn Minister (i.e. Goebbels) grundsaetzlich gebilligt worden. Harlan hat das Drehbuch zu diesem Film mir zur Pruefung vorgelegt" [12 October 1944]

  • Discuss

    Jede Erinnerung an die Diktaturvergangenheit in Deutschland hat davon auszugehen, dass weder die nationalsozialistischen Verbrechen relativiert werden duerfen noch das
    von der SED-Diktatur veruebte Unrecht bagatellisiert werden darf.

    Has anyone tried this? With their students? National Socialist crimes should not be relativised, socialist crimes should not trivialised. The principle sounds wise. There are wrong ways to understand these crimes. These wrong ways are different from one case to the other, but comparable in that we need to resist them. Yet they are not really different. If I relativise the Holocaust, then presumably I question its uniqueness and therefore render it 'typical', if not exactly trivial. And if I seek to play down the significance of the SED state by comparing it (belittlingly) with the Holocaust, then I am surely relativising it.

  • RAF in Berlin

    I saw the exhibition RAF: Terroristische Gewalt in Berlin’s German Historical Museum today. The original version of this was put together by the House of History in Baden-Württemberg. Impressive. And problematic. Impressive because of the video material, the wealth and range of original artefacts, and the ability of the exhibiton to really communicate something of the terror the RAF unleashed on West Germany. The exhibition also admits to police errors and overreaction, though in a rather muted and implicit fashion overall. The problem with the exhibition is historical decontextualisation. Little attempt is made to portray the social, political and economic background against which the student revolts, and the subsequent escalation into violence developed. Rather, violence seems to grow sui generis out of the 1968 movement, an inevitable cancerous growth. Yet these students were not just crazed anarchomarxists, they also had genuine grievances about the political system in which they lived. For all that it is important to focus on the absurdity of their comparisons of the USA with Auschwitz and of themselves with Jews persecuted by the Nazis, it is not enough to dismiss this as an egoistic psychopathology. But the exhibition is not interested in exploring the political and moral atmosphere of 1960s Germany, not interested in seeing the student movement and the RAF in relation to the society from which they emerged. It demonises them, and externalises them, detaching them from West German society as some kind of alien “other”. Full credit to the exhibition for stripping away ruthlessly any vestiges of romanticism that still might adhere to the 1968 movement and the RAF and for revealing the latter to be what it was: a collection of murderers. But why hold them at arm’s length? Germany is reinventing itself anew. The legacy of 1968 is being cast to the wolves, and the so-called flak helper generation (Walser, Grass, Jens) is also being given short shrift. The only thing is that this disidentification, vehement as it is (see Pirincci and Sarrazin) is not being replaced by any new identification, not that I can see. Instead I read about Merkel’s political religion of ‘Wertelosigkeit’, the sacrifice of values to expediency, a new drifting pragmatism which eschews the moral principles of the now discredited generations once praised for confronting the Nazi past. Where, one wonders, will this all lead?

  • Between Obsession, Routine, and Contestation: Remembering the Holocaust in Europe today

    Between Obsession, Routine, and Contestation: Remembering the Holocaust in Europe today

    24 February 2015
    While countries around the globe are moving the Holocaust to the centre of their historical and memorial consciousness, Germany is beginning to wonder if enough is enough. In this panel discussion, we will discuss the causes and possible implications of such scepticism.

    24th February 2015
    Followed by a wine reception

    UCL Roberts Building
    Room 309
    London WC1E 7JE

    Recent publications in Germany suggest the Germans may have had enough of Hitler and the Holocaust. As Harald Welzer put it, “Hitler can be forgotten”, while Ulrike Jureit complained elegantly that the Holocaust Memorial was more of marker of the 1968 generation’s pathological identification with Jewish victims than of anything else. Christian Meier wrote a book on the virtues of forgetting, echoing complaints from other quarters about a “hypertrophy of memory”. This raises a question about a possible German memory Sonderweg.

    While countries around the globe are moving the Holocaust to the centre of their historical and memorial consciousness, Germany is beginning to wonder if enough is enough. What has prompted this wave of scepticism? Where will it lead? What will happen to European Holocaust memory if Germany, surely the trendsetter in most aspects of Holocaust memorialisation, becomes engulfed in doubts? Or are these doubts not something far more positive: namely the first reactions to a perceived need to move away from routine and ritual to a more future-oriented memory work?

    This panel discussion will bring together academics specialising in German history to discuss these important questions.


    Professor Bill Niven (Nottingham Trent)
    Professor Mary Fulbrook (UCL German)
    Dr Francois Guesnet (UCL Hebrew & Jewish Studies)
    Dr Andrew Pearce (UCL Institute of Education)
    Chair: Paul Salmons (UCL Centre for Holocaust Education)

