• On Empathy

    The problem with commemoration is that empathy has a shelf-life. When we mourn our dead relatives, we do not do so forever. When we feel empathy with victims of a catastrophe or crime, that empathy subsides in time. Given the inevitable and necessary transience of feelings of empathy in relation to a given person, peoples or event – empathy tends to move on – it seems impossible to expect too much of commemoration when it has entered its 2nd or 3rd year, even, let alone its 50th or 100th. For what can we possibly still feel, say, for the victims of World War One, or the Holocaust, or the Cold War? Rekindling empathic emotion only works to an extent; the best that can happen is that we remember how we remembered.

  • Post-Heroic Memory

    Interesting conference on ’Authenticity and Victimhood’ at the Topography of Terror in Berlin, where Andreas Wirsching gave the plenary on the concept of post-heroic memory.

    Many of the papers, in fact, showed that there has been a significant shift away from heroic memory to a more victim-focused memory, particularly over the last 20 years. This is a shift that is palpable not just in western or eastern Europe, but also in the Far East; and indeed the most interesting and, at least for me, illuminating papers given were those that focused on Japan, China, and the Philippines. The shift from heroic to victim-centred memory proceeded in stages, the most recent one being the shift from the focus on the hero-victim or active victim, to an emphasis on the passive victim. It was a pity there was no paper on the GDR, where the hierarchical relation between the notion of the active victim and that of the passive victim of fascism was central to the antifascist creed, but showed some signs of crumbling in the 1970s and 1980s. One of the talks focused on Leningrad, and showed how a comparable hierarchical understanding, according to which those who had actively resisted the Germans were valued above those who had ‘passively’ endured the siege, gradually yielded to a more egalitarian idea: passive victims acquired the same rights of recognition as active victims. In the case of China, we learned that while remembering victimhood has long been a staple of communist memory culture, here too there has been a shift from a more heroic concept of victimhood – peasants victimised by wicked landlords in sculptural representations at least showed defiance – to a passive one in the Nanking Memorial site. Ideas of sacrifice, where the passive victim’s suffering nevertheless paves the way for a new and better world, are often inscribed into memorial practices. This is the case, for instance, in Japan’s memory of Hiroshima.

    While the Holocaust was only explicitly or centrally addressed in a few papers, it was present at some level in them all, because the Jews killed by the Nazis appear as the quintessential ‘passive’ victim, whereby the term ‘passive’ might better be rendered as ‘suffering’ – ‘leidend’ in German. The word ‘passive’ sounds more pejorative in English to me than it does in German, but in both languages it unfortunately has a moralising ring to it, as if we are suggesting that the victims in question allowed themselves to be led like lambs to the slaughter. But in fact the notion of ‘passivity’ here is not meant to imply a failure to act, but rather a complete inability to do so. After all, you cannot fight gas in a gas-chamber, nor can you hold out for ever against hunger. And without wanting to draw comparisons – another question asked at the conference was ‘can Auschwitz and Hiroshima be compared’ – you clearly can’t fight against nuclear fall-out, any more than you can against phosphor from falling bombs. The victim is passive not through his or her volition, but because he or she is reduced to a state of total helplessness. And while the active victim also suffers, the ‘suffering’ and passive victim can only react to the persecution on the level of pain endured, not on the level of combating it, and so is deprived of the chance to win dignity through self-assertion. I am not sure we understood why there is this world-wide obsession with the ‘suffering’ or passive victim, although clearly Holocaust memory globalisation is connected to it. Yet it cannot explain it alone. In fact, it is a symptom, rather than a cause, although it has an enabling function for memories of other atrocities (as Rothberg so acutely showed).