    For more details, and to register, go to

  • Time to take leave of cultural and communicative memory

    I was recently impressed by a PhD thesis which explicitly dispensed with using the word ‘memory’ to describe the relationship between a group of Germans who had lost their homeland, and that homeland. Of course she acknowledged there was individual memory. It was the tendency of recent scholarship to collectivise memory of which she was suspicious. Is this the beginning of a necessary backlash against the unthinking adoption of Halbwachs? And against the regurgitation of those utterly useless terms ‘communicative and cultural memory’? One hopes so. These terms have caused so much havoc it will be difficult to repair it. For a start, communicative memory IS cultural memory; we all know that survivor testimony, even in the moment it is uttered (i.e. before it is transformed through recording into an artefact), is a cultural construct. Every memory we give voice to is the distillation of so many conditioning factors, not all of which have to do with dedication to precision (even though we are sure our memory is accurate). And we could also say that any cultural memory (as we imagine this term), such as films or novels or memorials, is not worth its salt if it does not enter into a communicative relationship to the world around it. Is a memorial to the Holocaust in a desert where the only movement is the blowing of the sand still a memorial? Another problem is this elegaic nonsense about the transition from communicative to cultural memory. Of course the loss of survivors is a problem for the future of memory, but this moment of transition cannot be defined in such terms. What we are losing is the live performance of memory, the living witness immediacy. We are losing our cultural construction: the survivor, who we regarded as a medium, taking us back somewhere we had never been. ‘Communication’ in the sense of direct dialogue we will indeed be losing, but that is less important that the iconic status we attach to its reception, which has much more to do with culture. This notion of a ‘transition’ implies a shift of memory from one route to another, but nothing could be further from the truth. ‘Cultural memory’, understood for a moment as separate from communicative, has long been with us, and survivors chose to express themselves culturally long before they were pressed into or felt moved to communicate their experiences as ‘testimony’. And for long most of us experience testimony in recorded form, rather than live. The Assmann saeculum, this quite arbitrary notion of three generations for communicative memory, is a further issue. Students run around thinking we talk about a fundamental historical experience over three generations in the family and then stop. Then historical memory begins all over again. This is just too schematic. But let me return to my main gripe: there is no cultural memory that is not communicative, and no communicative memory that is not cultural. They are the aspects of the same thing; the difference is in the medium.

  • Bertelsmann Survey Holocaust

    The survey I referred to in my previous post is available in full as a .pdf at

    The survey is called "Deutschland und Israel heute: Verbindende Vergangenheit, trennende Gegenwart?" ("Germany and Israel today: Common Past, Dividing Present")

  • Bertelsmann Survey Holocaust

    The Bertelsmann survey on attitudes towards the Holocaust is intriguing. That 81% of Germans want to put the Holocaust behind them, and 58% want to draw a definitive line is apparently a fairly stable numerical trend: it's been like that for the past 20 years, according to Bertelsmann. In fact, the number of those who want to draw that definitive line is slightly lower than it was in 1991. More interesting is the fact that the number of Germans who think the Holocaust is relevant for the present has come up from 20% to 38% (though I was not quite sure how to interpret this without more data). 68% of Israelis have a positive image of Germany today; only 36% of Germans have a positive image of Israel. More on this at

  • Auschwitz and Germany

    Yesterday, Germany's Federal President Joachim Gauck was speaking in German parliament to mark the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Among other things, he said:

    "There is no German identity without Auschwitz"

    He warned against the dangers of forgetting. His comments have to be understood in the context of a new survey by the Bertelsmann Foundation, according to which 81% of Germans want to leave the Holocaust behind them ("hinter sich lassen"), while 58% even want to draw a line under the past ("Schlussstrich ziehen").

  • New Exhibition on Germany's Confrontation with Nazism

    Below is taken from the Experience Nottinghamshire Website, and I am advertising it here in the hope it will interest people in the Nottingham area. It opened at Beth Shalom (Laxton) today.

    Exhibition explores lessons from Germany’s confrontation of the Holocaust in a global context

    3rd February till 9th February at the Clifton Campus, Nottingham Trent University

    10th February till 20th February at the university’s Newton Building in Nottingham city centre

    As the world prepares to mark 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, an international exhibition looking at how Germany confronted the Holocaust is to be shown at Nottingham Trent University.

    Led by academics from the University of Leeds, with Nottingham Trent University’s Professor Bill Niven acting as historical adviser, Germany’s Confrontation with the Holocaust in a Global Context is part of a series of activities examining post-war responses of Germans to the crimes committed in their name: responses of silence, outrage, reconciliation and memorialisation.

    The exhibition also draws parallels to other global contexts and explores how nations and individuals confront traumatic histories, asking why and how we remember the past.

    It will be launched by Professor Niven at Nottingham Trent University’s Clifton campus on 3 February and will run until 9 February, before being transferred to the university’s Newton Building in Nottingham city centre until 20 February.

    The exhibition first opened at Leeds Town Hall and will simultaneously be unveiled at the National Holocaust Centre near Newark, Nottinghamshire, and Cape Town Holocaust Centre in South Africa on Holocaust Memorial Day on Tuesday 27 January – 70 years since the Red Army liberated Auschwitz. Professor Niven will be present at the opening of the exhibition at the Holocaust Centre to answer questions about the ideas behind it.

    Bill Niven, professor of Contemporary German History at Nottingham Trent University’s School of Arts and Humanities, said: “This is an important exhibition that draws attention to Germany’s sincere, if sometimes problematic attempts to come to terms with Nazism. Too little is known in Britain about the extensive memorial landscape in Germany commemorating Jewish victims. The exhibition also points to the efforts by other countries, such as South Africa, to face their own difficult historical legacies.”

    The exhibition is part of a programme funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and will eventually also be displayed in Coventry, Aberystwyth, Chester, Birmingham, Newcastle, and Durham, and, internationally, in Cork, Copenhagen and the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, USA.


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