    I remain unconvinced, though, that this obsession is quite as obsessive as we might at first think. Heroic memory is far from gone. The cinema remembers differently to the memorial site. Holocaust memory in film is a heroic memory, as ‘Schindler’s List’ demonstrated, or any of the other numerous films that focus on resistance to Nazism. The Germans do not just remember the Jews, but also the men and women killed trying to escape the GDR. They are clearly ‘heroic victims’ because they actively defied the state, and died in that act of defiance. And their sufferings are understood to have been ‘answered’ by 1989 and 1990. Their deaths were not in vain, so the rhetoric often states or implies. The culture of memory around the Wall dead can be serious, as at the Berlin Wall memorial site, but it can also be sensationalist, colourful, spectacular, commercialised and trivialised, as at Checkpoint Charlie. Can you imagine an art-project panorama of the Warsaw Ghetto comparable to Asisi’s of the Berlin Wall? Fascinating as Asisi’s panorama is, there is a voyeuristic and almost romanticised indulgence about it that would be unthinkable in the context of representing the camps. Berlin is not Germany, but here it is possible to imagine the victims of the GDR’s border system as visionaries, heroes, men and women whose defiance highlighted the wound that was the division between east and west, and anticipated its healing.

  • Normalisation?

    I have been reading around the topic of normalisation – what a horrible word! – in relation to German memory patterns since 1990. There are some interesting studies out there on normalisation (Olick, most recently Rosenfeld, whose fascinating and perceptive ‘Hi Hitler’ has just come out). But the word bothers me enormously, and not just aesthetically. If we accept that it means ‘making something normal’, and accept, too, that normality means what is typical, usual and even everyday, then I see little evidence that the Germans are normalising the Third Reich. If ‘normal’ also means, as it by extension from the previous sentence should, ‘like us’, then one would be hard put to find a German who thinks that Hitler is like he or she is (Heaven forbid). It is true that we now have films, comic strips, novels and other media in which Hitler appears in a variety of guises – he even becomes a media star. The proliferation of spoofs and parodies of Bruno Ganz’s Hitler online is also striking. But if we took someone normal or – more to the point – someone we perceived as normal and made him or her the object of such comic strips and novels, they would not sell. They would not be remotely interesting. In order for Hitler to engage our attention in these cultural products, any attribution of normal traits must stand in marked contrast to his perceived abnormality. Thus in Downfall, the momentarily kind Hitler only interests us because we know and indeed are shown the daemonically anti-Semitic and apoplectic Hitler. In other representations, any humour attributed to Hitler is exaggerated to the point of the absurd, cleverness is never far from lunacy, Hitler the wordsmith never far from Hitler the crazy demagogue, and so on. Normal traits are stretched and inverted at some point to emphasise his abnormality. Of course one could argue that this is the first stage in normalising him: we don’t make him like us, but we bring him closer, and thus accept his fundamental humanity – in a non-ethical sense – and therefore the quite human nature of his crimes: a view which would stand in contrast to the tendency of the 1950s to see him as somehow beyond humanity. Yet I am not sure this argument works, especially as many of the representations show Hitler to be vested with supernatural powers and something of an alien – or to be a kind of oversized and constipated baby who has never outgrown his nappies and is happier talking to bathducks than his generals. Making fun of Hitler is nothing new. Charlie Chaplin started all that, and there are plenty of examples from the second half of the 20th century. It is the very immunity of Hitler to normalisation that more recent cultural representations demonstrate. Because we cannot make any normal sense of him, we laugh at him, ridicule him, trivialise him, as we would anyone we cannot understand. It is the impossibility of normalising Hitler that is the issue, not his normalisation.

  • The New Guido Knopp?

    In a new six-part series on German TV (ZDF), Christopher Clark guides German viewers through German history - a welcome change to Guido, I would say.

  • Auschwitz Trials Film

    New German feature film about the preparation of the Auschwitz Trials, and the Trials themselves:

  • Flight and Expulsion: Crisis of Trust?

    "Flight, Expulsion, Confusion" is the title of an article today in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Apparently, the expert advisory committee entrusted by the Flight, Expulsion, Conciliation Foundation with conceptualising the new Deutschlandhaus exhibition on flight and expansion is not happy with the Foundation's director, Manfred Kittel. It seems that the Foundation brought in, or at least was involved in bringing in an exhibition from Greece called "Remembering Violent Migration". The advisory committee was not consulted. When it saw the exhibition - which has recently opened in the German Historical Museum in Berlin - it protested against the fact that the representation of the flight and expulsion of Germans begins in 1945, excising or at least marginalising the story of the Nazi crimes that went before. So this part of the exhibition has now been removed. Problems also surfaced in the wake of the Foundation's presentation of a kind of rough draft of the proposed Deutschlandhaus exhibition because the draft appeared to place central emphasis on the flight and expulsion of Germans, rather than it being one focus among others. It appears the advisory committee had not been properly consulted about this draft exhibition. Strange goings on, then, in the Foundation. It appears the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing - and it seems, too, that the right hand is quite eager to keep the left hand as uninformed, and as uninvolved, as possible.

  • Karlsruhe: 35. Infanteriedivision

    Last week, I visited Karlsruhe – Nottingham’s twin city (though I wish Nottingham would do more to support ties between the two cities). The occasion was a symposium on German memory. The particular aim was to discuss what to do with a memorial constructed in the 1960s in Karlsruhe. It is dedicated to the 35th Infantry Division, a division of the Wehrmacht that was clearly involved in war crimes against civilians in the occupied Soviet Union during the Second World War. It seems that the Party known as ‘Die Linke’ – a party to the left of the SPD – wants the memorial removed, whereas the consensus among the other parties is that the memorial should be retained, but supplied with an appropriately critical commentary, perhaps on an information board or stele. It certainly would be a pity to remove it, because it is one of few Federal Republic memorials dedicated solely to the Wehrmacht, and therefore can be used – if effectively framed – to shed light on West German memory in the 1950s and 1960s (there are more memorials from the post-war period to the Wehrmacht than I realised, however, as the case of Tübingen discussed during the symposium demonstrated).

    At the end of the symposium, speakers gathered round in a podium discussion to offer suggestions as to what to do with the memorial. Hannes Heer suggested constructing a building nearby to house an exhibition on the history of the regiment. Certainly it will be hard to provide the necessary information on a so-called information stele. The crimes in which the division were implicated, in March 1944, occurred in and around the camp of Osarichi (Byelorussia), set up to hold women, children and old men and women in the course of civilian deportations triggered by the German withdrawal. As the Soviets advanced, the Germans seized able-bodied male civilians for purposes of slave labour, and concentrated the remaining ‘useless eaters’ (a term actually used in the documents) in camps. Some 40,000 people were brought to Osarichi, where about 9,000 of them had died of starvation and/or typhus before the Red Army arrived. Telling this story – which is also connected to the Nazi policy of scorched earth – is not easy, not least because the precise role of the division in the crimes concerned is difficult to pinpoint, but also because the historical context would need to be set out at some length to enable visitors to understand it. So Heer’s suggestion of an exhibition house was a good one. I, for my part, pleaded for a countermemorial at the site of the Wehrmacht memorial (see German below). Further suggestions included combining such a countermemorial with a (possibly permanent and central) exhibition in Karlsruhe either on the history of the division, or on Karlsruhe’s military history more generally (Karlsruhe has long been a garrison town). We will see how things develop…

    More on the symposium at

    Excerpt from my talk:

    […] Zu der Frage der 35. Infanterie-Division komme ich erst gegen Schluβ. Mein Wissen ist hier sehr begrenzt. Ich weiss zum Beispiel nicht, ob es andere umstrittene Denkmäler dieser Art in Deutschland gibt. Denkmäler, die an die toten deutschen Soldaten beider Weltkriege erinnern, gibt es allerdings sehr viele. Heute werden andere über das Problem des Karlsruher Denkmals reden, die fachkundiger sind als ich. Trotzdem möchte ich ein paar Überlegungen zu diesem Problem anstellen. In Berlin steht ein Denkmal, das an die Opfer des Krieges und der Gewaltherrschaft erinnert, auch der Gefallenen. Die Neue Wache. Es erinnert damit also auch an die toten Wehrmachtssoldaten. An welche? Alle? Die Widmung ist sehr allgemein gehalten. Es bleibt dem Besucher überlassen, eine eigene Interpretation zu liefern. Man kann also in Deutschland sehr wohl allgemein der eigenen Gefallenen ehrend gedenken, obwohl sich darunter Soldaten und ganze Einheiten befinden, die Kriegsverbrechen begangen haben. Und doch scheint es allen klar, dass das Karlsruher Denkmal, das an eine Division erinnert, die nachweislich an Kriegsverbrechen beteiligt war, nicht akzeptabel ist – auch wenn es in dieser Division sicherlich zumindest einige Soldaten gegeben hat, die nicht an diesen Verbrechen beteiligt waren. Ist das ein Widerspruch? Bei allgemeinen Widmungen an die Gefallenen insgesamt gerät die Frage der Täterschaft aus dem Blickfeld; alle werden im Rückblick zu Opfern. Sobald man aber einer spezifischen Division gedenkt, die zu irgendeinem Zeitpunkt nachweislich Kriegsverbrechen begangen hat, ist die Täterschaft nicht mehr zu übersehen. Zumindest heute nicht mehr. Nur indem man im Falle der Neuen Wache das Spezifische zugunsten des Allgemeinen oder gar Vieldeutigen auflöste, konnte man die konkreten Verbrechen verschwinden lassen.

    Was soll man also machen mit dem Denkmal für die 35. Infanterie-Division? Man kann ihm natürlich ein Gegendenkmal zur Seite setzen, wie das in Hamburg der Bildhauer Alfred Hrdlicka gemacht hat. Das Ehrenmal für das Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 76, 1936 eingeweiht, wurde nicht abgerissen, sondern sozusagen in Kontrast zu Hrdlickas zwischen 1983 und 1986 gebautem kriegskritischem Mahnmal gesetzt. Wegen Geldmangels wurde Hrdlicka nicht fertig. Die Teile “Soldatentod” und “Frauenbild im Faschismus” wurden nie realisiert. Hier bietet sich also die Möglichkeit an, das, was in Hamburg nicht fertig wurde, in Karlsruhe zu Ende zu führen. Allerdings steht Hrdlickas Mahnmal am Anfang einer Gegendenkmaltradition, die inzwischen viel subtiler und komplexer geworden ist. Eine zweite Möglichkeit wäre, durch die Architektur des Denkmals einen Keil zu treiben, wie in Nürnberg auf dem ehemaligen Reichsparteitagsgelände. Allerdings handelt es sich im Falle des Denkmals für die 35. Infanterie-Division nicht um ein Nazi-Denkmal. Man kann natürlich auch irgendeinen Text vor das Denkmal stellen, oder es ganz entfernen, aber das erste scheint mir zu langweilig, und das zweite zu mutlos und wahrscheinlich für die Nachfahren der Soldaten nicht akzeptabel. Das besonders Interessante an diesem Fall ist, dass dieses Denkmal 1964 eingeweiht wurde. Tatsächlich gibt es hier die Chance, sich mit früheren bundesrepublikanischen Gedenktraditionen auseinanderzusetzen, statt sie einfach stillschweigend hinzunehmen, zu überschreiben oder ersetzen. Und von daher würde ich dann doch eher für eine Art Gegendenkmal plädieren, eines, das sich im Gegensatz zu Hrdlickas aber direkt mit dem Denkmal der Infanterie-Division auseinandersetzt – und zwar ästhetisch wie auch in der Botschaft. Man könnte dazu sicherlich auch eine Informationstele anbringen. Nur sollte dieses Gegendenkmal eines sein, das die Bürger anspricht und Reaktionen hervorruft. Es wäre schade, wenn man ein Gegendenkmal bauen würde, das sich zum Beispiel damit begnügt, festzustellen, dass die Bundeswehr von heute eine weit bessere Institution ist als die Wehrmacht. Denn das wissen wir ja alle. Es sollte keine transzendierende Botschaft bringen – nach dem Motto, wir machen das heute viel besser – sondern Fragen stellen. Denn das Problem, das aus Zivilisten Wehrmachtsoldaten und aus Wehrmachtsoldaten Mörder wurden, mag ein Problem der Vergangenheit sein. Aber das Problem, das aus normalen Bürgern Rassisten und Mörder werden, ist ein Problem auch der Gegenwart. Ein Problem in vielen europäischen Ländern. Vielleicht könnte man mit einem Gegendenkmal auch darüber nachdenken.

  • Not poppies again....

    Not Poppies Again…

    Members of my family are all agog at Cummins and Piper’s ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ currently to be admired at the Tower of London: 888,246 ceramic poppies recall the sacrifices of British servicemen during the First World War. A pity noone thought to include those Commonwealth soldiers who also lost their lives in a war that must have made very little sense to them, especially if they were living in India. That’s not my main problem with ‘Blood Swept Lands’, however. My real problem is the poppies. Now don’t get me wrong. I know that poppies have established themselves in Britain not only as the symbol of suffering and death in the Great War, but also as the symbol of remembrance, regeneration and charity, and one should respect that. I appreciate, too, the fact that the poppies used at the Tower will be sold to raise money for charity (indeed I think they have already all been sold). But their representational hegemony needs to be challenged, not reiterated and reaffirmed in one artwork or installation after another. (Recently, for instance, at Nottingham Contemporary, we were treated to a sea of poppies representing the Nottingham servicemen who died in the Great War). Cummins and Piper may appear to have designed their artwork imaginatively, but all they have done is arranged the symbols of blood into the appearance of blood itself, turning the metaphor back into what it represents - although to be honest the poppies gushing down from the tower remind me of the oil, hot pitch or animal fat that the defenders of castles poured down on their enemies in times gone by. There is an almost obsessive and narcissistic preoccupation with poppies in this country. When we sell ceramic poppies as mementoes of an art installation we have perfected this preoccupation. With poppies we remember - poppies. No individual symbol, not even one as rich as the poppy, can bear such a huge burden of attention. We need to find other commemorative signs and perhaps even idioms if remembrance of World War One is not to ossify in stale routine.

  • Karen Duve

    Polemics sell well in Germany. Author Karen Duve seems to have joined the polemics bandwagon with her new essay-cum-book "Warum die Sache schiefgeht", which bemoans the failure of the politicians to tackle climate change, and tells us why Duve thinks so many managers are psychopaths. Bound to sell well, then. A few months ago, Akif Pirincci published his "Deutschland von Sinnen", a laboured, unimaginative and tedious attack on all possible forms of political correctness. It sold well. So did Sarrazin's "Tugendterror", though perhaps not as well as "Deutschland schafft sich ab". Denouncing or, even better, declaring yourself a victim of political correctness is an extraordinarily lucrative business. I suspect that books by victims of the Stasi or of terrorism don't sell as well. We all love to hate political correctness. Yet it is not even clear that it really exists, at least not in the forms evoked in the anti-PC books. In fact, anti-PC books are arguably very politically correct, because they feed the market, satisfy the modern desire for scandalisation and distract us all from dealing with the real issues. Whatever those might be....

  • The Eyes of War

    Below is a link to an article on the new exhibition at the German Historical Museum, "The Eyes of War". It shows photographs of people blinded by war (in this case, the Second World War). The Dutch photographer, Martin Roemers, took his subjects from a number of countries. The victims were all very young at the time.


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